The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leaders may try to blame teachers for pandemic school problems. That’s a mistake.

Only addressing longstanding structural problems will solve today’s challenges

Students protest the response by D.C. Public Schools to coronavirus safety at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in on Jan. 25. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Public schools are reeling from the pandemic. More students are staying away, with at least 50 New York City schools reporting under 50 percent attendance on some days. Teachers are in short supply, too.

The cause of the problem — the coronavirus — is new. But the approach school leaders across the country have adopted comes from a playbook that is more than 200 years old. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) tried to blame the city’s teachers, saying they had “abandoned their posts” in the crisis. There have even been calls to somehow force teachers back into classrooms. Yet, while politicians and commentators try to shift blame to teachers, much of what plagues schools today is well beyond teachers’ control.

When public school systems started two centuries ago, mayors and urban elites also tried to fix wide-ranging problems — those far beyond teachers’ control — by shifting the blame onto educators. The failure of those approaches and the eventual solutions that emerged offer guidance to today’s flailing big-city mayors.

Some things were very different in the early 1800s, when cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore were just beginning their citywide public school systems. The goal of those early public schools was to provide free education for families who could not afford to pay. Reformers hoped to sweep children off the streets and into schools to prevent them from falling into lives of crime.

But there was a problem: City leaders could not figure out how to afford teacher salaries without charging tuition. At the time, educators, especially men, expected to earn relatively large salaries for teaching fairly small numbers of children. Families paid those salaries directly with tuition dollars. Low-income families who could not pay tuition were usually out of luck.

Reformers ended up hanging their hopes on the ideas of a London charlatan named Joseph Lancaster, who promised he had a solution to this problem. He said he could eliminate expensive salaries by starting schools with only one paid adult assisted by several unpaid child teachers. One teacher, in this model, could teach hundreds of children. As Lancaster wrote in 1801, his system would provide what he dubbed: “School for the Cheap Education of Youth.” Using his system, Lancaster insisted, “any boy who can read, can teach … ALTHOUGH HE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT IT.”

The schools offered only the basics and a cruel discipline enforced by public humiliation. One of Lancaster’s favorite punishments was the “basket,” where incorrigible students were suspended in a cage or basket above the classroom. Other students were encouraged to laugh at the “birds in the cage.” Lancaster admitted it was the “most terrible” punishment that could be inflicted on a child, but he claimed it worked.

Not surprisingly, students did not find Lancaster’s schools appealing. They stayed away in droves. As one school visitor wrote in 1821, the segregated public school for Black children in New York was only “thinly attended.” White children avoided Lancastrian schools as well. As the leaders of Philadelphia’s first public-school board noted in 1821, their “only cause of regret” was that students never showed “regular attendance.”

The elite reformers who had bought into Lancaster’s simplistic solutions for affordable schooling could not figure out why students did not attend. They had invested thousands of dollars in their Lancastrian schools, only to find them sitting empty.

Their first flawed response was to deduce that lazy teachers were to blame. They wondered briefly whether low attendance could be due to factors caused by poverty, such as the need for children to work for wages, the lack of transportation to school and the utter lack of a social safety net for families in case of injury or illness. Even if those factors contributed, however, the trustees of New York’s Free School Society concluded in 1822 that low attendance must be primarily a scheme by overpaid teachers. As they put it, any “delinquent teacher” could turn their position into a kind of “sinecure.” If no students showed up, the trustees reasoned, the teachers’ jobs would be much easier.

Instead of examining the fundamental problems with their Lancastrian approach, New York’s school leaders tried to force teachers to solve those problems on their own. They experimented with turning students into cash. Instead of a flat salary, teachers would receive two dollars per student per year up to 200 students. Then $1.50 per student between 200 and 600 students, then one dollar per student for every one over 600.

Under this system, so-called lazy teachers would be punished when students stayed home and rewarded when students showed up. Trustees assumed teachers would undoubtedly come up with entrepreneurial ways to fill their classrooms. They thought teachers would “seek themselves amongst the families of the poor, new objects of attention and instructions.”

The plan did not have the intended effect. The New York trustees tried it out at Public School Number Two in 1822, but student attendance did not go up. Instead, the lead teacher quit. Morale among the rest of the system’s teaching staff sank even lower. Adult lead teachers wrote letter after letter to the trustees asking for reasonable pay for their teaching staffs, no matter how many students showed up at their schools. Even the child teachers, the ones that Lancaster had promised would work joyfully for free, eventually grew bitter.

At Public School Number Three, for example, lead teacher Benjamin Hart complained that one of his young assistant teachers had been promised a salary of $9 per quarter, regardless of student attendance. The assistant, William Demerest, had not received any pay for six months, so he quit in disgust at age 14. Hart warned the trustees that other teachers would certainly follow suit.

It was only when the trustees made more substantive changes to their schools that they eventually attracted enough students to justify the public expense, though attendance remained low by 21st century standards. By the end of the 1820s, they had added more advanced classes and a high school, as low-income parents had long demanded. They abandoned the cruel and humiliating punishments. And they switched from using untrained underage assistant teachers like Demerest to only trained, paid adult teachers.

Not surprising, no amount of pressure or insult could force teachers to solve problems they had never caused. Only broader changes to the structures of early city schools eventually solved the problem of low student attendance.

Urban school districts are in a similar bind today. By trying to blame and coerce teachers, today’s leaders are repeating centuries-old mistakes. Instead, this history demonstrates that the only real solutions are to be found by acknowledging real structural problems.

Those problems are not teachers, students or parents. Instead, the real issue is an inequitable and unbalanced response to a global pandemic. Students in districts with fewer resources have suffered disproportionately. From staffing issues to school budgets, more affluent school districts have always had more options. The pandemic has only made those disparities worse.

Two centuries ago, failed attempts to coerce teachers led, after protests and struggle, to modern urban public school systems. Today’s failed attempts to foist the problem of a pandemic onto teachers call for a similarly revolutionary solution: a new generation of public schools that offer truly equitable education for all children — with adequate testing, staffing and ventilation to protect the community — no matter where they live or how much money they have.