Why Do We Keep Falling for School Scams?

It was a very depressing story. When the New York Times broke the ugly truth about Louisiana’s T.M. Landry school, the real question was why so many people believed the lies of the school’s leaders. Today, Will Stancil connects the dots. And as I’m arguing in my new book, this scam is no exception; it is the oldest story in the checkered history of American school reform.

Lecture flyer 1

Magic-bean level school reform, c. 1834.

You’ve heard the story by now. T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in small-town Louisiana seemed to have found the magic recipe. Its viral videos told the heart-warming stories of low-income African American students who beat the odds and went to elite universities such as Harvard and Princeton.

It didn’t take long for the sad other shoe to drop. As the New York Times reported,

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.

We make a mistake if we just shake our heads and lament the gruesome conditions of this single scam school. The real problem is much deeper.  Given the remarkable claims of the school’s leaders, Will Stancil asked recently, why did so many of us believe them for so long? As he puts it, all of us need to take a hard look at ourselves. Americans treasured the unbelievable success stories coming out of T.M. Landry, Stancil writes,

because it offered something that a lot of people wanted to believe. Their viral videos told a story of black children magically beating the odds. . . . people took solace in the idea that such a transformation was possible, and moved on.

Other commentators have made similar points. As Casey Gerald noted recently,

When we highlight those few against-all-odds stories, we send the message that all it takes to succeed is grit and resilience and willpower.

For those who hope that the right school reform can offer a quick and easy fix to social inequality, the reality gets even worse. As I’m finding in the research for my current book, America’s head-in-the-sand addiction to Horatio Alger stories has always been a problem.

Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster promised America’s elites a T.M. Landry-style solution to their burgeoning urban anxieties. As one industrial leader fretted in 1817, new cities and factories threatened to become

disgusting exhibitions of human depravity and wretchedness.

If they had the right schools, however, all could be well. As this industrialist explained, with only a small financial investment, American cities could install Lancasterian schools,

where good instruction will secure the morals of the young, and good regulations will promote, in all, order, cleanliness, and the exercise of the civil duties.

Just like T.M. Landry in 2018, back in 1817 these promises were obviously too good to be true. Yet, as one commentator described at the time,

The extent of the delusion . . . was so widely and so energetically advocated that thousands of intelligent men believed that a final and immediate remedy had been found for the evils of popular ignorance and that the era of universal intelligence had begun.

Things didn’t end any better for the students in Lancaster’s schools than they did for T.M. Landry’s. In a few years, parents, children, teachers, and eventually elite reformers realized that the promises of these school reforms couldn’t match the challenges of social inequality. Lancaster was exposed as a fraud. School leaders noted with chagrin that their miracle schools were not miracles at all. At the end of his rope, in 1838 Joseph Lancaster stepped out in front of a rushing horse carriage in New York and ended his life.

These scams and cons work because we want them to be true. We want to believe that society is fundamentally fair. We want to think that with a little gumption, a little “grit,” everyone can make it. What we don’t want to admit is the ugly truth: America has always been unequal. Some people are freer than others. Some live in a land of opportunity, but many don’t.

If only, we fantasize, if only there were a reading method or an ipad app that would make this problem go away. That’s why the Education Department pours billions of dollars into “innovation” grants.

As Will Stancil makes so painfully clear, our addiction to these sorts of fairy tales allow scammers to get us to believe the unbelievable. Americans like to hear about low-income African-American students “beating the odds,” because we can’t figure out how to make those brutal odds more equitable.

And as I’m finding out in my current research, it is America’s oldest educational fantasy. We need to reckon instead with the sobering truth: Schools can’t save society; schools ARE society. Unless and until society itself gives everyone a fair chance at success, schools won’t be able to.

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