By the time youngsters reach high school in the United States, the achievement gap is immense. The average black 12th grader has the reading and writing skills of a typical white 8th grader and the math skills of a typical white 7th grader. The gap between white and Hispanic students is similar. But some remarkable inner-city schools are showing that the achievement gap can be closed, even at the middle and high school level, if poor minority kids are given the right kind of instruction.
Over the past two years, I have visited six outstanding schools.
(For a list of schools, see sidebar.) All of these educational gems
enroll minority youngsters from rough urban neighborhoods with
initially poor to mediocre academic skills; all but one are
open-admission schools that admit students mostly by lottery. Their
middle school students perform as well as their white peers, and in
some middle schools, minority students learn at a rate comparable to
that of affluent white students in their state’s top schools. (For one
impressive example, see Figure 1.) At the high school level, low-income
minority students are more likely to matriculate to college than their
more advantaged peers, with more than 95 percent of graduates gaining
admission to college. Not surprisingly, they all have gifted, deeply
committed teachers and dedicated, forceful principals. They also have
rigorous academic standards, test students frequently, and carefully
monitor students’ academic performance to assess where students need
help. “Accountability,” for both teachers and students, is not a loaded
code word but a lodestar. Students take a college-prep curriculum and
are not tracked into vocational or noncollege-bound classes. Most of
the schools have uniforms or a dress code, an extended school day, and
three weeks of summer school.
Yet above all, these schools share a trait that has been largely ignored by
education researchers: They are paternalistic institutions. By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly
prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also
how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class
values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as
abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to
behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for
compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often-forbidding
paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet
warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both
authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in
addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.
The new breed of paternalistic schools appears to be the single most effective
way of closing the achievement gap. No other school model or policy reform in
urban secondary schools seems to come close to having such a dramatic impact on
the performance of inner-city students. Done right, paternalistic schooling
provides a novel way to remake inner-city education in the years ahead.
But while these “no excuses” schools have demonstrated remarkable results, the notion of reintroducing
paternalism in inner-city schools is deeply at odds with the conventional
wisdom of the K–12 education establishment. For a host of reasons, teachers unions, school board
members, ed school professors, big-city school administrators, multicultural
activists, bilingual educators, and progressive-education proponents do not
embrace the idea that what might most help disadvantaged students are highly
prescriptive schools that favor traditional instructional methods. And even the
many parents who are foursquare in favor of what paternalistic schools do
cringe at labeling the schools in those terms. In 2008, “paternalism” remains a dirty word in American culture.
What is paternalism and why does it have so few friends? Webster’s
defines paternalism as a principle or system of governing that echoes a
father’s relationship with his children. Paternalistic policies
interfere with the freedom of individuals, and this interference is
justified by the argument that the individuals will be better off as a
result. Paternalism is controversial because it contains an element of
moral arrogance, an assertion of superior competence. But in the last
decade, government paternalism has enjoyed a kind of rebirth.
In a 1997 volume titled The New Paternalism, New York University professor Lawrence Mead, the leading revisionist, explored
the emergence of a new breed of paternalistic policies aimed at reducing
poverty, welfare dependency, and other social problems by closely supervising
the poor. These paternalistic programs try to curb social problems by imposing
behavioral requirements for assistance and then monitoring recipients to ensure
compliance. “Misbehavior is not just punished” in paternalistic programs, writes Mead. “It is preempted by
the oversight of authority figures, much as parents supervise their
families.” The schools I visited are paternalistic in the very way Mead
Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce
values that “clients already believe,” Mead notes. But many
paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change
the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the
lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic
presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family
and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to
live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.
In the narrowest sense, all American schools are paternalistic.
“Schooling virtually defines what paternalism means in a democratic
society,” the political scientist James Q. Wilson has written. Elementary schools often
attempt to teach values and enforce rules about how students are to behave and
treat others. The truth is that hundreds of parochial and traditional public
schools in the inner city are authoritarian institutions with pronounced
paternalistic elements. Yet the new paternalistic schools I visited look and
feel very different from these more commonplace institutions.
The most distinctive feature of new paternalistic schools is that they are
fixated on curbing disorder. The emphasis springs from an understanding of
urban schools that owes much to James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s well-known “broken windows” theory of crime reduction: the idea that disorder and even signs of disorder (e.g., the broken window left unfixed) are the fatal undoing of
urban neighborhoods. That is why these schools devote inordinate attention to
making sure that shirts are tucked in, bathrooms are kept clean, students speak
politely, and trash is picked up.
