August 21, 2008
The education blogosphere is abuzz this week with responses to Jay Mathews’ most recent Washington Post column, in which he issued a call for a term other than “paternalistic schools” to describe the wave of schools, mostly charters, featured in “Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism,” a new book out of the Fordham Institute. Mathews considers several terms — including “tough love schools,” “achievement-focus schools,” “high-intensity schools,” and “tough little schools” — but says none of them successfully conveys to parent and policymakers alike all of the schools’ characteristics. Other suggestions have popped up around the internet, from “relentless schools” to “elite charters.”
Over on her blog, Joanne Jacobs is toying with “total schooling,” suggesting that the term comprises both the academic and “values” approach these schools employ. I have to take issue with Jacobs’ nomenclature, because I’ve actually been thinking recently about the term as well, but in a somewhat different way: as an education counterpart to the notion of “total war.” Total war is a modern iteration of warfare in which one side marshals all of its resources, both military and civilian, to defeat the enemy. World War II is widely considered a total war, for example, because civilians contributed to the war effort and were considered legitimate targets for military action.
The theory translates imperfectly to the education world, of course, but in my mind, “total schools” would be those that marshal all of the resources of the community to defeat the “enemy” of low achievement. Schools such as KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon are thus not “total schools” at all — in fact, they represent a precisely opposing outlook, in which proponents believe all of the battle efforts should be contained in the school itself. These schools strive to involve students’ families, but they don’t try to commandeer other community resources, instead arguing, as Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek did recently in a New York Times Magazine cover story about schools in New Orleans, that doing so would distract attention from the winnable war. “It would be convenient to say that it’s a whole lot of other people who need to be part of the equation,” Pastorek said in the article. “But we have the job. And we have to do something.”
A true “total school” would be one that engaged social services, engaged families, and developed community buy-in about the need for high-quality education. Are there schools that do this? The Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy might; it’s part of Geoffrey Canada’s total war on blights affecting the neighborhood’s children, although I’m looking forward to reading Paul Tough’s new book about the Harlem Children’s Zone to find out how successful the approach has been. Without a visionary philanthropist, however, I’m not sure how any single school could adopt a total school approach. That would take a “Broader, Bolder” approach — one that has been positioned as irreconcilable with the “no excuses” philosophy that Pastorek, a signatory to the Education Equality Project, advocates. The kinds of charters Mathews is trying to name are favorites of Education Equality Project backers. So to respond to Joanne Jacobs’ suggestion, I argue that if any kind of school could reasonably be called a “total school,” it would be one supported by “Broader, Bolder” proponents.
About Mathews’ question: For what it’s worth, I like the term “no excuses schools” best, even if, as Richard Whitmire notes at Eduwonk, it “has been around a bit.” It’s short and snappy, intelligible to parents and wonks alike, draws from the schools’ own vocabularies, and makes clear the schools’ orientation in this contemporary — and, possibly, false — battle over the role of public education.