Why Do We Want our Schools to Fail?

The numbers are in, and they are good. So why aren’t we celebrating?

Here’s the story: For the past two years, graduation rates have continued to climb for Washington DC schools. And here’s the dilemma: Why don’t we hear more about our continuing love for and satisfaction with our public schools?

Most of us like our local public schools. As Gallup polls have showed over and over again, public perception of public schools is hugely skewed. Large majorities of respondents with kids in public schools are very happy with those schools. But majorities also say that public schools in general are in terrible shape.

gallup people like their local schools

We love our schools…except we don’t.

In our nation’s capital, the news has been good for the last couple of years. In 2016, new programs and policies led to increased graduation rates. That trend has continued this year.

So why don’t we see more headlines about the improving state of public education? Why don’t we hear more about the fact that most parents like their local public schools?

I have a hunch that won’t surprise SAGLRROILYBYGTH. When it comes to our bitter educational culture wars, both sides have an interest in promoting bad news.

Progressive types like me worry that schools for low-income and minority students have always suffered from a lack of funding and attention. When we look at the headlines from DC, it’s easy to a huge lurking BUT. Yes, graduation rates are improving and hitting all-time highs, but they still reflect the cruel inequities of our schools and society. As WaPo notes,

In D.C. Public Schools, black and Latino students also saw a boost in graduation rates — to 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively — but they still lag behind their white classmates by more than 10 points.

Plus, the improvements in graduation rates still vary tremendously by school. At selective high schools—schools that non-coincidentally educate a richer, whiter population—more students graduate on time. The numbers are much worse for neighborhood schools.

DC schools are good

Good news travels slow.

The takeaway? For progressive pundits, saying the news is good feels like a betrayal of all the students and families who still aren’t getting a fair shake.

Conservative education pundits don’t agree with that progressive argument, but they also tend to pooh-pooh any sorts of optimism. For many conservatives, the news from DC is still bleak. Public school systems, some conservatives think, are still throttled by sclerotic union-dominated bureaucracies. They don’t really teach kids. For proof, they can point to other parts of WaPo’s reporting:

At H.D. Woodson High School, for example, 76 percent of its students graduated on time, yet just 1 percent met math standards on national standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards. Just 4 percent met reading standards.

Shuttling a bunch of under-educated students across the graduation stage, conservatives might argue, doesn’t mean the schools are really doing a decent job of training students for jobs and passing along the big ideas of our culture. All it means is that union-ruled pencil-pushers are inflating their numbers. What public schools really need, conservatives might say, is an authentic shake up, a thorough-going privatization with charters and vouchers.

In every case, pundits tend to prefer bad news. It’s hard to fundraise when you tell people things are fine and getting better.

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How Do You Keep an Iceberg Fresh?

The pattern is as old as school reform itself. When we find a school that works, how can we transport those successes to schools everywhere? Two recent stories underline the perennial misunderstandings about school and school reform that have always bedeviled well-meaning reformers. A good school is not something we can package, market, and ship. It’s as difficult as trying to tow an iceberg.

As I’m finding in the research for my next book, good people have always made this same goof. When Joseph Lancaster’s Borough Road School in London began showing decent results educating kids from low-income homes, he became an instant celebrity. Fabulously wealthy dilettantes visited the school and gushed. Back then, those folks were actual royalty.

borough road school 1817Soon, the young Lancaster started believing his own fundraising spiel. He promised the leaders of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia that his master plan could work in any school, anywhere. It couldn’t and it didn’t. The mistake Lancaster made—one of them, at least—was to assume that his limited successes were due to the specific methods he was using, rather than to his endlessly deep royal pockets and his authentic love and enthusiasm for his school and students.

These days, progressive teachers fume about well-meaning celebrities making these same sorts of centuries-old mistakes. In The Nation recently, Megan Erickson offered a scathing review of Eva Moskowitz’s self-promotional memoir. Moskowitz is hard to like. Among her many face-palm-worthy notions is the idea that she could package her program at Success Academy and use it to “fix” schools everywhere.

