Educational goals Educational Research Formalism

Why We Obsess about the Goals of Schooling even though Schools Continually Fail to Meet These Goals

This post is a paper I presented in 2008 at the annual meeting of the research group on the Philosophy and History of the Discipline of Education, Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium.  The theme of the papers for this meeting was “Proofs, Arguments, and Other Reasonings: The Language of Education.”  The paper was published in a book of the conference papers in 2009.  Here’s a link to a PDF of the published version.

In this paper, I synthesize a number of other papers I had written around the topic the goals of schooling in an effort to explore the question of why reformers and historians are so fixated on the goals more than the outcomes of education, even though school continually fail to accomplish these goals.

Here’s an overview of the argument, drawn from the beginning of the paper:

 Schools are better at expressing social goals than at operationalizing those goals in a manner that might actually realize them.  School reform efforts are better at changing the rhetorical commitment of schools to particular educational goals than at bringing the teaching and learning in schools in line with these goals.  And historical studies of education are better at identifying the evolving language of educational goals than at detailing the impact of these goals on the core pedagogical relation between teacher and student.  Thus the language of goals dominates education, educational reform, and historical research on education.  In this paper, I explore the central elements of education’s language fetish, the historical and sociological roots of this condition, and its consequences for education and society.  

At its heart, this is a story grounded in paradox.  Education is perhaps the greatest institutional success of the modern era.  It grew from a modest and marginal position in the eighteenth century to the center of modern societies in the twenty-first, where it consumes an enormous share of the time and treasure of both states and citizens.  Key to its institutional success has been its ability to embrace and embody the social goals that have been imposed upon it.  Yet education has been remarkably unsuccessful at implementing these goals in the classroom practices of education and at realizing these goals in the social outcomes of education. 

How are we to understand the success of this institution in light of its failure to do what we asked of it?  One way of thinking about this, I suggest, is that education may not be doing what we ask, but it is doing what we want.  We want an institution where we can express our social goals without having to disrupt the social structure by actually implementing them – which is what would happen if we pursued these goals seriously in the political arena.  So education can serve as a point of civic pride, a showplace for our ideals, and a medium for engaging in uplifting but ultimately harmless dispute about alternative visions of the good life.  At the same time, it can also serve as a convenient whipping boy, which we can blame for its failure to achieve our highest aspirations for ourselves as a society.  In this sense, then, we can understand the whole grand educational enterprise as a exercise in formalism.  We assign formal responsibility to education for solving our most pressing social problems in light of our highest social ideals, with the tacit understanding that by educationalizing these problem-solving efforts we are seeking a solution that is more formal than substantive.  We are saying that we are willing to accept what educational can produce – new programs, new curricula, new institutions, new degrees, new educational opportunities – in place of solutions that might make real changes in the ways in which we distribute social power, wealth, and honor. 

See what you think.

Language of Ed Cover

Educational Formalism and the Language of Goals in American Education, Educational Reform, and the History of Education

 David F. Labaree

 Schools are better at expressing social goals than at operationalizing those goals in a manner that might actually realize them.  School reform efforts are better at changing the rhetorical commitment of schools to particular educational goals than at bringing the teaching and learning in schools in line with these goals.  And historical studies of education are better at identifying the evolving language of educational goals than at detailing the impact of these goals on the core pedagogical relation between teacher and student.  Thus the language of goals dominates education, educational reform, and historical research on education.  In this paper, I explore the central elements of education’s language fetish, the historical and sociological roots of this condition, and its consequences for education and society.  The focus will be on American education, although I think much of the argument resonates with education in other comparable settings.  To construct this analysis, I draw from several papers I have written – on the goals of education, the evolution of educational reform rhetoric, and the impact of reform on educational practice – in an effort to pull these pieces together into a coherent story about the nature of the social role that education is asked to play in modern liberal democracies. 

At its heart, this is a story grounded in paradox.  Education is perhaps the greatest institutional success of the modern era.  It grew from a modest and marginal position in the eighteenth century to the center of modern societies in the twenty-first, where it consumes an enormous share of the time and treasure of both states and citizens.  Key to its institutional success has been its ability to embrace and embody the social goals that have been imposed upon it.  Yet education has been remarkably unsuccessful at implementing these goals in the classroom practices of education and at realizing these goals in the social outcomes of education. 

How are we to understand the success of this institution in light of its failure to do what we asked of it?  One way of thinking about this, I suggest, is that education may not be doing what we ask, but it is doing what we want.  We want an institution where we can express our social goals without having to disrupt the social structure by actually implementing them – which is what would happen if we pursued these goals seriously in the political arena.  So education can serve as a point of civic pride, a showplace for our ideals, and a medium for engaging in uplifting but ultimately harmless dispute about alternative visions of the good life.  At the same time, it can also serve as a convenient whipping boy, which we can blame for its failure to achieve our highest aspirations for ourselves as a society.  In this sense, then, we can understand the whole grand educational enterprise as a exercise in formalism.  We assign formal responsibility to education for solving our most pressing social problems in light of our highest social ideals, with the tacit understanding that by educationalizing these problem-solving efforts we are seeking a solution that is more formal than substantive.  We are saying that we are willing to accept what educational can produce – new programs, new curricula, new institutions, new degrees, new educational opportunities – in place of solutions that might make real changes in the ways in which we distribute social power, wealth, and honor. 

