An Interview with David Whitman: On Sweating the Small Stuff

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University

1) In your new book Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, you investigate six schools that are able to "turn around" students. What was the common factor in these six schools?

The six secondary schools that I had studied shared a number of traits, most of which will come as no surprise. All six secondary schools had dedicated teachers, a rigorous curriculum pegged to state standards, additional time spent on task, an extended school day and year, and smallness—these were all schools, where a la "Cheers", "everybody knows your name."

But the one little-known common factor at these schools was that they practiced a form of benevolent paternalism or what has been dubbed the "new paternalism." All of these schools are highly-prescriptive institutions that aim not only to build students' academic skills but to shape their character.

2) These "highly effective schools" undoubtedly have highly effective leaders. What can you tell us about the principals in these schools?

The principals are an extraordinary group of leaders, from a wide mix of backgrounds. Two of the school founders I write about are female, while four schools were founded by males. In general, these school founders and principals were distinguished by being educational mavericks. Only one school founder, at the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Ma., had followed the traditional path of school principals, who assume their positions after teaching for years in the public schools and taking courses at local ed schools. By contrast, these school principals didn't pay more attention than necessary to local teacher unions, central office administrators, and typically didn't have ed school training. They were obsessively focused on accomplishing their educational mission of eliminating the achievement gap and were activist leaders who roamed the hallways, sat in on classes, and knew all of their students by name.

Often, they knew what was going on their students' homes as well. Although all six of the secondary schools had a decidedly traditional feel, a number of the school founders were young, white, and liberal, and several were Teach for America alumni.

3) Now what exactly do you mean by "paternalistic"?

I'm glad you asked because my use of the "paternalistic" label has been roundly misinterpreted. I'm referring to the "new paternalism," which social scientists have been writing about for more than a decade and was the title of a 350-page volume that the Brookings Institution published in 1997, edited by New York University political scientist Lawrence Mead. The schools I wrote about practice this "new paternalism," which means that they supervise students' behavior down to the smallest details, penalizing bad behavior and celebrating good character and academic achievement.

At KIPP schools, teacher regularly correct students' "SLANT"—an acronym for Sit Up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod your head to show that you are listening, and Track the speaker. At Achievement First schools, teachers drill into students that they are supposed to "sweat the small stuff," down to never rolling their eyes at a teacher.

However, unlike paternalistic institutions from the past, these new paternalistic schools are not harsh or forbidding. Teachers are both authoritative and carding figures. Students often describe their schools as a "second home."

4) What are some of the values that are instilled in these schools?

These schools, which are sometimes called "no excuses" schools, instill decidedly middle-class values in their students—discipline, respect for elders, politeness, perseverance, and good manners. Sometimes, they even instruct students in personal hygiene. The schools flatly reject all aspects of street culture by insisting that students wear uniforms, refrain from cursing in the schools, using street lingo or the "n"-word. Interestingly, the new paternalistic schools build many of the "non-cognitive" abilities (like self-sufficiency and perseverance) that liberals like Richard Rothstein and James Heckman have pointed out are necessary for success later in life.

5) How do the schools go about setting up and enforcing exacting academic standards?

The pedagogical process varies some from school to school but in general, all six schools use interim assessments on a regular basis to improve the quality of instruction and to target student's specific weaknesses. The six schools tend to rely on teacher-directed instruction, though it can be supplemented at schools such as the KIPP Academy in the Bronx with unconventional mnemonic techniques, like clapping and snapping to learn math tables in the early grades. The extended school day and school year, the additional instructional time devoted to core subjects, a refusal to track students, the college-prep curriculum used in high school, and the availability of after-school tutoring all underscore the message in these schools that every student can meet rigorous academic standards and go on to college.

6) What student behaviors are closely supervised?

You name it—appearance, speech, dress, language. At Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, students work downtown one day a week in white-collar clerical jobs to help pay their tuition. But those students first have to practice answering the phone using a script, and they sit down to a formal table-setting to learn the difference between a salad fork and the dinner fork. Boys learn how to tie a tie and are forbidden from wearing sun glasses or having corn rows.

Female students learn not to pluck the full eyebrow and to turn away with a tissue whenever they have to blow their nose. Wearing a watch is recommended. But the watches cannot have sports logos or cartoon figures on the timespiece.

7) I understand these schools are warm, caring places, where teaches and principals form paternal-like bonds with students. What does this say about most urban schools or schools in general?

In part it says that size matters. Most urban comprehensive high schools are simply too big to build that personalized sense of connection. But it also says that James Q. Wilson's famous "broken windows" theory is right about schools—it's not actual crimes and violence that unhinge inner-city secondary schools as much as the appearance of disorder, the unfixed broken window. If urban schools don't do a better job of minimizing disorder, it will be next to impossible to nurture those paternal-like bonds. Teachers will continue to act more like policemen or proctors than educators.

8) Why have these schools been "little explored to date"? Why do researchers not go in and find out what is going on in these schools?

It's a disgrace that social scientists have done so little to explore and analyze the secrets and performance of these schools. Education researchers have largely ignored these schools because the new paternalistic schools adhere to a pedagogical model that is anathema at many education schools. Paternalistic schools do not embrace Rousseau's theories of progressive education, constructivism, multicultural classes, bilingual instruction, and traditional teacher credentialing.

9) Why are these new paternalistic schools the most promising means yet for closing the nation's achievement gap?

I don't know of any other educational interventions that come close to eliminating the achievement gap in middle-school or eliminating the attainment gap in high school for low-income minority students. Even the most successful education interventions modestly narrow the achievement gap. These schools, thankfully, are succeeding in closing or almost closing the achievement gap. They provide a rare reason for optimism about education reform in the nation's ghettos and barrios.

Published August 26, 2008


August 26th, 2008

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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