Posted in Educational goals, History of education, Systems of Schooling

Politics and Markets: The Enduring Dynamics of the US System of Schooling

This post is a piece I just wrote, which will end up as a chapter in a book edited by Kyle Steele, New Perspectives on the Twentieth Century American High School.  It will be published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of Bill Reese and John Rury series on Historical Studies in Education.  Here is a link to a pdf of the chapter.  This essay is dedicated to my old friend and former colleague, David Cohen, who died earlier this year.

Writing this chapter as an opportunity for me to explore how my thinking about American schooling emerged from the analysis of an early high school in my first book and then developed over the years into a broader understanding of the dynamics that have shaped the history the US educational system.  Here’s an overview of the argument:

In this essay, I explore how the tension between politics and markets, which David Cohen uncovered in my first book, helps us understand the central dynamics of the American system of schooling over its 200-year history. The primary insight is that the system, as with Central High, is at odds with itself. It’s a system without a plan. No one constructed a coherent design for the system or assigned it a clear and consistent mission. Instead, the system evolved through the dynamic interplay of competing actors seeking to accomplish contradictory social goals through a single organizational machinery.

By focusing on this tension, we can begin to understand some of the more puzzling and even troubling characteristics of the American system of schooling. It’s a radically decentralized organizational structure, dispersed across 50 states and 15,000 school districts, and no one is in charge. Yet somehow schools all over the country look and act in ways that are remarkably similar. It’s a system that has a life of its own, fends off concerted efforts by political reformers to change the core grammar of schooling, and evolves at its own pace in response to the demands of the market. Its structure is complex, incoherent, and fraught with internal contradictions, but it nonetheless seems to thrive under these circumstances. And it is somehow able to accommodate the demands placed on it by a disparate array of educational consumers, who all seem to get something valuable out of it, even though these demands pull the system in conflicting directions. It has something for everyone, it seems, except for fans of organizational coherence and efficiency. In fact, one lesson that emerges from this focus on tensions within the system is that coherence and efficiency are vastly overrated. Conflict can be constructive.

This essay starts with the tension between politics and markets that I explored in my first book and then builds on it with analyses I carried out over the next thirty years in which I sought to unpack this tension. These findings were published in three later books: How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (1997); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (2017). The aim of this review is to explore the core dynamics of the US educational system as it emerges in these works. It is a story about a balancing act among competing forces, one that began with a conversation about Central High with my friend David Cohen.

The revelation that came to me as I was working on these later books was that the form and function of the American high school served as the model for the educational system.  The nineteenth-century high school established the mix of common schooling at one level and elite schooling at the next level that came to characterize the system as a whole.  And the tracked comprehensive high school that emerged in the early twentieth century provided the template for the structure of US higher education, which, like Central in 1920, is both highly stratified and broadly inclusive.  Overall, it is a system that embraces its own contradictions by providing something for everyone – at the same time providing social access and preserving social advantage. 

I hope you like it.

Politics and Markets:

The Enduring Dynamics of the US System of Schooling[1]

 David F. Labaree

Sometimes, when you’re writing a book, someone else needs to tell you what it’s truly about. That is what happened to me as I was writing my first book, published in 1988: The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939. I had just completed the manuscript when David Cohen, my colleague at the Michigan State University College of Education, generously offered to read the full draft and give me comments on it. As we sat together for two hours in my office, he explained to me the point I was trying to make in the text but had failed to make explicit. Although the pieces of the story I presented were interesting in themselves, he said, they fell short of forming a larger interpretive scheme. The elements of this larger story were already there, but they were just below the surface. Our conversation showed me that the heart of the story my book told about this high school revolved around an ongoing tension between politics and markets, a tension that shaped its evolution.

Central High was created as an expression of democratic politics. In this role, it was an effort to create informed citizens for the new republic. But once it was launched, it took on a new role, as a vehicle for conferring social status on the highly select group of students who attended. Its subsequent history was a struggle between these two visions of the school, as political pressures mounted to give future students greater access to the high school credential, while the families of current students sought to preserve the exclusivity that provided them with social advantage.