 Education as the Expression of the Social Goals of Liberal Democracy

 In this section, I draw from my paper “Public Goods, Private Goods” (Labaree, 1997) to argue that the language of educational goals arises from the core tensions within a liberal democracy.  One of those tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  In the American setting, these tensions have played out through the politics of education in the form of a struggle among three major social goals for the educational system.  One goal is democratic equality, which sees education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens.  Another is social efficiency, which sees education as a mechanism for developing productive workers.  A third is social mobility, which sees education as a mechanism for individuals to reinforce or enhance their social position. 

Democratic equality represents the political side of our liberal democratic values, focusing on the role of education in building a nation, forming a republican community, and providing citizens with the wide range of capabilities required for effective participation in democratic decision-making.  The other two goals represent the market side of liberal democracy.  Social efficiency captures the perspective of employers and taxpayers, who are concerned about the role of education in producing the human capital that is required by the modern economy and that is essential for economic growth and general prosperity.  From this angle the issue is for education to provide for the full range of productive skills and forms of knowledge required in the complex occupational structure of modern capitalism.  Social mobility captures the perspective of educational consumers and prospective employees, who are concerned about the role of educational credentials in signaling to the market which individuals have the productive skills that qualify them for the jobs with highest levels of power, money, and prestige. 

The collectivist side of liberal democracy is expressed by a combination of democratic equality and social efficiency.  Both aim at having education provide broad social benefits, with both conceiving of education as a public good.  Investing in the political capital of the citizenry and the human capital of the workforce benefits everyone in society, including those families who do not have children in school.  In contrast, the social mobility goal represents the individualist side of liberal democracy.  From this perspective, education is a private good, whose benefits accrue only to the student who receives educational services and owns the resulting educational credentials, and its primary function is to provide educational consumers with privileged access to higher level jobs in a zero-sum competition with other prospective employees. 

With this mix of goals imposed on it, education in liberal democracies has come to look like an institution at odds with itself.  After all, it is being asked simultaneously to serve politics and markets, promote equality and inequality, construct itself and as a public and private good, serve collective interests and individual interests.  Politically, its structure should be flat, its curriculum common, and enrollment universal; economically, its structure should be hierarchical, its curriculum stratified, and enrollment scaled by high rates of attrition.  From the perspective of democratic equality and social efficiency, its aim is socialization, to provide knowledge that is usable for citizens and workers; from the perspective of social mobility, its aim is selection, to provide credentials that allow access to good jobs, independent of any learning that might have occurred in acquiring these credentials. 

In this sense, then, these educational goals represent the contradictions embedded in any liberal democracy, contradictions that cannot be resolved without removing either the society’s liberalism or its democracy.  Therefore when we project our liberal democratic goals on schools, we want them to take each of these goals seriously but not to implement any one of them beyond modest limits, since to do so would be to put the other equally valued goals in significant jeopardy.  This is what I meant when I said earlier that education accomplishes what we want rather than what we say.  We ask it to promote social equality, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten individual liberty or private interests.  We ask it to promote individual opportunity, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the integrity of the nation or the efficiency of the economy.  As a result, the educational system is an abject failure in its ability to achieve any one of its primary social goals.  It is also a failure in its ability to solve the social problems assigned to it, since these problems cannot be solved in a manner that simultaneously satisfies all three goals.  The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the educational system, therefore, are not the result of bad planning, deception, or political cynicism; they are an institutional expression of the contradictions in the liberal democratic mind.

 Educational Reform Movements as Efforts to Reorder Educational Goals

 Since schools in a liberal democracy arise as expressions of a set of goals that are in tension with each other, then educational reform movements take the form of efforts to rearrange the relative priority of these goals in light of pressing contemporaneous concerns.  The fight is all about the language of goals.  In this section, I draw on my paper “Citizens and Consumers” (Labaree, 2007a) to explore how the language of educational goals has evolved during the course of educational reform movements in the United States over the last 150 years. 

The story starts in the early 19th century with a republican vision of education for civic virtue and ends in the early 21st century with a consumerist vision of education for equal opportunity.  This rhetorical transformation was characterized by two main shifts, each of which occurred at two levels.  First, the overall balance in the purposes of schooling shifted from a political rationale (democratic equality, to shore up the new republic) to a market rationale (promoting social efficiency and social mobility).  And the political rationale itself evolved from a substantive vision of education for civic virtue to a procedural vision of education for equal opportunity.  Second, in a closely related change, the rhetorical emphasis shifted from viewing education as a public good to viewing it as a private good.  And the understanding of education as a public good itself evolved from a politically-grounded definition (democratic equality, seen as education for republican community) to a market-grounded definition (social efficiency, seen as education for human capital).

For the common school movement in the second quarter of the 19th century, the primary goal for education was to create a republican community, which was particularly necessary and problematic in a new republic with a rapidly growing market economy.  Horace Mann put it this way in his 1848 annual report:  “Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery” (Cremin, 1957, p. 87).  He went on to say that “by enlarging the cultivated class or caste…, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society” (p. 87).  This contribution is critical, he argues, if we are going to engage in the “laborious” but critical effort “to make Republicans” (p. 92).  In an earlier report he also referred to the economic benefits of education, but in a pointedly backhanded fashion, emphasizing that “This view, so far from being the highest which can be taken of the beneficent influences of education, may, perhaps, be justly regarded as the lowest.” (Cremin, 1957, p. 81).