When Moskowitz connected with some wealthy backers, they hoped to help her do just that. As Erickson put it,

They wanted to figure out how to set up a school that cost no more to run than district schools but achieved far better results, and then replicate that model throughout the country.

As Lancaster’s story showed, it has never worked that way. School is an intensely local enterprise. Trying to package and replicate it will always be a losing proposition.

Don’t believe it?

Consider the story told this week by curmudgucrat Peter Greene. Greene looks at the deterioration of the AltSchool program. This intensely personalized school program for wealthy families has run into some problems, as Greene describes here and here.

The problem?…you guessed it: AltSchool is hoping to take an expensive program and cut it down to fit a replicable mass-market budget. As Greene laments,

Now that Ventilla has some things that sort of work, it’s time to sell a version of them to other schools and make some real bank.

Those schemes have never worked and they never will, just like wacky schemes to tow icebergs from Antarctica to hot deserts. Since at least the 1970s, attention-hungry politicians from hot places have always flirted with such plans. After all, they say, the icebergs are just floating around. With a little funding and pluck, icebergs could provide nice cool water for hot dry deserts.

Could it really work? No! I’m embarrassed to even spell it out, but I will. When you tow icebergs to the equator, the icebergs don’t like it. They break up. They melt.

What does any of this have to do with school reform? Like good schools, icebergs are intensely LOCAL things. They come about because of local conditions. So do good schools. Good schools are fueled by families who feel included. They are good because of the enthusiasm, energy, and dedication of teachers and staff. Good schools work because leaders make smart decisions that focus on supporting those good things and getting obstacles out of the way.

Trying to package those things up, slap a marketing label on them and ship them to other schools is not a smart way to create good schools, just like towing icebergs is not a good way to get ice. Of course, with enough money and energy, it might be possible to pull an iceberg around. You might even make it to the desert. But what you’ll be left with won’t be worth all the hassle; all you’ll get is a handful of lukewarm disappointment.

The REAL Fight about School Reform

It’s not about charters. It’s not about vouchers. It’s not about the power of unions or the role of standardized tests. The fundamental disagreement at the heart of our protracted inability to improve our public schools comes from something else entirely. As a recent commentary from the free-marketeers at Flypaper makes clear, this basic disagreement fuels big dilemmas about school funding and function.

Recently, Ian Rowe made some powerfully true points about this tricky truth at the core of school reform. But he also demonstrated how easy it is to draw some powerfully false conclusions. Rowe worked briefly at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he is reacting to the Gates’s recent self-examination of their twenty-first century school reform efforts.

As Rowe correctly points out, spending money—even Microsoft-style bajillions—on silver-bullet school reforms will never be enough to correct the glaring and lamentable differences between public schools for children from affluent families and public schools for low-income families. That is, simply by paying for new school formulas such as smaller schools, more invasive standardized testing, or new subject standards, school reform will never achieve its real goals. Even with new computers or standardized tests, schools for low-income students will never offer the same opportunities and life chances that richer students get.

Rowe is 100% correct that such silver-bullet attempts will always fail because they get the school-reform equation backwards. We shouldn’t think about using schools to equalize a ruthlessly hierarchical society—we first need to pay attention to the reasons that society itself is divided between haves and have-nots.

After that, however, Rowe goes off the rails. His intellectual crash-and-burn illustrates the real dilemma at the heart of school reform.

For Rowe, the real problem with educational inequality has its roots with the culture of low-income Americans. If schools are to offer real opportunities for people to climb up the economic ladder, we need to focus first and foremost on changing that culture. Too many families, Rowe notes, have only one parent. And too many families suffer from immature and even immoral parenting.

To heal America’s divisions, Rowe argues, we need to encourage “parent accountability.” Too many adults in low-income families, Rowe insists, mar their children’s chances at a good education because the adults themselves dawdle in a “state of perpetual adolescence.”

Rowe’s prescription is simple. Schools must change the culture of young people. As he puts it,

Educators can teach students the sequence of life choices—education, work, marriage, then children—that is highly correlated with economic and life success, and that would empower students to overcome substantial race- and class-based institutional barriers.

