An Interview with David Whitman: Accolades

An Interview with David Whitman : Accolades


Michael F. Shaughnessy - June 26, 2009
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


1) David, I understand that your book " Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism" has just won the 2009 American Independent Writing Prize. FIrst of all congratulations, and secondly how did you feel when you got the news?


    I was excited, of course, but flattered as well. It’s always nice to be recognized by other writers. 


2) A bit of background now-what led up to you writing this book?


    The Thomas B. Fordham Institute was interested in studying the much-publicized yet little-studied new generation of high-performing inner-city schools. They approached me and asked if I would be interested in studying these “no-excuses” schools. As a journalist, I thought the project was something of a no-brainer. But I was surprised to learn that almost no one had systematically studied these schools that were doing such an effective job of closing the achievement gap. Much of what was written about gap-closing inner-city schools sought to dismiss their significance. Typically, educators have treated high-performing secondary schools as heartwarming examples that are largely meaningless outliers for education reform.


3) Why has this book had such broad based appeal?


    Despite the predilections of many ed school researchers, readers don’t want to be told that closing the achievement gap is more or less hopeless, or that the gap can’t be meaningfully narrowed until you first spend billions to put an end to poverty. My book ultimately has an optimistic message about the power of education reform to transform lives, even though I conclude that transformative reform is very hard to do.


   The book also had an appeal that transcended ideological lines. Those on the left could read the book and cheer the secondary schools I studied for building the “non-cognitive” skills of students to prepare them for college and the workplace—persistence, self-control, respect for others, diligence, politeness, and so on. Many of the schools I wrote about were founded by liberals and were unequivocally devoted to boosting minority achievement. At the same time, conservatives could hail these secondary schools for inculcating traditional virtues.


 4) In your mind, why is paternalism something to write about?


    Well, let me correct you about one thing—I wrote about the “new paternalism.” That is a term with a specific meaning in the social sciences (and, in fact, The New Paternalism was the title of a 350-page book put out by the left-leaning Brookings Institution in 1997). I wrote about the “new paternalism” to distinguish it from the “old paternalism”—the orphanages, or the boarding schools that educators set up for Indians a century ago. The new paternalism 2.0  is a benevolent form of paternalism; the old paternalism is the malevolent version. I spent most of my career as a journalist covering social policy and had in fact previously written a long piece for U.S. News & World Report in 1998 about the trend toward the new paternalism, after Brookings published its volume.

    When you spent time in the schools I studied, you couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that they were highly-prescriptive institutions—they meticulously supervised student behavior. They were not just academically demanding schools but schools that sought to relentlessly shape the character of their students. But I do want to be clear about one thing: The new paternalism works only when it is combined with intense caring and commitment--it is not just about the supervision of students. The students have to know that their teachers and principals care deeply about them and their future.


5) How does it relate to education?


    If you stop to think about it, every school is paternalistic in the broadest sense. We require children to attend school in the United States because we think it is good for them--even though Johnny and Jane might rather be playing hooky. Yet most schools are paternalistic only in that they require attendance and will expel students who violate state laws forbidding drug dealing and violent crime on campus. Schools are distinctively not paternalistic about student character and learning--at least not to the extent that they will impose consequences on students who fail to meet the expectations of teachers and principals. In general, paternalism in schools is actually less controversial than it is among adults because children are involved. Teachers have always played a role in telling students how to act and behave in ways that they would never feel entitled to assert with adults.


    Most of the students I wrote about were growing up in single-parent families, often in communities where there were few if any two-parent, married couples raising children. The students spoke often of their schools as a “second home” and teachers freely acknowledged that they took on a loco parentis role at times. I was surprised how often people who bitterly protested the label the “new paternalism” nonetheless fervently believed that schools for low-income students should provide a lot of structure, carefully supervise and monitor students, teach students middle-class mores, shape student character, minimize disorder, and build up the social capital of students—all traits of the new paternalism.    


6) Do urban and rural schools differ in terms of this construct called paternalism?


    That’s a good question and I’m unsure of the answer. I only researched inner-city secondary schools, though one successful KIPP school which I did not write about is located in a rural location in Gaston, North Carolina. To the extent that family breakdown and the lure of street culture are more powerful in inner-city neighborhoods, the new paternalism may be less necessary in rural areas.  


7)  What are some of the small details in inner-city schools that do have to be carefully examined and explored?


    The fatal undoing of most high-poverty urban high schools is that they are big, anonymous, disorderly institutions. Drawing on James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory, high-performing inner-city schools recognize that you have to minimize disorder to promote learning—it’s the broken window left unfixed that signals to students that no one is control. That is why these schools “sweat the small stuff”--to borrow a motto from Amistad Academy in New Haven. They don’t allow students to walk around with their shirts untucked, much less with their pants sagging down their butts. If students make a mess in the bathroom, the students have to clean it up. They teach students how to shake hands, look people in the eyes when they speak to them, forbid swearing, and on and on.


8) Does your book discuss the impact of technology on inner city schools?


    Not much. The schools I studied generally do not make much use of technology in their school models. At a couple of schools in Oakland that I visited (American Indian Public Charter School and Oakland Charter Academy), the principals actually ripped out their facility’s computers for students and gave them away.


9) What are you currently working on?


    I have just started a new job as a speechwriter and senior writer at the U.S. Department of Education. I’ll be working to help assist Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama realize their ambitious vision for education reform.


10) What have I neglected to ask ?




June 26th, 2009

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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