For the dominant branch of the progressive education movement in the early 20th century, the main goal of education had shifted from political to economic, from democratic equality to social efficiency.  In the primary document of administrative progressive reform, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1918), we hear that “The purpose of democracy is so to organize society that each member may develop his personality primarily through activities designed for the well-being of his fellow members and of society as a whole…”(p. 3).  And it follows that the purpose of education is to “develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place…” (p. 3).  The report makes it clear the nature of that place:  “As a worker, he must adjust himself to a more complex economic order” (p. 1) .  The high school curriculum should facilitate this process by becoming differentiated, and “The basis of this differentiation should be, in the broad sense of the term, vocational…” (p. 16).

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the political vision of education returned to center stage, but this time not in service of developing republican community but in opening up social opportunity for blacks who had been denied this opportunity by segregation.  The supreme court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) spelled out a vision of education as the gatekeeper to the workforce and thus the key to social mobility:  “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”  Whereas progressives used political grounds to support a view of education for social efficiency, the Brown decision used political grounds (equal rights) to put forward a vision of education for social mobility.  This made education an issue of consumer rights, since segregation denied some people access to educational credentials that could open access to good jobs.  It also shifted the focus from education as a public good, which was the vision of both the common school and progressive movements, to education as a private good.  As the decision made clear, the beneficiaries of this expanded access to education was not society as a whole but the minorities who had been denied such access in the past.

The standards movement emerged in the 1980s with the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), which argued to restore social efficiency as the primary goal of American education.  The problem was that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” (p. 7), and the answer was to shore up U.S. educational production of human capital to enable it to “compete…for international standing and markets…” (p. 8).  At the start of the 21st century, the standards movement expanded its base of political support by supplementing its appeal to social efficiency with an appeal to social mobility drawn from the equity language of civil rights.  This combination became embodied in a law whose name captured the rhetorical shift, The No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107-110).  The opening section of the law captures the vision of educational standards as a civil right: “The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments” (2002). 

The school choice movement also emerged in the 1980s.  Like the standards movement, it adopted a market perspective on education, but it did so in a more radical manner by arguing to abandon political control over schools in favor of market control.  The central texts of the movement (e.g., Chubb & Moe, 1990) argued that by empowering the educational consumer to exercise dominion over schools, choice would increase the quality of education.   Parallel with the rhetorical shift in the standards movement, the choice movement also came to adopt the political language of civil rights to support its argument for consumer control, asserting that the latter would increase social equity by allowing all parents to demand and receive the kinds of schools they need (an option otherwise available only to wealthy parents).  As one black leader put it, “We must give low-income and working-class parents the power to choose schools – public or private, nonsectarian or religious – where their children will succeed” (Fuller, 2002). 

In the past century and a half, the language of goals in American educational reform has shifted from a political vision to a market vision of education, from a focus on education as a way to create citizens for an emerging republic to a focus on education as a way to allow consumers to get ahead in a market society.  Overall, the goal of democratic equality has ceded ground to the goals of social efficiency and social mobility.  In the process, the rhetorical weight has also shifted from education as a public good to education as a private good; yet at the same time the definition of education as a public good has shifted from a political vision of education for nation building to a market vision of education for human capital production.  But the political vision of education has not disappeared.  Instead, there has been a shift from seeing education a source of political community to seeing it as a source of individual opportunity. 

 Education Reform as More Effective at Changing Goals than at Changing Educational Practices

 Educational reform movements have focused on reordering the relative priority of educational goals, and their impact on education (at least in the U.S.) has rarely extended beyond the rhetorical level.  In this section, I draw on my paper “Limits on the Impact of Educational Reform” (Labaree 2007b) to explore why the primary impact of American educational reform efforts on elementary and secondary schooling has been at the periphery rather than the core of this institution.  These pressures have been able to exert a major impact on the rhetoric of education, and the most effective reform efforts have had some impact on the formal structure of schooling; but they typically have had little impact on how teachers teach and even less on what students learn.  I present a four-level model for understanding the relative inability of school reform in the U.S. to reach the core of teaching and learning in classrooms.  Then I examine the movement for progressive education in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century as a case for understanding the limitations of reform. 

It is useful to think of the educational system as consisting of four levels, extending from the upper periphery all the way down to the core functions of teaching and learning.  The putative aim of educational reform is to work its way down through the layers, with its success measured by how many layers it manages to change.  My argument is that educational reforms only rarely get past the first level and almost never past the second.  At the top is the level of educational rhetoric.  This is where most reform efforts begin (and frequently end), with statements of principle, educational visions, rationales for change, frameworks for representing that change, and norms for reconstructed educational practice.  Next is the level of formal structure.  This is where reform rhetoric needs to be translated into key components of the organizational structure of schooling at the district level, such as local educational policies, organizational units, curriculum frameworks, classroom textbooks, and professional development programs.  Third is the level of teaching practice.  This is where reform ideas, if they succeed in passing through the machinery of the school district largely unscathed, need to pass through the door of the self-contained classroom in order to merge into the professional practice of teaching.  Last of all is the level of student learning.  Even if a particular reform effort improbably manages to shape the rhetoric of schooling, alter the structure of some school districts, and penetrate the practice of teachers in some classrooms, it still needs to transform the learning that students take away from their classroom experience if it is going to be declared a success. 

