Debate The Issues, But Remember That NYC Public Education Has A Heritage of Success
The past year brought a raft of new ideas for improving the city’s public education system, including paying students for good performance and appointing an economist to help close the achievement gap. As one might expect, much debate has ensued over the merits of these ideas. The quality of public education in our city continues to be a vexing and contentious issue. For some, the seeming intractability of the problem breeds apathy and inaction. Yet wherever one stands on the issues and concerns that form the crux of the current debate, we in New York City should never doubt that effective public education is possible. Indeed, it is a part of our legacy.
There is no better example of this heritage than the African Free School that was established in New York more than two centuries ago. From 1787 to 1835, this unique institution educated thousands of black children, many of them the progeny of slaves. Its founders were influential people like Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, who in the earliest days of our republic, believed that American children, irrespective of race or family background, should receive a quality public education. Graduates of the school went on to become pioneering figures in medicine, religion and the arts. They served as leaders in a nascent community of free African-Americans. And they improved life for generations-to-follow by working to abolish slavery and achieve civil rights.
The history and records of this groundbreaking school, newly recovered by the New-York Historical Society, offer a telling portrait. The materials underscore the focus and discipline the school instilled and the importance of creating a curriculum and approach that addressed the circumstances of its student body. And while some aspects of the technique clearly wouldn’t fly today—including corporal punishment—one is amazed at the progressive ideas that were utilized.
Three concepts in particular were as forward thinking as anything being proposed today. Consider that a century and a half ago the African Free School:
•Created a model of childhood that stressed the child’s potential and gave students responsibility. The school placed the burden on children to learn. Advanced students both instructed younger students and maintained discipline. Investing students with responsibility helped turn them into leaders.
•Taught the basics, but also provided students the vocabulary and strategies they would need for “real life.” Students learned to read, write, calculate, draw and speak well. But they were also taught skills important to securing jobs—cartography and navigation—as well as skills essential entering the middle class.
•Encouraged good behavior and good grades by rewarding students. The school at times distributed tickets that could be saved and redeemed for prizes. At other times, students were given gifts directly.
•Occupied students for an extended day of diverse activities. The school day ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a two-hour break at midday. A typical morning session had eight periods heavy on composition, reading, vocabulary and math.
The nature of the African Free School’s approach suggests that the challenges we face are not new. Clearly, educators then were working to engage their students, increase the relevance of their lessons, create a community within the institution and minimize their time on the streets, all while giving each child the fundamentals necessary to reach his potential.
And the school succeeded. One product was the nation’s first black physician, James McCune Smith, who 142 years ago looked back on his public school education there and concluded that it was the single most important factor in his success. Smith, by his own description, “the son of a slave… and a self-emancipated bond-woman,” wrote that “in all cases,” the school-house and school-days “settle the permanent characteristics, establish the level [and] gauge the relative mental and moral power” of a child’s adulthood.
If New York City, in an era of slavery, poverty and deprivation that is hard to imagine today, was able to provide such a foundation in a public school for the remarkable Dr. Smith, who are we to doubt that we are capable of the feat today?
Louise Mirrer is president of the New York Historical Society.#