Zuckerberg’s 200-Year-Old Mistake: The “Teacher Problem”

Who could have predicted it? Anyone with the slimmest knowledge of the history of education. I can’t say I’m happy to see it, but I’m not surprised that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100-million plan has died a whimpering death in Newark. It’s the oldest story in ed reform, with over two hundred years of obvious lessons for anyone who cares to look.

booker on oprah

Trust us…we know how to fix schools.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember these two intertwined stories. The first one is the tech-bazillionaire-meets-urban-reformer-on-a-plane story, as giddily announced on Oprah. As related by skeptical reporter Dale Russakoff, here’s it is in brief: Mark Zuckerberg met Newark Mayor Corey Booker on a plane. They talked for a while and Zuckerberg decided that they could use Facebook money to fix Newark’s schools. He pledged $100 million in matching funds to back Booker’s aggressive plans.

Those plans included a lot of elements, but key to all of them was a new attitude toward Newark’s public-school teachers. Zuckerberg, like a lot of his contemporaries, imagined that schools could be saved by rewarding good teachers and eliminating bad teachers. After all, that’s how Facebook made its money.

It didn’t work. As Chalkbeat reports, the last vestiges of that magical moment have been eliminated from Newark’s schools, with a new new teachers’ contract that eliminates most of Zuckerberg’s merit-pay plans.

The second story is a lot older. It is well known to everyone who knows anything about the history of American education. Back then, the governor was DeWitt Clinton, not Chris Christie. The charismatic reformer with the solution to all urban woes was Joseph Lancaster, not Cory Booker. And the money came from the King of England, not Facebook.

But as I’m finding in my current research, the basics of the story are depressingly similar. Consider the situation of New York City’s public schools, circa 1818. The city had gone all in on Lancaster’s reform plan. Like Zuckerberg’s, the basics of the plan revolved around the “problem” of teacher pay. According to Lancaster, expensive teachers could be replaced with free student labor. These student-teachers, called “monitors,” would educate all the kids in New York City without costing much.

Phil manual 1817 show slates

The best kind of teacher has always been the free kind… (from Lancaster’s manual, 1817 edition)

What happened? You could ask Cory Booker. Turns out, teachers don’t like working for nothing. In 1818, New York found that their free student-teachers kept leaving for—get this—paid positions elsewhere. The New York administrators considered some radical options—such as forcing teachers to work for free until they turned 21. Turns out teachers didn’t like that either. The system fell apart.

How could Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, Chris Christie, or Oprah have known any of this? Easy. They could have cracked a book. Just one book. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out two decades ago, school reformers tend to repeat these same mistakes, without giving heed to the obvious lessons of history. To wit: teachers might be part of the problem for schools, but teachers will always be most of the solution. Cramming a shiny new “system” down their throats will not yield good results.

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4 Comments

  1. Lynn Burlbaw

     /  August 18, 2019

    My take on the repetitive case of reforms is few every do a post-mortem when something fails and just moves onto the next “shiny” thing. School folks included.

    Reply
  2. This problem will keep happening.

    There’s a tendency to view everything as mechanism. And if everything is mechanism, then we should be able to use an assembly line system for greater uniformity and efficiency.

    Parents instinctively know that this won’t work for their own children, though even there people keep trying it. As to whether it will work with other people’s children, the teachers are the people who best understand that everyone is individual and cannot be educated with a factory approach. And among teachers, the elementary school teachers understand it the best.

    Reply
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