Monday, August 25, 2008

What if Paternalism Boosts Achievement the Wrong Way?

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

I see the argument that more paternalistic schools boost achievement -- and not just because Whitman details the paternalism in these successful schools. It makes logical sense that a more paternalistic school would have higher test scores.

Whitman leads off the second chapter with a quote from Thomas Schelling -- "Ben Hur didn't have to make himself keep rowing. The man with the whip took care of that." We can translate that to schools. Students don't have to "make" themselves do homework if a teacher is all over them about it. Technically, no human being can "make" another do something -- one always has a choice -- but a person can make the alternatives so bad that they're virtually eliminated.

For example, my 8th grade math teacher checked my homework the second that class began every single day. Class was based around review of the homework, and homework grades were heavily weighted. I could be wrong, but I don't remember ever not doing my homework in that class (nor do I remember many others not doing their homework). In 9th grade, however, our teacher checked homework maybe a handful of times over the course of the year. It took me about a month to figure that out and then I pretty much stopped doing it.

If I'd taken a standardized test in both grades, I probably would've done better on the one in 8th grade simply because I spent more time immersed in doing the types of problems that would be on a standardized test. My 8th grade teacher was a really good teacher, and the strong scores would have reflected on that. But my 9th grade teacher was possibly the best teacher I ever had.

But enough of my tangent. Here's my point: it's quite logical to assume that students will perform better when they're micromanaged and when not following directions results in severe consequences. A child will keep their room cleaner if their parents do weekly checks and refuse to let them go out and play until it's immaculate than if a parent just chides them for having a dirty room every so often. And a child will have higher test scores if they're told how to do every little part of every little problem on the test and practice it repeatedly.

But is this really for the better? What are the long-term consequences? Let's go back to the child with the clean room. How will the respond when they no longer have their parent practically forcing them to clean their room each week? Will they have the self-discipline to keep their abode clean on their own? Will the habit be so ingrained that they won't consider not keeping their place tidy? Or will things fall apart? The child who never had much pressure to keep a clean room, on the other hand, will probably continue to do what they were doing (which could be either good or bad) because things haven't really changed.

I'd making the following argument: paternalism will yield more success in the short-run -- with few exceptions. But I can't help but wonder about the long run. If students are only exposed to uber-paternalistic management, what happens when they get into a situation that's not so strict (e.g. college)? Do their habits carry over, or are they unable to survive without somebody telling them what to do? I don't know the answer. If anybody's an expert on child development then please let me know what the research says.


RDT said...

My instinct -- having taught a lot of college freshmen -- is that a lot of kids will keep up good habits, but some of the students fall apart without supervision in a fairly major way.

If schools are going the paternalistic route, I think its important to slowly reduce the supervision and monitoring as kids go through high school to help them ease into self-regulation.

Anonymous said...

Rachel: I agree with you - from my experience as a college freshman, students with good high school study habits often (although not always) continued those habits into college.

narls1969 said...

Educators are expected to be social engineers. Everything this blog is talking about has to do with social behavior, not education.
Teachers are trained in sociology or psychology. Our training is all about the classroom.
If schools are going to succeed, they need to be freed from the tyranny of the overall social network. When we speak of "paternalism" we're talking about changing a student's/family's/neighborhood's social environment.
My point: we [teachers] are not trained to do that. We're trained to teach.

narls1969 said...

In my previous comment I inadvertently left out the important word “not” when I wrote “Teachers are trained in sociology or psychology.”
This is an important point for many classroom teachers. Last year I was asked by one of my administrators to more or less psychoanalyze a particular student’s behavior. I refused and said: “I have no training in psychology. My degrees are in education.” It didn’t go over well because it is so expected for us to delve into these social, home life, issues that it’s just expected that we know how to handle all the troubles our students come to us with. When did this all start, and when will – can it – end?
We teachers just want to teach.