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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.