 The Cases of Administrative and Pedagogical Progressivism

Initially an outgrowth of the political movement known as progressivism, the movement for progressive education emerged at the end of the 19th century in the U.S., became a major force in the first decade of the 20th century, and lasted for another 50 years.  David Tyack identified two major tendencies in this movement, which he called administrative and pedagogical.  These two strands of the progressive education movement were strikingly different in their effect on the American system of schooling.  Ellen Lagemann put the difference this way: “I have often argued to students, only in part to be perverse, that one cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost”(Lagemann, 1989, p. 185).  If Dewey and the pedagogical progressives lost the fight for reshaping the structure of schools, they nonetheless exerted a major and continuing impact on the rhetoric of education.  In contrast, Thorndike and the administrative progressives managed to effect enduring changes in both rhetoric and the formal structure of schooling, but had a limited impact on the core of teaching and learning. 

The two strands of progressivism had several orientations in common, which helped justify the common label applied to them and which often put them on the same side in reform efforts.  One is that they both shared a grounding in developmentalism.  Another is that they both detested the practice of basing school subjects in academic disciplines instead of tailoring these subjects to the practical needs of modern life.  The two strands of progressivism, however, took these two common orientations in very different directions.  Pedagogical progressives (Dewey, William Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg) saw developmentalism as a rationale for rejecting the traditional curriculum in favor of classroom processes that would harness individual student interests and abilities and would foster engaged, self-directed learning.  A broad vein of romanticism runs through this form of progressivism, which saw learning as a natural process that would occur best if artificial mechanisms like schools and curricula would just get out of the way of children’s natural urge to learn.  Administrative progressives eschewed the romanticism of their pedagogical counterparts in favor of a hard-headed utilitarianism.  Instead of Dewey’s focus on naturalistic teaching and learning, they tended to focus on school governance, professional administration, and scientifically designed formal curriculum.  The two main principles of the administrative progressives (Thorndike, David Snedden, Elwood Cubberley) were social efficiency (schooling for work) and differentiation (tailoring curriculum to student abilities and projected future roles). 

Administrative Progressives:  In the first half of the 20th century, administrative progressives had a substantial effect at the rhetorical level.  In particular, they gave public credibility to the idea that the primary goals of education are the production of human capital and the promotion of social efficiency.  The movement’s most prominent rhetorical expression, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, made these points with force and clarity.  The vision of social efficiency achieved prominence during the progressive era and continued into the present as a central theme in the politics of American education.  Administrative progressive reform reached past the rhetorical level and also exerted a substantial impact at the formal-structural level of the school system, with particular emphasis on the organization of school systems and the structure of the formal curriculum.  They succeeded in professionalizing school administration and consolidating governance in the hands of small elite school boards.  And their impact on curriculum was significant if less dramatic.  They managed to broaden traditional school subjects in order to shift from narrow preparation in academic disciplines to broad preparation for work and life. 

The evidence is strong that the administrative progressives had a major impact on American schooling at the rhetorical and structural levels, but the evidence suggests a much weaker impact at the levels of teaching and learning in classrooms.  One reason for this is that their primary focus was elsewhere.  This was a movement aimed at the formal structure of schooling and not at the instructional core.  Many of its leaders were school superintendents and its primary reform target was other superintendents.  There was an assumption that teachers will do what the administrators and curricula require, but there was no real effort to address the problem of how to bring teaching in line with administrative expectations.  Student learning was also something that was assumed by the administrative progressives instead of being actively facilitated as a central part of the reform process.  This strand of the progressive movement was grounded in Thorndike’s theory of learning, which argued that learning is largely not transferable.  Thorndike argued that students’ learning is dependent on the content to which they are exposed.  The beauty of this theory was that it put curriculum in the driver’s seat.  Once you had set up a carefully designed curriculum to cover all the knowledge they needed, learning naturally followed.  Teachers were just there to deliver the curriculum; it was the curriculum that taught the students. 

Pedagogical Progressives:  In the first half of the 20th century, pedagogical progressives had almost no success in shaping schooling at the level of formal structure.  The best evidence for this is the success of the administrative progressives at the same level.  For the success of the one denoted the failure of the other.  In particular the differentiated curriculum introduced by the administrators was abhorrent to the pedagogical progressives, who wanted to tailor instruction to the interests and initiative of the child and promote a naturalistic student-directed pursuit of learning.  The pedagogical progressives also had little luck in introducing their reforms at the levels of classroom practice and student learning.  But unlike the administrators, this was not for want of trying.  Larry Cuban (1993) and Arthur Zilversmit (1993) are two historians who have examined the impact of pedagogical progressives on the practice of teaching, and both concluded that this impact was modest and transitory. 

If the pedagogical progressives largely failed in their primary aim, to reshape teaching and learning in public school classrooms around the principles of child-centered instruction, they did succeed in effecting reform at the rhetorical level.  Zilversmit makes this point in his assessment of the pedagogues’ failure at the structural level: “The ultimate failure was that so much of progressivism’s apparent success was rhetorical.  While some schools and individual teachers had heeded Dewey’s call for a more child-centered school, most had given only lip service to these ideas while continuing older practices.”  When combined with the impact that administrative progressives had on the structure of schooling, this meant that American educators had come to use the child-centered language of discovery, engagement, and inquiry to talk about a structure of schooling, a practice of teaching, and a process of learning that are deeply grounded in the social efficiency principles of differentiation and human capital production.

 Historical Research on Education as Focused More on Goals than Outcomes

If educational reform movements have focused on reordering the relative priority of educational goals, and if their impact on education has rarely extended beyond the rhetorical level, then it naturally follows that historical accounts of education reform also focus attention primarily on detailing disputes over the language of goals.  To explore this idea, I examine two major historical texts, both of which focus on the case of the American movement for progressive education.  The Transformation of the School, by Lawrence Cremin (1961), is the canonical history of the movement, which gives it a largely positive spin.  Left Back, by Diane Ravitch (2000), is a revisionist history, which provides a distinctly negative spin.  Both, however, focus almost entirely on the language of goals.

