Sunday, August 17, 2008

David Whitman's Response

The following is David Whitman's response to my review of his new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.

Thanks for your generally thoughtful book review. I very much appreciate that you took the time to read and grapple with my use of the "new paternalism" label to describe these six extraordinary inner-city schools, rather than giving a knee-jerk dismissal to any depiction of the schools that uses the seemingly verboten "P" word (Paternalism). I'm also grateful that you credited the impressive gap-closing record of these schools and acknowledged that their examples provide important lessons to those seeking to reform inner-city schooling.

Although I disagree with several points you raise, I would note only two specific objections. I don't know of any passage in the book where I make "no attempt to mask" my "loathing of liberals . . . and Richard Rothstein." I concluded that Richard Rothstein had minimized the importance of these gap-closing schools and the role they could one day play in helping to close the achievement gap. But I don't loath liberals or Richard Rothstein, and I don't think I treat Rothstein's arguments or data disrespectfully in any passage of the book, much less with loathing. In fact, I'm a fan of a lot of Richard Rothstein's writing; I just think he got this one wrong. (As for the other two groups that you claim I "loath"--multicultural activitists and unions--I don't loath them either, though I am critical of the impact that they have on inner-city schooling. It's true that I don't "mask" that belief in the book but why should I? If others believe that multicultural activists and teacher unions have made substantial contributions to closing the achievement gap, let them make the case for their conclusion).

Second, your book review leaves the impression that Sweating the Small Stuff turned out as it did because I was an ideological handmaiden of the Fordham Institute, which commissioned and published the study. But I'm not an employee of the Fordham Institute--I'm a freelance journalist with a long record of being able to mix journalistic observation and academic research. During my 17 years as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report I was often drawn to contrarian stories, too. I think that the Fordham Institute is on target in many K-12 education debates but the conclusions in my book are my own and the Fordham Institute didn't dictate where the book should come out. Over the years, I have written many so-called man-bites-dog stories that debunk some piece of conventional wisdom and have written two books in which I take on both conservative and liberal beliefs on a variety of issues. If you look at my 1998 book, The Optimism Gap, or a 2004 monograph that I wrote for the Fordham Institute, The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, you will find that I am in fact critical of a number of pet conservative theories. Though my personal political proclivities shouldn't be an issue in a book review, I tend to tilt left of center.


Corey Bunje Bower said...

I don't have a problem with your use of the word "paternalistic" and, even if I did, I think the label is less important than the actions you describe.

I probably should have said "contempt for" rather than "loathing of," as the latter was a bit strong. The fact that you make no attempt to mask your feelings was a compliment, but I stand by the assertion that there seems to be no love lost between you and at least three of the parties cited. Most of your discussion of Richard Rothstein is respectful -- I thought I had read one harsh passage, but can't seem to find it now (though I could cite examples regarding the other three).

I did not mean to imply that your findings were colored by the Fordham Institute, I simply wanted to point out that one would not expect Fordham to publish a book not generally in line with its ideological beliefs.

Generally speaking, I think the book is both valuable and thought-provoking, and intend to continue the discussion around the ideas presented in it into this next week.

Anonymous said...

I've been impressed with what I've read about the book (and am trying to get it at the library), but ... the notion that one must prove teachers unions contribute to closing the achievement gap is a huge non-sequitur. The purpose of teachers unions is to improve conditions of employment. If that presents a barrier to closing the achievement gap, one would face a conflict of goods/evils --- and it would be fairly easy to choose kids. But closing the gap just isn't a union's job --- what one should expect is that the union won't get in the way.

Further, to infer from six schools that "no union" is a cause of having a gap-closing school (and therefore an attirubute that must be "replicated") seems a huge stretch --- more likely a product of attitudes brought to a study than of study itself. Not only is the sample size incredibly small, but most charter and private schools don't have unions and charters have been the site of many innovative schools. Thus the risk of confusing correlation with causation is high.

Perhaps one must "disempower" unionized teachers (should we also pay them especially poorly, I wonder?) to be decent to poor children, but that proposition is unattractive enough to call for better evidence and argument than Mr. Whitman's reply (at least) exhibited.

I'd also second the comment that schools that are rewarding to teachers may be less likely to ever become unionized (in other words, cause-and-effect, if it's there at all, may run in the opposite direction).

I'll withhold my final judgment till I read the book.