Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Educational goals, History of education

Resisting Educational Standards

This post is a piece I published in Kappan in 2000.  Here’s a link to the PDF.

It’s an analysis of why Americans have long resisted setting educational standards.  Of course my timing wasn’t great.  Just one year later, the federal government passed the landmark No Child Left Behind law, which established just such a system of standard mandates.  Oops.

This small faux pas aside, however, I think the essay stands up pretty well (though I was struck by my inordinate fondness for dashes).  NCLB caused a big stir and eventually generated a counter-movement that resulted in its repeal and replacement by the more lenient and state-centered Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Here’s the core argument of a rather long piece (6,000 words):

The history of such resistance suggests that there are three factors in particular that have made standards such a hard sell: a commitment to local control of schools, a commitment to expansion of educational opportunity, and a commitment to form over substance in the way we think about educational accomplishment. All three of these factors, which I treat below, can be traced in large part to our preference for one particular purpose of education: we have increasingly held the view that education is a private good, which should serve the individual interests of educational consumers, rather than a public good, which should serve the broader public interest in producing competent citizens and productive workers.

If you know my work, this is going to sound familiar.  But for one thing, it’s a useful summary of issues from my first two books (The Making of an American High School and How to Succeed in School without Really Trying).  You’ll find some familiar themes here:  credentialism, conflicting goals of schooling, education as a public and private good, and the growing dominance of the latter.

In addition, however, it delves into some interesting issues in some detail.  One such issue is the longstanding tension between schooling as the vehicle for social opportunity and schooling as the bastion of academic rigor.  The votes are in and it’s clear that over the long history of US schools, opportunity has consistently trumped [sic] rigor.  Social advancement over academic learning is a consistent priority.  Which is part of what makes the standards movement such a radical reform effort.  It’s upending the whole purpose of schooling.

Another related issue is the longstanding pattern of emphasizing form over substance, doing school over learning the formal curriculum.  And a central player in this drama is the Carnegie unit, which doesn’t get as much credit [sic] as it deserves for shaping the form and function of US schooling.  We move through the system by accumulating credit hours, which measure not how much we learned but how many hours we spent it class.  You get credit for seat time.  It has become the standard currency of the education enterprise.

What is so wonderful and so terrible about the credit-hour system is the way it eases access to education at the expense of competence in subject matter. For people concerned about establishing and enforcing curriculum standards in education, this system is a disaster. But its attractions are clear. It effectively makes all courses functionally equivalent to all others because they are all measured in the same currency of credit hours. It also effectively makes all institutions at a certain level functionally equivalent to all others because they all offer the same diplomas or degrees. All you need to do is accumulate enough grades and credits and degrees — here, there, or anywhere — and you can present yourself as possessing the functional equivalent of an education.

Those who want to establish academic standards are in many ways trying to roll back the tide of credentialism that has swept American education along for many, many years.

Hope you find this moldy oldie useful.

Resisting Educational Standards

David F. Labaree

The matter of setting standards for American education is certainly quite visible these days, but much of what we hear about it is not very enlightening. The talk is frequently filled with ideological heat rather than with critical light, and the tone of the discussion is more often nostalgic than realistic. In addition, the pitch in favor of standards is currently so strong that it may well leave a number of listeners wondering why such an obviously needed and beneficial reform wasn’t undertaken a long time ago. But the fact is that the effort to establish educational standards has always been an uphill fight in this country.

In light of these circumstances, it is useful to examine why Americans have so vigorously resisted educational standards over the years. The history of such resistance suggests that there are three factors in particular that have made standards such a hard sell: a commitment to local control of schools, a commitment to expansion of educational opportunity, and a commitment to form over substance in the way we think about educational accomplishment. All three of these factors, which I treat below, can be traced in large part to our preference for one particular purpose of education: we have increasingly held the view that education is a private good, which should serve the individual interests of educational consumers, rather than a public good, which should serve the broader public interest in producing competent citizens and productive workers.

Preserving Local Control

First, consider our traditional commitment to preserving local control. The core issue here is the wide and deep strain of libertarian sentiment that lies at the heart of the American psyche. The urge to preserve individual liberty is a key to understanding American society, and it is what defines our distinctive approach to politics, economics, and education. “Don’t tell me what to do” has long been our national slogan. By it we have meant in particular that government should keep off our backs — especially government that is far removed from our local community. All you need to do is remember that this nation was born of an uprising against a colonial government that tried to impose modest taxes on it from afar.

In education, this sentiment came to be expressed as a staunch defense of local control of our schools. During most of the 19th century, the local school was the primary unit of educational governance foremost Americans. An individual community built a school, hired a teacher, raised money through local taxes and fees, and implemented education on its own terms. Outside help was neither offered nor welcomed. This was the ultimate in local control. Even in large cities, control of education tended to rest at the ward level.

