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.

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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.

Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

It’s not just because of the cars they drive. For as long as there have been school systems, there have been outsiders who have promised radical reform. Today’s crop of tech billionaires is no different and good teachers can only shake their heads and wait for the billionaires to figure it out. If only some of the billionaires had read one book—or maybe two—they’d see the problem with their approach.

In today’s New York Times, Natasha Singer wisely warns of the lack of democratic oversight in today’s tech-based school reforms. There is another lesson billionaires should learn, though, even if they don’t care about democratic input. The history is clear: Sweeping tech-based revolutions in schooling have (almost) always ended up stashed in the hallway closets of schools across the country. There is one obvious and important exception, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out over twenty years ago.

Of course, we need to be fair: It’s a good thing that billionaires devote some of their loot to improving public education. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. He pledged $100 million to Newark. His foundation is now promising to invest heavily in schools. Good for him.

The problem, though, is that such outsider attempts miss a vital part of real school reform. As Tyack and Cuban argued in 1995, school reform plans work when they allow teachers to do their jobs better. They flounder when they try to force schools to adopt tech-based answers to questions no one is really asking. It doesn’t matter how expensive the plan is or how good it looks on paper.

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

Consider, for example, the 1950s attempt to bring better schooling to rural American kids. The Carnegie Foundation teamed up with the US Congress to pour tens of millions of dollars into a radical reform program. Believe it or not, they put planes in constant motion over the Great Plains states, beaming closed-circuit educational television programs to rural schools.

It seemed like a foolproof idea, a perfect solution to rural educational oblivion, made possible by the new technology of television.

It didn’t work, though. It seems too obvious even to mention, but rural schools found that the educational TV programs didn’t fit their classroom goals. Kids didn’t learn anything. The hokey programs went unwatched, and the expensive TVs were put into hallway closets to collect dust.

As I’m finding in my current research, this pattern of well-intentioned, expensive, and unproductive technology-based radical school reform has an even longer history.

Over two hundred years ago, English reformer Joseph Lancaster insisted he had solved the problems of urban education. His new-fangled modern factory model could educate the hordes of urchins that were cramming into modern American and European cities.

No surprise: It didn’t work either. Or, to be nerdily specific, it worked…but not in the ways Lancaster had over-promised.

Lancaster’s reform plan worked—as will any reform plan in any century—when it inspired teachers, parents, students, mayors, and taxpayers to pay a lot of eager attention to their local public schools. It didn’t work when it promised a tech-based anonymous reform plan that could instantly fix any school anywhere.

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

So why are teachers mad at billionaires? Because good teachers know this central truth about what Tyack and Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Like any other social institution, schools are impervious to silver-bullet tech reforms. Public schools will not be magically fixed because billionaires are suddenly and temporarily interested in them.

The recipe for improving schools is not new, nor is it secret. Every good teacher already knows it. Schools are made better when an entire community is excited and involved in them. Sometimes, that excitement and involvement can be boosted by eye-catching new technology. More often, though, involvement comes from long hours and years spent in classrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms, and athletic fields.

The One Thing We Know for Sure about Schools…

This week’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores prove it. When it comes to education, there is one reliable truth out there. It’s not news; any educational historian worth his or her mortarboard could tell you about it.

But first, the news: NAEP, the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows stagnant or declining scores in math and reading. A bummer, after fifteen years of emphasis on jacked-up standards and high-stakes testing in public schools.

Up, up, up, ... and down.

Up, up, up, … and down.

Understandably, teacher activists who have derided the latest test-heavy reform efforts have offered bitter I-told-you-sos. The test-hungry reformers have scrambled to explain the decline. Michael Petrilli at the Fordham Institute retreats to the obvious explanation: It’s complicated. It might be due to non-testing factors such as classroom confusion, Petrilli explains. It might be due to the declining economy. Most important, Petrilli says, we need to remember that this decline might be only a “blip,” not a “trend.”

But anyone who knows the first thing about educational history knows it’s simple. There is one reliable constant in American education.

We can see it in bombshell cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Reformers hoped that ending legal racial segregation in schools could go a long way toward healing racism in this country. Sixty-plus years later, those assumptions seem painfully naïve. Schools are still segregated by race; cities even more so.

We can see it all the way back in the roots of urban school systems. Two hundred years ago, school reformer Joseph Lancaster promised a new method of organizing schools that would solve America’s poverty problem. Hundreds of low-income students could be educated with a cheap and simple monitorial system.

How schools can save society, 1815.

How schools can save society, 1815.

Guess what? It didn’t work. As long as there have been public school systems in this country, there have been eager reformers who have offered one idea or another as a silver bullet. Each reform, we’ve heard, will be the ticket to healing America’s schools and society. We’ve been told for hundreds of years that America’s schools will FINALLY fulfill their promise to end poverty, fix the economy, and etc. etc.

It’s just not that simple. Today’s round of high-stakes testing made elaborate promises. No Child, we heard, would be Left Behind. Schools, we heard, could now finally fix social inequalities and heal society’s injustices.

Would that it were so.

What we have instead is another reminder of the one thing we can count on in schooling, the one reliable truth about education.

Ready for it?

Here it is: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.