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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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?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

How do the DeVoses spend their money? No surprise, they give a lot to evangelical schools, like a cool hundred grand to the Ionia School of Missionary Aviation Technology, at Politico.

What goes on in Eva’s Success Academies? At the New Yorker, a look at their “repressive” style.

The last of the Roy Moore saga?

What do teachers think? Peter Greene breaks down a survey about teachers’ political beliefs.

Sex and Jay-sus: An interview at R&P with R. Marie Griffith about her new book, Moral Combat.

It’s not as simple as it looks: How course placements at community colleges lead to higher-ed segregation, at Hechinger.Bart reading bible

Are conservative student groups unfairly targeted? The latest from the University of Wyoming.

Koch Brothers funding “Freedom” classes in public schools, at Tucson.com.

What’s wrong with charter schools? The ACLU charges Arizona charter network with excluding students.

How Do You Keep an Iceberg Fresh?

The pattern is as old as school reform itself. When we find a school that works, how can we transport those successes to schools everywhere? Two recent stories underline the perennial misunderstandings about school and school reform that have always bedeviled well-meaning reformers. A good school is not something we can package, market, and ship. It’s as difficult as trying to tow an iceberg.

As I’m finding in the research for my next book, good people have always made this same goof. When Joseph Lancaster’s Borough Road School in London began showing decent results educating kids from low-income homes, he became an instant celebrity. Fabulously wealthy dilettantes visited the school and gushed. Back then, those folks were actual royalty.

borough road school 1817Soon, the young Lancaster started believing his own fundraising spiel. He promised the leaders of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia that his master plan could work in any school, anywhere. It couldn’t and it didn’t. The mistake Lancaster made—one of them, at least—was to assume that his limited successes were due to the specific methods he was using, rather than to his endlessly deep royal pockets and his authentic love and enthusiasm for his school and students.

These days, progressive teachers fume about well-meaning celebrities making these same sorts of centuries-old mistakes. In The Nation recently, Megan Erickson offered a scathing review of Eva Moskowitz’s self-promotional memoir. Moskowitz is hard to like. Among her many face-palm-worthy notions is the idea that she could package her program at Success Academy and use it to “fix” schools everywhere.

When Moskowitz connected with some wealthy backers, they hoped to help her do just that. As Erickson put it,

They wanted to figure out how to set up a school that cost no more to run than district schools but achieved far better results, and then replicate that model throughout the country.

As Lancaster’s story showed, it has never worked that way. School is an intensely local enterprise. Trying to package and replicate it will always be a losing proposition.

Don’t believe it?

Consider the story told this week by curmudgucrat Peter Greene. Greene looks at the deterioration of the AltSchool program. This intensely personalized school program for wealthy families has run into some problems, as Greene describes here and here.

The problem?…you guessed it: AltSchool is hoping to take an expensive program and cut it down to fit a replicable mass-market budget. As Greene laments,

Now that Ventilla has some things that sort of work, it’s time to sell a version of them to other schools and make some real bank.

Those schemes have never worked and they never will, just like wacky schemes to tow icebergs from Antarctica to hot deserts. Since at least the 1970s, attention-hungry politicians from hot places have always flirted with such plans. After all, they say, the icebergs are just floating around. With a little funding and pluck, icebergs could provide nice cool water for hot dry deserts.

Could it really work? No! I’m embarrassed to even spell it out, but I will. When you tow icebergs to the equator, the icebergs don’t like it. They break up. They melt.

What does any of this have to do with school reform? Like good schools, icebergs are intensely LOCAL things. They come about because of local conditions. So do good schools. Good schools are fueled by families who feel included. They are good because of the enthusiasm, energy, and dedication of teachers and staff. Good schools work because leaders make smart decisions that focus on supporting those good things and getting obstacles out of the way.

Trying to package those things up, slap a marketing label on them and ship them to other schools is not a smart way to create good schools, just like towing icebergs is not a good way to get ice. Of course, with enough money and energy, it might be possible to pull an iceberg around. You might even make it to the desert. But what you’ll be left with won’t be worth all the hassle; all you’ll get is a handful of lukewarm disappointment.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Doncha just love that new-week smell? There was a lot going on this week that SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed. Here are some of the stories we gathered to keep you up to speed:

Was he or wasn’t he? Creationists often insist that Darwinism leads to racism. Historian Ted Davis takes a careful look at Darwin and racism at BioLogos.

READING woman apple

Words, words, words…

Evergreen State professor Bret Weinstein advised to stay off campus for his own safety. He had protested against mandatory protests. Scott Jaschik gives the latest at IHE.

Closing the circle: Progressive school dreams result in conservative schools. Paul Ryan harts Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies.

Deeper than ever: Charles Lipson makes the case that our current political climate is more vicious and divided than it’s ever been. HT: MM

Is New York’s plan catching on? Boston announces new free-college-tuition plan.

Another picnic in No Man’s Land: A new Catholic association for religious scientists.

A conservative’s commencement speech without politics: Peggy Noonan tells Catholic University graduates to read books.

What can Betsy DeVos do to salvage her tenure? Free-marketeer Michael Petrilli collects advice from five education wonks.

Will the Trump administration allow a birth-control waiver for religious institutions? Leaked memo says they will.

Thanks to all who sent in stories and tips.