Consider some numbers that suggest the radical degree of decentralization that has long characterized American education. It was not until 1937 that we started recording information about the number of individual school systems in the country. In that year, which was some 40 years after the start of a massive effort by reformers to consolidate districts into larger administrative units, there were about 120,000 individual school districts in the US. This meant that on average there were only two schools per district. Now, that is really local control. Even now, after consolidation has continued for another 60 years, we still have about 15,000 separate school districts — each with primary control over financing, staffing, and setting curriculum standards for our schools. 1

Certainly state governments have taken steps over the years to assert greater control over these matters in K-12 schooling, and even the federal government has made tiny and tentative moves in this direction. But all these efforts have been undertaken in the face of enormous resistance by local communities, which have vigorously fought to preserve the autonomy of their schools. A modest proposal by President Clinton for vague and voluntary national standards provoked strong opposition in Congress and elsewhere. A variety of efforts on the part of states to introduce some forms of curriculum guidelines and to reinforce them with statewide testing have stirred up strong reactions at the local level. Reinforcing this local response to setting standards has been the hostility toward government that has characterized the politics of the last two decades. Increasingly, elected officials have won office on a platform of being relentlessly anti-government. They see their primary job as an effort to protect local communities and individual citizens from the intrusion of government control.

In light of this long history of opposition to government interference in local affairs, it is not surprising that efforts to set educational standards at the national or state levels have not proceeded very far. Standards are seen as an infringement of individual liberty, and efforts to impose them run into a classic American response: “Don’t tell me what to do.”

Expanding Educational Opportunity

Consider a second factor that has shaped American resistance to educational standards: our long-standing commitment to expanding educational opportunity. The American track record in this respect is quite clear. In the last 200 years, school enrollments in the U.S. expanded faster than in any other country. Demand for educational opportunity has simply been insatiable. As each level of education has started to fill up, the demand has grown for access to the next higher level. In the early 19th century, primary education was the subject of expansion. Pressure for access to education shifted to the grammar school later in the century, to the high school around 1890, and finally to the college and university today. For elected officials it has been political suicide to attempt to block or even to slow this process — even though they can point to the huge fiscal burden imposed by this expansion.

Consider some numbers that capture the sheer size and speed of this expansion of educational opportunity. High school enrollments doubled every decade between 1890 and 1940, when high school attendance had become universal for American teenagers. Meanwhile, over the whole course of the 20th century, enrollments in higher education have grown at a relatively steady rate of about 50% every decade, from about one-quarter million students in 1900 to about 15 million today. The result is that college attendance, like high school attendance half a century ago, has become the normal expectation for American families. And as college enrollments have started to level off in the 1990s, enrollments in graduate schools have been booming, so the pattern of expanding educational opportunity shows no signs of letting up. 2

This trend has had one rather obvious consequence for educational standards. The push has clearly been to expand the quantity of access to schooling rather than to improve the quality of learning that goes on there. It is very hard to enhance quantity and quality of education simultaneously, but Americans have never really tried to do so. We have always been more intent on making sure that our children receive more years of education and higher level diplomas than we ourselves received. After all, credits and degrees are what have been so important in providing an entree to good jobs. Under these circumstances, who cares about what students learn in school as long as school credentials continue to pay economic and social rewards to those who have acquired them?

Note that any effort to establish and enforce standards for teaching and learning in American education is likely to have the consequence of restricting access to the things that historically Americans have most wanted from their education system. Raising standards means making it harder for some students — maybe many students — to get good grades, get promoted, acquire a diploma, and gain entrance to college or graduate school. It has been firmly established over the years that to restrict access to education at any level is just plain un-American. And this is particularly true when the restriction falls on my children rather than on other people’s children. In this sense, the standards movement is standing in the face of a long history of easy access and modest requirements for academic performance, a history that threatens to run right over any reformer who blocks its path. If the American commitment to local control sends the standards movement the message “Don’t tell me what to do,” the commitment to expanding educational opportunity sends the parallel message, “Don’t get in my way.”

Consider another problem that the tradition of expanding opportunity poses for the standards movement. In this case, the problem is not a form of resistance but a kind of temptation — a temptation to approach the standards issue from a dangerously misleading historical perspective. Much of the rhetoric of the standards movement has a distinctively nostalgic air to it. It often sounds as if we are pining for a return to a golden age, a time when schools were tough and students had to struggle to meet their academic standards.

The big reason for not returning to standards from the good old days is that these standards will not do us much good at the beginning of the 21st century. For one thing, the standards from the old days are largely useless to us because the conditions that allowed schools to impose these standards no longer exist. We have the rapid expansion of educational opportunity to thank for this, and — all in all — thanks are probably in order here. For example, take the case of a leading 19th-century high school that I have studied in some depth. 3 Central High School in Philadelphia was the only high school for boys in the nation’s second-largest city. It enrolled 500 young men out of a city population of one million. To gain admission, students had to pass a grueling entrance examination, and three quarters of those admitted ended up flunking out before graduation. This was one tough school. In fact, Central could be the poster child for the standards movement — except that it is not clear that we can learn anything from this case that would actually help us today.

Central was an extremely attractive place to go, and everyone wanted to get in — in large part because it was the only one of its kind. Nowadays, however, everybody is required by law to attend high school, so students see enrollment as a burden — not a privilege. Eager volunteers have turned into reluctant draftees. At the same time, Central could pick its students from the top 2% of the school population, choosing those who were both better able and more willing to succeed in its demanding academic environment. And it could throw out anyone who could not or would not meet the school’s standard. Today, high schools have to accept all students within a particular geographical area, whatever their ability or attitude toward study. And these schools are not permitted to get rid of students simply because they don’t earn top grades. Why? Because we have decided that we want everyone to have a high school education and not just the privileged few. 4

Another aspect of the golden age that makes it of little use to us is this: the standards of yesteryear rewarded forms of learning that we don’t care as much about these days. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, learning in American schools, for the most part, meant memorizing the text, and academic achievement meant successfully reciting the text back to the teacher, either orally or in writing. Recall that one of the stunning pedagogical innovations of the late 19th century was the introduction of the lecture to American classrooms, when a few daring teachers actually sought to explain the text in their own words. So students may have had to work hard, and academic success may have been difficult to attain. But it is not clear that students learned more. At least it is not clear that they learned more of the kinds of things that we tend to value today. For example, in the good old days students memorized the names of all the major rivers in the world; today we try to teach them something about how ecological systems work. Do we want to go back? I don’t think so.

