Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review: Sweating the Small Stuff

Today marks the release by the Fordham Institute of David Whitman's new book Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. I had a chance to read an advance copy and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on it.

In the book Whitman details the strategies of 6 high-performing inner-city schools: 4 charter, 1 neighborhood, and 1 private (American Indian Public Charter School, Amistad Academy, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, KIPP Academy, The SEED School, and University Park Campus School). He concludes that they all have one thing in common: they are highly paternalistic.

In other words, all of these schools go to great lengths to manage every little detail of students' lives, no matter how small (hence the title). Though most of the schools' leaders reject the term "paternalistic," Whitman does seem to have a point.

In defining the term "paternalistic" Whitman builds on the prior work of Lawrence Mead, who once wrote that "the problem of poverty or underachievement is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor are too free" (p. 36). As Whitman writes, "the paternalistic presumption, implicit in the schools portrayed here, is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse."

While I'm sure that many of the founders and leaders of the schools profiled would be hesitant to explicitly endorse either of these views, their schools certainly implicitly endorse at least something similar to this. Whitman makes a strong argument that these schools essentially strive to remove students from their current environments and inculcate them into a new culture -- in other words to accept the social and cultural norms of the middle or upper class and reject those that they see in the streets.

Whitman is, however, hardly a dispassionate observer. He makes no attempt to mask his loathing of liberals, "multicultural activists," unions, and Richard Rothstein. The book is certainly written from a particular point of view -- which should probably not come as a surprise given that it is published by a think tank that also pushes a particular point of view. It is perfectly clear that Whitman wants more charter schools and fewer unionized teachers. That said, the main topic of the book is not one that should be particularly susceptible to one's ideological beliefs. He points out that despite the fact that many conservatives have extolled the virtues of these schools that most of their founders are, in fact, unabashedly liberal. In the end, the main purpose of the schools is to raise student achievement -- not serve as guinea pigs in any ideological debates.

The tales that Whitman tells of the schools paint a clear portrait of six schools that, while very different, operate quite similarly. All of the schools take a no-nonsense approach to discipline and work hard to create a positive school culture in which bad behavior is unacceptable and good behavior is rewarded. All of the schools go to great lengths to explicitly teach various social behaviors that one would expect to be second nature to middle and upper-income youth. All of the schools put great emphasis on attendance and manage to lengthen the school year and/or day in some fashion. And all of the schools have produced results that are quite impressive.

Whitman acknowledges some limitations to the these results -- the KIPP in the Bronx enrolls students that outperform their community peers before entering, The SEED School expels about 5% of their students, and Cristo Rey only admits students that they believe are capable of working in an upscale office, for example. And he also addresses some of the limits to replicability on a national scale -- most notably that there may not be enough individuals willing to put forth the time and effort that managing or teaching in one of these schools requires. Although he sings their praises for 311 pages, he acknowledges that they do not necessarily represent a definitive and simple solution to all of our nation's woes.

While Whitman makes a strong argument that increased paternalistic tendencies in schools have a good track record and merit more investigation, he fails to address a few major points. In the beginning of the book he extols the virtues of self-discipline and details a study that found it to be a more important determinant of success than IQ. Whitman fails to investigate whether a more paternalistic environment does, in fact, develop more self-discipline in students and, if it does, whether it is the most effective way in which to develop self-discipline. I suspect that there's a body of literature on this in psychology or child development. He also fails to ask at what point paternalism becomes a negative instead of a positive. He highlights the successes of such schools, but leaves one wondering at what point a school could be so paternalistic that Whitman would no longer be enamored. In other words, how much control is too much?

Lastly, Whitman compiles a list of the 20 things that these schools have in common and that other schools should copy (p. 259). While many of these points are self-evident, some appear to be part of the list more as a result of ideology than anything else. Number 13, for example, reads "Eliminate (or at least disempower) local teacher unions." While none of the schools have strong unions, it's unclear whether the schools succeed because they don't have strong unions or that they don't have strong unions because they succeed. If management and labor get along, unions serve little purpose. In the case of schools, if teachers trust the people running their school then there is little reason for the union to exist. So it's unclear whether the lack of a strong union helps these schools or whether a strong positive culture simply means that teachers don't feel the need to join together and defend themselves. Similarly, point 17 reads "Don't waste resources on fancy facilities or technology." While most of the schools don't have fancy facilities, this does not establish that nicer surroundings are bad -- it simply establishes that success is possible without them. Every so often we see a barefooted runner succeed in the Olympics or another big running race. This makes it clear that human beings are capable of running without shoes, but does not prove that buying shoes does not help.

In the end, the book provokes a compelling discussion about what is right and wrong about our urban schools and how we might push them to succeed. While it may not technically be research, it provides interesting insights and original ideas. The notion that the most successful are paternalistic is an idea that is not frequently discussed in the academic literature. If the key to success is, in fact, to remove students from their home environments and acculturate them to different norms and behaviors then this shifts the frame of thinking surrounding school reform. What remains to be seen is how easy it will be to replicate what these schools have done. I've said many times before that discipline is one of the largest hurdles that high-poverty urban schools face, and I'm curious to see how well the successful discipline systems of these schools can be replicated. Is it possible, for instance, to replicate these systems in schools that cannot expel students and where every student is admitted regardless without having to apply? Only time, and quality research, will tell.

Update: Read David Whitman's response to this review (along with my response to his response)


Anonymous said...

I haven't had a chance to read Whitman's book yet, but I wanted to comment on the union issue. I taught in both private and public, union and non-union schools before I left the teaching profession and became an attorney.

In my experience, I did not notice any difference in teacher morale, school environment, level of pay, job responsibilities, or other variables between the union and non-union school districts. I noticed differences (postive and negative) between teaching in private vs. public schools - but not between public schools in union states and public schools in non-union states.

I'd be hard pressed to see how state employees with unions (e.g., teachers in California) are treated better than state employees without unions (e.g., teachers in Virginia or the Carolinas). Public school teachers appear to be treated similarly to government employees in many federal and state government jobs, in terms of hiring, salaries computed by years of service, etc.

Is there any data that shows that public school teachers in union states are treated differently than public school teachers in non-union states?

It's important to make a distinction between private or charter schools that by definition do not have unions and public schools which may or may not have active teacher unions. I warn against attributing differences between private schools and public schools to the existence or lack thereof of a teacher union, without some data to back up that assertion.

chicagowriter said...

Nice post. Those interested in the development of the Cristo Rey model may also be interested in More than a Dream, a new book about the improbable development of the first school in the country that requires every student go to school to earn their tuition. More information is available at

Roger Sweeny said...

Is it possible, for instance, to replicate these systems in schools that cannot expel students and where every student is admitted regardless without having to apply?

(Repeat several thousand times)

Anonymous said...

Is it possible, for instance, to replicate these systems in schools that cannot expel students and where every student is admitted regardless without having to apply?

In the book, American Indian claims to have never expelled a student and they do not screen applicants (it's a lottery). I realize there is probably some self-selecting associated with the lottery process but still it is quite impressive.