OPINION: Guest writer


The greatest unheard-of educator

In a conflict situation, all sides usually have legitimate concerns.

--Marcus Foster,

Making Schools Work

As Jonathan Zimmerman details in his magisterial "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools," teaching history has always been partly political, with marginal figures like (German American) Molly Pitcher or (African American) Crispus Attucks added or subtracted based on political fashions or alignments.

Yet taken too far, history by politics buries our best stories and erases our greatest heroes.

That's why you've never heard of Marcus Foster, the first Black big-city school superintendent and one of the greatest educators in U.S. history. In a life cut short by assassins, Foster secured better schooling for thousands of students. Yet his politics are out of fashion, so his story goes untold.

I became a Foster fan back in 2018, talking with my co-author Craig Frisby. As it happened, Craig's dad was Foster's college roommate (Cheyney, class of 1947). Craig assured me that while many leaders talk big, Foster delivered. My friend David Hardy, who founded Boys Latin of Philadelphia, a great public school in a tough neighborhood, also knew and respected Foster.

So who was Marcus Foster?

Foster's family was part of the early 20th century Great Migration of southern Blacks to northern cities offering opportunities. Though neither whites nor Black "Old Philadelphians" (O.P.s) respected newcomers like Foster, he excelled both in his integrated high school and at historically Black Cheyney University, where Foster came to lead every student organization he joined.

As a teacher, Foster refused orders to use corporal punishment, instead relying on charisma and dialogue to keep kids in line. As an elementary school principal Foster convinced Old Philadelphian teachers to see the academic potential in southern Black students. As John P. Spencer wrote in the only book on Foster, the riveting "In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform," years before Head Start, Foster produced a guide showing parents how to be their child's first teacher.

"Promoted" to leading Catto Disciplinary School for students expelled elsewhere, Foster improved order and academics so much that parents requested assignment to the reform school. Foster's greatest hit came in turning around Simon Gratz, the city's worst comprehensive high school, where locals had long scoffed, "Gratz is for rats." David Hardy knew numerous Gratz graduates who Foster inspired to become educators.

This success attracted notice. In 1970, racially divided Oakland hired Foster to lead its 70,000-student school system. There, Foster built a cross-racial, bipartisan coalition to improve academics. Though he was liberal, the conservative Nixon White House approached Foster to serve as U.S. Commissioner of Education. Likewise, Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo asked Foster to return to run Philly schools. Though they had clashed in the past, the rightist Rizzo respected Foster's integrity and academic focus.

Foster stayed in Oakland, cutting absenteeism, raising test scores, winning the first tax increase to support schools in years, and developing a security plan in cooperation with police to make schools safe.

Tragically, that partnership led the Marxist Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) to condemn Foster to death as the "Black Judas in Oakland." While leaving a school board meeting, the superintendent fell in a hail of cyanide-filled bullets. Foster was 50 years old.

Assassinating Foster proved such a "public relations mistake," as one member admitted, that SLA members kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst to rebrand themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods. It worked.

Marcus Foster was no conservative. He taught Black history back when it was controversial, fought to win Black educators the same chance for promotion as whites, and insisted that high-poverty schools need more resources to achieve the same success.

Yet today's left might have even more trouble honoring Foster, a religious Christian who backed cross-racial partnerships, imposed common academic standards rather than different standards for different groups, and was killed for insisting that learning requires order. These are views that critical race theorists deride.

I end with a call for action. If any Congress members are reading this, please sponsor a Marcus Foster postage stamp, or even a coin (the Foster quarter?). For educators, consider a Marcus Foster lesson. (I'll help for free.) Education professors might assign Foster's book, "Making Schools Work," or Spencer's "In the Crossfire." Filmmakers, make a Marcus Foster biopic. The screenplay practically writes itself.

We need Marcus Foster's heroic story, now more than ever.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. These views are his alone.

Upcoming Events