Paternalistic schools teach character and middle-class virtues like diligence,
politeness, cleanliness, and thrift. They impose detentions for tardiness and
disruptive behavior in class and forbid pupils from cursing at or talking
disrespectfully to teachers. But the new paternalistic schools go further than
even strict Catholic schools in prescribing student conduct and minimizing
signs of disorder.
Pupils are typically taught not just to walk rather than run in the hallway—they learn how to
walk from class to class: silently, with a book in hand. In class,
teachers constantly monitor whether students are tracking them with
their eyes, whether students nod their heads to show that they
listening, and if students have slouched in their seats. Amistad
Academy enforces a zero-tolerance policy. Calling out in class,
distracting other students, rolling your eyes at a teacher—all rather
common occurrences in most middle-school classrooms—result in students
being sent to a “time out” desk or losing “scholar dollars” from
virtual “paychecks” that can be used to earn special privileges at
Teachers ceaselessly monitor student conduct and character development to assess
if students are acting respectfully, developing self-discipline, displaying
good manners, working hard, and taking responsibility for their actions. The
SEED school even requires students to have teachers sign a note after each
class assessing how the student performed on a list of 12 “responsible behaviors” and 12 “irresponsible behaviors.”
Paternalistic schools are culturally authoritative schools as well.
Their pupils learn—and practice—how to shake hands when they are
introduced to someone. At SEED and Cristo Rey, students practice
sitting down to a formal place setting typical of a restaurant and
learn the difference between the dinner fork and the salad fork. The
new paternalistic schools thus build up the “cultural capital” of
low-income students by taking them to concerts, to Shakespearean plays,
on trips to Washington, D.C., and to national parks. They help students
find white-collar internships, and teach them how to comport themselves
in an office.
One of the distinctive features of Cristo Rey is its novel work-study program,
which dispatches students one day a week to clerical jobs in downtown Chicago
in accounting firms, banks, insurance companies, law firms, and offices of
health-care providers. For the first time in their lives, students are
surrounded by white-collar professionals who had to attend college and graduate
schools as a prerequisite to landing their jobs.
At the same time that these schools reinforce middle-class mores, they also
steadfastly suppress all aspects of street culture. Street slang, the use of
the “n-word,” and cursing are typically barred not only in the classroom but in hallways and
lunchrooms as well. Merely fraternizing with gang members can lead to
expulsion. If students so much as doodle gang graffiti on a notebook or a piece
of paper at Cristo Rey, they are suspended. And if they doodle a gang symbol a
second time, principal Pat Garrity expels them. The school day and year are
extended in part to boost academic achievement, but also to keep kids off the
street and out of homes with few academic supports.
The prescriptive rigor and accountability of paternalistic schools
extend not just to student character and conduct but to academics as
well. AIPCS is one of only two middle schools in Oakland to require
every 8th grader—including special ed students—to take algebra I. All
KIPP Academy 8th graders complete a two-year high-school-level algebra
I course and take the New York State Math A Regents exam, a high school
exit exam. In 2006, an astonishing 85 percent passed it.
Paternalistic schools, in short, push all students to perform to high standards. They spell out exactly what their pupils
are supposed to learn and then ride herd on them until they master it. From the
first day students walk through the door, their principal and teachers envelop
them in a college-going ethos, with the goal that 100 percent of students will
be admitted into college. Over time, paternalistic schools create a culture of
achievement that is the antithesis of street culture.
By their very nature, the new paternalistic schools for teens tend to
displace a piece of parents’ traditional role in transmitting values.
Most of the schools are founded on the premise that minority parents
want to do the right thing but often don’t have the time or resources
to keep their children from being dragged down by an unhealthy street
culture. But the schools do not presume that boosting parental
participation is the key to narrowing the achievement gap. Parents’
chief role at no-excuses schools is helping to steer their children
through the door—paternalistic schools are typically schools of
choice—and then ensuring that their children get to school on time.
Principals and teachers at these schools are surprisingly familiar with
students’ personal lives. As a result, students call on teachers and
principals for advice and help. Teachers are deeply devoted to their
students, often answering phone queries from students late into the
night, showing up before school starts to help a struggling pupil, or
staying late to help tutor. A KIPP student recalls, “I needed help in
math in 5th grade and called my teacher one week three times a night.”
