Credentialing History of education Inequality

Review of Cristina Groeger’s Education Trap

This post is a review of Cristina Groeger’s new book, The Education Trap, which is eventually going to appear in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth.   

This is the best book about education that I have read in a long time.  I urge you to read it.

Limited to 800 words, I couldn’t do justice to the richness of this study in the review posted below, so let me add a few points here.  One of the most striking things about the book is its balanced strengths in both theoretical sweep and empirical evidence.   Unlike my own work, which tends to be theory-heavy and data-light, Groeger’s study manages to make a compelling interpretation of how the American system of schooling has managed to expand educational opportunity while at the same time reinforcing social inequality, and she also backs it up with a vast array of persuasive data drawn from the Boston case.   She uses quantitative and qualitative sources to equal effect in building the argument.

Another pleasure that comes from reading this book is the remarkable stories that it tells about how the highly stratified structure of the American system developed on the ground.  She shows how Harvard and the other local private universities worked relentlessly to fend off competition from newcomers — for example, fighting hard to keep the normal school from being granted the right to offer college degrees and to prevent the state from starting a public university in Boston.

One other striking feature of Groeger’s analysis is the way she locates the politics of education within the larger framework of the struggle between capital and labor.  She shows how companies sought to use education as a way to break the hold that craft unions long had had control over skill training, and how schooling turns out to be less effective at elevating occupations than in reinforcing existing occupational power differences.  In the end, she argues that it was industrial unions and not educational expansion that brought about the major reduction in social inequality that occurred in the mid-20th century.

Read the book.

Education Trap Cover

The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston

By Cristina Viviana Groeger

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021. 384pp. Cloth $35.00

            In this stunningly compelling book, Cristina Groeger explores the paradox at the heart of American education, in which the rapid expansion of education has been coupled with a high degree of inequality.  Increasing educational opportunity provided social mobility for some and preserved social advantage for others.  The mechanism that produced both outcomes at the turn of the twentieth century was the emergence of educational credentials as the entry ticket to the job market.  At the same time that high schools were providing a pathway for working class students into the lower levels of the white-collar workforce, colleges were providing middle-class students exclusive access to the upper-level positions in management and the professions.  Here is how she summarizes her story:

As a case study in which to explore the paradox of expanding access to education and persistent inequality, [this book] focuses on the city of Boston, famously home to many institutions of learning and a wealthy patrician elite. Based on the historical evidence, I argue that education became a central means of social mobility at the same moment that it became a new infrastructure for legitimizing social inequality. While providing economic opportunities to some workers, the expansion of schooling actually undercut the power of others. By obscuring the broader question of worker power in the economy, a focus on education as the primary means to remedy economic inequality became a pernicious policy trap. (p. 2)

            As she points out, until the 1880s schools were not major sites for acquiring work skills, which were largely picked up on the job or through apprenticeship programs run by craft unions.  Reformers sought to elevate the position of the laborers at the bottom of the system by creating industrial education programs in high schools.  But she shows that this effort was a near total failure.  The programs drew few students because they delayed entry into the workforce while producing no improvement in pay or status.  The lesson she draws from this is that occupational status is less a matter of skills than of social power.  Without a union, laborers lacked the power to elevate themselves, so increasing skill training was no help to their cause.  Educational credentials cannot raise the level of an occupation, but they can prepare you for higher-level jobs.

This is the dynamic behind the great educational success story at the turn of the century, which was not the industrial but the commercial curriculum.  This is a phenomenon that has received little historical attention, and one of the great strengths of this book is the way Groeger fleshes out this important story.  The commercial course prepared students for entry into the rapidly expanding forms of clerical work in retail stores and especially in offices.  In high school, students acquired skills in bookkeeping, stenography, typing, and salesmanship and then moved directly into office jobs.  This created a pipeline of clerical workers for employers and produced a path for the children of laborers into an occupation with better pay, working conditions, and status than their parents had.  And it was a low-cost/high-return effort for schools, because it required only modest investments in equipment compared to industrial education and because the skills were generic and thus widely transferrable across positions.  The commercial course was the path to mobility pursued in particular by working class women, who had long been stuck in the factory and domestic service.  The share of women wage-earners in office and sales work rose from 5 percent in 1880 to 40 percent in 1930.

The downside of this success story was that by the 1930s clerical work was coming to be defined as a pink-collar occupation, largely filled by working-class women, while the upper-level white collar jobs were largely populated with middle-class men.  And that process of occupational segregation was the result of the other great educational success story of this period, the rise of business education in American colleges.  Traditionally young people had worked their way into business positions through on-the-job training rather than formal schooling.  But in the early twentieth century charting a path through college business programs offered advantages to both employers and employees.  Companies relished the idea that recruiting college graduates shifted training costs to the student, served as a social class filter for prospects, and gave business the aura of a profession.  And prospective employees gained a credential that buffered them against competition from upwardly mobile high school graduates.  Once again American education was demonstrating its skill at both providing opportunity and protecting privilege.

By the 1930s, the enormous expansion of US secondary and college education had created a lot of social mobility into white collar work but done nothing about promoting social equality.  Laborers became clerks and clerks became professionals, so relative positions were unchanged.  The difference was that educational credentials now patrolled the border between social classes.  As Groeger notes, it wasn’t the growth of education but the growth of industrial unions in the 30s that finally created a real redistribution of wealth and power.


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