Why Do White Reformers Keep Making This Obvious Mistake?

It seems like it should be obvious. Yet news from KIPP—the nation’s largest non-profit charter-school network—shows that this simple idea is still very difficult for well-meaning school reformers to understand. Why has it taken decades for today’s “visionaries” to learn this centuries-old lesson?

Here’s the latest: According to Chalkbeat, the KIPP network shared some powerful mea culpas at its recent 25-year anniversary meeting. Historically, the schools have tended to attract middle-class white teachers to work with lower-income non-white students. And the KIPP tradition included a “no-excuses” type of classroom management. Students—at times—were required to maintain a rigid silence, marching single-file through hallways, enduring silent lunches, and generally submitting to a harsh-seeming disciplinary scheme.

In many cases, KIPP discipline insisted that non-conforming students be publicly humiliated. After twenty-five years, some of KIPP’s leaders are admitting that such systems don’t work. As Chalkbeat explained,

KIPP was among several charter networks to pioneer a “no excuses” approach to student discipline. That philosophy emphasizes classroom order and obedience in a bid to minimize distraction and raise students’ academic achievement — and has been heavily criticized for largely being meted out to students of color by white educators. Over the last decade, KIPP has walked back some of its earlier practices, notably a punishment known as “the bench,” where students were made to sit apart from their peers, sometimes wear a different colored T-shirt, and remain silent outside official class time.

Turns out, such practices can be effective in the short term. But they build up hostility and anger. They turn school into yet another place for low-income kids to resent and resist. And KIPP is hoping to end its use of public humiliation as a standard practice. As KIPP CEO Richard Barth told Chalkbeat,

“There are practices that we did in the beginning that we out-and-out abhor.” . . . “There were mistakes.” The charter network is still focused on providing “safe and structured environments,” he added, but “that’s very different than processes that shame kids.”

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research about America’s first broad attempt at urban school reform. Two hundred years ago, well-meaning white “visionaries” pioneered KIPP’s journey away from humiliation-as-a-tool.

In the early 1800s, London reformer Joseph Lancaster promised he had figured out a way to solve the problems of poverty. By reforming urban schools, he promised he could educate the hordes of children who thronged the streets of London. Instead of beating students into submission, Lancaster enthused, middle-class white teachers could simply humiliate them. Lancaster’s favorite tool was the “birdcage,” “cradle,” or “basket.”

1810 punishment the basketIn the 1810 edition of his school-reform manual, Lancaster described this technique:

Occasionally boys are put in a sack, or in a basket, suspended to the roof of the school, in sight of all the pupils, who frequently smile at the birds in the cage. This punishment is one of the most terrible that can be inflicted on boys of sense and abilities.

Even Lancaster acknowledged that this extreme form of public humiliation was “terrible,” but it worked. As one enthusiastic teacher wrote to Lancaster in 1812, suspending kids from the ceiling could work wonders with classroom management. As this teacher put it,

When they first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

Just like KIPP’s leaders, however, Lancaster’s followers found out that public humiliation was not a good long-term strategy. By 1817, manuals of the Lancasterian system no longer advocated “the basket” or other tools of public humiliation. Instead, they moved to a simpler system of merits and demerits.

Why? Because when Lancasterian schools resorted to public humiliation, students stopped coming. Turns out people don’t like being publicly humiliated. Back in the early 1800s, especially, African-American students and families refused to have their children subjected to the same sorts of punishments that slave-owners had used on southern plantations.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult notion to grasp, yet for two hundred years school leaders have had to “discover” this truth anew. Which leads us to our question for today: Why is it so difficult for reformers to understand that public humiliation is not a good strategy?

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Waving the White Flag on High-Stakes Testing

No surprise to see Senator Warren come out strong against it. But even some of the most dedicated high-stakes-testers have now issued a new “hypothesis” about the real relationship between testing and student achievement. Seems like we have turned yet another corner on yet another school-reform panacea. What have we learned?

warren on pbs

Senator Warren: Testing is not the answer…

First things first: Just like the new partisan split about charter schools, we are seeing a new era of “second thoughts” about the value of high-stakes testing. Politicians such as Elizabeth Warren are now firmly against it. As Senator Warren told the National Education Association,

Education is what goes on in the classroom; what a teacher has said is the goal. And when a kid gets there, it is a teacher who knows it. We do not need high-stakes testing.

