Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Is Paternalism for Everybody?

More follow-up on my review of David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism:

The book raises a number of interesting questions, many of which I'd like to discuss this week. The central tenet of the book is essentially that paternalistic schools are better for poor students living in the inner-city. The follow-up question would be whether they're better for everybody.

In other words, should we be replicating (for example) the KIPP model in suburbs and wealthy areas -- or do inner-city students benefit uniquely from the KIPP model?

I think the book implies that it's the latter. Whitman writes that these schools assume that "the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through" to succeed (p. 35). In other words, these kids have some gaps that these schools fill. If a student does not have these gaps, would attending such a school benefit them as much?

If the answer to that is no, then that would lead us to a situation where the inner-city poor attend schools that are very different from those that the middle-class and wealthy attend. Of course, that's already the case -- but I would argue that it's not necessarily purposive right now. In other words, all schools right now are supposed to operate the same way, they just don't due to a number of factors and constraints. But what if a school in Scarsdale and a school in the Bronx were designed differently from the beginning on the theory that different populations need different types of schools? And then the really tricky question becomes what to do when a school has a mix of students from different backgrounds.


Attorney DC said...

Interesting idea: Creating different schools for different commnunities based on SES. You might run into some resistance on that one...

Good point you made: What if the school has a mix of students, from different SES environments?

I'd also like to think about how much society should pay to compensate for failures of parents or families to provide supportive environments for their children. Will more tax dollars have to be routed to the low-SES schools to provide longer hours, longer school year, and smaller classes (like KIPP)? If so, would high-SES schools get the same amount of money to spend on other activities (like sports teams or the band)? How much would this cost?

Brian Rude said...

"In other words, all schools right now are supposed to operate the same way . . ."

That phrase jolted me. Why should all schools operate the same way? Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to say that every school should try to operate in whatever way is best for its students? There are some commonalites dictated by law and custom of course. But I can't see any value in a blanket expectation of sameness. Communities are different. Isn't that part of what we mean when we talk about diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism? It's all right to be different. And I don't think it's a "really tricky question" when a school has a mix of students. Within any school there will always be balances and trade-offs between competing interests. I can well understand that in some situations these balances and trade-offs are more contentious and painful than in others. But I don't think there's any ultimate solution.

So I have no idea if the KIPP model should be used in suburbs and wealthy areas. It will interesting to watch, and it's interesting to analyze, but it's up to each school.

Rachel said...

I think this is a real issue in demographically mixed communities. Many of the strategies promoted as being particularly successful for low SES kids -- lots of structure, direct instruction, school uniforms, etc -- are actively unappealing to middle class parents who want more focus on individuality, creativity, the whole child etc.

So one of the potential unintended consequences of instituing reforms with the aim of helping low achieving kids may be to promote middle class flight from those schools.

Rachel said...

I'd also like to think about how much society should pay to compensate for failures of parents or families to provide supportive environments for their children.

On the other hand, what are the costs to society of not intervening in these kids lives? It's fine to say that society shouldn't have to pay, but what if it pays anyway, just in less obvious ways?

Attorney DC said...

Rachel: Of course, you have a good point.

If children do not succeed at school, these are often the same children who will become involved in crime, costing society both in hard cash (police force, prisons, court system) and in loss of safety. Also, if students do not attain academic success, they are often headed for a life of low-income jobs (or no jobs), which means they will not contribute to the tax base, and will likely be on the receiving end of more government subsidies.

From a personal perspective, sometimes it just irritates me that people can have children, and then rely on the state to take care of them. I know so many hard working families who put off having children until they can provide for them, and then put so much effort into raising their children well, helping them with homework, and caring for their needs. It bugs me that the responsible sector of society has to pay for taking care of children on the less-responsible people. If someone is not mature enough or financially stable enough to support a child, I think they should wait to have children.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Brian: Just to be clear, I'm not necessarily arguing that all schools should operate the same way -- just pointing that, by and large, they are designed to (same curricula, textbooks, school day, etc. across schools).

Rachel: Good points

Attorney DC: You're right, it's unfair. Society would benefit enormously if everybody waited before they were financially and emotionally ready before having kids. But the question remains: what do you know when somebody shouldn't have done something but you can't change the fact that they have.

Attorney DC said...

Corey: I know, once the kids are here, they're here. So what's a country to do?

But I'd like more of the discussion on failing schools, education reform and the like to focus on what seems to me to be a major cause of educational failure in society: Young, unmarried, low-income parents having children they cannot support financially, emotionally, or intellectually.

Ask any teacher: Kids without strong support back at home are NOT easy to teach in the schools. Kids being raised by grandmothers, without fathers, without parents who themselves have at least high school educations, ARE NOT in a great position to do well in school, no matter how many compassionate and well-intentioned teachers they have.

Unfortunately, little if any emphasis is put on the CAUSE of lots of low-income children with little parental support at home. Instead, we just keep trying to deal with the effects. And all blame is placed, as always, on the schools and the teachers.

Am I the only one who noticed this?

Roger Sweeny said...


But most people in the ed business consider it very bad manners to talk about it.