At the same time that David told me what my book was about, he also told me what it was not about. As I saw it, the empirical core of the book was a quantitative dataset I had compiled of 1,834 students who attended the school during census years between 1840 and 1920. I had coded the information from school records, linked it to family data from the census, punched it into IBM cards (remember those?), and analyzed it at length with statistical software. What the data showed was that—unlike the contemporary high school, where social origins best explain who graduates and who drops out—the determining factor at Central was grades. This was my big reveal. But that day in my office, David pointed out to me that all this data—recorded in no fewer than thirty-six tables—added up to a footnote to the statement, “Central High School was a meritocracy.” In total, this part of the study took two years of my still short life. Two years for one footnote.

Needless to say, at the time I struggled to accept either of David’s comments with the gratitude they deserved. He was right, but I was devastated. First, the book I thought was finished would now require a complete rewrite, so I could weave the book’s central theme back into the text. And second, this revision would mean confining the hard-won quantitative analysis to a single chapter, because the most interesting material turned out to be elsewhere. In the rush to display all my hard-won data, I had ended up stepping on my punchline.

In this essay, I explore how the tension between politics and markets, which David Cohen uncovered in my first book, helps us understand the central dynamics of the American system of schooling over its 200-year history. The primary insight is that the system, as with Central High, is at odds with itself. It’s a system without a plan. No one constructed a coherent design for the system or assigned it a clear and consistent mission. Instead, the system evolved through the dynamic interplay of competing actors seeking to accomplish contradictory social goals through a single organizational machinery.

By focusing on this tension, we can begin to understand some of the more puzzling and even troubling characteristics of the American system of schooling. It’s a radically decentralized organizational structure, dispersed across 50 states and 15,000 school districts, and no one is in charge. Yet somehow schools all over the country look and act in ways that are remarkably similar. It’s a system that has a life of its own, fends off concerted efforts by political reformers to change the core grammar of schooling, and evolves at its own pace in response to the demands of the market. Its structure is complex, incoherent, and fraught with internal contradictions, but it nonetheless seems to thrive under these circumstances. And it is somehow able to accommodate the demands placed on it by a disparate array of educational consumers, who all seem to get something valuable out of it, even though these demands pull the system in conflicting directions. It has something for everyone, it seems, except for fans of organizational coherence and efficiency. In fact, one lesson that emerges from this focus on tensions within the system is that coherence and efficiency are vastly overrated. Conflict can be constructive.

This essay starts with the tension between politics and markets that I explored in my first book and then builds on it with analyses I carried out over the next thirty years in which I sought to unpack this tension. These findings were published in three later books: How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (1997); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (2017). The aim of this review is to explore the core dynamics of the US educational system as it emerges in these works. It is a story about a balancing act among competing forces, one that began with a conversation about Central High with my friend David Cohen.

The revelation that came to me as I was working on these later books was that the form and function of the American high school served as the model for the educational system.  The nineteenth-century high school established the mix of common schooling at one level and elite schooling at the next level that came to characterize the system as a whole.  And the tracked comprehensive high school that emerged in the early twentieth century provided the template for the structure of US higher education, which, like Central in 1920, is both highly stratified and broadly inclusive.  Overall, it is a system that embraces its own contradictions by providing something for everyone – at the same time providing social access and preserving social advantage. 

Politics and Markets and the Founding of Central High

To understand the tension in the American educational system you first need to consider the core tension that lies at the heart of the American political system. Liberal democracy is an effort to balance two competing goals. One is political equality, which puts emphasis on the need for rule by the majority, grounded in political consensus, and aiming toward the ideal of equality for all. This is the democratic side of liberal democracy. The other goal is individual liberty, which puts emphasis on preserving the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority, open competition among individual actors, and a high tolerance for any resulting social inequality. This is the liberal side of the system, which frees persons, property, and markets from undue political constraint. These are the two tendencies I have labeled politics and markets. Balancing the two is both essential and difficult. It offers equal opportunity for unequal outcomes, majority rule and minority rights.

School is at the center of this because it reflects and serves both elements. It offers everyone access to school and the opportunity to show what individuals can achieve there. And it also creates hierarchies of merit, winners and losers, as it sorts people into different levels of the social structure. In short, it provides social access and also upholds social advantage.

