glyph 130: Joseph Lancaster . schools, education, enterprise, entrepreneurial education, free market education, market for education ... John Chodes, New York Times ... the Lancaster System, early 19th century, child labor used properly ... history, England, Church of England, London, New York City ..... internet, openworld, Mark Frazier


The Lancaster System of Education

let children teach

"Let private enterprise do the job", by John Chodes
Op-Ed Page, New York Times, column, 12-19-1988

Government-funded public education has been a miserable failure. It produces illiterate, spiritless and passive graduates who have neither the motivation or the skills to find a good job or succeed. As a result, private sector schooling is growing by leaps and bounds. There is even a move toward privatization of the public school system in Massachusetts, where the city of Chelsea is about to give Boston University authority over its public school system.

Unfortunately these efforts are associated with small, localized efforts or elitism and high tuition. There was, however, a private enterprise system which, a little more than a century ago, taught most of New York's children — in fact, millions of the world's poor kids — for a few dollars a year.

This endeavor, known as the Lancaster system, encouraged kids to develop personal initiative and adult responsibilities. They worked at adult jobs in school and got paid for them. They learned to read and write in months instead of years. The Lancaster system was controversial and revolutionary. It may offer a clue to the way out of the mess we are in today.

Joseph Lancaster was born in the slums of London. He was a natural teacher. In the early 19th century, while in his teens, he was able to teach 1,000 children in an abandoned warehouse — by himself — because he had discovered a radically efficient, cost-cutting idea: "The Monitorial System."

Lancaster let the children teach, and each child teacher became a monitor, with the better ones teaching the slower ones. As the slower students gained speed however, they too became monitors. There was one monitor for every 10 students. Through this small group peer interaction, no one had a chance to get bored. Merit badges were awarded for excellence. Like today's Green stamps, they could be converted into merchandise prizes like pens, wallets, purses and books.

Anyone who could pay four shillings a year was welcome, including girls. No other system had accepted them on an equal curriculum basis with boys. And the subjects were not just the basics, but included algebra, trigonometry and foreign languages.

Not only could the system be run profitably on such small tuition payments but four shillings per student was a fraction of what it cost to operate. Lancaster did it with brilliant economics. The students wrote on slate instead of paper. Paper was expensive, slate indestructible. One book per subject per class was used. Each page was separated and placed on a board suspended overhead. Each group of 10 studied a page as a lesson. Then the groups rotated.

In New York, the story was the same during the first half of the 19th century. Indeed, Government officials were amazed that masses of poor children could be taught so well for so little. These bureaucrats believed they could do the same job for the same price. They were wrong.

In 1806, DeWitt Clinton, New York's Mayor, moved in by subsidizing the Lancaster system with a minuscule real estate tax. Using this subsidy as a toehold, the city gradually managed, then controlled and then set up a rival system. By 1852, New York City had absorbed the Lancaster schools via the now-famous Board of Education. Taxes rose dramatically and the quality declined as the Government monopolized schooling.

In Lancaster's native England, the story was just as sad. The Church of England saw Lancaster as a dangerous radical since he was giving the "unwashed masses" the skills to move upward. It counterattacked with a monitorial system of its own, conceived by Rev. Andrew Bell. But his way did not teach self-reliance. Nor was it designed to educate or even teach writing or ciphering. It only taught Bible studies.

Backed by massive funding from Parliament, the Church of England destroyed Lancaster by opening schools directly across from his and pirating his students.

There is, of course, no need to return to a system whose economies of scale are as severe as Lancaster's were. But clearly the time has come to once again reverse the cycle. Tax-supported schooling has failed and it is time for another Lancaster to come forward and show what free enterprise can do — again.

"The Lancaster System: An Alternative To Public Schools", by John Chodes

Assisting Entrepreneurial Schools — a project of Openworld, Inc.
Explorers Foundation first heard of Joseph Lancaster from Mark Frazier of Openworld, Inc. In March, 2008 we invested in Openworld, Inc. to further the development of this project. Our thanks to John Chodes for this article and congratulations to the New York Times of 1988 for publishing it. Joseph Lancaster's idea is being recreated through the internet. —Leif Smith
entered before July 9, 2006; edited/updated November 26, 2015

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