At the start of his concluding chapter, Cremin summarizes the state of the progressive project at the middle of the 20th century, by saying that American educators had by then all come to talk about education in the language of progressivism (the strand I have been calling pedagogical progressivism):

There is a “conventional wisdom,” to borrow from John Kenneth Galbraith, in education as well as economics, and by the end of World War II progressivism had come to be that conventional wisdom.  Discussions of educational policy were liberally spiced with phrases like “recognizing individual differences,” “personality development,” “the whole child,” “social and emotional growth,” “creative self-expression,” “the needs of learners,” “intrinsic motivation,” “persistent life situations,” “bridging the gap between home and school,” “teaching children, not subjects,” “adjusting the school to the child,” “real life experiences,” “teacher-pupil relationships,” and “staff planning.”  Such phrases were a cant, to be sure, the peculiar jargon of the pedagogues.  But they were more than that, for they signified that Dewey’s forecast of a day when progressive education would eventually be accepted as good education had now finally come to pass.  (Cremin, 1961, p. 328; emphasis in original)

In the last sentence, Cremin tries to stretch this rhetorical accomplishment into something more substantive.  But the weight of this paragraph – in conjunction with the weight of the historical evidence he presents throughout his book – suggests strongly that the impact was primarily limited to the way American educators talked about schooling rather than the way they practiced it.  And his own analysis in the book focuses primarily on the developing language – and to a lesser extent the developing organizational forms – of progressivism in American education.

The chapter headings in the book tells a story about the language of goals in the progressive movement:  Chapter 1, “Traditions of Popular Education,” about the intellectual precursors to progressivism; chapter 2, “Education and Industry,” about social efficiency as human capital development in response to changes in industry; chapter 3, “Culture and Community,” about social efficiency as community development via the settlement house model; chapter 4, ‘Science, Darwinism, and Education,” about the influence of social Darwinism; chapter 5, “Pedagogical Pioneers,” about the early leading  figures in progressive thought; chapter 6, “Scientists, Sentimentalists, and Radicals,” about the disputes in the 20s and 30s between administrative and pedagogical progressives; chapter 7, “The Organization of Dissent,” about the ideological battles within the Progressive Education Association (PEA); chapter 8, “The Changing Pedagogical Mainstream,” about the impact of progressivism on schools; and chapter 9, “The Crisis in Public Education,” about the aftermath of the dissolution of the PEA in 1955.  Only chapter 8 even attempts to explore the impact of progressive ideas on schools, and even here the account is sketchy and largely limited to a list of structural changes in school organization rather than changes in classroom teaching and learning.  He lists 10 changes:  extension of the educational system; the junior high school; elaboration of the curriculum with nonacademic subjects; growth of the extracurriculum; ability grouping of students; the project method; elaboration of curricular materials; elaboration of school buildings, with laboratories, shops, gymnasiums, and kitchens; professional preparation of teachers; and extended educational bureaucracy (Cremin, 1961, pp. 306-308).

Whereas Cremin provides a sympathetic account of progressivism in The Transformation of the School, Diane Ravitch emphasizes the negative consequences of progressivism in her book, Left Back.  But like Cremin, she too focuses on the language of goals in the progressive movement.  Overall, she argues that the movement’s ideas reshaped educational discourse in a way that diminished the intellectual aims of education in favor of a focus on “job training, social planning, political reform, social sorting, personality adjustment, and social efficiency” (Ravitch, 2000, p. 459).  In short, it emphasized social efficiency at the expense of democratic equality (preparing people for citizenship) and social mobility (providing universal access to social opportunity).  She blames the progressives for infusing education with anti-intellectualism and vocationalism, pushing it to abandon the mission of spreading academic learning, and differentiating access to knowledge in a manner that disadvantaged the working class and minorities.  But, like Cremin, she tells us almost nothing about the actual impact of progressivism on teaching and learning in classrooms, instead focusing on the ideas about the goals of education that were the subject of debate among reformers and educators and scholars.  Her primary contribution to the discussion is her effort to give voice to a group of actors who were largely ignored by Cremin – William Torrey Harris, William Bagley, Isaac Kandel, and Robert Maynard Hutchins – men who put forward goals for education that were markedly at odds with those of the progressives

Cremin and Ravitch are not alone in writing histories of education that are largely about the language of goals rather than about the practice of education and its social outcomes.  My own work also fits this model.  My first two books (Labaree 1988; 1997) examined the conflict over goals in this history of American education and the growing dominance of social mobility in shaping educational discourse and the formal structure of schooling.  My third book (Labaree, 2004) examined the discursive formation of the idea of the American school of education and its roots in the conflicting educational goals of social efficiency (train a large number of teachers quickly and cheaply) and social mobility (give students educational access to social opportunities well beyond teaching).  This paper too fits the model.  A sketch for my next book, about the history of American school reform, it offers a critique of the emphasis on the language of goals in the literature on education while at the same time serving as a prime example of such an emphasis.  We historians of education spend most of out time showing how the talk about education changed, and we assume that the structure, content, practice, and outcomes of education must have changed at the same time.  When we have finished talking about the history of educational talk, we feel we have produced a history of education. 

Why does the historiography of education look like this?  In part it is because writing about goals and the rhetoric of reform is an easy way out for historians.  With its national scope, reform rhetoric acts as an efficient mechanism for historians to use in representing the essence of a reform movement; the rhetoricians can conveniently serve the role of movement leaders in the stories historians tell about reform; and the reform documents are easy to find in the library.  Partly as a result, most histories of reform are largely histories of reform rhetoric, saying little about the changes farther down in the system. 

But to say simply that we historians are lazy is not entirely fair, since we may be correct in thinking that the history of education is in many ways a history of goals.  Schools emerge as expressions of our highest goals and aspirations.  They formalize and institutionalize these goals in curriculums and programs, tests and textbooks, organizational structures and physical plants, professional roles and bureaucratic procedures.  They become sites of contestation, where we fight about redefining and rearranging the priorities for these goals in exercises we call educational reform movements.  We show our seriousness about these goals by the fact that we have been willing to create one of the giant institutions of modern social life for this purpose, along with several large professions (such as teaching and school administration) and a series of supporting industries (such as textbook publishing and test development).  In addition, we are willing to devote to education a large share of state and private resources and anywhere from 12 to 25 years of the life of every member of society. 

The Generalized Failure to Accomplish Educational Goals

 So where does this leave us?  The central problem confronting both educational reformers and educational historians in their relentless focus on the language of educational goals is that schools have not come close to realizing these goals.  Consider the fate of the three goals I have identified as central in the educational systems of modern liberal democracies.

Democratic equality:  Perhaps the strongest case for an educational goal that has actually had an impact on school and society is the goal of democratic equality.  At the formative stage in the construction of a nation state, virtually anywhere in the world, education seems to have an important role to play.  A variety of historical students make a strong case in support of this proposition, including Tyack (1966), Meyer et al. (1979), Ramirez & Boli (1987), Ramirez (1997), and Cummings (1997).  The key contribution in this regard seems to be the formation of a national citizenry out of a collection of local identities, and the primary mechanism is to bring a disparate group of individuals in the community together under one roof and expose them to a common curriculum and a common set of social experiences.  These are among the few things that schools do well.  The content of the course of study and the nature of the pedagogy is less important than the fact of commonality.  But once the state is in motion and citizenship is no longer problematic, the ongoing contribution of school to the goal of democratic equality is harder to establish. 

Social efficiency:  In the discourse of educational policy, the goal of social efficiency is alive and well.  It is one of the fundamental beliefs of contemporary economics, international development agencies, and the politics of education that education plays a central role in economic development as a valuable investment in human capital (e.g., Schultz, 1961, Hanushek & Kimko, 2000).  Whereas this may be the case at particular points of development (like the start of industrialization) and for particular kinds of education (elementary schooling), the evidence is less convincing for this proposition at a general level.  Studies such as those by Rubinson & Browne (1996) and Ramirez et al. (2006) suggest a more complex story.  Maybe educational investment spurs economic growth, but maybe societies start investing more heavily in education as a result of economic growth – because they can afford to and because to do so is a sign of their emergence as a modern nation state.  

Social mobility:  In liberal democracies, the hope springs eternal that expanding educational opportunity will increase social mobility and reduce social inequality.  As we have seen, this was a prime factor in the rhetoric of the American educational reform movements for desegregation, standards, and choice.  But the evidence for this hope is simply not there.  Education does provide opportunity for individuals to improve their social position, but this does not translate into change in the social structure.  Rates of social mobility have not increased over time as educational opportunity has increased, and societies with more expansive educational systems do not have higher mobility rates.  As Raymond Boudon (1986) and Blossfeld and Shossi (2000) have shown, the problem is that increases in access to education affect everyone, so that those who have more education continue to enjoy that advantage as educational attainment increases across the board.  The same lack of effect appears in relation to social equality as well, since the Gini index of inequality seems to be unrelated to degree of educational access, either across societies or within societies over time.

These three goals, however, do gain expression in educational systems in at least two significant ways.  First, they maintain a highly visible presence in the rhetoric of education, as the politics of education continuously pushes these goals onto the schools and the schools themselves actively express their allegiance to these same goals.  Second, schools adopt the form of these goals into their structure and process.  Democratic equality persists in the formalism of social studies classes, public ceremonies, and an array of political symbols.  Social efficiency tends to persist in the formalism of vocational classes, career days, and standards-based testing.  Social mobility tends to persist in the formalism of student hierarchies arranged according to their accumulations of grades, credits, and degrees.

Roots of the Failure to Realize Educational Goals

 A central reason for the failure of the educational system to realize the social goals expressed in it, as I pointed out earlier, is that these goals cannot be realized simultaneously.  Democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility logically push schools in three different directions.  They cannot organize their structure and process primarily in line with any one of these goals – much less bring out social outcomes in line with that goal – without violating the other goals.  At best, schools can effect a muddled compromise in organizational structure and a compromise set of educational practices, which give a formal nod in the direction of each of these goals without actually embracing any of them.  In this kind of compromised institutional setting, failure is the norm from the perspective of any one of these goals.  This is the fundamental political problem at the core of the apparent failure of both schooling and school reform.

