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Family Breakdown and Schools

Teachers have long complained that too little attention is given to the importance of parental involvement in educating children. Until a few years ago, their lament was written off as making excuses. But then David Whitman wrote Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism (The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2008). He described how a paternalistic ethos can help even the most disadvantaged students achieve academically ("The Disappearing Family Problem," The Weekly Standard, Nov. 26).

What this means essentially is making schools surrogate parents. The trouble is that the values some parents want to inculcate in their children may not be the ones shared by other parents. That's why private and religious schools have a tremendous advantage over traditional public schools. Parents who choose the former know exactly beforehand what values will be taught. Public schools have no such freedom. They are prevented by law from bringing religious values into the classroom. The best they can do in teaching values is to make them as neutral as possible. For example, I think few parents would object to schools teaching about honesty, fairness and respect. But beyond these (and a few similar ones), public school teachers would be on shaky ground.

Therefore, perhaps the best way for public schools to act paternalistically without running the risk of offending parents is to provide wraparound services, such as after-school programs, health care and classes for expectant parents. The Harlem Children's Zone serves as a model in this regard. Although the jury is still out, its cradle-to-college approach has produced impressive results to date. Yet it's important to remember that the HCZ gets substantial financial support from Wall Street philanthropists. As a result, it's hard to know if traditional public schools can ever hope to match the HCZ's accomplishments. Nevertheless, I think that paternalism offers the most promising way for public schools to serve the neediest students.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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