Standards under the old system were easy to establish, in part because they applied to so few and in part because they were based on a narrow and mechanical notion of learning. The truly hard task is to establish standards that apply to the many rather than the few — without destroying the benefits that broad educational access has brought to this country — and to do so in a way that rewards forms of learning that are broadly useful for the kind of society that our graduates will enter.

Form over Substance

This discussion of local control and expanding educational opportunity leads us to a third major factor that has caused trouble for educational standards: Americans’ longstanding commitment to educational form over substance. By this I mean our system’s emphasis on measuring educational achievement through seat time and credentials rather than through academic performance. That is, we measure success by the amount of time we spend sitting in classrooms — placing ourselves at risk of getting an education — rather than by the amount of knowledge and skill that we actually acquire.

Now it may sound strange to talk about commitment to educational formalism, rather than perhaps treating this as an unintended consequence or a simple blind spot in our national vision of education. But I think that commitment is the right word because we are talking about a component of our system of education that is so basic and so visible that it helps define what is distinctive about that system in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Also, this commitment is so fervently defended by educators, students, and citizens alike that we cannot realistically think of it as a simple accident of history. We have consciously created an education system based on attaining formal markers of success — grades, credits, and degrees — rather than one based on acquiring substantive knowledge. And we proudly proclaim to the world the advantages of this system.

But we did not always value form over substance in American education. In the 19th century, we measured educational success through students’ performance on tests of their know ledge of subject matter. Consider again the case of Philadelphia’s Central High School. The only way to get into this institution was to pass an examination that was so difficult it eliminated the large majority of the students who took it.

However, this performance-based model of achievement ran into a powerful political force — the emerging demand by educational consumers for broader access to the high school. And when standards came into conflict with educational opportunity, standards lost in a rout. Under intense political pressure, the board of education in Philadelphia first began to set high school admission quotas for the various grammar schools in the city rather than adhering to a single cut score on the entrance examination. Then the board began sharply increasing the enrollment at Central. When this was still not enough to meet demand, the board started opening a series of new high schools. By 1912, Central High School was just one of many regional high schools in the city, which, like the others, had to admit anyone who had succeeded in graduating from grammar school and lived in the attendance area. In short, the examination was discarded, and in its place came a system of admission by diploma. 5

A similar process was also playing itself out in colleges at the turn of the century. Like high schools, colleges had previously tended to admit students by an examination administered by the college itself. But this practice had become unworkable as the number of students seeking admission grew larger.

There were two obvious alternatives, both of which were pursued. One was to invent a general test across colleges that all prospective students could take, and, to this end, the College Entrance Examination Board was created and began administering exams. The other was to start accepting a high school diploma as proof of qualification for admission. Both methods have survived to the present day, but admission by diploma has become the dominant form. The College Board has continued offering entrance examinations for prospective college students, but these tests quickly devolved into tests of “aptitude “rather than subject matter. Today’s SAT helps sort students by something similar to I.Q., but it does nothing to measure how much students have learned in their high school courses. So form has also taken precedence over substance in college admissions.

Another event that helped make this change possible was the invention of the infamous Carnegie unit at the turn of the century — thanks to the collaboration of the Carnegie Foundation, the National Education Association, and the College Board. A Carnegie unit was defined as a quarter of the total high school instructional time for a student in a given year. The collaborators established a standard of 14 Carnegie units across specified subjects (that is, 3½ years of high school instruction in these subjects) as a prerequisite for college admissions. As a result of this invention, the official measure of curriculum mastery became the amount of time students spend in class. It was no longer what they learned but how long they were subjected to the possibility of learning. This was a momentous step for American education.

The implications of this change are clear. The Carnegie unit set the standard for much of what became distinctive about the American education system. This is a system that stresses attendance over performance, that encourages students to pursue the tokens of academic success rather than to demonstrate mastery of academic content. The Carnegie unit quickly evolved into the credit-hour system that is so fundamental to our form of education today. Students who accumulate appropriate grades in a course earn credit for that course equal to the number of hours per week that it meets. Students who accumulate a fixed number of credit hours across appropriate curriculum categories earn a diploma. And this diploma then qualifies those students for entry into the next level of education or into a particular level of job.

What is so wonderful and so terrible about the credit-hour system is the way it eases access to education at the expense of competence in subject matter. For people concerned about establishing and enforcing curriculum standards in education, this system is a disaster. But its attractions are clear. It effectively makes all courses functionally equivalent to all others because they are all measured in the same currency of credit hours. It also effectively makes all institutions at a certain level functionally equivalent to all others because they all offer the same diplomas or degrees. All you need to do is accumulate enough grades and credits and degrees — here, there, or anywhere — and you can present yourself as possessing the functional equivalent of an education.