So what happened when Central High School appeared upon the scene? It was founded for political and moral reasons, in support of the common-school ideal of preparing citizens of the new American republic by instilling in them the skills and civic virtues they would need in to establish and preserve republican community. But in order to accomplish this goal, the founders needed to get past a major barrier. Prior to the founding of common schools in Philadelphia in the 1830s, a form of public schooling was already in effect, but it was limited to people who couldn’t afford to pay for their own schooling. To qualify, you had to go down to city hall and declare yourself, in person, as a pauper. Middle- and upper-class families paid for private schooling for their children. Common schools would not work in creating civic community unless they could draw everyone into the mix. But the existing public system was freighted with the label “pauper schools.” Why would a respectable middle-class family want to send their children to such a stigmatized institution?

The answer to this question was ingenious. Induce the better-off to enroll in the public schools by making such enrollment the prerequisite for gaining access to an institution  that was better than anything they could find in the private education market. In Philadelphia, that institution was Central High School. The founders deliberately created it as an irresistible lure for the wealthy. It was located in the most fashionable section of town. It had a classical marble façade, a high-end German telescope mounted in an observatory on its roof, and a curriculum that was comparable to what students could find at the University of Pennsylvania. Modeled more on a college than a private academy, the school’s principal was called president, its teachers were called professors (listed in the front of the city directory along with judges and city council members), and the state authorized the school to award college degrees to its graduates. Its students were the same age-range as those at Penn; you could go to one or the other, but there was no reason to attend both. And unlike Penn, Central was free. It also offered students a meritocratic achievement structure, with a rigorous entrance exam screening those coming in and a tough grading policy that screened those who made it all the way to the end. This meant that graduates of Central were considered more than socially elite; they were certified as smart.

The result was a cultural commodity that became extraordinarily attractive to the middle and upper classes in the city: an elite college education at public expense. But there was a catch. Only students who had attended the public grammar schools could apply for admission to Central; initially they had to spend at least one year in the grammar schools and then the requirement rose to two years. This approach was wildly successful. From day one, the competition to pass the entrance exam and gain access to Central High School was intense. This was true not just for prospective students but also for the city’s grammar school masters, who were engaged in a zero-sum game to see who could get the most students into central and win themselves a prime post as a professor.

Note that the classic liberal democratic tension between political equality and market inequality was already present at the very birth of the common school. In order to create common schools, you needed an uncommon school. Only the selective inducement of the high school could guarantee full community participation in the lower schools. Thus, from the very start, public schooling in the US was both a public good and a private good. As a public good, its benefits accrued to everyone in the city, by creating citizens who were capable of maintaining a democratic polity. But it was also a private good, which provided social advantage to an elite population that could afford the opportunity cost to attain a scarce and valuable high school diploma.

Increased Access Leads to a Tracked and Socially Reproductive Central High

For fifty years, Central High School (and its female counterpart Girls High School) remained the only public secondary schools in Philadelphia, which at the time was the second largest city in the country. High school attendance was a scarce commodity there and in the rest of the country, where in 1880 it accounted for only 1.1 percent of public school enrollments.[2] At the same time that high school enrollments were small and stable, enrollments in grammar schools were expanding rapidly. By 1900, the average American over twenty-five had completed eight years of schooling.[3] If most students were to continue their education, the number of high schools needed to expand rapidly. As a result, the end of the nineteenth century was a dynamic period in the development of the American system of schooling.

The pressures on the high school were coming from two sources. The first was working-class families, who were eager to have their children gain access to a valuable credential that had long been restricted to a privileged few. It’s a time-tested rule of thumb that, in a liberal democracy, you can’t limit access to an attractive public institution like the high school for very long when demand is high. Sheer numbers eventually make themselves felt through the political arena.

In Philadelphia you could see this play out in the political tensions over access to the two high schools. By the 1870s, the school board started imposing quotas on students from the various grammar schools in the city in order to spread access more evenly across the city. By the 1880s, the city began to open manual training schools in parallel with the high schools, and by the 1890s the flood gates opened. A series of new regional high schools were established, allowing a sharp increase in enrollments. At the same time, the board abolished the high school entrance examination, which meant that students now qualified for admission to high school solely by presenting a grammar-school diploma. By 1920, Central had lost its position as the exclusive citadel at the top of the system, where it drew the best students city-wide, now demoted to the status of just one among the many available regional high schools.