It is not uncommon for students to describe their schools as a “second
What really makes this a kinder, gentler form of paternalism is that
parents, typically single mothers, choose to send their children to
these inner-city schools—but they are also acting under duress. They
believe their neighborhood schools fail to educate students and are
breeding grounds for gang strife and drugs. They are often desperate
for alternatives, and are particularly excited to find a no-nonsense
public school committed to readying their children for college. In this
sense, paternalistic schools draw a self-selected student population.
Even so, there is surprisingly little evidence that these schools are
“creaming” the best and brightest minority students. At most of these
schools, students are typically one to two grade levels behind their
age-level peers when they arrive.
The Old Educational Paternalism
Twice before in U.S. history paternalism has held sway in schools for low-income
or minority students—with very different results. The first major expansion of paternalistic
schooling was the Indian boarding schools of the late 19th century, which
sought to “civilize” Native Americans. The second major expansion took place when urban schools
sought to acculturate the multitudes of European immigrants to American
From the start, Indian boarding schools proved controversial and unpopular with
many parents. Agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs
rounded up Indian children—often against their parents’ will—to attend
the schools. Upon their arrival, children’s hair was cut, Native
American garb was replaced with school uniforms, and teachers forbade
students to speak in their native tongue, often punishing students who
failed to speak in English. Students with exotic or hard-to-pronounce
Indian names were abruptly given Anglo surnames. Unlike the
paternalistic schools of today, which seek to boost existing values
among beleaguered single-parent families, Indian boarding schools
sought to eradicate local culture and traditions and destroy the parent-child bond.
A more benevolent paternalism was evident early in the 20th century
when urban schools took on the task of acculturating millions of
Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrant children. Schools tried to
“Americanize” impoverished immigrants by teaching them English and
acclimating them to the schedules and expectations of city life. Most
teachers and school administrators eagerly embraced the role of
cultural evangelist. Teachers inspected children’s heads for lice and
lectured them about hygiene and nutrition. Students were taught how to
speak proper English; Anglicizing of names was common.
The ethos of Americanization was powerful, even within many immigrant slums.
Time and again, when cities provided foreign-language instruction, immigrants
declined to enroll in classes taught in their native tongue. Schools for
immigrant children reinforced values that parents held but alone could not pass
on to their children—namely, the desire that their children learn English and become Americans. On
the whole, historians have judged the relatively rapid Americanization of
millions of poor newcomers to be a qualified success.
In the latter half of the 20th century, paternalistic education largely
disappeared from inner-city schools in the United States. For a quarter century
after the controversial 1965 Moynihan report on “The Negro Family,” urban school administrators abided by an unwritten gag rule that barred candid
discussion of the impact of ethnic culture and family values on academic
performance. A core premise of paternalistic schools—that they can transport students out of poor communities by providing a
sustained injection of middle-class values—became politically taboo. Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced this
trend beginning in the 1970s. By advancing the notion that students have the
right to free speech and the right to due-process protections if they are to be
suspended or expelled, the Court made it more difficult for principals and
teachers to play a morally authoritative role.
As Lawrence Mead has pointed out, paternalism is neither conservative
nor liberal per se; in some eras of American history, liberals have
pressed for paternalistic programs, while at other times conservatives
have lobbied for them. At first glance, the character training and
rituals of these paternalistic schools give them a decidedly
traditional feel. The schools teach old-fashioned virtues, simply put.
Yet these virtues—perseverance, discipline, politeness—are really the
same as the “noncognitive skills” that liberal education reformers like
Richard Rothstein and economists like
James Heckman want inner-city schools to boost in order to raise academic
achievement and compensate for low-income students’ economic and cultural deficits.
In fact, the founders of many of today’s paternalistic schools are
liberals who believe that closing the pernicious achievement gulf
between white and minority students is the central civil-rights issue
of our century. Most of the founders and principals of the schools I
visited were uneasy with having their schools described as
paternalistic. “I don’t think there is a positive way to say a school
is paternalistic,” Eric Adler, cofounder of the SEED School in
Washington, D.C., asserted. Dave Levin, cofounder of the network of
KIPP schools, shared Adler’s reservations: “To say that a school is
paternalistic suggests that we are condescending, rather than serving
in the role of additional parents....”
Today’s paternalistic schools are more palatable to liberals than
earlier models were because their curricula for character development
promote not only traditional virtues but also social activism. SEED,
for example, explicitly encourages community involvement in progressive
causes, as do KIPP Academy, Cristo Rey, and University Park. SEED
requires students to participate in community service projects and
teaches each student to “make a commitment to a life of social action.”
Students are urged to reflect on their own experiences with prejudice,
discrimination, and bullying.
While liberals applaud these schools for placing poor kids on the path
toward college (and out of poverty), conservatives cheer them for
teaching the work ethic and traditional virtues. And there is great
demand for seats in paternalistic schools among inner-city parents. So
why not create lots more of them? Unfortunately, the three legs of the
education establishment tripod—teachers unions, the district
bureaucracy, and education schools—are all unlikely to embrace key
elements that make paternalistic schools work. (See sidebar, for some
habits of effective urban schools.)
In paternalistic schools, principals must be able to assemble teams of teachers
with a personal commitment to closing the achievement gap, teachers who are
willing to work an extended school day and school year, who want to instruct
teens about both traditional course matter and character development, and who
will make themselves available to students as needed. But requiring teachers to
work longer days and years would in most cases violate union contracts. So
would allowing principals to handpick teachers (who may or may not be
certified) and fire those who are not successful in the classroom. District
bureaucrats, meanwhile, are loath to grant individual schools the freedom to do
things differently, especially when it comes to curriculum and budget.
It would appear that education schools (and many K–12 educators trained
there) bear a special animosity toward paternalism and its
instructional incarnations. This is evident in their dislike of
teacher-directed instruction, “drill-and-kill” memorization, rote
learning, and direct instructional methods that emphasize the
importance of acquiring basic facts and skills.
The Romantic educational philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (and his
American heir, John Dewey) continues to prevail. Most K–12 educators
(and their teachers in ed schools) believe students should be free to
explore, to cultivate a love of learning, and to develop their
“critical thinking” skills unencumbered by rote learning. By contrast,
the new paternalistic schools are animated more by obligation than
freedom. Mead argues that “the problem of poverty or underachievement
is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor
are too free.” Paternalistic schools assume that disadvantaged students do best when structure
and expectations are crystal clear, rather than presuming that kids should
learn to figure things out for themselves.
Were it not for the recalcitrance of the education establishment, a grand
bargain might be in the offing: If inner-city schools across the nation
successfully adopted a no-excuses model, perhaps conservatives would be willing
to support spending increases for longer school days, an extended school year,
and additional tutoring. And perhaps liberals would be willing to grant
principals and teachers of these schools a great deal of autonomy, allowing
these schools to circumvent state and district regulations and union contracts.
For now, the spread of paternalistic schooling is taking place on a
school-by-school basis in dozens of schools, but not on a massive
scale. Unlike earlier generations of exemplary inner-city schools,
today’s paternalistic institutions fortunately follow replicable school
models and do not depend heavily on charismatic principals whose
leadership cannot be copied elsewhere. The founders of these schools
are devoting substantial resources to replicating their flagship
schools, but they continue to encounter obstacles both political and
practical. The difficulty of funding an extended school day and year,
the reluctance of districts to grant autonomy to innovative school
leaders, and the flawed charter laws and union contracts that tie the
hands of entrepreneurs are just some of the factors that impede the
spread of paternalistic reform. These obstacles make the restructuring
of inner-city schools en masse in the mold of paternalism unlikely in
the near future.
Still, these entrepreneurial school founders battle on, slowly replicating their
institutions across the country. It is too soon to say that all of the copycat
schools will succeed. But the early results are extremely encouraging. It is
possible that these schools, so radically different from traditional public
schools, could one day educate not just several thousand inner-city youngsters
but tens or even hundreds of thousands of students in cities across the nation.
Done well, paternalistic schooling would constitute a major stride toward
reducing the achievement gap and the lingering disgrace of racial inequality in
Six Effective Urban Schools
American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS), Oakland, CA
Amistad Academy, New Haven, CT
Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Chicago, IL
KIPP Academy, Bronx, NY
SEED School, Washington, DC
University Park Campus School, Worcester, MA
Habits of Highly Effective Urban Schools (abridged)
1) Tell students exactly how to behave and tolerate no disorder.
2) Require a rigorous, college-prep curriculum.
3) Assess students regularly, and use the results to target struggling students and improve instruction.
4) Build a collective culture of achievement and college going.
5) Reject the culture of the streets.
6) Extend the school day and/or year.
7) Welcome accountability for teachers and principals and embrace constant
8) Use unconventional channels to recruit committed teachers.
9) Don’t demand much from parents.
10) Don’t waste resources on fancy facilities or technology.