Those who want to establish academic standards are in many ways trying to roll back the tide of credentialism that has swept American education along for many, many years. In launching into this effort, standards reformers need to realize that they are attacking Americans’ God-given right to the credits and diplomas of their choice. Seat time is an essential corollary to educational opportunity because it is precisely what makes educational accomplishment so easy for us. That, in tum, is what makes the system so hard to roll back; it is also what makes it so attractive to others around the world.

Consider this example from the Persian Gulf. In the last few years, Kuwait has operated two parallel systems of secondary education. Under the old system, students are promoted from grade to grade by passing examinations that test their understanding of the subject matter they were taught that year, and they are admitted to the university only after passing a comprehensive examination on the entire high school curriculum. The second system, introduced just a few years ago, allows students to be promoted on the basis of course grades, to graduate from high school on the basis of accumulating the proper number of credits, and to be admitted to the university on the basis of a high school diploma and grade-point average. Guess which system is suddenly the most popular with students. The American-style system, of course, because it makes it much easier for students to graduate from high school and gain admission to the university. It is also the same system whose graduates now find themselves struggling in vain to keep up with the intellectual demands of university study. 6

All this evidence suggests another slogan that helps define the reasons for resistance to educational standards in thus. Indeed, it follows naturally from the first two I have suggested: ”Don’t make me learn, I’m trying to graduate.”

Conflicting Goals for Education

I have pointed to three factors that have helped create an American system of education that is highly resistant to educational standards, and now I would like to suggest an overall framework that helps make sense of this situation. Historically, Americans have been of mixed mind about the purposes of public education. Consider three such purposes — democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. These goals have been in conflict over the years, and priorities have shifted over time from one to another and back again. Let me briefly point out the nature of each of these goals and their impact on education. Then I want to suggest how, from the perspective of these three goals, we can understand the reasons for chronic resistance to educational standards in this country and also why some ways of pursuing standards are more desirable than others.

One goal is democratic equality. From this perspective, the purpose of schooling is to produce competent citizens. The idea is that all of us as citizens need to be able to think critically, understand the way our society works, and have sufficient general knowledge to be able to make valid judgments about the essential issues in democratic political life (as voters, jurors, and so on). At the same time, democracies also require citizens whose social differences are modest enough that they can reach agreement about the policies shaping political and social life. Schools, from this angle, are the prime mechanism for providing shared level of competence and a common set of social experiences and cultural understandings essential for an effective democracy. Much of what is most familiar and enduring in the American system of education can be traced to this goal: the neighborhood elementary school and the regional comprehensive high school, populated by students from the entire community; whole-class instruction and social promotion; the stress on general over specialized education; and the emphasis on inclusion over separation of students.

Another goal is social efficiency. From this point of view, the purpose of education is less to educate citizens than to train productive workers. The idea is that economic growth requires workers with skills that are matched to particular occupational roles. As a result, schools need to provide specialized kinds of learning for alternative career paths, sort students according to predicted future careers, and then provide them with the specialized learning they need. Signs of the impact of this goal are all around us: in the stress on vocational programs in high schools and colleges, in the persistent practice of tracking and ability grouping, and in the prominent political rhetoric about education as investment in human capital.

The contrast between these two conceptions of education is striking. Should the schools prepare people for political or economic life? Provide general or specialized instruction? Promote similarity or difference? But despite these differences, the two goals are also strikingly similar in that they both see education as a public good. The nature of a public good is that it affects everyone in the community: you can’t escape it, even if you want to. In this case, everyone gains if a public school system produces competent citizens and productive workers, and everyone loses if it fails to do so. That includes people who do not have children in public schools.

What is most distinctive about the third educational goal, social mobility, is that it construes education as a private good. 7 If the first goal sees education from the viewpoint of the citizen and the second from that of the taxpayer or employer, the third takes the perspective of the individual consumer of education. From this angle, education exists because of what it can do for me or my children, not because of its benefits for democracy or the economy. And the historical track record on this point is clear: people who acquire more diplomas get better jobs. Educational credentials give individuals an advantage over competitors, and that advantage pays off handsomely, helping some to get ahead and others to stay ahead.

The key point is that if education is going to serve the goal of social mobility effectively, it has to provide some people with benefits that others do not get. As a private good, education benefits only the owner, serving as an investment in my future, not yours; in my children, not other people’s children. This calls for an education system that focuses heavily on grading, sorting, and selecting students. Such a system needs to provide individuals with forms of social distinction that mark them off from the pack by such means as placing them in the top reading group, the gifted program, a higher curriculum track, or a more prestigious college.

The Roots of the Problem: Chronic Consumerism

This analysis of conflicting goals for American education can help us in our thinking about the problem of educational standards. It can help explain the longstanding and powerful resistance to standards, and it can also help explain why some approaches to establishing standards are quite different from others (if we consider which educational goals they are designed to advance).

The dominant influence of the goal of social mobility stands behind the three forms of resistance to educational standards that I have identified above. In part, the impulse toward local control comes from a strong American political tradition that focuses on the defense of individual liberties. But the hostility toward standard setting at the state or national level goes beyond a political defense of the local school board and town council. It also has a consumer dimension. As cautious consumers of education, we want to protect the value of the diplomas that our children acquire and to preserve the social advantages that education currently brings to them. We don’t want anyone to tell us what kind of education our children can get — not state governments or Congress, not state tests or national tests, and certainly not some organization of historians or math teachers. In particular, we don’t want any system of standards that might restrict access to the educational goods our children need in order to get ahead or stay ahead. Instead, we want a system like the current one, which allows our children to gain a competitive advantage over other people’s children.