Rowe is entirely correct that school reform will always fail when it tries to use flashy new methods to offer students from low-income families the same life choices enjoyed by students from more affluent homes. But he is woefully, dangerously incorrect when he suggests that the answer is to use schools to teach children not to be like their parents.

Our latest research, after all, shows that schools are not the biggest factor in economic mobility. That is, success in getting through high school and maybe college to get a better job than your parent had is mostly not do to the schools themselves, but other factors. And Rowe is right that a big part of those outside factors is family structure.Rothstein

The real disagreement at the heart of our school-reform dilemma is about what comes next. By and large, Americans don’t like to talk about the real problem. We don’t like to talk about the fact that some Americans don’t have an equal shot at the American dream. We don’t like to acknowledge the obvious truism that band-aid reforms to some schools here and there are laughably inadequate solutions.

We can’t even agree on what poverty means. For many Americans, especially conservatives and religious Americans, the main cause of poverty is “individual failings.” If only people worked harder and delayed gratification, the thinking goes, they would move up to better jobs and nicer neighborhoods. As recent surveys show, the rest of us tend to blame social structure and “difficult circumstances.” The most important factor in persistent poverty—in this way of thinking—is the way society itself discriminates against poor people, squeezing them into worse houses, with worse schools and worse jobs.

Unless and until we can figure out this persistent disagreement about what it means to be poor in America, our sporadic attempts at school reform will continue to disappoint. Like Bill Gates, well-meaning but poorly informed reformers will wonder where all their money went with so little to show for it.

Can Anyone Really Teach For America?

It’s personal for me. I remember being shocked and perturbed when I started teaching and realized the kinds of lives some of our students lived. It’s one thing to see it on TV; it’s another to get to know a kid who only comes to school when he feels like it because he lives in a house without any responsible adults, where there is no food but there are plenty of drugs and prostitution. Every teacher wants to help. And every good teacher realizes he or she can never help enough–the problems are so big and so overwhelming for so many kids that one great history class seems awfully meaningless in comparison.

A new memoir brings this crusty old question up one more time: How much impact can a teacher really have on students’ lives? Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo tells the story yet again. Kuo goes from Harvard to Arkansas with Teach For America. She finds herself shocked and unprepared for the conditions in which her students live.

At The Atlantic, reviewers gush. They write that Kuo manages to avoid the “every kind of awful” clichés of the teacher-as-savior genre.

Veteran teachers aren’t so smitten. Curmudgucrat Peter Greene laments the stale story. As he puts it,

only in teaching do we get this. Students who drop out of their medical internship don’t get to write memoirs hailed for genius insights into health care. Guys who once wrote an article for the local paper don’t draw plaudits for their book of wisdom about journalism and the media.   But somehow education must be repeatedly Columbusized, as some new tourist is lionized for “discovering” a land where millions of folks all live rich and fully realized lives.

Coincidentally, this week I’m asking the grad students I work with to consider this very question. Given the many structural and social inequities that create “tough” schools, how much positive influence can one teacher have on students’ lives?

As Greene points out, in every generation affluent Americans like to “discover” the “shocking” conditions in some urban schools. It’s such a cliché that the Onion can parody the predictable storyline without even breaking a sweat. In my class, I’m asking students to consider both the question itself and the way American pop culture keeps finding itself surprised to hear the same story.

We start with the movie Blackboard Jungle. In 1955, this movie shocked audiences by its depictions of gang warfare, sexual assault, and unruly teenagers. Oh, and of course rock-and-roll music, which was apparently a big thing at the time.

Of no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, in Blackboard Jungle, an earnest new teacher has some trouble with these violent and turbulent teens. Of even less surprise, he manages to forge positive relationships and get most of them to reevaluate their ideas about school and literature.

Next up: Up the Down Staircase. This 1960s memoir told the same story. In the 1967 film version, we see the earnest and affluent teacher move in to an urban high school. The students are rowdy. They are not all white. They give the teacher trouble.