But there is another layer of impediment that lies between educational goals and their fulfillment, and that is the tension between education’s institutionalized goals and its organizational practices.  It is a story about cause and effect, and especially about the impact of the latter on the former.  Schools gain their origins from social goals, which they dutifully express in an institutional form.  This results in the development of school organization, curriculums, pedagogies, professional roles, and a complex set of occupational and organizational interests.  At this point, schools and educators are no longer simply the object of social desire; they become major actors in the story.  As such, they shape what happens in education in light of their own needs, interests, organizational needs, professional norms, and pedagogical practices.  And this then becomes a major issue in educational reform.  Such reforms are what happens after schooling is already in motion organizationally, when society seeks to assign new ideals to education or revive old ones that seem to be in disuse, thus initiating an effort to transform the institution toward the pursuit of different ends.  But now society is no longer able simply to project its values onto the institution it created to express these values; instead it must negotiate an interaction with an ongoing enterprise.  As a result, reform has to aim at changing both the values embedded in education and the formal structure itself, which may well resist.

There are two kinds of organizational impediments to the realization of educational goals and the success of educational reforms.  One has to do with characteristics of the particular form of school organization that arises in particular settings.  The other has to do with characteristics of the practice of teaching that may be more independent of time and place.

 Organizational Factors that Impede Goal Realization in the American Setting

Let me begin with two organizational elements that are particularly prominent in the American setting and that have a marked impact of the ability of policymakers and reformers to have their way with schools in the U.S.

Loose Coupling:  As Karl Weick (1976) and Charles Bidwell (1965) have shown, the organization of American schooling is a loosely coupled system.  In a tightly coupled system, like a nuclear power plant or a petroleum processing facility, changes or actions in one part of the system quickly travel to other parts.  But this is not the way things work in American schools, where the parts of the system operate as semi-autonomous segments rather than integrated components of a single entity.  Historically in the U.S., state systems of schooling have operated quite independently of each other, and they are only tangentially connected with the federal government.  Likewise, school districts have had their own governance structure, funding sources, political constituencies, hiring authority, and organizational cultures, largely buffered from intrusions by state authorities and quite separate from other districts.  Within districts, individual schools have a similar degree of independence from each other, as parallel but self-contained segments of schooling, and they are also protected from much intrusion from the district administration by their physical isolation from the district office and by their ability to deliver schooling to a particular community on their own.  Within schools, individual classrooms act as separate instructional modules, which are independent of each other and which are cut off from the school principal by their distinctive function (instruction) and their physical location (behind the walls of the classroom).  And within classrooms, individual students act as separate units of teaching and learning, each bringing distinctive abilities and motivation to the learning process and thus offering distinctive challenges to the teacher independent of the other students in the class.  The relative independence of states from the federal government, districts from the state government, schools from the district, classrooms from the principal, and students from the teacher provides functional semi-autonomy for both teachers and students in relation to all of the layers above them in the organizational structure of schooling. 

Weak Administrative Control Over Instruction:  Another historically distinctive characteristic of American schooling is the relatively weak control that school administrators exert over instruction.  In part, of course, this administrative weakness is a function of loose coupling.  But there is an additional component that weakens the impact of administrators over teaching.  The structure of teaching-as-work in the U.S. is such that school administrators have traditionally been lacking the basic levers of power that enable employers in most occupational settings to motivate employee compliance with their boss’s wishes.  In most jobs, the employer can manipulate some combination of two core mechanisms to make sure that employees do as they are told.  One is fear, the other greed. 

Fear works at an elemental level:  Do as I say or you are fired.  Principals in American schools, however, traditionally have held a weak hand in deploying the fear factor against teachers.  The contract with the teachers union makes it extraordinarily difficult to fire a teacher after she has completed an initial probationary period of three years and attained tenure.  Firing is so onerous that most principals do not even try.  So this leaves only lesser forms of punishment, which are a weak weapon in the ongoing effort to get teachers to teach the mandated curriculum in the desired manner.  If fear provides the stick for the employer, greed provides the carrot.  It is equally simple in its operation:  Do as I say and you will be rewarded.  Jobs in most complex organizations offer an array of possible rewards for the employees who perform well, but the two primary modes are pay and promotion.  In American public schools, however, administrators traditionally have had no discretion in allocating either pay or promotion.  Pay levels are defined by union contracts, and traditionally they are based on only two criteria:  the number of years the teacher has served and the number of graduate credits  earned.  And promotion is also largely unavailable to administrators.  Teaching is a horizontal profession in the U.S., where the only form of advancement is to leave teaching and become an administrator. 

 Another Impediment:  The Peculiar Nature of Teaching as a Practice

The primary problem of teaching as a practice is that it will not work unless the teacher is effective at establishing a special kind of personal relationship with the individual students in the class.  Without this kind of relationship, students will not learn what schools want them to learn.  And teachers can only establish these kinds of pedagogically effective relationships if they are allowed the discretionary space to do so.  They need the autonomy to figure out a way of doing things that works best for the individual students in the class and for the special situations of time and place.  Thus a central dilemma of school reform:  If reformers are going to have an impact on the instructional core of schooling instead of limiting themselves to the rhetorical or structural levels of the system, they need to change how teachers teach in classrooms; but intruding on teachers in this way threatens to undermine the degree of teacher discretion that is necessary to foster effective learning.  In exploring these issues, I draw on work by Willard Waller (1932/1965), Dan Lortie (1975), and David Cohen (1988).

