Mr. Lancaster’s System: A Failed Reform and the Birth of American Public Schools, 1800-1840

The story begins about 200 years before Mark Zuckerberg went on Oprah with Cory Booker. You may remember Zuckerberg’s story, as told so powerfully in 2015 by Dale Russakoff in The Prize. Zuckerberg met Cory Booker at a conference in 2010. At the time, Booker was mayor of Newark, and the two of them hatched a plan to radically transform Newark’s public schools. With Zuckerberg’s Facebook money and Booker’s vim, they planned to turn Newark into a model of what city schools could be.

It didn’t work out.

zuckerberg booker oprah
The people who knew how to fix schools fast, c. 2010.

The problem wasn’t a lack of precedent. In 1818, young London school reformer Joseph Lancaster swept into New York City, invited by the city’s leaders to revolutionize their public schools. At the time, Lancaster was all the rage. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts had passed laws mandating Lancaster’s methods in their new city schools. Albany, Savannah, Cincinnati, Detroit, Baltimore, and a host of other cities followed. They invested in Lancaster’s delusions; they believed their new schools would transform their cities and save them from uneducated mobs.

Lancaster’s system was fairly simple. He promised he could build cheap schools to corral the hordes of low-income children in America’s cities. Instead of expensive adult teachers, Lancasterian schools had children teach one another to read, write, and behave properly. Lancaster and his followers thought it would change everything. Lancaster told the world that his schools would “utterly exterminat[e] ignorance” from the entire planet. Mayor De Witt Clinton of New York City called the system “a blessing sent down from Heaven to redeem the poor and distressed of this world from the power and dominion of ignorance.”

lancaster schools
Keep those toes on the line!

America’s city leaders poured the equivalent of millions of dollars into the scheme. They built huge specialized schoolbuildings. They bought Lancaster’s teaching machines and offered him a huge salary. What they didn’t do was inquire too closely into what had happened in London. In that city, where Lancaster had opened his first school, similar enthusiasm had been quickly followed by scandal and dismay. Lancaster loved to borrow money freely—even from the King himself—and spend it on fancy carriage rides around the city fueled by cases of champagne. Even worse, his first London followers soon discovered that Lancaster’s zest for teaching was fueled by sexual predation. Kicked out of London, Lancaster brought his over-hyped plan to the United States. It didn’t work any better in Philadelphia or New York than it had in London, and Lancaster himself never changed his narcissistic, abusive ways.

My new book tells the story: it’s the story of America’s original school-reform sin, the first time white elites assumed their answers were the answers. Reformers were transfixed by Lancasterianism–it was modern, it was urban, it was high-tech…it was all the things they assumed their solutions would need to be. They didn’t look elsewhere, closer to home, to notice that other kinds of public schools were succeeding and had been for a while. If they had, they might have discovered the achingly obvious key to public-school reform that lasts: public schools need to respond to community needs.

In the end, the most important people in the story were not self-proclaimed geniuses like Lancaster or even confident elites like New York’s Mayor Clinton, but rather the thousands of parents and children who forced public schools to take their modern shape. When Lancaster’s simplistic ideas failed—as it seems painfully clear in retrospect they must—it was left to non-famous, non-elite teachers, students, and parents to create modern public-school systems from the wreckage left behind. And that’s what they did.

PREVIEWS–Lancaster may have died a grisly death way back in 1838, but the legacy of his failed reform is depressingly relevant to today’s schools:

  • At the Atlantic, I gave the real history of religion in public schools, a history that blows big holes in recent Supreme Court decisions.
  • At the Washington Post, I examine the way Chief Justice Roberts mis-read the history of religion in early public schools.
  • When schools run into problems, reformers have always blamed teachers. It’s a story two hundred years old–I lay it out in the Washington Post.
  • With Victoria Cain for Kappan, I tackle the eternal question of school tech. What did the Lancasterians do? Why did it fail? What’s the lesson for today’s school leaders?
  • The pandemic raised centuries-old dilemmas of student attendance. For the Washington Post, I dig up the history. Turns out students have always held veto power over public schools.

13 thoughts on “Mr. Lancaster’s System: A Failed Reform and the Birth of American Public Schools, 1800-1840

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