Everything suddenly changed in Central High’s form and function. The vision of being a college disappeared, as Central was placed securely between grammar school and college in the new educational hierarchy. Its longstanding core curriculum, which was required for all students, by 1920 became a tracked curriculum pitched toward different academic trajectories: an academic track for those going to college, a mechanical track for future engineers, a commercial track for clerical workers, and an industrial track for machine operators. And whereas the old Central had a proud tradition of school-wide meritocracy, students in the four tracks were distributed in a pattern familiar in high schools today, according to social class, with 72 percent of the academic-track students from the middle class and only 28 percent from the working class.[4]  Its professors, who had won a position at Central after proving their mettle as grammar school masters, now became ordinary teachers, who were much younger, with no teaching experience, and no qualification but a college diploma. (The professors hadn’t needed a college degree; a Central diploma had been sufficient.)

Political pressure for greater access explains the rapid expansion of high school enrollments during this period, but it doesn’t explain why the entire structure of the high school was transformed at the same time. While working-class families wanted to have their children gain access to the high school, in order to enhance their social opportunities, middle-class families wanted to preserve for their children the exclusivity that granted them social advantage. They were the second factor that shaped the school.

In part, this was a simple response to the value of high school as a private good. In political terms, equal access is a valuable public good; but in market terms, it’s a disaster. The value of schooling as a private good is measured by its scarcity. When high school became abundant, it lost its value for middle-class families. The new structure helped to preserve a degree of exclusivity, with middle-class students largely segregated in the academic track and the lower classes dispersed across the lower tracks. In addition, the middle-class students were positioned to move on to college, which had become the new zone of advantage after the high school lost its cachet. This is a pattern we see emerging again after the Second World War, when high school filled up and college enrollments sharply expanded.

For middle-class families at the turn of the twentieth century, this combination of high school tracking and college enrollment was more than just a numbers game, trying to keep one step ahead of the Joneses. Class survival was at stake. For centuries before this period, being middle class had largely meant owning your own small business. For town dwellers, either you were a master craftsman, owning a shop where you supervised journeymen and apprentices in plying the trade of cordwainer or cooper or carpenter, or you ran a retail store serving the public. The way you passed social position to your male children was by setting them up in an apprenticeship or willing them the store.

By the late nineteenth century, this model of status transmission had fallen apart. With the emergence of the factory and machine production, apprenticeship had largely disappeared, as apprentices became simple laborers who no longer had the opportunity to move up to master. And with the emergence of the department store, small retail businesses were in severe jeopardy. No longer able to simply inherit the family business, children in middle-class families faced the daunting prospect of proletarianization. The factory floor was beckoning. These families needed a new way to secure the status of their children, and that solution was education, first in high school and then in college. Through the medium of exclusive schooling, they hoped to position their children to embrace what Burton Bledstein calls “the culture of professionalism.”[5] By this, he is not referring simply to the traditional high professions (law, medicine, clergy) but to any occupational position that is buffered from market pressures.

The iron law of markets is that no one wants to function on a level playing field in open competition with everyone else. So, a business fortifies itself as a corporation, which acts as a conspiracy against the market. And middle-class workers seek an occupation that offers protection from open competition in the job market. Higher level educational credentials can do that. If a high school or college degree is needed to qualify for a position, then this sharply reduces the number of job seekers in the pool. And once on the job, you are less likely to be displaced by someone else because of shifting supply and demand. The ideal is the sinecure, and a diploma is the ticket to secure one. By the twentieth century, college became Sinecures “R” Us.