After some twists—including one frank African American drop-out who explains to the naïve teacher the uselessness of school credentials in his life—the teacher manages by dint of personal awesomeness to help her students get something out of school.

Last but not least, we hear the story again in 2007’s Freedom Writers. In this version, we have an earnest and affluent teacher—wait for it—teaching in a gritty and violent urban school.

I don’t know if you need to hear the rest. It’s the same story told in twenty-first century accents. After significant struggle, by dint of extraordinary effort and personal moxie the heroic teacher manages to connect with her students. The students recognize their own potential as writers, thinkers, and voices for social change.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying these stories aren’t heroic in some sense. Most Harvard grads don’t take Kuo’s detour through Arkansas before law school. And even fewer return when things get scary. And I’m certainly not saying I don’t share the moral dilemma of these teachers.

But I still struggle to make sense of a few key questions:

  • Why do Americans keep finding themselves surprised to hear this same story?
  • Are these really “inspiring” or “hopeful” stories, when nothing has actually changed for most students?
  • What long-term impact can isolated, self-sacrificing teachers have in a hierarchical society?

How Schools Can Save America

How can schools save America? The answer is clear, but nobody wants to hear it. New research piles on more evidence that our deeply cherished notions about schooling and social fairness just don’t match reality.

birch tree on a boulder REAL

If a tree grew in the forest and there was no one around to hear it, could it still serve as an awkward metaphor?

Try it yourself: Whatever your politics, don’t you think every kid deserves a good education? I do. And part of the reason is because a good education can help children secure better jobs. For children from low-income homes, those jobs can pull families out of poverty into the middle class.

It’s not just a myth. We all know people for whom this story has proven true. Like a lot of people in the aftermath of World War II, my father came to this country with nothing. Because he went to good, free public schools in New York City, including City College of New York, he was able to become an electrical engineer and send me to college, too.

As Rachel Cohen describes in the new Atlantic, however, research from Berkeley’s Jesse Rothstein suggests that these rags-to-richer-through-school stories are not the norm. As Rothstein describes,

There is thus little evidence that differences in the quality of K-12 schooling are a key mechanism driving variation in intergenerational mobility.

For people like me, this conclusion is hard to hear. We go into teaching and education, after all, because we hope to contribute our mite to making the world a better place. We work hard with kids from lower-income homes to help them succeed in school and get into and through college. And we do it all in the hopes that students might be able to get good jobs. Long term, we hope today’s striving students will build tomorrow’s stable, prosperous communities.

Is it all a myth?

According to Rothstein, factors besides formal education have more to do with economic mobility. As he concludes,

most of the variation in CZ [“commuting zones”] income mobility reflects (a) differences in marriage patterns, which affect income transmission when spousal earnings are counted in children’s income; (b) differences in labor market returns to education; and (c) differences in children’s earnings residuals, after controlling for observed skills and the CZ-level return to skill.

In other words, good schools can help people move up, but they’re not the main factor. More important factors include the number of single-parent families in a neighborhood, the availability of jobs, the presence of unions, and hiring discrimination.Rothstein

No doubt we’ll be able to have some unproductive culture-war shouting matches over these findings. Cultural conservatives will point to the importance of traditional marriage patterns. As Professor Amy Wax did recently, they might urge people to embrace “bourgeois culture” as a ticket out of poverty.

Progressive types like me will underline the primary importance of non-discriminatory hiring practices and strong unions.

All of us, though, will probably miss the central point. Focusing on school reform instead of social reform is backwards. We might think of this as the “birch-on-boulder” dilemma. Around these parts, a five-minute walk in the woods will show you plenty of examples of bold birch trees growing out of big boulders. The tree’s roots heroically scramble to reach scanty soil. Even though the baby trees started on top of rocks, they were able to somehow overcome those conditions and grow up tall and strong.

There is no doubt that some trees can thrive even in the most difficult conditions. If we want to grow trees, however, we wouldn’t plant all of them on top of boulders and offer some of them a little more soil or fertilizer. Instead, we would start by clearing out the boulders, preparing rich soil beds for all the trees.

