Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, by David Whitman (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 386 pp.)

“Nagging is love,” I used to tell my daughter. “I am a much-loved child,” she’d reply. And so it is: if you care about a kid, you tell her what she’s doing right and what she’s doing wrong. You stick with her when she makes mistakes. You honor her successes. You nag. In Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, David Whitman finds that idea replicated in education. To give disadvantaged students a shot at college and mainstream success, he argues, schools must teach “not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional middle-class values.”

Whitman looks at six secondary schools that are teaching both academic skills and work habits to low-income minority students. Three are charter middle schools: American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) in Oakland, Amistad Academy in New Haven, and KIPP Academy in the Bronx. Two educate seventh- through 12th-graders: University Park Campus School, which is linked to Worcester’s Clark University, and SEED, a charter boarding school in Washington, D.C. The sole private school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High in Chicago, puts its students to work one day a week in local businesses and law offices.

“All of the schools have gifted, deeply committed teachers and dedicated, forceful principals,” Whitman writes. “They also all have rigorous academic standards, test students frequently and carefully monitor students’ academic performance to assess where students need help. . . . Most of the schools have uniforms or a dress code, an extended school day, and three weeks of summer school.” What unites the schools above all, though, is “a paternalistic ethos supporting a common school culture that prizes academic achievement.”

Whitman uses the term “paternalism” for a reason. Many of the students at these schools are being raised by single mothers (or grandmothers) who provide unconditional love at home. Maternalism they’ve already got. At the “new paternalistic” schools, authoritative, caring adults demand good behavior as a condition for approval, adopting the traditional father’s role. Paternalistic schools explicitly teach students how to walk in the halls, sit upright in class, listen to speakers, ask questions, take notes, collaborate with classmates, and study for tests. They also teach students to shake hands, tuck in their shirts, and speak courteously using standard English. Street slang is banned. In some cases, the schools support values that parents hold themselves but have trouble enforcing on their own. In other cases, Whitman writes, new paternalistic schools “tend to displace a piece of parents’ traditional role in transmitting values, serving at times in loco parentis.”

Some principals pick up tardy students at home, send a taxi, or hand out alarm clocks. University Park’s founder and principal, Diane Rodrigues, helps parents avoid eviction, find health care, and treat addictions. But she administers tough love as well, reporting parents for child abuse if they keep kids out of school to run errands, baby-sit, or translate. She filed an abuse complaint against one mother for failing to get drug treatment for her child.

The middle schools on Whitman’s list teach basic skills so that students are ready to tackle college-prep classes in high school. But staying on the college track can be tough for students who attend disorderly, do-your-own-thing high schools. Amistad, tired of losing black male students to the culture of New Haven’s high schools, now sends graduates to Amistad High, which is run along the same paternalistic lines. AIPCS has also started a high school. KIPP, which runs fifth-through-eighth-grade middle schools, is starting up both elementary and high schools across the country.

While researching my own book, Our School, I observed a San Jose charter high school, Downtown College Prep, that transformed D and F students—most from Mexican immigrant families—into hard-working, college-bound students. Students at DCP are warned from the start that nobody gets to hide in the back row, harass the teacher, or blame missing homework on the dog. Even students who pile up detentions and Fs seem to get it: My teacher cares about me; my principal thinks I can do better; if I do the work, I can get somewhere. Those who stick with the program, learning everything from how to shake hands to how to write a research paper, go on to college. But they never leave the DCP family: even graduates can turn to a school counselor for academic advice, financial aid assistance, or some constructive nagging.

Such ongoing guidance is a common trait of paternalistic schools. You may be grown up, they tell their graduates, but you’re still our kids.


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