Similarly, formerly enthusiastic billionaires have noticed that their earlier school-reform focus was far too simplistic. As Nick Hanauer finally noticed recently,

We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth.

Now testing mavens such as Michael Petrilli are getting on board. As Petrilli admitted recently, it seems possible that high-stakes testing did not actually improve things for students. Rather, any gains students made in schools might have been due largely to

prevailing economic conditions at the time of a cohort of children’s birth (or shortly thereafter).

In other words, ambitious politicians, policy wonks, and philanthropists have finally admitted that their feverish promises did not bear fruit. Their plans to solve social problems by ramming through school reforms have proven—once again—overly simplistic and wildly exaggerated.

petrilli graph

Hmmm…what’s the connection?

Can we blame them? In a word, yes. As teachers such as Peter Greene have pointed out, there has never been a lack of evidence available to the testers. As Greene put it,

We told these folks, over and over and over and over and over. “Don’t use poverty as an excuse,” they said. “Just have higher expectations,” they said. “Better scores on standardized tests will end poverty,” they said. Also, “Better scores will save your job and your school.”

Even if the starry-eyed testers didn’t want to listen to teachers, they might have read a book. After all, historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued long ago that school reforms are worthy goals, but they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.

As I’m finding out in my current research, too, this story is the oldest one out there. Back in the early 1800s, the first generation of urban school reformers in the United States found it out the hard way. They thought they had found a silver-bullet reform, one that would eliminate poverty in one generation. A new “system,” they believed, would enable a single teacher to teach a thousand low-income students efficiently and economically.

Guess what? It didn’t work. And ever since then, the story has repeated itself over and over.

It seems obvious, then, that there isn’t a good excuse for the latest generation of arrogant school reformers not to see it coming. For centuries, outside reformers have been telling themselves that they had discovered a new system, a new program, a new algorithm that would fix social inequality without upsetting social hierarchies.

tyack cuban tinkering

….makes it hard to plead ignorance.

It’s just not that simple. We know what works: Schools that are well-connected to the communities they serve, with adequate resources to know every student and provide incremental improvements for every student. We need enthusiastic, invested teachers, parents, and students. We need schools that treat families as community members, not customers or clients or guinea pigs.

Should schools always be “reforming”?—changing the way we do things for the better? Of course! But too often, outside “reformers” assume that they have found a single, simple improvement that will revolutionize school and society without demanding a significant investment.

So maybe it’s worth reprinting the list of reminders for school reformers. It’s not new and it’s not original. It has been around for two hundred years now. Yet we never seem to be able to profit from its hard-won lessons. So here it is: For those who think that charter schools, Teach For America, new union leadership, improved teacher pay, or high-stakes testing will provide a cheap shortcut to the hard work of school and social improvement, here are a few reminders from the past two centuries of school-reform plans:

  • Teachers are often part of the problem, but they are always most of the solution.
  • One change to schools will—by itself—never heal social issues such as poverty and inequality.
  • Any school reform that promises big results without big investments will probably disappoint.
  • Low-income families deserve a high-quality education, not a “chance” for a high-quality education.
  • And maybe the hardest one of all for ed-reform newbies to accept: Schools alone can’t fix society; schools are society.

“Some People Just Don’t Value Education”

Teachers! Has anyone NOT heard this ugly phrase at some point? It’s everywhere. We see it in every new TV show about schools. I’m also finding heavy doses of it in the archives as I work on my new book. For hundreds of years now, the myth has not gone away. And it fuels America’s worst impulses.

insecure no students

From season 2, episode 1: No matter how good the snacks, students just don’t show up

Consider a few examples. These days, when I’m not in the archives, I’m watching Insecure on TV. It’s great. The main character, Issa, works for a non-profit that tries awkwardly to provide educational resources for low-income Black and Latinx students. In season 2, episode 1, she and her co-worker try desperately to bribe students to attend their afterschool tutoring session. At first, when the students do come, they only steal the snacks and run away. What is Issa supposed to do? She can’t help kids with their Geometry if they won’t show up.

Every teacher could tell similar stories. How is it possible—every teacher ever has asked—how is it possible to teach kids who don’t come to school? How can we beef up resources for kids whose parents don’t come to parent-teacher conferences?

