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Mr. Lancaster's System

The Failed Reform That Created America's Public Schools

Adam Laats

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How a con artist "reformer" shaped America's modern public schools.

Two centuries ago, London school reformer Joseph Lancaster swept into New York City to revolutionize their public schools. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts passed laws mandating Lancaster's methods, and cities such as Albany, Savannah, Detroit, and Baltimore soon followed. In Mr. Lancaster's System, Adam Laats tells the story of how this abusive, scheming reformer fooled the world into believing his system could provide free, high-quality education for poor children. The system never worked as promised, but thanks to real work...

How a con artist "reformer" shaped America's modern public schools.

Two centuries ago, London school reformer Joseph Lancaster swept into New York City to revolutionize their public schools. Pennsylvania and Massachusetts passed laws mandating Lancaster's methods, and cities such as Albany, Savannah, Detroit, and Baltimore soon followed. In Mr. Lancaster's System, Adam Laats tells the story of how this abusive, scheming reformer fooled the world into believing his system could provide free, high-quality education for poor children. The system never worked as promised, but thanks to real work done by students, teachers, and families, Lancaster's failed reforms eventually led to the creation of the modern public school system.

Lancaster's idea was simple: instead of hiring expensive adult teachers, Lancasterian schools made children teach one another to read, write, and behave properly. America's city leaders poured the equivalent of millions of dollars into the scheme, built specialized school buildings featuring Lancaster's teaching machines, and offered him a huge salary. In London, where Lancaster opened his first school, the enthusiasm of city leaders was quickly and similarly followed by scandal and dismay. Lancaster borrowed money—even from the King of England—and spent it on fancy carriage rides and cases of champagne. Even worse, Lancaster proved to be a sexual predator. Kicked out of London, Lancaster brought his simplistic plan to the United States. His school model didn't work any better in US cities than it had in London, and Lancaster himself never changed his abusive ways.

Mr. Lancaster's System details how American cities created their first public schools out of the wreckage of Lancasterian failure. In the end, the most important people in this story are not self-proclaimed geniuses like Lancaster or elites like New York's Mayor DeWitt Clinton, but rather the thousands of parents and children who forced urban public schools to assume their modern shape.

Reviews

Reviews

Since Joseph Lancaster's time, politicians have fallen for education reformers who hawk easy fixes for complex problems. As Adam Laats makes clear in this wonderful book, Lancaster may have been America's first charlatan reformer, but he was certainly not the last. For our children's sake, let's hope we heed the lesson.

This colorful, easy-to-swallow account of America's original ed reform huckster is stern medicine for wannabe saviors and would-be rubes. With deep expertise and keen wit, Professor Laats has given us a Joseph Lancaster for the ages.

Between the 1830s and 1860s, Americans in the urban north replaced a network of charity schools for the poor with a more socially-inclusive, tax-supported system of public education. An eminent scholar of educational history, Adam Laats persuasively explains why they did so in this captivating, landmark study.

Why did education reformers in the United States and beyond place their faith in Joseph Lancaster, a charlatan whose "system" of education never really worked? Adam Laats answers that question and, in the process, offers an astonishingly original and compelling origins story for modern, urban public-school systems.

Both a compelling narrative and an insightful analysis. In telling the story of Lancaster's disastrously innovative school reform, Laats deciphers the patterns and pitfalls of America's long-running penchant for silver-bullet schemes for "fixing" education and society. He also illuminates the practical logic of the public schools built upon Lancasterian ruins.

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Book Details

Release Date
Publication Date
Status
Preorder
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
272
ISBN
9781421449364
Illustration Description
14 b&w photos, 1 b&w illus
Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. Borough Road
2. Children of the City
3. Mr. Lancaster's System
4. A Number's Game
5. A Growing Disorder
6. The Truant Plan
7. Public School Society
8. The Next Big Thing
C

Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. Borough Road
2. Children of the City
3. Mr. Lancaster's System
4. A Number's Game
5. A Growing Disorder
6. The Truant Plan
7. Public School Society
8. The Next Big Thing
Conclusion
Notes
Index

Author Bio
Adam Laats
Featured Contributor

Adam Laats

Adam Laats is a professor of education and history at Binghamton University. He taught high school for many years in Milwaukee and is the author of The Other School Reformers and Fundamentalist U.