An "A-ha!" moment
I finally broke down and ordered Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman. In the book, Whitman describes six high-performing inner-city schools, and he tells us that they are so good because they are "highly paternalistic."
It sounds like the education kids are getting in these school is excellent. A number of education bloggers have been buzzing about this book, so I had gotten an idea about how they operate. Before I ordered the book, I read a customer review by Cory Bower. Bower says this about Whitman's description of the schools:
All of the schools take a no-nonsense approach to discipline and work hard to create a positive school culture in which bad behavior is unacceptable and good behavior is rewarded. All of the schools go to great lengths to explicitly teach various social behaviors that one would expect to be second nature to middle and upper-income youth. All of the schools put great emphasis on attendance and manage to lengthen the school year and/or day in some fashion. And all of the schools have produced results that are quite impressive.
I think all of those are good things, and I don't mean to negate any of them. But as I read on, I came upon this information about the schools that gave me my "A-ha!" moment.
Whitman acknowledges some limitations to the these results -- the KIPP in the Bronx enrolls students that outperform their community peers before entering, The SEED School expels about 5% of their students, and Cristo Rey only admits students that they believe are capable of working in an upscale office, for example.
From the little I know about them, I'd say that these schools deserve the praise they are getting, but those are important limitations. In fact, those limitations make all the other things the schools are doing possible.
If there are lessons here that someone wants public schools to learn from, we are going to need to have some power that at least resembles the power that the schools presented have. If the public really wants us to have a "no-nonsense approach to discipline" and "to create a positive school culture in which bad behavior is unacceptable," then we are going to have to be able to impose meaningful consequences for that bad behavior. My understanding is that KIPP schools use humiliation and some kids end up dropping out as a result. I don't want us to use that. Cristo Rey only admits the students that it wants, and public schools certainly can't do that. The SEED School expels about 5% of their kids. Most public schools shouldn't need to expel than many, but maybe some do. My point is that there has to be a bottom line. When someone says that they won't accept bad behavior there have to be very serious consequences for anyone who is determined to behave badly. We don't need kids in public education to behave flawlessly, but we do need them to behave reasonably.
At least in the case of KIPP schools, I suspect that many parents who send their kids to them are hoping that they will become academic all-stars. I'm not knocking that, but that's not what most American parents are interested in. Most Americans just want their kids to get a good solid education. I'm absolutely convinced that public schools can provide that if we're given just some of the powers that those "paternalistic" schools have.