Skip to main content

Paternalism: How Some Schools Beat the Achievement Gap

While the achievement gap has been a pressing issue in American education for many years, a recent forum provided examples of schools where it is nearly a thing of the past. Journalist David Whitman and his new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, were the focus at the April 23 Askwith Education Forum, "Sweating the Small Stuff: High Performing Schools in the Inner City." Panelists included Thabiti Brown, principal of the Codman Academy Charter Public School; Donna Rodrigues, Ed.M.'95, associate vice president at Jobs for the Future and founding principal of University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass.; and Martin West, assistant professor at Brown University, who will assume his role as assistant professor at HGSE in July. Robert Schwartz, academic dean and William Henry Bloomberg Professor of Practice, provided an introduction.

Whitman's book profiles six high performing urban schools across the country, including University Park Campus School, and offers insight into their success. While all of the schools share features that are commonly attributed to successful schools, he identifies a uniquely paternalistic model as essential to their effectiveness.

"I do not think it is possible to spend time in these schools without being struck above all by a curious combination. These schools relentlessly supervise and monitor the behavior of their students, and yet at the same time there is strong sense of personal, family-like connection between teacher and student," Whitman said.

According to the author, this book differs from similar studies of inner-city schools in the way that it dismantles the excuses that have been used to discount their success. He attempts to show that it is not simply the result of charismatic leaders or "creaming" in the student selection process, but rather this new paternalism that could be replicated across districts and states.

"[The book] is an especially valuable contribution because [Whitman] spent an extensive amount of time in six schools and was able to learn not just about the things they have in common but also the relationships between them," said West.

The use of the word "paternalism" in the book's title was a point of debate among the panelists. "It's just too thin a slice of the pie for me, to describe what happened at University Park," said Rodrigues. "Through instruction, through visiting classrooms, and through working with teachers -- that's how you really get to know what's going on in your school."

Whitman acknowledged that the word has certain negative connotations attached to it, but explained that through his book he promotes a new, positive form of paternalism. "Paternalism doesn't work if it's just supervision and monitoring. It can work when there is a culture of connection, when the students know that the teachers and principal care deeply about them," he said. It is this kind of paternalism, he said, that is at work in the schools he studied.

"What I see when I look at these schools is an emphasis not just on paternalism, but on using paternalism to allow students to earn more trust and progress towards independence," added West.

Brown saw significant overlap between the habits Whitman identifies as contributing to the success of these urban schools and the qualities in practice at Codman Academy. It is the definition of success, however, that he said should be expanded beyond test scores and college prep. "Those are important elements, but there is more. We really are intent on building students and supporting student growth around soft skills that have to do with social justice, experiential education, and wellness," he said.

Despite the bureaucratic challenges that these kinds of schools face, Whitman sees them as essential to the success of public education in America. "If you believe, as I do, that the achievement gap is the last great remaining civil rights issue, then the need for these schools is transparent," he said.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles