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Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism

reviewed by Linda Bol - December 22, 2008

coverTitle: Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism
Author(s): David Whitman
Publisher: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Washington, D.C.
ISBN: 0615214088, Pages: 386, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism, David Whitman contends that a strongly “paternalistic” school culture is the key ingredient necessary to bridge the achievement gap between poor students of color and their more affluent white counterparts. This argument distinguishes Whitman’s book from the scores of other books on educational reform highlighting characteristics of schools that have successfully promoted achievement among at-risk, typically inner city, minority students. A paternalistic school is defined as a “highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values” (p. 3). In paternalistic schools, teams of dedicated principals and teachers essentially serve in loco parentis during school hours. “Sweating the small stuff” refers to the unwavering focus on order, discipline, and character development that provide the scaffolding for academic achievement.  

Whitman’s thesis on the need for paternalistic schools is controversial. The term itself evokes negative reactions characterized as the “cultural aversion to paternalism.” Aversion to this term partly stems from the checkered history of paternalistic government and educational institutions in the United States. In an early chapter Whitman chronicles the history of paternalism in our government and schools. He highlights Indian boarding schools to exemplify malevolent paternalistic institutions whose purpose was to eradicate the American Indian cultures.  Educational philosophers, such as Rousseau and Dewey, reinforced the belief that paternalism squelched freedom of expression and children were best educated by encouraging them to explore their natural environments rather than constrain their creativity through teacher-centered, direct instruction.

According to Whitman, aversion to paternalism in the educational contexts can be further attributed to the progressive and multicultural agendas. Paternalism suggests that government and educational agencies know what is best for impoverished or minority groups. And what is best is unapologetically imposing middle class values and a protestant work ethic in order to realize academic achievement and matriculation to college for all students. In the era of identity politics, bilingual education, and relativist philosophies, progressive education has exerted a powerful influence on classroom instruction. Traditional instruction that featured teacher-directed instruction, drill and practice, memorization of facts, assessment and accountability fell out of favor. “Traditional instruction, in other words, typically has a paternalistic flavor; students are told what to do and compliance is enforced” (p. 54). More recently we have witnessed a revival of paternalistic schools and educational practices largely in response to the No Child Left Behind legislation and other more benevolent initiatives aimed at closing the achievement gap. Whitman argues that the emergence of paternalistic charter schools or “charter-like” schools promises to bridge this gap.

In subsequent chapters, Whitman presents detailed case studies of six secondary paternalistic, “charter-like” schools that extend beyond the implementation of traditionally effective instructional practices and policies to teaching students “exactly how to live” (p. 5). Four of these are actual charter schools (American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Amistad Academy in New Haven, Kipp Academy in the Bronx, SEED in Washington DC), and the other two (Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a parochial school in Chicago, and University Park, a public school in Washington DC) are “charter-like” in the sense that they have a great deal of autonomy from local and state educational agencies not afforded to public schools. For each school, Whitman weaves rich qualitative description with quantitative evidence illustrating the schools’ successes by comparing outcome data for the targeted school with data from similar schools. Using ethnographic techniques, the author incorporates multiple sources that include observations, interviews, and document analysis in telling the stories of these schools. Whitman highlights how a paternalistic ethos permeates the schools’ leadership, policies and instructional practice. He augments school portraits with first hand accounts and descriptions. Each chapter concludes with a discussion of efforts to replicate the reform model to other schools. Whitman balances positive findings and flattering characterizations by illuminating challenges faced by the schools as well as outcome data that failed to meet some markers of success. For example, some students have had difficulty adjusting to public high schools or colleges after graduating from the highly prescriptive paternalistic school.    

After presenting the six case studies, the next chapter focuses on common themes that plausibly explain the success of these schools in ameliorating the achievement gap. Many of the themes in the laundry list of 20 habits of highly effective schools are familiar. For example, Whitman lists requiring a rigorous curriculum aligned with state standards and specific performance outcomes, building a collective college-going culture, and monitoring and enforcing attendance, which have all been advocated by other authors. Some habits identified are more novel, controversial, and difficult to implement in public schools. These include:


Eliminate or at least disempower local teacher unions


Don’t waste resources on fancy facilities or technology


Don’t demand much from parents


Use unconventional channels to recruit committed teachers


Escape the constraints hobbling traditional district schools


Keep the school small


Track and support students after they graduate


Give principals and teachers more autonomy - think “charter school”


Help create additional schools following your model. (p. 259)

The concluding chapter offers a ray of hope in overcoming the obstacles precluding widespread replication of paternalistic reforms. Whitman’s solution is to strive towards the adoption of a “paternalistic light” agenda in struggling inner city schools. The agenda comprises five steps abbreviated here: (1) replace the curricular smorgasbord of comprehensive secondary schools with a demanding college prep curriculum; (2) use regular assessments to target and provide remedial assistance to pupils with below grade level skills; (3) provide teachers with more training to review student progress and address discipline problems; (4) create a sense of mission and concern for student character; and (5) hire principals and teachers who like - and celebrate - their students (p. 301).

Setting aside potential biases, the reader will be rewarded with insights and strategies that may well advance school reform and narrow the stubborn achievement gap. My views are clouded by my own biases and background that includes being a professor in a school of education that advances some of the progressive education ideas Whitman decries as potentially harmful to education. For example, I oppose excessive drill and practice in preparation for continuous high-stakes assessments at the expense of critical thinking. Schools of education can graduate dedicated, qualified teachers. I found the case study of University Park most compelling because “progressive” pedagogy in the form of group learning, problem solving, and performance-based assessments contributed to their success. Collaboration with Clark University housed on their campus provided ample support to the school and further led to their success. Finally, University Park is a public secondary school, suggesting that dramatic reform can occur outside the charter school arena. In conclusion, Whitman’s book is compelling, well researched, and well written. He soundly employs a case study approach to understanding why these paternalistic secondary schools have enjoyed such success in bridging the achievement gap. Until we can design more controlled experimental studies that better isolate effective habits of successful schools, Whitman offers a host of plausible explanations associated with strongly paternalistic schools to ponder and investigate.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 22, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15470, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 2:01:10 AM

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