The last thing we think we need is a standards effort that equalizes educational achievement and therefore puts my child and yours on an equal footing. As a result, we are deeply concerned that standards might force learning back into education. We don’t want anything that will intrude on the current system of rewarding students with diplomas if they serve their time and sit long enough in the right classrooms. As consumers, we feel that schools have a sacred duty to offer our children the grades, credits, and degrees they want, without imposing performance tests or learning requirements that might interfere with this process of individual advancement.

I should also make one final point: consider for a moment the implications of this historical sketch for people who see standards as the reform we need in American education right now — in spite of all the factors working against their adoption. Efforts to establish standards will have vastly different consequences for education depending on which approach we take. A useful way to think about this issue is to examine what standards might look like if they emerged from one of the three goals for American education rather than another.

From the perspective of the goal of democratic equality, the point of standards is to raise the average cultural competence of American citizens and to reduce the radical cultural differences that now exist between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. This is the kind of argument we often hear from people like E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and from the various subject-matter groups that are now promoting standards. The idea is to provide all citizens with the capacities they need in order to carry out their political roles as voters and jurors. The idea is also to give everyone access to the same cultural resources, which will allow them to function as members of the same community, rather than to see themselves — as so many in our current society now do — as members of subgroups that are sharply divided by cultural, racial, and physical barriers.

From the perspective of the goal of social efficiency, the point of standards is to raise the level of human capital in American society. This means the standards should help prepare workers for the full array of jobs that make up the American economy by giving them the skills they need in order to carry out these jobs productively. It is the kind of argument we often hear from Presidents, governors, and corporate leaders, who are worried about the economic consequences of inadequate education. The difference between this perspective and the pursuit of democratic equality is striking. Standards for democratic equality focus on higher levels of shared knowledge and skill, but standards for social efficiency focus on specialized training for particular jobs. This means radically different standards, for example, for the workers who assemble cars, for the engineers who design them, and for the executives who manage the process.

Despite these differences, however, these two approaches to standards both treat education as a public good, and so they both see educational standards as a way to provide benefits to the public as a whole. The aim is to enhance the competence of citizens and the productivity of workers in order to enrich the political and economic life of the larger community.

In this way, the social mobility approach to educational standards is strikingly different. The aim from this perspective is to preserve the advantages and increase the distinctions that arise from the way individual consumers currently work the education system. Schooling is already organized in a manner that enhances consumer rights at the expense of public benefits. We have always been better at sorting students than at teaching them. A consumer-based approach to educational standards is one that stresses this sorting function, and all too many of the proposals floating around the standards movement bear this mark. You can tell this kind of approach from the others because it tends to put special emphasis not on improving skills but on distinguishing winners from losers. The focus is on labeling rather than learning — giving gold stars to those who pass through the promotional gates, who get into the gifted program or the advanced placement class, and who win a special endorsement on their high school diploma. And giving lumps of coal to those who fail to make the grade in any of these ways.

This kind of consumerism is also what leads us to misread history and try to establish standards by returning to the good old days. As I pointed out earlier, the standards of yesteryear — to the extent that they really were higher, which is doubtful — were grounded in an education system that was nothing like ours. At the high school and college levels, this system could afford to be highly selective and brutally competitive because it served such a tiny proportion of the population. Those pushing the consumer perspective within the current standards movement would like to move several steps back in that direction because more selectivity and greater attrition would improve the competitive position of their children — assuming, of course, that the bodies falling along the wayside would be other people’s children.

Finally, a standards effort guided by consumerism would not only elevate private over public educational benefits but would also reinforce an already prominent and devastatingly harmful tendency in American education: the tendency to value form over substance. From the perspective of democratic equality or social efficiency, the aim of the standards movement is to improve the quality of learning in schools. But from the perspective of social mobility, the aim of standards is not to improve learning but to make it a little harder for everyone else to obtain the grades, credits, and degrees that are the symbols of academic success. The effect is to further debase education by turning it into an ever more intense game of “how to succeed in school without really learning.” However, I hope that this is not the primary sentiment of the people who are closest to American education and know it best. As citizens and educators, I trust that we will not pursue this consumerist vision of educational standards, which is so harmful both to the quality of education and to the quality of life in American society.

  1. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1995), Table 88.
  2. Ibid., Table 3.
  3. David F. Labaree, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988).
  4. David F. Labaree, “Raising Standards in the American High School: Why the Good Old Days Are Not Much Help,” in idem, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 1997), pp. 75-91.
  5. Labaree, The Making of an American High School.
  6. Hend Almoian, “A Comparison of Alternative Systems of Secondary Education in Kuwait,” unpublished paper, College of Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1998.
  7. The discussion in this section is based on the argument in my recent book, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning.
Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling

Mary Metz: Real School

This blog post is a tribute to the classic paper by Mary Metz, “Real School.”  In it she shows how schools follow a cultural script that demonstrates all of the characteristics we want to see in a school.  The argument, in line with neo-institutional theory (see this example by Meyer and Rowan), is that schools are organized around meeting our cultural expectations for the form that schools should take more than around producing particular outcomes.  Following the script keeps us reassured that the school we are associated with — as a parent, student, teacher, administrator, taxpayer, political leader, etc. — is indeed a real school.  It follows that the less effective a school is at producing desirable social outcomes — high scores, graduation rates, college attendance, future social position — the most closely we want it to follow the script.  It’s a lousy high school but it still has an advanced placement program, a football team, a debate team, and a senior prom.  So it’s a real high school.