One factor that promotes teacher autonomy is the sheer complexity of the task of teaching a class full of students.  Even when students are sorted into grades by age and into classes by ability, they still bring an enormous range of salient characteristics to the learning process.  Another major factor reinforcing teacher autonomy is that teachers’ success as professionals is entirely dependent on the cooperation of their students.  Teachers do not succeed unless students learn, and students only learn if they choose to.   This need to gain cooperation is made more difficult because the student is a conscript.  Unlike most professionals, whose clients voluntarily seek their help, teachers are working with students who are there in the classroom because of coercion:  from compulsory attendance laws, from parental pressure, from a labor market that requires a good education to get a good job.  The need to motivate the active cooperation of conscripted clients means that teachers cannot afford to establish the kind of professional distance from the client that doctors, lawyers, and accountants seek to maintain, since this kind of emotionally neutral relationship only works with clients who are passive and voluntary.  The student must want to learn what the teacher is teaching, so the teacher’s first job is to find a way to instill this desire. 

The teacher’s imperative to establish a professionally functional personal relationship with students puts teaching in an occupational category that Arlie Hochschild (1983) calls “emotion management” work.  Teachers need to engage in a kind of deep acting, by forming a teaching persona that is useful in inducing affection from the student and channeling this relationship into learning.  To work well, this persona has to be an extension of the teacher’s self and must come across to the students as natural and authentic.  Developing such a persona is a central task of becoming a teacher.  The teacher persona is not something that a teacher puts on lightly or sheds with ease.  As a result, we should not be surprised to find that teachers in general tend to resist efforts by reformers to change the way they teach.  To do so is to change who they are.

 Why Do We Tolerate an Educational System that Fails to Realize Our Goals?

 I have been arguing that schools, school reforms, and school histories all focus on the language of goals rather than on the substantive educational and social outcomes of schooling.  This is because, when we get right down to it, a liberal democracy is primarily interested in having the educational system embrace and institutionalize the central values of the culture in its language and in its formal structure.  In line with institutional theory (Meyer, 1977; Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Meyer & Rowan, 1983), I am arguing that we hold schools responsible for expressing our values rather than for actually realizing them in practice, that schools are institutional expressions of cultural values whose persistence is less a result of their effectiveness in carrying out those goals in practice than in their ability to represent those goals in formal terms.   They are expert at meeting our expectations of what school is rather than at implementing the goals that they represent.   

To say that schools are ineffective in realizing social goals, however, is not to say that schools do not have an effect.  In fact, they have been remarkably effective at reshaping society in their own image.  By educationalizing social ideals and problems, we have educationalized society itself.  How does school shape society?  One source of education’s impact is funding.  Governments spend an extraordinary portion of their annual budgets on the educational system, from preschool through the most advanced graduate programs at universities.  Families and individuals invest an enormous amount of money in direct costs for school supplies, tutoring, test preparation, uniforms, college counseling, and especially for college tuition, fees, and loans.  And then there is the opportunity cost of what they could have been earning if they were not in school.  A second source of education’s impact is time.  Education devours somewhere between 12 and 25 years of a person’s life in a modern developed society just in attending classes.  In addition, the institution absorbs the efforts the largest profession in modern societies, educators, plus a large number of collateral personnel that support the educational enterprise.  A third source of education’s impact is process.  Education forces families and governments and businesses to organize themselves around academic schedules, academic priorities, academic activities, academic procedures, and academic credentials. 

The grammar of schooling (Tyack & Cuban, 1995) is not just a structure that shapes education and preserves its form over time; it is also a discursive and behavioral pattern that shapes the way society functions.  This process of educationalizing society is in part an unintended consequence of the process of educational organization building, kicked off by our need to find institutional expression of our ideals.  But this process does have its social uses, which help reinforce and preserve the expansion of education once it is in motion.  The educationalization of society integrates society around a set of common experiences, processes, and curricular languages.  It stabilizes and legitimizes a social structure of inequality that otherwise may drive us into open conflict.  It stabilizes and legitimizes government by providing an institution which can be assigned difficult social problems and which can be blamed when these problems are not solved.  It provides orderly and credible processes for people to live their lives, by giving employers grounds for selecting a workforce, workers a mechanism for pursuing jobs, families a mechanism for passing on privilege and for seeking social opportunity, even if the rhetorical rationale for these processes (human capital, individual merit) lacks credibility.  Most of all, it gives us a mechanism for expressing serious concern about social problems without actually doing anything effective to solve those problems.  In this sense, then, the ability of schools to formalize substance – to turn anything important into a school subject or a school program or a school credential – is at the heart of their success in educationalizing society.

Therefore, the history of education is the history of formalism, as Emile Durkheim (1938/1977) noted toward the end of his magisterial review of The Evolution of Educational Thought

In this way we can explain a law to which I have frequently drawn attention and which, in fact, governs the whole of our academic evolution.  This is the fact that from the eighth century onwards we have moved from one educational formalism to another educational formalism without ever managing to break the circle.  In different periods this formalism has been successively based on grammar, on logic or dialectic, then on literature; but in different forms it has always been formalism which has triumphed.  By this I mean that throughout this whole period the aim of education has always been not to give the child positive knowledge, the best available conception of the way specific things really are, but to generate in him skills which are wholly formalistic, whether these consist in the art of debate or the art of self-expression. (p. 280)

Education transforms social goals into institutionalized expressions of those goals.

Even though it does not realize these goals, education does create a set of educational forms – structures, processes, currencies, and languages – that play useful roles for society.  The grammar of schooling is not only an expression of the organizational inertia of the educational system but also a mechanism by which it shapes society.  So the focus on the language of goals in the historiography of education is in part a case of being trapped in education’s own language fetish; but in part it is also a fair representation of education’s central role in society as an institution dedicated to the formalistic expression of these goals.


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