Here’s the worst news—there has never been a time when this WASN’T the case. As I’m finding in my current research, two hundred years ago African-American leaders had a very difficult time convincing African Americans in New York and Philadelphia to send their children to the cities’ free schools. As The Reverend Peter Williams preached to the African-American congregants of St. Philip’s in New York City, April 27, 1828, free public schools were available for African-American students, but only a fifth of the city’s eligible black kids attended. As The Rev. Williams exhorted,

Brethren, if any of you have children that are not at school, do send them, and if you see any coloured children in the city, that are not receiving the benefit of an education, do use your influence with their parents, to have them sent to these fountains of wisdom. By so doing you will serve the interests of the community at large, and the interests of your immortal souls. It is a work of that Divine charity, which greater than, either faith or hope, never faileth, and covereth a multitude of sins.

Even back then, there were plenty of low-income families who just didn’t seem to value school. This long and sad history has led some people to a tragically mistaken conclusion. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts every teacher out there has come across it at some point in our careers. We’ll be wondering how to bridge this gap between school and family, and someone will say knowingly, “Some people just don’t value education.”

The implications are clear and they are terrible. The suggestion is that lower-income families, especially non-white ones, don’t put much emphasis on school for their children. The second implication is worse. It is as if teachers are telling one another not to bother TOO much, because no matter what, some families just don’t care.

Anyone spending two seconds in the archive will see that this cynical bit of teacher lore is utterly untrue. It’s just not true that low-income people don’t value schools. Historically, African Americans have always gone to extreme lengths to provide schools and education for their children. In Providence, Rhode Island, for example, a group of African Americans banded together in 1819 to build a schoolhouse for their children. It was burned down twice, but the families persisted. As one (white) sympathizer commented,

The active zeal evinced by many of the people of colour, in the town of Providence, to provide a place for the education of their children, and the public worship of GOD, is, in our opinion, exceedingly laudable, and worthy of the liberal encouragement of all good people. . . . The people of colour in this town, raised among themselves about five hundred dollars. Their Christian friends, sensible that too little attention had been paid to this class of community, cheerfully assisted them by their prayers and advice.

The dedication and devotion of countless real-life communities like the one in Providence raises a difficult question. Namely, if parents and communities were so dead-set on providing schools for their children, no matter what the obstacles, then why did African Americans who had access to free schools in New York and Philadelphia not take advantage of them?

I’ve found a couple of clues during this research trip. Consider, for example, the conclusion of one New York African American writer. This anonymous person wrote in the African-American newspaper Freedom’s Journal (March 30, 1827) that African-American kids should stay in school, even though, as the writer put it,

Is it asked [sic], What avails it, that we educate our children, seeing that having bestowed every attention in our power to meet this end we find them excluded from patronage suited to their attainments? I answer, Persevere in your efforts, and when our too long neglected race, shall have become proportionally in and informed with the white community, prejudice will and must sink into insignificance and give place to liberality and impartiality.

In other words, African American families in 1827 were asking why they should send their children to free schools, when no good jobs awaited at the end. Why should they persevere, if there were nothing but fake promises of “liberality and impartiality” at the end? The writer hoped that prejudice would evaporate, but I’m guessing plenty of families were not so sanguine.

Moreover, they must have wondered why they should send their children to schools where the teachers often resorted to humiliating punishments, including hanging logs around the necks of children and shackling children together to march around the classroom. After all, those were the recommended punishments in the Lancasterian schools in America’s cities. As school reformer Joseph Lancaster admitted, when some people saw his schools in New York and Philadelphia, they protested that

the apparatus of logs, shackles, caravans, &c. were all implementations of slavery.

It’s not hard for me to imagine an African American family in 1827 wanting to avoid a school that punished children in the “apparatus” of slavery. Nevertheless, as the stories from Providence and elsewhere make abundantly clear, African American families have always made incredible sacrifices—and taken incredible risks—to provide schools for their children. They just don’t want to send their children to schools that humiliate their children for no good reason. They don’t want to send their children to schools that don’t prepare them for jobs at the end.