Here’s the citation and a link to a PDF of the original article:

Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

And here’s a summary of some of its key points.

Roots of real school: the need for reassurance

  • We’re willing to setting for formal over substantive equity in schooling

  • The system provides formal equivalence across school settings, to reassure everyone that all kids get the same educational opportunity

  • Even though this is obviously not the case — as evidenced by the way parents are so careful where they send their kids, where they buy a house

  • What’s at stake is institutional legitimacy

  • Teachers, administrators, parents, citizens all want reassurance that their school is a real school

  • If not, then I’m not a real teacher, a real student, so what are we doing here?

This arises from the need for schools to balance conflicting outcomes within the same institution — schools need to provide both access and advantage, both equality and inequality

  • We want it both ways with our schools: we’re all equal, but I’m better than you

  • Both qualities are important for the social functions and public legitimacy of the social system

  • This means that school, on the face of it, needs to give everyone a fair shot

  • But it also means that school, in practice, needs to sort the winners from the losers

  • And winning only has meaning if it appears to be the result of individual merit

  • But who wants to leave this up for chance for their own children?

  • So parents use every tool they’ve got to game the system and get their children a leg up in the competition

  • And upper-middle-class parents have a lot of such tools — cultural capital, social capital, and economic capital

  • Yet they still need the formal equality of schooling as cover for this quest for advantage

So wWhy is it, as Metz shows, that schools that are least effective in producing student learning are the most diligent in doing real school?

  • Teachers and parents in these schools rarely demand the abandonment of real school — a failed model — in favor of something radically different

  • To the contrary, they demand even closer alignment with the real school model

  • They do so because they need to maintain the confidence in the system

  • More successful schools can stay a little farther from the script, because parents are more confident they will produce the right outcomes for their kids

  • Education is a confidence game – in both senses of the word: an effort to maintain confidence and an effort to con the consumer

The magic of school formalism

  • Formalism is central to the system and its effectiveness as a place to provide access and advantage at the same time

  • So you focus on structure and form and process more than on substantive learning

  • Meyer and Rowan‘s formalistic definition of a school:

    • “A school is an accredited institution where a certified teacher teaches a sanctioned curriculum to a matriculated student who then receives an authorized diploma.”

  • Students can make progress and graduate even if they’re not learning much

  • It helps that the quality of schooling is less visible than the quantity


Real School Front Page

Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Education policy, History of education, School reform

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

This post is about an issue I’ve wrestled with for years, namely why reforming schools in the U.S. is so difficult.  I eventually wrote a book on the subject, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, which was published in 2010.  But you may not need to read it if you look at this piece I did for Education Week back in 1999, which later appeared in a book called Lessons of a Century.  Here’s a link to the original.

Education Week Commentary

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

By David F. Labaree

May 19, 1999

One thing we have learned from examining the history of curriculum in the 20th century is that curriculum reform has had remarkably little effect on the character of teaching and learning in American classrooms. As the century draws to a close, it seems like a good time to think about why this has been the case.

The failure of curriculum reform was certainly not the result of a lack of effort. At various times during the last 100 years, reformers have: issued high-visibility reports proposing dramatic changes in the curriculum (Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918, A Nation at Risk in 1983); created whole new subject areas (social studies, vocational education, special education); sought to reorganize the curriculum around a variety of new principles (ability grouping, the project method, life adjustment, back to basics, inclusion, critical thinking); and launched movements to reinvent particular subjects (“New Math,” National Council of Teachers of Mathematics math, phonics, whole language).

In spite of all these reform efforts, the basic character of the curriculum that is practiced in American classrooms is strikingly similar to the form that predominated in the early part of the century. As before, the curriculum continues to revolve around traditional academic subjects–which we cut off from practical everyday knowledge, teach in relative isolation from one another, differentiate by ability, sequence by age, ground in textbooks, and deliver in a teacher-centered classroom. So much effort and so little result.

How can we understand this problem? For starters, we can recognize that curriculum means different things at different levels in the educational system, and that curriculum reform has had the greatest impact at the level most remote from teaching and learning in the classroom. Starting at the top of the system and moving toward the bottom, there is the rhetorical curriculum (ideas put forward by educational leaders, policymakers, and professors about what curriculum should be, as embodied in reports, speeches, and college texts), the formal curriculum (written curriculum policies put in place by school districts and embodied in curriculum guides and textbooks), the curriculum-in-use (the content that teachers actually teach in individual classrooms), and the received curriculum (the content that students actually learn in these classrooms).

