The Magazine

Pater Knows Best

The quest for success in inner-city schools.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Sweating the Small Stuff

Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism

by David Whitman

Fordham Institute, 386 pp., $16.95

Towards the beginning of this important and provocative book, journalist David Whitman notes that "the premier civil rights issue of the day is arguably the [educational] achievement gap" that separates white and minority youths. For example, the average black 12th grader has the reading and writing skills of a typical white eighth grader; the average Hispanic 12th grader has the math skills of a typical white eighth grader. Clearly minorities will not approach economic equality with whites until minority youths have approached educational equality with white youths.

The bulk of Whitman's book consists of case studies of six inner-city secondary schools that are succeeding--sometimes spectacularly--in raising the achievement levels of minority students. Three of the schools (the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland; Amistad Academy in New Haven; and the KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program] Academy in the Bronx) are charter middle schools. One is a parochial high school: the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. One is the nation's only urban public boarding school (grades seven through 12) for low-income students: the SEED School (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) in Washington, D.C. And one is a traditional neighborhood public school (grades seven through 12): the University Park Campus School (UPCS) in Worcester.

Because UPCS--unlike the other five schools--is a traditional neighborhood school, its achievements are particularly impressive. UPCS opened its doors in 1997 with an entering class of 35 seventh graders, of whom almost half read at or below third-grade level. Three years later, not only did every one of those students pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System 10th grade tests--described by Whitman as "demanding"--in English and math, but more than 80 percent of them demonstrated that they had proficient or advanced skills in both English and math. By 2003 UPCS was the only public school in Massachusetts in which every 10th grader had passed the state tests in both English and math for two years running.

Furthermore, the school achieved these results despite the fact that it has an open admissions policy; that is to say, it accepts all comers and therefore cannot be accused of achieving its results through "creaming" (accepting promising students and rejecting others).

Nor does UPCS achieve its results through attrition, with weaker students dropping out or transferring. Only one student dropped out of the school in its first 10 years of existence.

What accounts for the success achieved by UPCS and the five other schools discussed here? In addition to being small (the largest of these schools enrolls only 530 students--less than half the size of a typical urban public school), they are all paternalistic, in the sense that they tell the students how they should live. Not only do the schools teach rigorous courses that prepare students for college, but they also unapologetically attempt to mold character. They inculcate "middle-class virtues like diligence, politeness, cleanliness, and thrift because they believe .  .  . that students who are diligent and polite are more likely to succeed later in life." The schools' collective premise is that "programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement."

The focus on self-discipline is particularly evident in the schools' efforts to curb disorder. In the view of the schools' founders, it is disorder, "not violence or poverty per se, [that] is the fatal undoing of urban schools in poor neighborhoods." For that reason the schools "devote inordinate attention to making sure that shirts are tucked in, bathrooms are kept clean, students speak politely, gang insignia are banned, trash is picked up, and youngsters are trained to follow teachers with their eyes during the course of class." The attention paid to details like these is captured in an Amistad Academy slogan--"We sweat the small stuff"--from which Whitman derives his title.

These schools exemplify a broader trend in American social policy, which has become increasingly paternalistic in recent years. Think, for example, of welfare reform, in which aid is extended to the poor--who formerly received aid as an entitlement--only if they meet a behavioral requirement by working. Case workers supervise welfare recipients to ensure that they meet this requirement.