So…are there people who just don’t value education? Probably. There have got to be parents—rich and poor, black and white—who simply can’t be bothered to care too much about their children’s welfare. But it is not true and it never has been true that certain types of people–lower-income, non-white Americans–just don’t care. To the contrary, historically African-American communities have gone to great lengths to overcome legal and extralegal opposition to their schools.

From the Archives: The Bad Old Days of Educational Entrepreneurship

More proof, if more were needed, that today’s bold claims to “free” education from the cold dead hands of bureaucracy are not an innovation, but a step back into the ooze from which public schools evolved. As I argued recently in the pages of the Washington Post, Secretary Betsy Devos’s plans for public education mostly consist of returning schools to the bad old days of the early 1800s. In yesterday’s archive dig, I ran across a sad reminder: Entrepreneurship just doesn’t work when it comes to public education.arthur donaldson school announcementSAGLRROILYBYGTH need no reminder, but here’s a little historical background anyway: Before the mid-1800s, most towns and cities had a mish-mash of school options. In places such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, there were tax-funded schools that were free to attend.

In most towns and cities, there were church schools or entrepreneurial “dame” or “master” schools. The former usually charged some kind of tuition but they also usually raised money to pay for lower-income students. The latter were businesses run by a teacher. These teachers survived by attracting pupils and charging tuition. All in all, it was a fine system for people with money or lucky people without money, but it left a lot of people out.

In 1810, Arthur Donaldson hoped to fix the situation. He was a teacher in a Quaker/Friends-run school for African-American kids. He hoped to broaden the school options for low-income African-American kids by raising more funds from wealthier people to open new schools for students who couldn’t afford to pay tuition. As Donaldson advertised, he wanted

to build a School-house, to admit of two schools, for the accommodation of Children of Colour, males and females separate. And as soon as the income arising from said school will admit (or other means obtained) to procure a well qualified person, to assist him therein. He also has it in view, as the school increases, to reduce the price of tuition, so as to make it more easy to parents of children. . . . he solicits the aid of the Benevolent minded, in hopes that he will meet with encouragement in his undertaking; believing it will be a means of laying a foundation for that which may be of lasting benefit to this neglected class of the community; whose welfare he has sincerely at heart; and is disposed to devote his whole time and attention, without any view of any thing more to himself than a reasonable and moderate living.

Hooray for Donaldson, right? Sounds like good news for the lower-income African-American children of Philadelphia. The catch was, these schools never opened.

Eventually, in 1822, the emerging public-school system of Philadelphia opened a tuition-free school for African-American kids on Mary Street. In 1826 Philly opened a second, the “Gaskill St. School for Negro Girls,” and the Mary Street School became boys-only. In 1828 they added another segregated tuition-free African-American school on Lombard Street.

The take-away? Let’s assume Mr. Donaldson had a pure heart and good intentions. He was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends, and he already worked as a teacher in the tuition-charging church school for African-American kids, so he doesn’t seem like a bad guy. As he stipulated, let’s assume that he only wanted to make a “reasonable and moderate living.” He thought the market could support a school for African-American kids. He thought Philadelphia’s wealthy elites could be cajoled into coughing up some of their money to pay for it.

He was wrong. Philanthropy wasn’t enough. Good intentions weren’t enough. Vim, vigor, and smarts weren’t enough. When schools are left to follow market forces, only people with money benefit.

From the Archives: The Best Name Ever

Found this fellow in 1825:

InkedSir Manly Power Malta_LI

…that’s SIR Manly Power to you.

Hello, Philly!

Are tourists like me the only ones who call it “Philly?” I don’t know. But I’m excited to get down to Philadelphia today to start my research deep-dive at the Library Company and Historical Society.

library company phil

Nerd heaven…

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my book about the first big urban school reform in US history. Joseph Lancaster first came to the US when New Yorkers invited him, but Philadelphia was not far behind. In 1818, the state passed a law mandating public schools in Philly (I’m calling it that–go ahead and correct me if I’m making myself sound stupid). The law also stipulated that Philly’s new public schools had to be organized on the Lancaster plan.

