Here's a nice review in the Weekly Standard of my former U.S. News colleague David Whitman's book Sweat the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism. David has also been a cross between a journalist and a serious social science researcher, determined to understand how the real world works, starting off with (I think) something of a liberal mindset but also unafraid to see through dogmatism of all kinds. In this book, based on extensive research and in-person reporting, he tells us about six inner city schools which really seem to be doing a superior job of teaching not only the basics of reading, math, etc but of teaching basic niceness. Good manners, consideration of others, civility—these, contrary to the thinking of so many liberals, do not always come naturally to children. Rather, as this book argues, to the contrary. And especially to kids who grow up in disadvantaged backgrounds. David's meticulous reporting and absorbing narratives tell us what can work. This is a fitting companion to Mathews's definitive history of the KIPP schools, Work Hard. Be Nice , which I've written about before. Both make the point that kids need paternalism and guidance, not open-ended invitations to unguided and undisciplined self-expression if they are to get ahead.
Whitman notes that the kind of people who run these schools tend to be politically liberal, the sort of people who enthusiastically back Barack Obama. Yet Obama and the Democrats have to a large extent supported the teacher-union, education-school model of education which has so dismally failed inner city children and which the people who have created the schools Whitman and Mathews describe have profoundly rejected. The teachers unions and education schools have done a great job of feeding money into the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party has generally done a great job of feeding money back to the unions and their members. But they have done much less for the kids. Yes, many Democrats, including committee chairmen Edward Kennedy and George Miller, did support the No Child Left Behind Law which put the federal government on the side of accountability and standards, and did so against the inclinations and self-interest of the teacher unions and the dogma of the education schools. And yes, Barack Obama's choice of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary suggests he is not in full sell-out mode to the teachers unions (as his legislative record might prompt one to think).
But the Democrats are still insufficiently ashamed of the work they have done for so many years before that and, in the case of many, even after, on behalf of the unions and the ed schools and against the kids. I gather that the spectacularly gifted and dedicated young teachers that Whitman and Mathews describe are unaware of this or untroubled by it. But perhaps one should just be satisfied that so much brilliant and pioneering work has been done—even if those who have worked so hard to feather their own nests and, effectively, have prevented inner city kids from learning don't get their due.