Blaming Teachers for COVID-Related Education Problems Misses the Big PictureRoundup
tags: teachers, education, COVID-19
Adam Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of Fundamentalist U. and The Other School Reformers.
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.”