As a result, the collections in Philly’s archives are incredibly rich. They include the papers of Roberts Vaux. (Yes, he spelled his name with an -s at the end.) Vaux played a key role in the Lancasterian movement for a couple of reasons. First, he ardently supported the school plan. He was one of the first Americans to care about Joseph Lancaster’s ideas and one of the last of Lancaster’s supporters to stop lending him money. Plus, Vaux’s voluminous personal and professional records provide a one-of-a-kind perspective on the thinking of elite reformers at the time.

readingroomsignature

No cheesesteaks allowed…

The Library Company’s holdings include many editions of Lancaster’s endless “manuals.” They hold broadsides advertising Lancaster’s speeches and school openings. By making my way through all these published materials, I’ll be able to chart the ways Lancaster and his supporters promoted their ideas to the general public.

I’m on the hunt, too, for a specific publication that I discovered last summer in Worcester. Lancaster’s notebooks include clippings from one of his planned “manuals,” but I’ve never been able to find them in published form.

Thanks to a fellowship from the Library Company and Historical Society, I’ll be able to spend the next several weeks buried deep in the first decades of the 1800s. Wish me luck!

From the Archives: If You Want Teachers to Cheat…

I’ll be the first to admit it: I wouldn’t have any idea how to run a complicated school district (or anything else, for that matter). But it doesn’t take much psychic talent to predict what is going to happen when districts put a lot of pressure on teachers to improve a single number. Teachers—being in many ways like people everywhere—will cheat. It happens in this century, and as I found on my recent NSB, it was all over the place in the early 1800s.

Pay per kid 1822

How to encourage teachers to cheat, c. 1822.

As I was riding down to the Big Apple, I was listening to a recent Have You Heard episode about the cheating scandal in Atlanta. You may remember the story of Atlanta teachers charged in 2013 with cheating on student exams in order to make their schools look better. As HYH host Jennifer Berkshire recounted,

it was the longest criminal trial in Georgia history. It started out with 35 educators, all of them Black, being charged under the RICO statute. And that is what is used to go after mobsters. Basically they were being accused of organized criminal activity and when the case finally wrapped up, 11 of the 12 defendants were found guilty. A number of them are still in jail.

The Have You Heard story digs into the story behind those headlines—a story about white flight, neighborhood gentrification, and finding convenient scapegoats for a floundering and biased education system. As co-host Jack Schneider explained, the story was first told as the story of predictably unpredictable outcomes with high-pressure standardized tests. As Schneider put it,

the theory of change behind test based accountability is that people will respond to increased pressure, and they will produce the kinds of results that you want to see from them. . . . The results, in this case being higher test scores. . . . the theory of action was that you would measure educators based on outputs like student standardized test scores and then hold them accountable for those scores and they would respond accordingly. But it’s really interesting that it was not foreseen that one of the ways that educators would get those scores would be through, you know, what is colloquially referred to as juking the stats. There are lots of ways to game these systems.

Looking back, it seems unbelievable that policy-makers didn’t predict this sort of cheating. When all the pressure is put on test scores, it makes a lot of sense that students, teachers, parents, and administrators would all collude to jack up those scores no matter what.

Atlanta’s case, the HYH folks argue, was not an exception because teachers cheated. It was an exception because it was singled out for punishment.

As I found to my surprise as I dug through the NYC archives doing research for my new book, Atlanta’s cheating scandal was also unexceptional in another surprising way. School administrators, it turns out, have ALWAYS made the rookie mistake of putting a lot of pressure on teachers to cheat, to “game the system.”

Here’s how it worked in 1822: The New York Free School Society ran a handful of schools exclusively for low-income students. After a few years, they realized that their system had a big problem. Namely, they paid teachers the same amount whether they taught 60 students or 600. One of their teachers, they thought, was purposefully discouraging students from attending his school so that his job would be easier.

As the trustees saw it, the system encouraged teachers to be lazy. A lazy teacher, they thought, would have a cushy no-work job, a “sinecure.” In 19th-century-speak, they concluded,

The place of the delinquent teacher becomes in a degree a sinecure.

What to do? Like administrators in the 1990s, they came up with a system that positively encouraged teachers to cheat. Here’s what they decided: Instead of paying a flat salary for every teacher, no matter how many students they taught, they would pay a bonus for more students. They thought this would encourage teachers to go out and recruit suitable low-income students. In today’s language, they were pushing teachers to be “entrepreneurial” in their recruitment. As they put it, the teachers would

seek themselves amongst the families of the poor, new objects of attention and instructions.

