An Appeal to Authority; the New Paternalism in Urban Schools

By Whitman, David | Education Next, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

An Appeal to Authority; the New Paternalism in Urban Schools


Whitman, David, Education Next


By the time youngsters reach high school in the United States, the achievement gap is immense. The average black 12th grader has the reading and writing skills of a typical white 8th grader and the math skills of a typical white 7th grader. The gap between white and Hispanic students is similar. But some remarkable inner-city schools are showing that the achievement gap can be closed, even at the middle and high school level, if poot minority kids are given the right kind of instruction.

Over the past two years, I have visited six outstanding schools. (For a list of schools, see sidebar, page 55.) All of these educational gems enroll minority youngsters from rough urban neighborhoods with initially poor to mediocre academic skills; all but one are open admission schools that admit students mostly by lottery. Their middle school students perform as well as their white peers, and in some middle schools, minority students learn at a rate comparable to that of affluent white students in their state's top schools. (For one impressive example, see Figure 1.) At the high school level, low-income minority students are more likely to matriculate to college tan their more advantaged peers, with more than 95 percent of graduates gaining admission to college. Not surpirsingly, they all have gifted, deeply committed teachers and dedicated, forceful principals. They also have rigorous academic standards, test students frequently, and carefully monitor student's academic performance to assess where students need help. "Accountability", for both teachers and students, is not loaded code word but a lodestar. Students take a college-prep curriculum and are not tracked into vocational or noncollege-bound classes. Most of the schools have uniforms or a dress code, an extended school day, and three weeks of summer school.

Yet above all, these schools share a trait that has been largely ignored by education researchers: They are paternalistic institutions. By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.

The new breed of paternalistic schools appears to be the single most effective way of closing the achievement gap. No other school model or policy reform in urban secondary schools seems to come close to having such a dramatic impact on the performance of inner-city students. Done right, paternalistic schooling provides a novel way to remake inner-city education in the years ahead.

But while these "no excuses" schools have demonstrated remarkable results, the notion of reintroducing paternalism in inner-city schools is deeply at odds with the conventional wisdom of the K-12 education establishment. For a host of reasons, teachers unions, school board members, ed school professors, big-city school administrators, multicultural activists, bilingual educators, and progressive-education proponents do not embrace the idea that what might most help disadvantaged students are highly prescriptive schools that favor traditional instructional methods. And even the many parents who are foursquare in favor of what paternalistic schools do cringe at labeling the schools in those terms. In 2008, "paternalism" remains a dirty word in American culture.

Paternalism Reborn

What is paternalism and why does it have so few friends? …

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