Thursday, August 28, 2008

Paternalism at What Age?

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

Sorry if I'm beating a dead horse, but I think the issues that Whitman raises are quite important. Whitman describes a number of ways in which the six schools he observes essentially acculturate students to middle/upper-class social and behavioral norms. They refuse to assume that students know how to do anything and teach the most basic behaviors from walking in line to listening to speakers. Having taught in a school where teenagers didn't seem to know how to do these things, I can certainly see the value in teaching these things.

But here's my question: why are we teaching these behaviors to middle and high-schoolers? Obviously if middle and high-school age students haven't learned these things yet then they need to know them, but why aren't we making an effort to teach these to younger students?

In other words, if we want to replicate the success of these "paternalistic" schools are we sure that we should aim these strategies at these particular age groups? Wouldn't it be more beneficial to teach these skills to elementary school students so that they can move on to higher-order thinking in middle and high school?

Imagine, for a second, if students coming into a KIPP school, for instance, had attended a similar school K-4 and had learned all these behavioral norms. The kids were used to sitting up straight and tracking speakers with their eyes, knew that the slightest bit of disrespect toward a teacher was unacceptable, walked quietly through hallways, etc. Wouldn't it be a heck of a lot easier for the KIPP school to then focus on academic endeavors instead of spending so much time teaching students how to behave?

Consider the alternative: replicating these schools at only the middle and high-school levels. While wealthy/suburban schools start to loosen the reins and teach students to think creatively and independently, poor/urban schools are teaching kids to sit up straight, make sure that their shirt is the correct color and is tucked in, and using chants to reinforce behaviors. In order to eliminate our current two-tiered system of education we'd be creating a different type of two-tiered system of education. The inner-city kids might be proficient at basic reading and math skills and more likely to graduate, but there would still be an education gap.

4 comments:

Attorney DC said...

Good point. However, the problem is that these behaviors can only be taught and enforced in schools that have remedies at their disposal in the event students fail to comply with the rules and behavior mandates.

In KIPP schools, the available remedy is expulsion (or threat thereof). Of course, KIPP also has much lower-grade punishments, for first offenses, etc. But with repeat offenders, they can expel the kids, and the kids know it. Plus, schools like KIPP only enroll students whose families have chosen to apply - not the average kid.

No public schools have the remedy of expulsion available for minor behavior problems or dress code violations. And the kids know it. Unless the schools are given some enforcement mechanism, they will not be able to enforce these behavior rules at the elementary level or any other level.

Matt Johnston said...

why are we teaching these behaviors to middle and high-schoolers? Obviously if middle and high-school age students haven't learned these things yet then they need to know them, but why aren't we making an effort to teach these to younger students?

Why? Because enforcing such behaviors on young students "stifles their individuality" or "damages their self-esteem."

But by the same token, I am pretty sure that the proper behaviors are taught at the younger grade levels, but they are not enforced!

That is the problem, you can teach a six, seven, eight year old to be respectful, to track the speaker, to do what is "right" but unless there is a punishment for failure or a reward for success, it will not be engrained.

Then these kids get to middle and high school without the proper behavior and then wonder why they are being punished for doing exactly what they have always done.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Matt: What I was trying to ask was why the schools profiled are targeting middle/high schoolers rather than younger students.

Rachel said...

So if lack of "enforcement" mechanisms in the younger grades is the issue, it leads to the question:

What do schools and families that are successful in teaching these behaviors to younger children Most middle-class children learn these without threat of expulsion from either school or family, and without loss of individuality or self-esteem.

And do the enforcement mechanisms available to KIPP middle schools actually help teach the kids these behaviors, or do they just weed out the kids who won't learn them?