But here’s the kicker: When it came to reporting attendance, the trustees relied on teachers to keep track of students. In effect, the trustees unintentionally set up a plan by which teachers were promised more pay for more students, and were given that money based on their own self-reporting of student attendance.

I wasn’t all that surprised to find that the system broke down almost immediately. The teacher of school number two promised to raise his attendance rates. He was quickly discovered to have faked those rates in order to keep his job.

What did they think would happen? Just as in the cheating scandals of this century, the attendance scandals of the early 1800s seem predictable and fairly ridiculous. If you set up a system in which everything rides on one single number, teachers will be squeezed to fix that number in any way they can.

Nerd Spring Break!

Very excited to spend my spring break buried in the papers of the New York Free School Society. This group was a key player in introducing and adopting Lancaster-style reforms into its new school system in the 1810s.

NYHS reading room

The beautiful reading room of the NY Historical Society:

As I work on my new book, I’m finding tons of stuff here that will be relevant. The papers are getting me into the heads of school leaders, teachers, students, and parents from the time. I’m getting great material on key questions like these: How did people like the FSS define the “public” for their public schools? How did students and their parents respond to their efforts?

misc files

ummm…

Along the way, I’m also finding those hilarious bits and pieces of archival effluvia that are too good to pass by without mentioning. Here’s my favorite for today: FSS numbered their schools, as New York public schools still do. The teacher at their first school–School Number One–was in 1818 Lloyd D. Windsor.

Professor Windsor wasn’t trying to be funny when he signed his report this way:

Teacher of No One he meant School lNumber One

How to Kill Public Schools

Well, we had a good run. For the past hundred-fifty years or so—depending on where you live—Americans have had public schools. I don’t mean to be Chicken Little here, but from an historical perspective, it looks like Queen Betsy has figured out a way to get rid of em.

simpsons school

Who will pay to educate Mr. Burns’s doctor?

In some senses, of course, the United States has always had schools FOR the public. Even before the Revolution, there were schools that students without tuition money could attend. I’m finding out way more than I want to about the funding of early American “public” schools in my current research. As I’m finding, these “charity” schools had a wild mix of financial backers. Churches, taxpayers, wealthy individuals, and even not-so-wealthy people gave a lot or a little to educate impecunious children.

At different times in different places, a funding revolution swept the world of American education in the 1800s. Basically, this revolution replaced schools that were FOR the public with schools that were BY and FOR the public. That is, instead of parents, charities, philanthropists, churches, and governments all kicking in here and there to fund worthy students and schools, local and state governments committed to provided tax-funded educations to children. Those governments took tax money from everyone—whether or not they sent kids to the public schools—and in return promised to run schools for the benefit of the entire community.

There were big problems with this funding revolution. Not all children were included. Most egregiously, African-American students were often segregated out of public schools, or shunted off to lower-quality schools. And not all states participated equally. New England and the Northeast jumped early to the new model, while other regions hesitated. Plus, people without children and people who chose not to send their children to the public schools ended up paying for schools they didn’t personally use.

The heart and soul of public education, however, was that the public schools would be administered as a public good, like fire departments and roads. Everyone paid for them, everyone could use them, and everyone could in theory claim a right to co-control them. Even if your house didn’t catch fire, in other words, you paid taxes to support the firefighters. And even if you didn’t drive a car, you paid to maintain the public roads. And those firefighters and road crews were under the supervision of publicly elected officials, answerable in the end to taxpayers. Public schools would be the same way.

This funding arrangement has always been the heart and soul of public education. And it is on the chopping block. Queen Betsy recently proposed a five-billion dollar federal tax-credit scholarship scheme. Like the tax-credit scholarship programs that already exist in eighteen states, this plan would allow taxpayers to claim a credit for donations to certain non-profit organizations that would then send the money to private schools.

In some cases, donors can claim up to 100% of their donations back. For every dollar they “donate,” that is, they get a full dollar rebated from their tax bills. Tax-credit scholarship schemes serve to divert tax money from public education—administered by the public—to private schools without any public oversight.

[Confused? Me, too. For more on the ins and outs of tax-credit scholarships, check out this episode of Have You Heard, featuring the explanations of Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.]

lancaster friend of the poor

Back to this future?

What’s the big deal? In essence, these schemes return us to the world before the public-education $$$ revolution. They return us to the world Joseph Lancaster knew so well in the first decades of the 1800s, where funding for schools was an impossibly tangled mess. Back then, parents who could afford it could send their kids to great schools. Parents who couldn’t had to hope their kids might get lucky and attract the attention of a wealthy philanthropist or a church-run charity program. They had to hope that a mix of government money, private tuition, church support, and philanthropist largesse could support their kids’ educations.

By allowing taxpayers to pick and choose whether or not to support public education, Queen Betsy’s proposal takes us back to those bad old days. Are we really ready to throw in the towel on public education? Ready to return to the old system, with “charity” schools run FOR the public by wealthy benefactors who wouldn’t send their own kids there?

The Brave New World of “Workforce Preparation”

You almost feel bad for her. Queen Betsy’s ideas about ed history seem so rudimentary that it is almost too easy for historians such as Jack Schneider to tee off on her. Prof. Schneider pointed out recently how shoddy DeVos’s ideas about “workforce preparation” are. If we wanted to, though—if some sort of culture-war mercy rule didn’t kick in—we could take the critique one step creepier.

system show slates

When the whistle blows, Show Slates!

As Prof. Schneider notes, Sec’y DeVos has long asserted that today’s schools are trapped in an outdated “factory” mindset, that schools today were created to train assembly line workers. Instead, DeVos likes to say, we need schools that prepare students for today’s workforce. As Prof. Schneider writes,

DeVos’s solution is misguided in part because it’s based on a fabricated story. The actual history of workplace training in American schools is far less convenient for her reform agenda.

Nineteenth-century public education, Prof. Schneider says, was always about much more than just training factory workers. As Schneider puts it,

schools were intended to foster civic virtue, Americanize immigrants, and inculcate dominant values. But vocational preparation was not a common objective.

True enough. But as Prof. Schneider is well aware, there has been a long tradition of public schooling that makes Queen Betsy’s promise of “workforce preparation” sound even worse. In a sense, Sec’y DeVos isn’t wrong about nineteenth-century schooling. There WAS an element of vocational training to it, but that history doesn’t make her promises of “workforce preparation” any more enticing.

These days, I’m studying Joseph Lancaster and the earliest roots of America’s public school systems. His vision of “Workforce Preparation” is no one’s idea of good schooling, not even Queen Betsy.

system boys one through four

“Workforce Preparation,” c. 1812

For example, one of Lancaster’s biggest admirers in Europe was Robert Owen. Owen is best known in the US as a starry-eyed socialist, but his education schemes weren’t particularly naïve. Among the mill’s children, Owen implemented some of Lancaster’s school reform ideas. Did they work? In 1811, Owen wrote breathlessly to Lancaster that his educated workers made

by far the most valuable Servants.

From the get-go, “Workforce Preparation” has been about taming disobedient poor children, coercing them into accepting timetables and efficiency goals. It has been about turning “worthless” “despicable” “benighted” children into “valuable Servants.”

It wasn’t just Robert Owen. Consider the testimony of another enthusiastic Lancasterian teacher in 1812:

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children. [Emphasis added.]

What was this “cradle” he referred to? The “cradle” was one of the names Lancasterians gave to their trademark disciplinary device. It was also called a “birdcage” or a “sack” or the “basket.” Students were put into a kind of cage, then suspended by a rope above the large classroom. Often, a sign would prominently display the student’s alleged misdeeds. Other students were positively encouraged to mock and tease the caged student.

A ha, Queen Betsy might say, this history makes my point. These outdated factory-style teaching methods are exactly what we are trying to “disrupt.” And that is where she misses the boat most egregiously. Between roughly 1810 and 1840, Lancaster’s reform ideas were the biggest thing going in American reform thinking. They were all about “workforce preparation.” And they were based squarely on the idea that poor children could be non-violently coerced into being better factory workers, more “valuable Servants.”

As Prof. Schneider points out, by the later nineteenth century reformers had recognized some of the shortcomings of thinking about schools as sites of “workforce preparation.” They had moved away from the coercion and punch-clock discipline of Lancaster’s factory schools. By calling for a return to the days when schools focused on squeezing students to fit the needs of the economy, Queen Betsy is calling—seemingly blithely unaware—for a return to the very factory model she claims to want to disrupt.