The End of Public Schools

Maybe the dream died a long time ago. Or maybe it was all only a dream. The more time I spend researching the rise and fall of America’s first major multi-city urban school reform, though, the more and more depressed I get that America no longer has a real public school system, if it ever did. News from the Southwest this morning reminds me that we lost our public-school ambitions somewhere along the way.

Here’s the latest: Chalkbeat describes a newish network of charter schools that started in a Texas border town. The IDEA network (originally “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement”) serves mostly low-income students, mostly Latinx. As have many charter networks, it claims big successes in improving student test scores and sending graduates to college. And as have many charter networks, it has attracted criticism for siphoning off lower-need students from public schools and for its dictatorial methods.

And from a historian’s point of view, there’s the rub. As I’m finding out these days as I research the Lancasterian mania in the early decades of the 1800s, old dreams for America’s public schools were big. Lancasterian schools were lauded for improving basic academic skills of low-income students, but they fell apart because low-income parents wanted something more than mere holding pens for their children. They wanted their children to attend schools in which they could mix and mingle with students of all economic backgrounds; schools that did not segregate off poor children to be yelled at and drilled with basic academic skills.

Public schools were supposed to do all that. They were supposed to be schools for the entire public, not only those who could afford tuition. Most important, they were intended to do more than train students to do basic math or literacy. Public schools were supposed to teach the young public–all the young public–that they were America. They were meant to attract all students together, not segregate out the poor for harsher treatment.

Lancasterian schools didn’t do all that. And today’s crop of “no-excuses” charter schools for low-income students seems to have smaller ambitions as well. Some charter schools hope to yell at students to make them be better citizens. Students sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula.

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.


Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out [sic] to be) with as little noise as possible.

That was what “no excuses” looked like 200 years ago. Public schools—REAL public schools—were supposed to be different. They were intended to be a meeting ground for all children. They were the embodiment of an American educational dream—a place where rich and poor could learn together, with equal chances for all.

I don’t blame parents and students for choosing the best available school. Not at all. But I lament the loss of the bigger dream, the hope that public schools would bring the entire public together.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  October 7, 2018

    First, kids don’t have to go to these schools, they (or their parents) choose to. Second, public school students are already largely segregated by neighborhood. Poor kids don’t go to school in rich neighborhoods, white kids in black neighborhoods, etc. So I’m not sure what you think these schools are spoiling.

    The “coming together” model is essentially a one-size-fits-all model: lump all students together in industrial-size campuses and make them all learn the same things. I don’t understand why that idea should have such a strong appeal. As a student in an industrial-size, prison-like high school, I would have jumped at the chance to attend school in a smaller, more intimate setting.

    Regarding the type of discipline they impose, it’s easy for someone raised by well-educated, middle- or upper-class parents to talk about how inappropriate or masochistic (or racist?) it is to impose such strict disciplinary practices on lower-income students, but speaking for myself, I definitely wasn’t learning self-discipline at home, and I sure as hell could have used it. Where else was I supposed to get it? Do we imagine it just falls from the sky?

    By the way, thinking back on my high school experience, it occurs to me that the strict disciplinary methods used in these new schools serves another purpose: It protects the kids from being harassed and distracted by each other. Again someone raised in a middle-class neighborhood might not know what it’s like in a school where gangs are active and to be subjected to their harassment and intimidation, and where drugs are a temptation. It would be great to be able to eliminate these problems by providing all poor families with a middle-class income, but failing that, maybe strict regimentation is the most effective way of providing an environment relatively free of harassment and distraction, which kids from nicer neighborhoods take for granted.

    In other words, people who don’t come from low-income backgrounds may think that strict discipline and regimentation are unnecessary and discriminatory, because they come from a place where these things aren’t necessary in order to provide an environment conducive to distraction-free learning, where most students and their parents take their education seriously, and where gangs and crime in school are not an issue. Apparently to a lot of poor families, the regimentation is worth putting up with if it eliminates some of the distractions their kids have to deal with and enables them to focus on their studies.

    • Good points. We could take them even one step further. If I put on my ‘charter-advocate’ hat, I would say that today’s “no-excuses” schools are fundamentally different from Lancasterian schools in the early 1800s for one enormous reason. Whereas Lancaster only promised basic academic skills, today’s charter leaders insist they want to prepare students for college and professional success. Two hundred years ago, low-income parents recoiled from the reputation of Lancaster’s schools, thinking the schools would not help their children advance up the economic ladder. Today, parents might love the neo-Lancasterian approach of these no-excuses charter schools because today’s schools include a promise of economic advancement.

  2. Public schools—REAL public schools—were supposed to be different. They were intended to be a meeting ground for all children. They were the embodiment of an American educational dream—a place where rich and poor could learn together, with equal chances for all.

    Perhaps that’s the ideal. But it has always seemed unrealistic.

    My own view is more pragmatic, based on what can be achieved. I see the role of public schools as providing a basic education to all. It is to our economic benefit, if the public at large has some sort of basic education.

    Anything beyond that is going to depend on engagement of the family and child. Being a student is hard work. And that requires motivation. The government is not a very good motivator. Some teachers can be excellent motivators, but there aren’t nearly enough of that kind of teacher. So we have to make do with what motivation we can get. And the best of it will come from the family.

    From what I observe, it seems that all attempts to improve education will work well in the laboratory but fail once they go into production. And I think that’s the same issue. Being part of an experimental program is motivational. Being part of a production system isn’t.

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