Similarly, if we want to help young people rise above their difficult social conditions, we shouldn’t just put a few more computers in a couple of schools or tinker with a couple of difficult-to-find programs that might help a few students get an advantage in their educations. Instead, we need to make it so that all students have good conditions for growth. We need to clear away the “boulders” of hiring discrimination, job deserts, weak unions, and reduced family resources.

In the end, we face a sobering answer to the question. How can schools save America? They can’t. At least not by themselves.

The Pornographer’s Preschool and the Perils of Public Funding

The feel-good story of the superstorm: Super-rich guy allows a bunch of adorable orphans to shelter in his swanky mansion after Irma knocked out power to their group home. From Lil Orphan Annie to The Simpsons to Fresh Prince of Bel Air, we Americans love it when a spunky kid is plucked from poverty and given a brief taste of the good life. And I hate to be “that guy,” but I can’t help but remind us about the underlying social malfunction that underlies this storyline: Instead of hoping for a well-intentioned generous savior, we should be making sure that all kids are getting the kinds of shelter and support they deserve.

lil orphan annie

I’ll help this one because it amuses me…

In case you missed the story, here it is in a nutshell: After Irma blew through Florida, about seventy kids of all ages at the SOS Children’s Village Florida were left homeless. Marc Bell, former owner of Penthouse magazine and board member of the group home, offered to let them stay at his mansion. They ended up staying for a couple of days. Bell hired clowns and bought pizza.

Cute story, right? If you watched only the Inside Edition version, you’d think so.

I know Inside Edition isn’t about hard-hitting journalism, but it’s hard not to cringe at the way the story is being told. Yes, it was kind of Bell to spend some of his hard-won pornography dollars on helping these children. And yes, it was an emergency situation that strained all public services far past the breaking point.

The real headline here isn’t a happy one, however. The real headline is that our institutional structure to provide basic services for the most vulnerable members of our society is fragile and battered in the best of circumstances. When emergency strikes—as we know it will even if we don’t know the details—people in these institutions are left hopeless and helpless.

Without the lucky and accidental intervention of the Bell family in this case, these seventy children would have been forced to endure more days without food, water, or shelter.

And that’s the real headline, the depressing headline, the headline no one wants to see and no one would click on: Children from Low-Income Homes Get Worse Treatment.

Decent funding for schools, housing, and other basic needs shouldn’t be a special plea that sometimes is met when generous individuals decide to step in. Schools should not need to plead for special treatment in order to have adequate supplies. Shelters shouldn’t need to beg for one-time favors in order to keep the lights on.

We Need More Wax in America’s Ears

Jonathan Zimmerman says let her talk. When we defend academic speech we disagree with, we defend ALL academic speech. Jonathan Haidt says let her talk, because she’s right. Stable marriages and “bourgeois culture,” Haidt agrees, really do help people improve their economic conditions. We here at ILYBYGTH want Professor Wax to have her say for different reasons. We’ll make our case this morning and we’re going for bonus points by working in both creationism and the Green Bay Packers.

aaron rodgers jesus

I don’t think St. Aaron attended Penn Law…

If you haven’t been following the frouforole emanating out of Philadelphia, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law and Professor Larry Alexander of UCLA penned a provocative piece at Philly.com. If we really want to ease the burdens of poverty, they reasoned, we should encourage more people to embrace “bourgeois culture.” Such ideas have gotten a bum rap, Wax and Alexander said, but the notions of deferred gratification, stable two-parent households, and patriotic clean living are of enormous economic value.

The outcry was loud and predictable. Penn students rallied to shut down such “white supremacist” notions. Wax’s colleagues denounced her ideas in more nuanced form.

Any progressive historians in the room surely share Professor Zimmerman’s concern. After all, when academic speech has been banned and persecuted in this country, it has been progressive and leftist scholars who have borne the brunt of such punishment.

