The New Paternalism is the Old Education

herb would cut the bullshit. will you?

From Fordham, a new book on a hot topic:

Today Fordham proudly releases David Whitman’s latest book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. (We don’t subscribe to the Bush Administration’s maxim that, “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” After all, it’s back-to-school time!)

The book is now available via Amazon, but if you want to dig in right away, read this Gadfly editorial by Checker Finn and Marci Kanstoroom or, even better, print out and read this Education Next excerpt. Here’s the heart of Whitman’s argument (who is, by the way, a freelance journalist and former senior writer at U.S. News & World Report):

Above all, these schools [American Indian Public Charter School, Amistad Academy, Cristo Rey, KIPP, SEED, and University Park Campus School] share a trait that has been largely ignored by education researchers: They are paternalistic institutions. By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.

The new breed of paternalistic schools appears to be the single most effective way of closing the achievement gap. No other school model or policy reform in urban secondary schools seems to come close to having such a dramatic impact on the performance of inner-city students. Done right, paternalistic schooling provides a novel way to remake inner-city education in the years ahead.

The use of the term “paternalistic” is sure to spark debate (most of the schools’ leaders detest it), but don’t knock it till you read Whitman’s argument. As uncomfortable as it might be to discuss in public, what these schools are doing is providing a middle-class, achievement-oriented culture to children who come out of a culture of poverty. And for that, the schools should be applauded (and emulated). It might not be politically correct to use these terms, but they are accurate. And that should count for something.

On Flypaper, Liam Julian says:

Much of the disagreement caused by the use of the term paternalism in David Whitman’s new book stems, I think, from a reticence to acknowledge reality. That’s unfortunate—education policy already suffers from a dearth of invested persons willing to call things what they are.

We can be even more honest than Whitman, and a little less academic.

Some of us – yes, even some younger than 100 – think of education as teaching kids how to live. It’s really that simple. We don’t have to call it paternalism, in loco parentis, or anything else. Teachers show kids how to live [to varying degrees, depending on the discipline]. There’s little more to it.

The most intriguing point here is the reluctance of school leaders to be honest. Julian continues:

Take, for instance, the reluctance of Eric Adler, who co-founded the SEED School, to have paternalism in any way attached to his institution. Whitman writes:

Eric Adler, cofounder of the SEED School in Washington, D.C., argues that calling a school paternalistic implies that its staff is asserting that it “knows better than others—like parents or the neighborhood”—which values schools should transmit. “I don’t think SEED asserts that we ‘know better,’ we just assert that we have more resources with which to teach.”

I get it. Adler has no reason to ascent to the labeling of his school as paternalistic and every reason to rebut it.

Julian’s got it – very, very few education leaders, from individual community leaders to those on the national scene, are comfortable and honest enough to tell it like it is. We need to say what we are, what we aren’t, and get on with things.

This mealymouth’n'milquetoast bit has to go. Grow up, get it together and spit it out. No apologies, no pandering, no ruses – school leaders are terrible at all of that anyway.

The other day I wrote a mildly tongue-in-cheek post about the Education Olympics in which I made a point quite seriously – American education needs a Herb Brooks.

In short, cut the crap.

4 Responses to “The New Paternalism is the Old Education”

  1. Julia says:

    I’m not sure if the term “paternalism” is particularly well chosen since it’s bound to get hackles up and that usually is not a good place from which to sway opinion, but anyone who even reads the excerpt should be concerned not with the fact that there are schools that are paternalistic, as Whitman defines it, but that there are schools that are not.

  2. Julia,

    Definitely – and this is another example of how badly we need simplicity, clarity and openness in education.

    And it’s another example of how poorly some seem to understand that need.

  3. G.R. Kearney says:

    Fascinating discussion. I was a volunteer teacher, coach, and bus driver at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School from 1999 to 2001, during my first two years out of college.

    Cristo Rey, like all Jesuit schools, aims for a concept called cura personalis. In Jesuit education circles, this means that the schools seek to care for the whole person. They are not simply preparing young people for life as college students or professionals. They are preparing them for life as human beings, as loving individuals, as citizens, as thinkers. This is true at every Jesuit school in the country, including those Cristo Rey schools that cater exclusively to low income students.

    Also interesting to point out that some of Cristo Rey’s best teachers would have hated the idea of labeling their work as paternalistic. In fact, some went to great lengths to avoid anything that could have been drawn the term.

    My take is that Whitman’s assessment is largely on the money. The great teachers at Cristo Rey were pushing their students to be more, but made every effort to respectful of the backgrounds of their students and the cultural traditions. I think it’s possible to be “paternalistic” and respectful.

    Those interested in Cristo Rey may also be interested in More than a Dream, the book I wrote documenting the improbable and inspiring startup of the school. More information is available at

  4. G.R.,

    I think the more we try to develop successful models for new schools – paternalistic, buzzword this, academic tripe that – the more we end up imitating some of the excellent education traditions from the past.


  1. What’s In a Name? at The Core Knowledge Blog - [...] this group as ‘the paternalistic schools’ even less,” writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.  USA Today’s Richard Whitmire, ...
  2. Total schooling at Joanne Jacobs - [...] Whitman is telling it like it, argue Robert Pondiscio and Mathew Tabor. [...]
  3. Naming Paternalistic Schools is Dumb Politics at Education for the Aughts - American School Issues and Analysis - [...] The New Paternalism is the Old EducationFAMU Hires New Law School DeanAnyone Hiring? Ward Churchill Needs a Job [...]

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