News Again: The Oldest Scandal in Public Schools

Don’t act surprised. The depressingly predictable scandal in DC schools serves as yet another reminder of a centuries-old truth about public education. When people tell you they have figured out how to fix urban schools on the cheap, they’re either lying or fooling themselves. When they show you proof, they’re faking it.

ballou HS DC

Where magic didn’t happen….

Here’s what we know: NPR investigated Ballou High School in Washington DC. The school showed remarkable sudden improvements. Graduation rates suddenly jumped to 100% and all the grads were accepted to college.

A triumph, right? Not really. Turns out about a third of the students hadn’t been to school enough to meet minimum requirements. Many of them couldn’t read or write well. Teachers felt enormous pressure to move kids along, whether or not they had met any of their educational goals. Some teachers reported a “culture of fear;” they felt forced to do things they knew weren’t right.

Now wunderkind chancellor Antwan Wilson is in the spotlight. What did he know and when did he know it? Not only Wilson, but informed school folks are all keenly aware of the sobering truth: We all knew this would happen and we’ve known it for centuries. Even for those few folks who don’t read ILYBYGTH to find out the centuries-old story of urban school reform, there are so many recent examples that no one can claim ignorance.

Consider Rod Paige and the overstuffed “Houston Miracle.” Or the ugly cheating scandal in Atlanta. Time and time again, when reformers and administrators build sparkling careers on their sudden, dramatic improvements, they have simply cut corners, cheated, and fudged numbers.

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH in the know, these sorts of educational con jobs are the oldest story in urban public education. As I’m researching these days, in the early 1800s Joseph Lancaster set the pattern that Paige, Wilson, and many others would follow. Lancaster was an earnest young Quaker who opened a school for urban urchins in London. He copied a system that allowed him to educate hundreds of students with only one adult teacher.

Soon, a group of wealthy philanthropists hyped Lancaster’s “Borough Road Miracle.” Lancaster thought he had figured out something radically new. He promised he could establish similar schools for America’s cities. He promised he could turn illiterate “Street Arabs” into upstanding literate Christian citizens.

lancaster schools

The promise: Everyone learns, no one pays…

He couldn’t.

In a few years, Lancaster’s over-hyped schools had flopped and failed. Parents and students complained that they were abused and under-educated. Teachers warned that Lancaster’s methods didn’t work. Lancaster himself was in debt up to his ears and fled to Caracas.

The lesson? It’s not that school reform isn’t possible or desirable. Rather, we need to remember that charismatic, ambitious reformers will always promise more than they can deliver. Politicians will tend to glom on to silver-bullet solutions that don’t cost any extra. School reports that sound too good to be true usually are.

School reform IS possible, but it isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap. If we really want to fix our public schools, we need to stop looking for magic solutions and rather do the difficult and expensive job of improving every school.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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