There is a more important reason to allow and encourage a frank and open airing of Professor Wax’s arguments. As recent polls have reminded us, Americans in general are profoundly divided about the meaning of poverty. For argument’s sake, we might say there are two general sides. Lots of us think that the most important cause of poverty is a social system that defends its own built-in hierarchies. Rich people stay rich and poor people stay poor. Lots of other people disagree. Many Americans tend to blame individuals for their poverty, to assume that personal characteristics such as grit and gumption are enough to solve the problem of poverty.

Professor Wax’s argument tends to support the latter view. And if you disagree with her, you might be tempted to try to shut her down.

That’s a mistake.

Why? Because her arguments just don’t hold water. And because the more often we can get discussions of poverty on the front pages, the more chances we’ll have to make better arguments, to explain that America’s anxiously held Horatio-Alger notions don’t match reality.

In other words, when it comes to tackling the problem of poverty in America, the biggest challenge is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. They want to rest in their comfortable assumptions that the system is fundamentally fair even if some people don’t have what it takes to get ahead.

I’m convinced that the truth is different. Personal characteristics matter, of course. Far more important, however, is the whole picture—the social system that puts some kids on a smooth escalator to riches and others in a deep economic pit with a broken ladder.

Because I’m convinced that the best social-science evidence supports my position, I want to hear more from people like Professor Wax. I want to encourage people who disagree to make their cases in the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Sound nutty? Consider a couple of examples from near and far.

Radical creationists like Ken Ham want to protect children from the idea of evolution. They fear, in short, that students who hear the evidence for evolution will find it convincing. With a few prominent exceptions, radical creationists want to cut evolution from textbooks and inoculate students against evolution’s powerful intellectual allure.

Those of us who want to help children learn more and better science should welcome every chance to put the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory up against the evidence for radical young-earth creationism. Mainstream science should never try to shut down dissident creationist science. That’s counter-productive. Rather, mainstream science should encourage frank and open discussions, knowing that exposure to the arguments on both sides will convince more and more people of the power of mainstream thinking.

Or, for my Wisconsin friends, consider another example.

If a Bears fan wants to clamber up on the bar and insist that her team is better than the Packers, it would be the height of folly to try to stop her from speaking her piece. Those of us who know the true saving grace of St. Aaron will instead happily let her slur through her argument, smiling and waiting for Thursday night. The more games we play, the more often the Packers will win.

When the evidence is on our side, it is always better to encourage all the debate we can get.

The 582-Million-Dollar Question

You’ve seen the headlines: One lucky person from Chicopee, Massachusetts won three-quarters of a billion dollars in this week’s powerball lottery. What can she do with her money? She could buy all the seats—ALL THE SEATS—at the next two Superbowls. She could buy an archipelago of private islands. But, apparently, even with all that money she couldn’t buy better schools for New York City students from low-income homes. Why not? We all know the answer, but we just don’t like to talk about it.

The New York Times reported today that New York’s 582-million dollar investment in its public schools has shown only meh results. Students at a couple of schools showed improvement on test scores, but overall the improvements don’t seem to match the size of the investment.

Why not?

The article concludes that the answer is mysterious. As the authors put it, “nobody knows precisely what works.”

That’s a cop out.

We all know what works: Schools that are part of enthusiastic, involved communities of families, teachers, administrators, and politicians. The problem comes when even the best-intentioned school reformers make the same error we’ve been making for centuries. If we want to improve educational outcomes, we can’t simply invest in academic interventions. And, to be fair, the program in NYC went beyond academics to provide health services for students.

Nevertheless, with apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH who are sick of hearing it, we need to repeat the mantra: Schools can’t fix society, schools ARE society. As long as students are living at the bottom of the economic ladder, they—as a whole, not as individuals—will continue to fare far worse on measures of educational achievement.

Why? Not because they lack talent or “grit,” but because they are carrying far heavier life burdens than students from more affluent families. Schools alone can’t level that playing field. No matter how much money we invest, we won’t be able to use academic interventions to solve the problems of poverty. Instead, we need to invest in schools as part of a broader investment in economic equality.