The job market accommodated this change through the increase in scale of both corporations and government agencies, which created a large array of managerial and clerical positions. These positions were safer, cleaner, and more secure than wage labor. They were protected by educational credentials, annual salaries, chances for promotion, formal dress, and civil service regulations. And, because they were awarded according to educational merit rather than social inheritance, they also granted the salary man a degree of social legitimacy that was not available to the owner’s son. Here’s how Bledstein explains it:

Far more than other types of societies, democratic ones required persuasive symbols of the credibility of authority, symbols the majority of people could reliably believe just and warranted. It became the function of the schools in America to legitimize the authority of the middle class by appealing to the universality and objectivity of “science.”[6]

Evolving in search of this symbolic credibility, the model of the high school that emerged in the early twentieth century looks very familiar to us today. It drew students from the community around the school, who were enrolled in a single comprehensive institution, and who were then distributed into curriculum tracks according to a judicious mix of individual academic merit and inherited social position, with each track aligned with a different occupational trajectory. The school as a whole was as heterogeneous as the surrounding population, but the experience students had there was relatively homogeneous by track and social origin. In one educational setting, you had both democratic equality and market-based inequality, commonality and hierarchy. An exemplary institution for a liberal democracy.

A lovely essay by David Cohen and Barbara Neufeld, “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education,” captures the distinctive tension built into this institution.[7] On one hand, the comprehensive high school was one of the great educational success stories of all time. Starting as a tiny sliver of the educational system in the nineteenth century, it became a mammoth in the twentieth—with population doubling every ten years between 1890 and 1940—and by the end of this period it incorporated the large majority of the teenagers in the country. The elite school for the privileged few evolved rapidly into a comprehensive school for the masses.

But on the other hand, this success turned quickly into failure. Instead of celebrating the accomplishment of the students who managed to graduate from the high school, we began to bemoan those who didn’t, thus creating a new social problem: the high school dropout. Also, as the high school shifted from being seen as a place for students of the highest academic accomplishment to one for students of all abilities, it became the object of handwringing about declining academic standards. As a public good, it was a political success, offering opportunity for all; but as a private good, it was an educational failure, characterized by a watered-down curriculum and low expectations for achievement. The result was that the high school became the object of most educational reform movements in the twentieth century. Once the answer, it was now the problem.

The Lessons of Central High Applied to American Educational System

At this point, having followed the trajectory of the high school, we are in a position to examine more fully the core dynamic that shaped the development of the American educational system as a whole. Here’s how it works. Start with mass schooling at one level of the system and exclusive schooling at the level above. Then, in response to popular demand from working-class families for educational opportunity at the top level, the system expands access to this level, thus making it more inclusive. Next, in response to demand by middle-class families to preserve their educational advantage, the system tracks schooling in the zone of expansion, with their children occupying the upper tracks and newcomers entering in the lower tracks. Finally, the system ushers the previously advantaged educational consumers into the next higher level of the system, where schooling remains exclusive, the new zone of advantage.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, for example, we saw the formation of the common school system in the US, with universal enrollment at the elementary level, partial enrollment in grammar schools, and scarce enrollment in high schools. By the end of the century, grammar schools had filled up and pressure rose for greater access to high schools. As a result, high schools shifted toward a tracked structure, with middle-class students in the top tracks and the working-class students in the tracks below. Then in the middle of the twentieth century, the same pattern played out in the system’s expansion at the college level.

By 1940, high school enrollment had become the norm for all American families, which meant that the new zone of educational opportunity was now the previously exclusive domain of higher education. As was the case with high school in the late nineteenth century, political demand arose for working-class access to college, which had previously been the preserve of the middle class. Despite the much higher per-capita cost of college compared to high school, political will converged to deliver this access. The twin spurs were a hot war and a cold war. The need to acknowledge the shared sacrifice of Second World War led to the 1944 GI Bill, which paid for veterans to go to college. And the need during the Cold War to mobilize research, enhance human capital, and demonstrate the superiority of liberal democracy over communism led to the 1965 Higher Education Opportunity Act. The result was an enormous expansion of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s. Enrollments grew from 2.4 million in 1949 to 3.6 million in 1959; but then came the 1960s, when enrollments more than doubled, reaching 8 million in 1969 and then 11.6 million in 1979.[8]

The result was to revolutionize the structure of American higher education. Here’s how I described it in A Perfect Mess:

Until the 1940s, American colleges had admitted students with little concern for academic merit or selectivity, and this was true not only for state universities but also for the private universities now considered as the pinnacle of the system. If you met certain minimal academic requirements and could pay the tuition, you were admitted. But in the postwar years, a sharp divide emerged in the system between the established colleges and universities, which dragged their feet about expanding enrollments and instead became increasingly selective, and the new institutions, which expanded rapidly by admitting nearly everyone who applied.

