Posted in Course Syllabus, Schooling, Theory

Course: School — What Is It Good For?

This post is the syllabus of a course I taught for years at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.  It’s called School — What Is It Good For? I’ve copied the syllabus below, to give you an idea of what it’s all about.  The aim is to provide a guided exploration of alternative theories of the social functions that schools serve, especially in American society.  Along the way it tries to lay out a framework for thinking about school theories in general.

The best way to use the syllabus is to download the syllabus here in the form of a Word document.  This document includes embedded links to:

  • most of the readings for the class (including articles and out-of-print books)

  • tips for approaching each week’s assigned readings

  • my notes for shaping the discussion in each class

Please feel free to use this course any way you would like.  You can take it as a self-guided class, either by yourself or as part of a group.  You can draw on it to teach your own course.  Or you can just use it as a prompt to explore some interesting readings in theories of schooling.  Enjoy.

School – What Is It Good For?

 David Labaree

Web: http://www.stanford.edu/~dlabaree/

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

Course Description

This course seeks to answer the question in its title:  School – What Is It Good For?  Unlike the song from the 70s that inspired the course’s title (“War – What Is It Good For?”), the answer to this question is not necessarily “absolutely nothing,” although that will remain a distinct possibility throughout the class.  In practice, the course will focus on a series of books and a few articles in which authors try to establish claims about the particular purposes, functions, impacts, and social roles of schooling – especially in relation to American society.  The class draws in part from the issues that frame my book, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling.

The course addresses two broad domains of interest to education students:

It explores the big questions that underlie Educational Policy.

It explores a wide range of approaches to Educational Theory.

Americans have a long history of pinning their hopes on education as the way to realize compelling social ideals and solve challenging social problems.  We want schools to promote civic virtue, economic productivity, and social mobility; to alleviate inequalities in race, class, and gender; to improve health, reduce crime, and protect the environment.  So we assign these social missions to schools, and educators gamely accept responsibility for carrying them out.  When the school system inevitably fall far short of these goals, we initiate a wave of school reform to realign the institution with its social goals and ramp up its effectiveness in attaining them.  In this class, we explore the social mixed aims and mixed outcomes of America’s puzzling, estimable, gargantuan, and ineffectual system of public education.

At its heart, this is a story grounded in paradox.  Schooling is perhaps the greatest institutional success in American history.  It grew from a modest and marginal position in the 18th century to the very center of American life in the 21st, where it consumes an enormous share of the time and treasure of both government and citizenry.  Key to its institutional success has been its ability to embrace and embody the social goals that have been imposed upon it.  Yet, in spite of continually recurring efforts, schooling in the U.S. has been remarkably unsuccessful at realizing these goals in the social outcomes of education.  In spite of everything, however, we keep pushing new tasks onto our schools, less as a rational investment in achieving social results than as a matter of faith.  The readings in this course explore the kinds of goals, ideals, problem-solving roles, and visions of the good society that we have imposed on schooling over the years.  They also explore the extent to which schools have been able to realize these aims, and if not, what kinds of effects they have exerted on American life.

Consider the following Policy Visions of what schools should do and Educational Theories about what they can and can’t do, with course readings that will explore each of these issues:

Produce citizens for a democracy:  Gutmann

Create human capital and promote economic growth:  Goldin & Katz, Kristof

Teach core values in American society:  Dreeben

Reproduce an unequal social structure:  Bowles & Gintis

Serve the interests of educational consumers:  Collins

Promote social mobility and social equality:  Boudon, Hertz, Goldin & Katz, Kristof

Promote disciplinary power:  Foucault

Teach core values within a religious community: Peshkin

Promote a mix of social access and social advantage:  Labaree

Readings

            Assigned Books:  We will read the following eight books.  Bowles & Gintis, Collins, and Dreeben are not in print and are through links to a Google drive (marked with an *).

Gutmann, Amy.  (1987).  Democratic education.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goldin, Claudia & Katz, Lawrence F. (2008). The race between education and technology. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

*Dreeben, Robert. (1968). On what is learned in school. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.  Part 1, part 2, part 3.