It’s not a mystery, but the sheer political impossibility of doing such a wide-ranging social and economic reform plan leads us always back to the same conundrum. We put the money into schools because we don’t want to confront the depressing truth that our problems are bigger than we like to think.

The Amazing Historio!

That’s right, folks, the Amazing Historio can tell the future. I can predict with shocking accuracy the path any new school-reform panacea will take. Actually, it’s not very amazing. Any teacher can do it. Anyone who has been paying attention can do it. The pattern is so depressingly predictable that the only real challenge is figuring out why journalists keep buying tickets for the same show. This time around, the story comes from San Antonio.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m working on a new book about America’s first urban school reformer, Joseph Lancaster. It’s not to Lancaster’s credit that his loud-mouthed ego-trip school-reform plan established this depressing pattern in the 1810s.

Here’s how it goes: A well-meaning, energetic young person pours his or her heart into building a great school. It works. Soon, the students are doing far better than anyone believed possible.

Buoyed by success, the reformer will build his or her ideas into a marketable plan, something that he or she promises will be able to fix urban schools without costing any more tax money.

It doesn’t work. Turns out, the thing that was really fueling the improvement was not any specific method of teaching or of organizing schools, but rather the energy and dedication that the community poured into its original reform effort. As soon as the “reform” becomes standard, it loses its pep and becomes merely business as usual.

Soon, jealous hacks notice that the reformers’ big promises didn’t pan out, and after explaining away the failure for a while, the reformer goes into some sort of awkward retirement.

For Joseph Lancaster in the early 1800s, his big reform was the “Lancastrian” system, which set up hundreds of kids from low-income urban families in big school warehouses, goaded by older student monitors. It worked great at first, at the Borough Road School in London. Lancaster ate lunch with kings and presidents and promised his system could save every city from hordes of illiterate urchins.

borough road school 1805

The solution, c. 1805. Never again would urban students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

But guess what: Lancaster’s schools didn’t save every city. Students hated them. Parents hated them. Soon, Lancaster was in monstrous debt and his many detractors accused him of venality and obfuscation.

You’d think we’d learn the lesson, but we haven’t. The pattern has repeated itself with every new promise of a silver-bullet reform that will “save” urban education. Ask Colonel Parker. Ask Rod Paige.

And now we can ask Julian Castro in San Antonio. As a recent profile in Politico reports, the former mayor has built his meteoric career on a school-reform plan for the Texas city. The heart and soul of the plan is to enroll every San Antonian four-year-old in high-quality pre-kindergarten with a progressive pedagogy.

SA pre k

The solution, c. 2017. Never again will students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

So far, so good. Getting every student into great schools really IS a great way to reform urban education. The problem is not in the idea itself. Rather, the problem comes when ambitious reformers think they have found a simple, transferable method for fixing schools. The problems begin to pile up when those same reformers hope to build their political careers by wildly overpromising.

In this case, the CEO of San Antonio’s program read her lines directly from Joseph Lancaster’s disastrous centuries-old script. As Politico reports,

Pre-K 4 SA has posted impressive results. Its kids start below the national average in cognition, math and literacy, and finish the year above average. Its founders have become evangelists for the idea that early-childhood education is key to giving poor kids an equal chance to succeed in school and life. The goal, says Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA’s CEO, is nothing less than “to change the trajectory of San Antonio in one generation.”

Again, I’m all for progressive pre-K programs. I’m all for giving all students a great early education. Those are great things.

The problem comes when ambitious reformers suggest that changing the methods or structure of school will solve the problems of low-income families. The problems come when politicians promise that their plan will level the playing field and solve the challenges of poverty in a single generation.

They won’t, and it seems nearly criminal to build a career by making these obviously extravagant promises. When the politicians and CEOs have moved on to Washington DC and cushy corporate sinecures, local schools are always left tackling the same problems as ever.

The recipe for real reform is obvious, but it is never easy. Every kid should attend a school in which the entire community is engaged and enthusiastic. That’s not easy and it’s not cheap. But as we all know, it is the only school reform that really works.

Anything else is just hot air.