What were these new institutions that welcomed the newcomers? Often existing public universities would set up branch campuses in other regions of the state, which eventually became independent institutions. Former normal schools, set up in the nineteenth century as high-school level institutions for preparing teachers had evolved into teachers colleges in the early twentieth century; and by the middle of the century they had evolved into full-service state colleges and universities serving regional populations. A number of new urban college campuses also emerged during this period, aimed at students who would commute from home to pursue programs that would prepare them for mid-level white collar jobs. And the biggest players in the new lower tier of American higher education were community colleges, which provided 2-year programs allowing students to enter low-level white-collar jobs or transfer to the university. Community colleges quickly became the largest provider of college instruction in the country. By 1980, they accounted for nearly 40 percent of all college enrollments in the U.S.[9]

These new colleges and universities had several characteristics in common. Compared to their predecessors: they focused on undergraduate education; they prepared students for immediate entry into the workforce; they drew students from nearby; they cost little; and they admitted almost anyone. For all these reasons, especially the last one, they also occupied a position in the college hierarchy that was markedly lower. Just as secondary education expanded only by allowing the newcomers access to the lower tiers of the new comprehensive high school, so higher education expanded only by allowing newcomers access to the lower tiers of the newly stratified structure of the tertiary system.

As a result, the newly expanded and stratified system of higher education protected upper-middle-class students attending the older selective institutions from the lower-middle-class students attending regional and urban universities and the working-class students attending community colleges. At the same time, these upper-middle-class students started pouring into graduate programs in law, medicine, business, and engineering, which quickly became the new zone of educational advantage.[10]

            So, at 50-year intervals across the history of American education, the same pattern kept repeating. Every effort to increase access brought about a counter effort to preserve advantage. Every time the floor of the educational system rose, so did the ceiling. The result is an elevator effect, in which the system gamely provides both access and advantage, thus increasing the upward expansion of educational attainment for all while at the same time preserving social differences. Plus ça change.

What’s Next in the Struggle between Politics and Markets?

So where does that leave us today? I see three problems that have emerged from the tension that has propelled the evolution of the American system of schooling: a time problem, a cost problem, and a public goods problem. Let’s consider each in turn.

The time problem arises from the relentless upward expansion of the system, which is sucking up an increasing share of the American life span. Life expectancy has been growing slowly over the years, but time in school has been growing at a much more rapid rate. In the mid nineteenth century, the modal American spent four years in school. By 1900 it had risen to eight years. By 2000 it was thirteen years. And by 2015, for Americans over twenty-five, 59 percent had some college, 42 percent an associate’s degree, 33 percent a bachelor’s degree, and 12 percent an advanced degree.[11]

In my own case, I spent a grand total of 26 years in school: two years of preschool, twelve years of elementary and secondary school, five years of college, and seven years of graduate school (I’m a slow study). I didn’t finish my doctorate until the ripe old age of 36, which left only thirty years to ply my profession before the social-security retirement age for my cohort. As I used to ask my graduate students—most of whom had also deferred the start of graduate study until a few years after college—when do we finish preparing for life and start living it? When do we finally grow up?

            Not only does the rapid expansion of schooling eat up an increasing share of people’s lives, but it also costs them a lot of money. First, there’s the opportunity cost, as people keep deferring to the future their chances of earning a living. Then there’s the direct cost for students to pay tuition and to support themselves as adult learners. And finally, there’s the expense to the state of providing public education across all these years. As schooling expands upward, the direct costs of education to student and state grow geometrically. High school is much more expensive per student than elementary school, college much more than high school, and graduate school much more than college.

At some point in this progression, the costs start hitting a ceiling, when students are less willing to defer earning and pay the increasing cost of advanced schooling and when taxpayers are less willing to support advanced schooling for all. In the U.S., we started to see this happening in the 1970s, when the sharp rise in college enrollments spurred a taxpayer revolt, which emerged in California (which had America’s largest higher education system and charged no tuition) and started to spread across the country. People began to ask whether they were willing to pay for the higher education of other people’s children on top of the direct cost for themselves. The result was a sharp increase in college tuition (which until then was free or relatively cheap) and the shift in government support away from scholarships and toward loans.