*Bowles, Samuel & Gintis, Herbert. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America. New York: Basic Books. Chapters 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-9, 10-11.

*Collins, Randall. (1979). The credential society: An historical sociology of education and stratification. New York: Academic Press.  Chapters 1-2, 3-5, 6, 7.

Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (trans. by Alan Sheridan). New York: Pantheon.

Peshkin, Alan.  (1986).  God’s choice, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

* = not in print; available through link to a Google drive

            Assigned Articles:  We will also read a small number of articles and book chapters, which will be available to students through links to a Google drive.

Course Outline

             Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.  Just click on the assigned reading to link to the document on Google drive.  For every week you can click on a link to get tips for doing that week’s readings.  In addition, you can link to my notes for that week’s class.

Week 1:  Introduction to Course

Tips for week 1 readings

How to read efficiently: skimming

*Labaree, David F. (2010). What schools can’t do. Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Historiographie, 16:1, 12-18.

*Kristof, Nicholas.  (2009).  Democrats and Schools. New York Times, October 15.

Class notes for week 1

Week 2:  Schools Promote Citizenship

Tips for week 2 readings

Gutmann, Amy.  (1987).  Democratic education.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Chapter 2 – Founding the American school system.  In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class notes for week 2

Week 3:  Schools Promote Human Capital Production

Tips for week 3 readings

Goldin, Claudia & Katz, Lawrence F. (2008). The race between education and technology. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Chapter 7 – The limits of school learning.  In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class notes for week 3

Week 4:  Schools Teach Core Values of Society

Tips for week 4 readings

*Dreeben, Robert. (1968). On what is learned in school. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.  Part 1, part 2, part 3.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Chapter 1 – From citizens to consumers: A history of reform goals.  In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

*Labaree, David F. (2013). Schooling in the United States: Historical analysis. In Denis C. Phillips (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy. New York: Sage Publications.

Class notes for week 4

Week 5:  Schools Promote the Reproduction of an Unequal Social Structure

Tips for week 5 readings

*Bowles, Samuel & Gintis, Herbert. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America. New York: Basic Books.  Chapters 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-9, 10-11.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Chapter 3 – The progressive effort to reshape the school system.  In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class notes for week 5

Week 6:  Schools Promote the Positional Interests of Educational Consumers

Tips for week 6 readings

*Collins, Randall. (1979). The credential society: An historical sociology of education and stratification. New York: Academic Press.  Chapters 1-2, 3-5, 6, 7.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Chapter 8 – Living with the school syndrome.  In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class notes for week 6

Week 7:  Schools Promote Social Mobility and Social Equality

Tips for week 7 readings

*Boudon, Raymond. (1986). Education, mobility, and sociological theory. In John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 261-274). New York: Greenwood.

*Hertz, Tom. (2006). Understanding mobility in America. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Chapter 6 – Failing to solve social problems.  In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class notes for week 7

Week 8:  Schools Promote Disciplinary Power

Tips for week 8 readings

Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (trans. by Alan Sheridan). New York: Pantheon.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Chapter 5 – Classroom resistance to school reform.  In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class notes for week 8

Week 9:  Schools Teach Core Values of a Religious Community

Tips for week 9 readings

Peshkin, Alan.  (1986).  God’s choice, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Class notes for week 9

Week 10:  Schools Promote Both Social Access and Social Advantage

Tips for week 10 readings

Labaree, David F. (2010).  Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, remaining chapters.

Class notes for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

As a critical reader of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

If this is the way critical readers are going to approach a text, then as an analytical writer you need to guide readers toward the desired answers to each of these questions.

Guidelines for Analytical Writing

             In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points.  They apply in particular to the final paper or take-home exam for this class.   Many of the same concerns apply to critical reaction papers as well, but these short papers can be more informal than the final paper.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test.  Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.
  2. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.
  3. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.
  4. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.
  5. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.
  6. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.
  7. Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course.  You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.
  8. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.
  9. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.
  10. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.
  11. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  This can be done through in-text citation:  Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Ravitch, 2000, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper.  You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes:  Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text.  (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.)  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.
  12. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.  You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version.  This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed.  Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.

 

Author:

David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).

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