Each wave of reform dramatically transforms the rhetorical curriculum, by changing the way educational leaders talk about the subject. This gives the feeling that something is really happening, but most often it’s not. Sometimes the reform moves beyond this stage and begins to shape the formal curriculum, getting translated into district-level curriculum frameworks and the textbooks approved for classroom use. Yet this degree of penetration does not guarantee that reform ideas will have an observable effect on the curriculum-in-use. More often than not, teachers respond to reform rhetoric and local curriculum mandates by making only marginal changes in the way they teach subjects. They may come to talk about their practice using the new reform language, but only rarely do they make dramatic changes in their own curriculum practice. And even the rare cases when teachers bring their teaching in line with curriculum reform do not necessarily produce a substantial change in the received curriculum. What students learn is frequently quite different from what the reformers intended. For as curriculum-reform initiatives trickle down from the top to the bottom of the educational system, their power and coherence dissipate, with the result that student learning is likely to show few signs of the outcomes promoted by the original reform rhetoric. As David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban show in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia, the dominant pattern is one of recurring waves of reform rhetoric combined with glacial change in educational practice.

Why has this pattern persisted for so long? Consider a few enduring characteristics of American education that have undermined the impact of curriculum reform on teaching and learning.

Conflicting Goals: One factor is conflict over the goals of education itself. Different curriculum reforms embody different goals. Some promote democratic equality, by seeking to provide all children with the skills and knowledge they will need to function as competent citizens. Others promote social efficiency, by seeking to provide different groups of children with the specific skills they need in order to be productive in the different kinds of jobs required in a complex economy. Still others promote social mobility, by providing individual students with educational advantages in the competition for the best social positions. One result is that reform efforts over time produce a pendulum swing between alternative conceptions of what children need to learn, leading to a sense that reform is both chronic (“steady work,” as Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin put it) and cyclical (the here-we-go-again phenomenon). Another result is the compromise structure of the curriculum itself, which embodies contradictory purposes and therefore is unable to accomplish any one of these purposes with any degree of effectiveness (the familiar sense of schools as trying to do too much while accomplishing too little).

Credentialing Over Learning: From the perspective of the social-mobility goal, the point of education is not to learn the curriculum but to accumulate the grades, credits, and degrees that provide an edge in competing for jobs. So when this goal begins to play an increasingly dominant role in shaping education–which has been the case during the 20th century in the United States–curriculum reforms come to focus more on sorting and selecting students and less on enhancing learning, more on form than substance. This turns curriculum into a set of labels for differentiating students rather than a body of knowledge that all children should be expected to master, and it erects a significant barrier to any curriculum reforms that take learning seriously.

A Curriculum That Works: Another factor that undermines efforts to reform the curriculum is the comfortable sense among influential people that the current course of study in schools works reasonably well. Middle- and upper-middle-class families have little reason to complain. After graduation, their children for the most part go on to find attractive jobs and live comfortable lives. Judging from these results, schools must be providing these students with an adequate fund of knowledge and skills, so they have little reason to push for curriculum reform as a top priority. In fact, such changes may pose a threat to the social success of these children by changing the rules of the game–introducing learning criteria that they may not be able to meet (such as through performance testing), or eliminating curriculum options that provide special advantage (such as the gifted program). Meanwhile, families at the lower end of the social-class system, who have less reason to be happy about the social consequences of schooling, are not in a powerful position to push for reform.

Preserving the Curriculum of a Real School: Curriculum reform can spur significant opposition from people at all levels of society if it appears to change one of the fundamental characteristics of what Mary Metz calls “real school.” Since all of us have extensive experience as students in school, we all have a strong sense of what makes up a school curriculum. To a significant extent, this curriculum is made up of the elements I mentioned earlier: academic subjects, which are cut off from practical everyday knowledge, taught in relative isolation from one another, stratified by ability, sequenced by age, grounded in textbooks, and delivered in a teacher-centered classroom. If this is our sense of what curriculum is like in a real school, then we are likely to object to any reforms that make substantial changes in any of these defining elements. This shared cultural understanding of the school curriculum exerts a profoundly conservative influence, by blocking program innovations even if they enhance learning and by providing legitimacy for programs that fit the traditional model even if they deter learning.

Preserving Real Teaching: This conservative view of the curriculum is also frequently shared by teachers. Prospective teachers spend an extended “apprenticeship of observation” (in Dan Lortie’s phrase) as students in the K-12 classroom, during which they observe teaching from the little seats and become imprinted with a detailed picture of what the teacher’s curriculum-in-use looks like. They can’t see the reasons that motivate the teacher’s curriculum choices. All they can see is the process, the routines, the forms. So it is not surprising that they bring to their own teaching a sense of curriculum that is defined by textbooks, disconnected categories of knowledge, and academic exercises. Teacher-preparation programs often try to offset the legacy of this apprenticeship by promoting the latest in curriculum-reform perspectives, but they are up against a massive accumulation of experience and sense impression that works to preserve the traditional curriculum.

Organizational Convenience: The traditional curriculum also persists in the face of curriculum-reform efforts because this curriculum is organizationally convenient for both teachers and administrators. It is convenient to focus on academic subjects, which are aligned with university disciplines, thus simplifying teacher preparation. It is convenient to have a curriculum that is differentiated, which allows teachers to specialize. It is convenient to stratify studies by ability and age, which facilitates classroom management by allowing teachers to teach to the whole class at one level rather than adapt the curriculum to the individual needs of learners. It is convenient to ground teaching in textbooks, which reduce the demands on teacher expertise while also reducing the time commitment required for a teacher to develop her own curriculum materials. And it is convenient to run a teacher-centered classroom, which reinforces the teacher’s control and which also simplifies curriculum planning and student monitoring. Curriculum-reform efforts are hard to sell and even more difficult to sustain if they can only succeed if teachers have special capacities, such as: extraordinary subject-matter expertise; the time, will, and skill required to develop their own curriculum materials; the ability to teach widely divergent students effectively; and the ability to maintain control over these students while allowing them freedom to learn on their own.