In combination, these increases in time and money began to undermine support for higher education as a public good. If education is seen as providing broad benefits to the community as a whole, then it makes sense to support it with public funds, which had been the case for elementary school in the nineteenth century and for high school in the early twentieth century. For thirty years after 1945, higher education found itself in the same position. The huge public effort  in the Second World War justified the provision of college at public expense for returning soldiers, as established by the GI Bill. In addition, the emerging Cold War assigned higher education a major role in countering the existential threat of communism. University research played a crucial role in supplying the technologies for the arms race and space race with the Soviet Union, and broadening access to college for the working class and racial minorities helped demonstrate the moral credibility of liberal democracy in relation to communism.

But when fiscal costs of this effort mounted in the 1970s and then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the rationale for public subsidy of the extraordinarily high costs of higher education collapsed as well. Under these circumstances, college began to look a lot more like a private good than a public good, whose primary beneficiaries appeared to be its 20 million students. A college degree had become the ticket of admission to the good middle-class life, with its high costs yielding even higher returns in lifelong earnings. If graduates were reaping the bulk of the benefits, then they should bear the costs. Why provide a public subsidy for private gain?

This takes us back to our starting point in this analysis of the American system of schooling: the ongoing tension between politics and markets. As we have seen, that tension was there from day one—with the establishment of the uncommon Central High School at the same time as the common elementary school—and it has persisted over the years. Elite schooling was stacked on top of open-access schooling, with one treating education as a private good and the other as a public good. As demand grew for access to the zone of educational advantage, the system responded by stratifying that zone and expanding enrollment at the next higher level. And the result we’re dealing with now is the triple threat of a system that that has devoured our time, overloaded our costs, and diminished our commitment to education as a public good.

As I write now, in the midst of a pandemic and in the waning weeks of the Trump administration, these issues are driving the debates about education policy. We hear demands for greater access to elite levels of higher education, eliminating tuition at community colleges, and forgiving student debt. And, countering these demands, we hear concerns about the feasibility of paying for these reforms, the public burden of subsidizing students who can afford to pay their way, and the need to preserve elite universities that are the envy of the world. Who knows how these debates will play out. But one thing for sure is that the tensions—between politics and markets and public goods and private goods—will continue.

Bibliography

Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

Cohen, David. K., and Neufeld, Barbara. (1981). “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education.” Daedelus, 110 (Summer 1981), 69-89.

Carter, Susan B. et al., eds.). Historical Statistics of the United States (millennial edition online). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Labaree, David F. A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Labaree, David F. The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 120 Years of American Education (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993).

National Center for Educational Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics 2013. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014.

Ryan Camille L., and Bauman, Kurt. “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” Current Population Reports, United States Census Bureau (March 2016), Table 1, accessed December 1, 2020, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf.

United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports, “Mean Years of Schooling (Males, aged 25 years and above),” accessed December 1, 2020, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/mean-years-schooling-males-aged-25-years-and-above-years.

Footnotes

[1] This chapter is dedicated to my friend and former colleague, David Cohen, who died in 2020.

[2] National Center for Educational Statistics, 120 Years of American Education (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993), Table 8.

[3] NCES, 120 Years of American Education, Table 5.

[4] Labaree, David F., The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), Table 6.4.

[5] Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

[6] Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism, 123.

[7] Cohen, David. K., & Neufeld, Barbara. (1981). The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education. Daedelus, 110 (Summer), 69-89.

[8] Susan B. Carter, et al., eds. Historical Statistics of the United States (millennial edition online) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Table Bc523). National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2013 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014), Table 303.10.

[9] NCES, 120 Years of American Education, Table 24.

[10] Labaree, David F., A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), pp. 106-108.

[11] United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports, “Mean Years of Schooling (Males, aged 25 years and above),” accessed December 1, 2020, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/mean-years-schooling-males-aged-25-years-and-above-years. Camille L. Ryan and Kurt Bauman, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” Current Population Reports, ), United States Census Bureau (March 2016), Table 1, accessed December 1, 2020, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/mean-years-schooling-males-aged-25-years-and-above-years.

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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