The End of Public Schools

Maybe the dream died a long time ago. Or maybe it was all only a dream. The more time I spend researching the rise and fall of America’s first major multi-city urban school reform, though, the more and more depressed I get that America no longer has a real public school system, if it ever did. News from the Southwest this morning reminds me that we lost our public-school ambitions somewhere along the way.

Here’s the latest: Chalkbeat describes a newish network of charter schools that started in a Texas border town. The IDEA network (originally “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement”) serves mostly low-income students, mostly Latinx. As have many charter networks, it claims big successes in improving student test scores and sending graduates to college. And as have many charter networks, it has attracted criticism for siphoning off lower-need students from public schools and for its dictatorial methods.

And from a historian’s point of view, there’s the rub. As I’m finding out these days as I research the Lancasterian mania in the early decades of the 1800s, old dreams for America’s public schools were big. Lancasterian schools were lauded for improving basic academic skills of low-income students, but they fell apart because low-income parents wanted something more than mere holding pens for their children. They wanted their children to attend schools in which they could mix and mingle with students of all economic backgrounds; schools that did not segregate off poor children to be yelled at and drilled with basic academic skills.

Public schools were supposed to do all that. They were supposed to be schools for the entire public, not only those who could afford tuition. Most important, they were intended to do more than train students to do basic math or literacy. Public schools were supposed to teach the young public–all the young public–that they were America. They were meant to attract all students together, not segregate out the poor for harsher treatment.

Lancasterian schools didn’t do all that. And today’s crop of “no-excuses” charter schools for low-income students seems to have smaller ambitions as well. Some charter schools hope to yell at students to make them be better citizens. Students sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula.

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out [sic] to be) with as little noise as possible.

That was what “no excuses” looked like 200 years ago. Public schools—REAL public schools—were supposed to be different. They were intended to be a meeting ground for all children. They were the embodiment of an American educational dream—a place where rich and poor could learn together, with equal chances for all.

I don’t blame parents and students for choosing the best available school. Not at all. But I lament the loss of the bigger dream, the hope that public schools would bring the entire public together.

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Why Harvard Can’t Be Fair

Throughout American history, earnest reformers have hoped to use schools to level out the playing field. It has never worked—at least never as well as we would hope. Why not? A recent piece in the New York Times helps explains a key fact about schools and inequality that is glaringly obvious yet surprisingly hard to see.

For most of us, the logic of schools and social reforms feels pretty straightforward. When we see inequality in our society, we think that school reform can help fix it. After all, it makes sense that better education will allow students from lower-income homes to move up the economic ladder.

Lecture flyer 1

How to save everyone, c. 1834

As I’m arguing in my new book, this logic has always dominated educational and social thinking. Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster swept out of London to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. He promised a new type of school that would—in the words of this lecture advertisement—

Collectively afford the means of utterly exterminating ignorance in any State, Country, or Nation.

It didn’t work. Lancaster’s schools hoped to “uplift” the poorest children of every city. They couldn’t. Today’s piece in the New York Times helps explain why they couldn’t back then and they can’t now.

These days, as Asian-American applicants sue Harvard about racist admissions policies and New York elite high schools scramble to make their student bodies more representative of their city, there are still strong factors standing in the way.

As Natasha Warikoo and Nadirah Farah Foley explain,

Who deserves to get an elite education?

That question is being debated in Massachusetts, where court papers argue over Harvard’s use of race in its “holistic” admissions process, and in New York City, where politicians are trying to increase the number of black and Latino students at top public high schools.

But the answer has always been obvious: only the elite.

How does it work? In the case of Harvard admissions,

Harvard applicants who are recruited athletes or children of alumni enjoy significant advantages, and these candidates are disproportionately white and well-off.

As the authors put it succinctly,

In our highly unequal society, education systems have consistently found ways to favor elite, white applicants, whether it’s through slippery definitions of “merit,” giving added weight to athletes or children of alumni, or fighting to change admissions policies to schools in which Asians are more overrepresented rather than those where whites are.

Or, as we at ILYBYGTH like to say, schools can’t reform society; schools ARE society. In other words, schools are not external levers with which reformers can lift people up. Schools are all intensely bound up within the unequal mechanisms of society itself. If society is biased against poor children, or non-white children, or any sort of children, then schools will be too.

Teachers Are Smarter than Elon Musk

Here’s a Sunday-morning challenge for you: How is it possible that the smartest people in the world aren’t able to figure out something that has been public knowledge for hundreds of years and that every good teacher figures out quick? As Professor Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly argued last week, the Elon Musks, Bill Gateses, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world can’t fix schools. And though Prof. Tufekci makes a great case, it’s not new.

elon musk submarine

Elon Musk power-tube to the rescue!

Tufekci builds her case on Elon Musk’s petulant performance in Thailand. Like many of us, Musk was fascinated by the story of the trapped soccer team in Thailand. Unlike many of us, Musk has billions of dollars and twenty-two million Twitter followers. So Musk directed some lackeys to build a fancy new submarine-machine to rescue the soccer players. When local rescuers rejected Musk’s help, Musk complained on Twitter. Musk seemed unable to recognize that there was a better way to approach this problem.

As Prof. Tufekci wrote,

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Musk and his ilk do not limit their can-do arrogance to Thai cave rescues. As Tufekci argues, in public schooling as well, Silicon Valley richies tend to think they can plunk down their money, dig out incompetence, and fix schools in one fell swoop.

The Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world might be forgiven if we were in brand-new territory. But we’re not. As the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued so brilliantly over twenty years ago, school reformers have always tried to fix complicated educational problems with poorly prepared prescriptions.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

The technological solution to bad schools, c. 1805.

Time and time again, as Tyack and Cuban relate in Tinkering Toward Utopia, outside “experts” swoop in to fix schools with The Big New Thing. Closed-circuit television, market-based evaluation models, computerized personalized learning systems…all have been vaunted as the new solution. In every case, veteran teachers look for the good and reject the useless. In every case, teachers use the parts of the new system that help them do the real work of education, while quietly packing away the useless bits in a hallway closet.

And as I’m arguing in my new book about the historic roots of urban school reform, the Musk/Zuckerberg fallacy goes back to the very beginning. Back in the early 1800s, a young educational entrepreneur in London thought he had the solution to urban poverty. Joseph Lancaster promised that his elaborate new system—replete with cutting edge technology—would allow one school master to educate hundreds of low-income urban kids.

It didn’t work. But perhaps Lancaster can be forgiven, since his assumptions were fairly new and untested. The Musks of today have no such excuse. As Professor Tufekci concludes,

Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

It’s something we have known for centuries. It is something that every teacher figures out right away. Why can’t our tech gurus see it?

From the Archives: The Past Was Creeeeepy

Historian Rule #1: Don’t let your present hang-ups dictate how you view the past. Fine. But sometimes the past seems so gross it’s hard to ignore. Yesterday in the archives, for example, as I read through boxes of letters to and from Joseph Lancaster for my new book, I came across this 19th-century weirdness:my choice young friend

“My Choice Young Friend?” Why not just “Dear Betsy?” I’m thinking the letter-writer was perfectly sincere. She wanted her young friend to know that she was loved. Still, I can’t seem to get this salutation out of the “haunted doll” category.

creepy dolls

My other “Choice Young Friends”

From the Archives: Look at Me When I’m Talking to You!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m spending my summer nerdily buried in the archives researching my new book. Some of the language oozing out of 1804 sounds depressingly similar to twenty-first century school talk.

In these pages, we’ve talked at length about schools and social justice. Can we yell at students to make them be better citizens? Is it unhealthy if schools for low-income students have them sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula?

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out to be) with as little noise as possible.

Seems sad but true: When it comes to using schools to help children from low-income families, the answers have always involved creepy amounts of control and discipline. I can’t help but wonder: Do children from affluent families ever have to experience this sort of brow-beating and dictation?

The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.

Hello, Worcester!

Things might get a little quiet around the ILYBYGTH International offices for a few weeks. I’m off in scenic Worcester, Massachusetts, studying at the American Antiquarian Society. Thanks to the AAS, I’ve got a generous Alstott Morgan fellowship to support me here for a full month.

AAS reading room

My nerdy new home away from home…

I’m excited. The AAS has seventeen boxes of papers from Joseph Lancaster. [For more about this research, see here.] I can’t wait to dive in. Why, oh why, did Lancaster believe his “system” could solve urban poverty in one generation? And why did so many otherwise intelligent people believe him?

I’ll see if his papers hold the clue.

Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.

What’s Wrong with Safer Schools?

For anyone who thinks Dan Patrick has a solution to school shootings, I have a two-hundred-year-old solution to urban poverty to sell you. As-is.

NYC manual 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

The solution to urban poverty, 1820 style…

You may have seen it by now: In the aftermath to the latest horrific school shooting, Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has suggested tightening up school architecture. As Patrick put it,

We may have to look at the design of our schools looking forward, and retrofitting schools that are already built and what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits. . . . There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entrance and exit.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about school architecture and changing doors. What IS wrong is diverting attention from a real problem by directing conversations toward secondary considerations. In this case, we need to talk about school cultures that coerce and alienate students. We need to talk about gun laws that put deadly weapons in the hands of angry boys.

Along the way, we might ALSO talk about entrances, but it can’t be our main focus. In this case, IMHO, Dan Patrick is trying to wiggle out of a difficult political position by diverting attention from the real problems.

And, as I’m finding in my current research, this sort of diversionary tactic is the oldest trick in the school-reform book. Two hundred years ago, city planners in places such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York faced a difficult dilemma. They had crowds of children in their streets from low-income families. The families couldn’t afford to send them to school so the children were growing up without being able to read or write.

What could be done? From London, Joseph Lancaster promised a solution. He described his system for educating poor children in meticulous detail. With the right school architecture and equipment, he promised, cities could eliminate the problem of poverty in just a few short years.

It didn’t work.

Just like Lt. Gov. Patrick’s plans to block doors and windows, Lancaster’s supposed solution treated minor symptoms in order to ignore the underlying cause. The right reading strategy is a good thing, but it is not a cure for urban poverty.

From the Archives: Bad News for Striking Teachers

History might not be destiny, but it can be depressing. As I’ve worked in the Philadelphia archives for my new book, I’ve found some reminders that teachers have always had to shell out their own money just to do their jobs.

Friend of Man 1 cover

Working without pay has always been considered part of the job…

These days, teacher protests have focused on both low pay and low school funding. As in Oklahoma, teachers have generated sympathy and political power by pointing out how shoddy their classrooms are, and how often they dip into their own wallets to pay for basic classroom materials.

oklahoma textbooks 1

Teachers shouldn’t have to pay for everything, but they’ve always had to…

As I read Joseph Lancaster’s 1821 newsletter I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing parallel. When Lancaster started his career as an educator, he wrote, he visited the nearby town of Stockport, near Manchester. The schools had been terrible until teachers stepped up. They needed better supplies. They needed an expensive new school building. As Lancaster described, the teachers

as a body, offered to work extra hours at their trades, and from their own earnings, to save and devote the sum of five hundred pounds sterling to the proposed building—within twelve months.

Joseph Lancaster told this as a happy tale, showing the possibilities of education if we all pulled together. Almost two hundred years later, though, I can’t help but be a little bummed out that teachers are still expected to donate their scanty mite in order to keep the school lights on.