Loose Coupling of School Systems: Another factor that undercuts the effectiveness of curriculum reform is the loosely coupled nature of American school systems. School administrators exert a lot of control over such matters as personnel, budgets, schedules, and supplies, but they have remarkably little control over the actual process of instruction. In part, this is because teaching takes place behind closed doors, which means that only individual teachers really know the exact nature of the curriculum-in-use in their own classrooms. But in part, this is because administrators have little power to make teachers toe the line instructionally. Most managers can influence employee performance on the job by manipulating traditional mechanisms of fear and greed: Cross me and you’re fired; do the job the way I want, and I’ll offer you a promotion and a pay increase. School administrators can fire teachers only with the greatest difficulty, and pay levels are based on years of service and graduate credits, not job performance. The result is that teachers have considerably more autonomy in the way they perform their fundamental functions than do most employees. And this autonomy makes it hard for administrators to ensure that the formal curriculum becomes the curriculum-in-use in district classrooms.

Adaptability of the School System: Curriculum reform is also difficult to bring about because of another organizational characteristic of the American educational system: its adaptability. As Philip Cusick has shown, the system has a genius for incorporating curriculum change without fundamental reorganization. This happens in two related ways–formalism and segmentation. One is the way that teachers adopt the language and the feel of a reform effort without altering the basic way they do things.

The system is flexible about adopting curriculum forms as long as this doesn’t challenge the basic structure of curriculum practice. The other way is inherent in the segmented structure of the school curriculum. The differentiation of subjects frees schools to adopt new programs and courses by the simple process of addition. They can always tack on another segment in the already fragmented curriculum, because these additions require no fundamental restructuring of programs. For this reason, schools are quite tolerant of programs and courses that have contradictory goals. Live and let live is the motto. By abandoning any commitment to coherence of curriculum and compatibility of purpose, schools are able to incorporate new initiatives without forcing collateral changes. The result is that schools appear open to reform while effectively resisting real change.

Weak Link Between Teaching and Learning: Finally, let me return to the problem that faces any curriculum-reform effort in the last analysis, and that is trying to line up the received curriculum with the curriculum-in-use. The problem we confront here is the irreducible weakness of the link between teaching and learning. Even if teachers, against considerable odds, were to transform the curriculum they use in their classrooms to bring it in line with a reform effort, there is little to reassure us that the students in these classes would learn what the reform curriculum was supposed to convey. Students, after all, are willful actors who learn only what they choose to learn. Teachers can’t make learning happen; they can only create circumstances that are conducive to learning. Students may indeed choose to learn what is taught, they may also choose to learn something quite different, or they may decide to resist learning altogether. And their willingness to cooperate in the learning process is complicated further by the fact that they are present in the classroom under duress. The law says they have to attend school until they are 16 years old; the job market pressures them to stay in school even longer than that. But these forces guarantee only attendance, not engagement in the learning process. So this last crucial step in the chain of curriculum reform may be the most difficult one to accomplish in a reliable and predictable manner, since curriculum reform means nothing unless learning undergoes reform as well.

For all the reasons spelled out here, curriculum-reform movements over the course of the 20th century have produced a lot of activity but not very much real change in the curriculum that teachers use in classrooms or in the learning that students accomplish in these classrooms. But isn’t there reason to think that the situation I have described is now undergoing fundamental change? That real curriculum reform may now be on the horizon?

We currently have a substantial movement to set firm curriculum standards, one that is coming at us from all sides. Presidents Bush and Clinton have pushed in this direction; state departments of education are establishing curriculum frameworks for all the districts under their jurisdiction; and individual subject-matter groups have been working out their own sets of standards. This is something new in American educational history. And combined with the standards movement is a movement for systematic testing of what students know–particularly at the state level, but also at the local and federal levels. If in fact we are moving in the direction of a system in which high-stakes tests determine whether students have learned the material required by curriculum standards, this could bring about a more profound level of curriculum reform than we have ever before experienced. Isn’t that right?

Not necessarily. The move toward standards and testing would affect only one or two elements in the long list of factors that impede curriculum reform. If this movement is successful–which is a big if–it would indeed help tighten the links in a system of education that has long been loosely coupled. It might also have an impact on the problem of student motivation, by convincing at least some students (those who see the potential occupational benefit of education) that they need to study the curriculum in order to graduate and get a good job. But this movement has already run into substantial resistance from religious conservatives and supporters of school choice, and it goes against the grain of the deep-seated American tradition of local control of education. In addition, I don’t see how it would have a serious impact on any of the other factors that have for so long deflected efforts to reform the curriculum. Conflicting goals, the power of credentialing over learning, keeping a system that works, preserving the curriculum of the real school, organizational convenience, and system adaptability–all of these elements would be largely unaffected by the current initiatives for standards and testing.

The history of reform during the 20th century thus leaves us with a sobering conclusion: The American educational system seems likely to continue resisting efforts to transform the curriculum.

David F. Labaree, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, is the author of How To Succeed in School Without Really Learning and The Making of an American High School, both published by Yale University Press.

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 42-44

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform