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 Educational goals, History of education, Systems of Schooling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you like it.

Politics and Markets:

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

 David F. Labaree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics and Markets and the Founding of Central High

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increased Access Leads to a Tracked and Socially Reproductive Central High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lessons of Central High Applied to American Educational System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Course Syllabus, Educational goals, Educational Research, Organization Theory

Doctoral Proseminar: An Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education

This post contains all of the material for the doctoral proseminar — Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education — that I taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last four years of my time there.

The aim of this class is to give first-year doctoral students in education a grounding in some of the big issues surrounding the social role and social practice of schooling, with special emphasis on teaching and learning in classrooms and on school organization.  Each of you will soon be specializing in a particular component of the educational domain, but it will be helpful to you to be able to locate your own special area to broader themes and literatures in the field.  A lot of the readings in the class are nodal pieces in the network of educational citations; these are works you need to become familiar with.  This class should help you answer crucial questions about your own work.  What is your study a case of?  What larger issues does it resonate with?  What does it contribute to the larger discourse about school and society?

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to get it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share it with anyone you like.

All of the course materials are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, the syllabus includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

I hope you find this useful.

 

Doctoral Proseminar

An Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education

David Labaree

Email: dlabaree@stanford.edu

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

 

Course Description

                The aim of this class is to give first-year doctoral students in education a grounding in some of the big issues surrounding the social role and social practice of schooling, with special emphasis on teaching and learning in classrooms and on school organization.  Each of you will soon be specializing in a particular component of the educational domain, but it will be helpful to you to be able to locate your own special area to broader themes and literatures in the field.  A lot of the readings in the class are nodal pieces in the network of educational citations; these are works you need to become familiar with.  This class should help you answer crucial questions about your own work.  What is your study a case of?  What larger issues does it resonate with?  What does it contribute to the larger discourse about school and society?

In the first week we look at the backstory of schooling in the U.S.  We explore its historical roots, the nature of its original mission, and how that mission evolved over time.  And we also examine the conflicting mix of goals that we have imposed on schools and the various social functions they have accumulated over time.

In week two, we turn to the core practices of teaching and learning in classrooms.  Included as issues such as:  the distinctive characteristics of teaching as a professional practice; the socialization of teachers and the incentives that shape the way teachers play their roles; and the grammar of schooling that both defines it and makes it resistant to change.

In week three, we look at the teacher-student relationship in the classroom and how this relationship is experienced by both parties.  We also examine some of the ways that schools create winners and losers, how they both promote and ameliorate social differences.

In week four, we look as school organization from several perspectives:  alternative ways of school organization and their implications for school outcomes; the loose coupling of the nested components of American schooling (classroom, school, school district, and state system) that make it different from other organizations; and the reasons that structural reforms often have little impact on teaching practice.

In week five, we look at the social and cultural pressures that shape school.  This includes examining how the shared expectations of teachers, students, and parents reinforce our conception of what a “real school” is; the rampant formalism that runs through schooling, favoring process over content; and the organizational features of schooling that allow it to carry social functions that the organization of families does not allow.

In week six, we look at the role that race, class, and culture have in schooling.  Among other things, this means examining the class and race factors that shape the kind of cultural knowledge and skill (cultural capital) schools value and try to teach; and the problem of attempting to teach this culture without at the same time demeaning or repressing other cultures.

In week seven, we look at the issue of cultural capital compared to other forms of capital.  And then we consider two different theoretical perspectives on the social role of the school curriculum – the functionalist view that schools teach the knowledge and values that all adults need in order to function in a modern society; and the social reproduction view that schools teach different knowledge and values to students from different backgrounds, thus preparing them for stratified futures.

In week eight, we read a classic book by the political economist Albert Hirschman – Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – which explores the mechanisms by which different kinds of organizations correct for dysfunctional outcomes.  He shows how market organizations are primarily responsive to exit, in which customers signal their dissatisfaction with a product by buying another one instead.  On the other hand, political organizations are primarily responsive to voice, in which clients signal their dissatisfaction by directly voicing their complaint.  From this view, low functioning schools can be seen as unhappy hybrids – political organizations that respond to voice but provoke dissatisfied customers to exit.

In week nine, we read another classic book by the political scientist and anthropologist James Scott – Seeing Like a State.  Here he addresses the problems inherent in state-initiated efforts at social engineering.  The issue is that such schemes too often involve an attempt by planners in the capital to impose a highly rationalized and universalistic model of social order on remote ecologies that are organic and particularistic.  Which sounds a lot like what happens in school reform.

In week ten, we look at the role that educational researchers play in shaping educational policy, the nature of educational research as a practice, and the trajectory of academic careers in a stratified system of higher education.

Readings

            All of the readings for this class are available as PDFs on the web.   This includes the full text of the two books assigned for the course, Hirschman and Scott.

Course Outline

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

1) Introduction:  The Historical Roots and Competing Goals of the U.S. School System

Tips for week 1 readings

Labaree, David F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34:1 (Spring), 39-81.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Founding the American school system. In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling (pp. 42-79). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class slides for week 1

2) The Problems of Teaching as a Practice

Tips for week 2 readings

Cohen, David K. (1988), Teaching practice: Plus que ça change.  In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84).  Berkeley: McCutchan.

Lortie, Dan C. (1969). The balance of control and autonomy in elementary teaching. In Amatai Etzioni (Ed.), The semi-professions and their organization. Teachers, nurses, social workers. New York, 1-53.

Tyack, David & Tobin, William. (1994). The “grammar” of schooling: Why has it been so hard to change?  American Educational Research Journal 31: 3 (Autumn), 453-479.

Class slides for week 2

3) The Classroom, the Teacher-Student Relationship, and Tracking

Tips for week 3 readings

Jackson, Philip. (1990). The daily grind.  Life in classrooms (pp. 33-50). New York: Teachers College Press.

Waller, Willard.  (1932/1965). The teacher-pupil relationship. In The sociology of teaching (pp. 189-211). New York: Wiley.

Oakes, Jeannie. (1986). Keeping track, part 1: The policy and practice of curriculum inequality. Phi Delta Kappan68, 12-17.

Fine, Michelle. (1986). Why urban adolescents drop into and out of public high school. The Teachers College Record87(3), 393-409.

Class slides for week 3

4) The Organization of the School

Tips for week 4 readings

Katz, Michael. (1971). Alternative proposals for American education: The nineteenth century. In Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools (pp. 3-55). New York: Praeger.

Weick, Karl. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely-coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly21, 1-19.

Cuban, Larry. (2013). Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice?  Inside the black box of classroom practiceChange without reform in American education (pp. 155-187). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Class slides for week 4

5) Expectations and the Roots of the Stability of the School as an Organization

Tips for week 5 readings

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.

Meyer, John W. & Rowan, Brian. (1983). The structure of educational organizations. In Organizational environments: Ritual and rationality (pp. 71-97), edited by John W. Meyer and William R. Scott. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Parsons, Talcott. (1959). The school as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. In Social structure and personality (pp. 129-154). New York: Free Press.

Labaree, David F. (2014). Schooling in the United States:  Historical analyses. In D.C. Phillips (Ed.), Encyclopedia of educational theory and philosophy (pp. 740-43). Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Class slides for week 5

6) Class, Race, and Culture in the School

Tips for week 6 readings

Bernstein, Basil. (1977). Social class, language and socialization. In Jerome Karabel & A. H. Halsey (eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 473-486).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International journal of qualitative studies in education11(1), 7-24.

Delpit, Lisa. (1995).  The silenced dialogue.  In Other people’s children (pp. 21-47).  New York: New Press.

Recommended:  The Problem We All Live With, Parts 1 and 2.  (2015). This American Life Podcast.  http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with.

Class slides for week 6

7) Cultural Difference and the School Curriculum

Tips for week 7 readings

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1986). The forms of capital. In John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood.

McWhorter, John. (2018). There’s nothing wrong with Black English. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/who-gets-to-use-black-english/566867/?utm_source=twb.

Dreeben, Robert. (1968). The contribution of schooling to the learning of norms: Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity. In On what is learned in school (pp. 63-90). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Anyon, Jean. (1981). Social class and school knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry, 11, 3-42.

Class slides for week 7

8) Schools as Political and Market Entities

Tips for week 8 readings

Hirschman, Albert O. (2006). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Chubb, John E. & Moe, Terry M. (1988).  Politics, markets, and the organization of schools. American Political Science Review, 82:4 (December), 1065-1087.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of black folk. New York: Knopf. http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/203/the-souls-of-black-folk/4457/chapter-13-of-the-coming-of-john/

Class slides for week 8

9) The Problem of School Reform – Imposing a Rationalized Vision on the Ecology of the Classroom; Schooling and the Meritocracy

Tips for week 9 readings

Scott, James. (1999).  Seeing like a state.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  Introduction, chapters 1-2 and 9-10.

McClay, William M. (2016). A distant elite: How meritocracy went wrong. The Hedgehog Review 18:2 (Summer). http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2016_Summer_McClay.php

Class slides for week 9

10) The Role of Researchers in Educational Policy and the Prospects for New Researchers in the University

Tips for week 10 readings

Cohen, David K. & Garet, Michael S. (1975). Reforming educational policy with applied social research. Harvard Educational Review45, 17-43.

Weber, Max. (1919/1958). Science as a vocation. In H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber (pp. 129-156). New York: Oxford University Press.

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education2:1, 5-17.

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education2:1, 78-87.

Class slides for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

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

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

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

 Guidelines for Analytical Writing

             In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points.  They apply in particular to the longer papers, but most of the same concerns apply to short papers as well.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test.  Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.

 

  1. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.

 

  1. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.

 

  1. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.

 

  1. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.

 

  1. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.

 

  1. Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course.  You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.

 

  1. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.

 

  1. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.

 

  1. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.

 

  1. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  This can be done through in-text citation:  Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Kliebard, 1986, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper.  You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes:  Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text.  (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.)  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.

 

  1. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.  You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version.  This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed.  Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.

 

Posted in Ed schools, Educational goals, History of education

An Unlovely Legacy: The Disabling Impact of the Market on American Teacher Education

What with huge problems hanging in the balance right now, like the future of American democracy and the world order, this might be a good time to focus on a little problem, one mostly of academic interest.  The issue for today is — wait for it — the trouble with American ed schools.  Sounds a bit less consequential and a bit more manageable than the election, doesn’t it?

So I’m posting a piece I published in Kappan way back in 1994.  Here’s a link to the original.  It’s the story about how market forces shaped the development of education schools in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving them in a relatively weakened state, characterized by both low status and mediocre performance.  

As I re-read this paper, I realized it’s also a period piece.  Published in the early years of the Clinton administration, it depicts a time with ed schools were trying to pull themselves out of the doldrums through a reform movement called the Holmes Group.  This was a collection of elite ed school deans who proposed to upgrade the stature and scholarship of the field and in the process professionalize the American teaching force.  In one stroke it would elevate both teachers and teacher educators.  One proposal was for ed schools to ally with K-12 colleagues to develop what they called “professional development schools,” which were places where student teachers could learn their profession at a high level, in a setting akin to the teaching hospitals that train physicians.

For me, this was a particularly interesting time because the president of the Holmes Group was my dean at Michigan State, Judy Lanier, and the Group’s  reports were being written by my colleagues in Erickson Hall.  It was an exciting moment — even if it eventually went nowhere.

In the paper, I tell a story of two kinds of market forces that undermined the mission of the emergent ed schools.  One was a push for social efficiency, which put a premium on producing quantity over quality in the preparation of teachers.  Another was social mobility, as a lot of students used the normal schools and teachers colleges less as a way to become teachers than as a way to open up access to a wide array of white collar jobs.  Here’s the money quote.

In addition, both approaches to teacher preparation tended to undercut the creation of a strong educational content in teacher education programs. Social efficiency undercut content in the rush by policymakers to mass-produce teachers of minimum competence. Social mobility undercut content in the rush by ambitious individuals to use teachers’ colleges as a means of climbing the social ladder. There is nothing in either goal that would press teacher education to provide an intensive and extensive educational experience for prospective teachers, nothing in either to promote academic rigor or prolonged application. In fact, everything urges toward superficiality (providing thin coverage of both subject matter and pedagogy), brevity (keeping the program short and unintrusive), accessibility (allowing entry to nearly anyone), low level of difficulty (making the process easy and graduation certain), and parsimony (doing all of this on the cheap). This, I submit, is the market-based legacy of limited vision and ineffectual process that afflicted teacher education in the past and continues to do so today.

I later developed pieces of this argument in my 2004 book, The Trouble With Ed Schools.  Hope you enjoy reading this moldy oldie.  

Ed Schools Cover

An Unlovely Legacy: The Disabling Impact of the Market on American Teacher Education

David F. Labaree

American teacher education is back in the news, but unfortunately the news is not good. This, however, is far from being a novel situation. From my reading of the history of American education, it seems that it has always been open season on teacher education. Now, as in the past, everyone seems to have something bad to say about the way we prepare our teachers. If you believe what you read and what you hear, a lot of what is wrong with American education these days can be traced to the failings of teachers and to shortcomings in the processes by which we train them for their tasks. We are told that students are not learning, that productivity is not growing, that economic competitiveness is declining – all to some extent because teachers don’t know how to teach.

As a result, politicians and policy makers at all levels have been talking about a number of possible remedies: testing students as they enter and leave teacher education programs, extending and upgrading the content of these programs, and even bypassing the programs altogether through alternative certification. The latter option means pushing people with subject-matter expertise or practical occupational experience directly into the classroom, thus protecting them from the corrupting influence of schools of education. Meanwhile, academics in the more prestigious colleges within American universities ridicule the curriculum of the school of education for what they consider its mindlessness and uselessness. Ordinary citizens also get into the act. For example, there is a recent book written by a journalist, Rita Kramer, who spent some time sitting in teacher education classrooms and interviewing education professors. Her title quite nicely captures the general lack of restraint with which critics have tended to approach teacher education: Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers.

As I said, none of this criticism of teacher education is particularly new. The training of teachers has never been revered by the academy or terribly popular with the public. If one could sum up the usual complaints about teacher education in one sentence, it would be something like this: “Schools of education have failed to provide an education for teachers that is either academically elevated or pedagogically effective.” Instead of rallying to the defense of the teacher education establishment, of which I am a part, I would like to explore why this enterprise has earned such a bad reputation.

Yes, teacher education in the U.S. has been and in many ways continues to be an intellectually undemanding and frequently ineffectual form of professional training. Where I disagree with the current pattern of criticism, however, is in the diagnosis of the roots of the problem. The most popular current diagnosis of what ails American teacher education follows directly from the reigning view of what the problem is with schooling in general. In the conservative climate of the past decade, that understanding is simple to state. The problem with schools, we are told, is that they have been ruined by too much politics; the solution, we hear, is to inject a little discipline from the marketplace. This interpretation has become part of the fabric of contemporary thought about schools, but the most prominent ideological weavers currently working in this tradition are John Chubb and Terry Moe, authors of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.2

My own interpretation is precisely the opposite of theirs. I argue that both K-12 education and teacher education have been ruined by too much market influence and not enough democratic politics. A generous democratic rhetoric has surrounded teacher education from the days of the first normal schools, but the fact of the matter is that the dominant influence on the form and content of teacher education has come not from politics but from the market.

This market influence has resulted in the widespread belief that education has two purposes: one I call “social efficiency”; the other, “social mobility.” These two objectives have had some contradictory effects on teacher education. But they have a great deal in common, since both represent ways that teacher education has been required to respond to demands from the market – the job market in the case of social efficiency and the credentials market in the case of social mobility. The net result has been to undermine efforts to enrich the quality, duration, rigor, and political aims of teacher education. The history of teacher education has not been very elevated, either academically or politically – thanks directly, I suggest, to market influence.

In pursuing this theme, I will explore the following issues. First, I will say a little about the nature of these market-oriented purposes and their impact on American education in general. Then I will examine the historical role that each has played in shaping teacher education. This in turn will lead to a discussion of the kinds of problems that these objectives have brought about for the form and content of teacher education. And finally, I will explore one current reform initiative, known as the teacher professionalization movement, which represents an effort to buffer teacher education from the influence of the market. Will this effort move teacher education in a desirable direction or just replace one undesirable influence with another?

ALTERNATIVE PURPOSES IN AMERICAN EDUCATION

Both social efficiency and social mobility are purposes that have shaped American schooling in significant ways over the last 150 years. Let me say a little about the nature of each purpose and the character of its impact on schools.3

From the perspective of social efficiency, the purpose of schooling is to train students as future workers. This means providing them with the particular skills and attitudes required to fill the full range of positions in a stratified occupational structure. In short, according to this view, schools should give the job market what it wants. Social efficiency is an expression of the educational visions of employers, government officials, and taxpayers. These constituencies share a concern about filling job slots with skilled workers so that society will function efficiently, and they want schools to provide this service in a cost-effective manner.

From the perspective of social mobility, the purpose of schooling is to provide individuals with an equal opportunity to attain the more desirable social positions. This goal expresses the educational visions of the parent of a school-age child. Such a parent is concerned less with meeting society’s needs and keeping down costs than with using schools to help his or her child to get ahead. From this angle, the essence of schooling is to provide not vocational skills but educational credentials, which can be used as currency in the zero-sum competition for social status.

Note that both social efficiency and social mobility are purposes that link education directly to the job market. The key difference is that a person promoting the first goal views this link from the top down, taking the perspective of the educational provider, while a person promoting the second goal views the link from the bottom up, taking the perspective of the educational consumer.

In addition to these two market goals, however, there is also a third type of goal – arising from democratic politics – that has offered a more generous vision for American education. This is the goal that primarily motivated the founders of the common schools. The leaders of the common school movement saw universal public education as a mechanism for protecting the democratic polity from the growing class divisions and possessive individualism of an emerging market society. The common schools, they felt, could help establish a republican community on the basis of a shared educational experience cutting across class and ethnic differences. These schools could also help prepare people to function independently as citizens in a democratic society. This vision is at heart an inclusive one, grounded in political rather than economic concerns.

In spite of the power of the market, this democratic goal has found expression in American education in a number of ways over the years. There was the common school itself – which drew students from the whole community, presented them with a common curriculum, and generally chose to ignore the problem of articulating schooling with the structure of the job market. Then at the turn of the century came the comprehensive high school, which brought a heterogeneous array of students and programs together under one roof, even though students experienced quite different forms of education under that roof. More recently we have seen expressions of this goal in efforts at inclusive education, as reformers have sought to reduce inequalities as sociated with the race, class, gender, and handicapping conditions of students.

These three goals have frequently collided in the history of American education, resulting in an institution driven by contradictory impulses coexisting in a state of uneasy balance. However, the history of American teacher education has demonstrated a narrower range of purposes than this. There has been very little sign within teacher education of the effects of the democratic purposes that helped to shape schooling more generally – except, perhaps, a thin strand of democratic rhetoric running through the teacher education literature. In practice, teacher education has shown primarily the politically and socially narrowing effects of the market. Let’s consider what effect each of these market purposes has had on American teacher education over the years.4

SOCIAL EFFICIENCY

While social efficiency goals for the teaching of students arose around 1900 (with the emergence of the high school and the advent of vocationalism), this emphasis came much earlier for the teaching of teachers. From the perspective of social efficiency, the central problem for teacher education was the chronic under-supply of teachers that developed in the mid-19th century and continued on into the early 20th century. The initial source of this problem was the development of universal public education, which produced a powerful demand for a large number of certified elementary teachers. In answer to this demand, the larger urban school systems opened their own normal schools, parallel to or incorporated within city high schools, for the purpose of staffing their elementary classrooms. At the same time, state governments around the country created state normal schools to meet the needs of those districts that could not support normal schools of their own.

Then, after elementary education had filled up, there came the rapid expansion of high school enrollments at the turn of the century. (High school attendance doubled every decade from 1890 to 1940.) This in turn created a strong demand for high school teachers, and the answer to that demand was found in the creation of state teachers’ colleges.

The essence of the social efficiency impulse was to create a form of teacher education that was organized around three basic principles – quantity, quality, and efficiency. The issue of quantity was the most obvious. The large number of slots to be filed created a need for a form of teacher education that could effectively mass-produce teachers. The issue of quality was a bit more complicated. The problem here was the need for a publicly credible system for certifying that the new teachers met some minimum standard of quality – a form of assurance that was necessary in order to maintain public support for the investment in schooling. This meant that teacher education needed to be established under public administration and around state certification requirements. The concern for quality, however, was undermined substantially by the concerns for quantity and efficiency.

By efficiency I mean simply that teacher education was under great pressure to prepare teachers at both low cost and high speed. The fiscal burden of expanding enrollments at the elementary level was enormous, and it only increased with the expansion of the high school. One answer to the efficiency problem was to feminize teaching, which school systems did in great haste starting in the mid-19th century. By paying women one-half of what they paid men, school systems found an effective way of getting two teachers for the price of one. The side effect, however, was to create a profession characterized by very high turnover, since, as a general rule, women tended to teach only during the half dozen or so years between the completion of their own education and marriage. As a result, teacher education found itself forced to turn out teachers even faster and more cheaply in order to compensate for the brief duration of teachers’ service.

The consequence of the goal of social efficiency was that it put emphasis on the creation of a form of teacher education that could produce the most teachers, in the shortest time, at the lowest cost, and at the minimum level of ability that the public would allow. All in all, this hardly constituted an elevating influence.

SOCIAL MOBILITY

Much to the chagrin of the founders and funders of the various teacher education enterprises, these institutions quickly became subverted by another powerful market force: the demand by individuals for access to high school and college degrees and, through them, to social mobility. Teacher education was designed to be accessible and easy in the name of social efficiency. But ironically, it found itself the most accessible and easiest route to middle-class status for a large number of ambitious students and their parents. Jurgen Herbst has described this problem quite nicely in his book on the history of teacher education.5 There quickly emerged a strong form of consumer pressure on teacher education institutions to provide general liberal arts education for students who, in fact, had little or no intention of teaching.

The result was that normal schools underwent a gradual transition into general purpose high schools. A case in point is the history of Philadelphia’s Girls High School. Created in 1848, this school went through a series of name changes over the rest of the century – from Girls High School to Girls Normal School to Girls High and Normal School and finally back to Girls High School again. The problem in Philadelphia as elsewhere was that the purpose of the institution, though initially to train elementary teachers, was in fact up for grabs. Policy makers and fiscal authorities wanted these schools to retain their social efficiency aims and train teachers, but the parents of the school age girls wanted them to provide a broad secondary education for their daughters.

We discover the same sorts of tensions playing out in the history of state teachers’ colleges after the turn of century. These institutions were under considerable pressure from students to transform themselves into liberal arts colleges. And, given the extreme sensitivity of American higher education to consumer pressures, they eventually did just that in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1960s and 1970s they moved one more step in that direction by becoming general-purpose universities. What was once the Michigan State Normal School in Ypsilanti is now Eastern Michigan University.

Consider the implications for teacher education of this pressure to provide social mobility. The fact that many teacher education students did not want to become teachers put the emphasis on a form of teacher education that was unobtrusive in character and minimal in scope for the convenience of students seeking a general education. These students were focused more on credentials and status than on learning and content, which meant that teacher education was expected to make only the most modest of demands so as not to block a student’s access to the desired degree.

Now let’s examine some problems with teacher education that can be traced to this pressure from the job market and the credentials market.

MARKET-BASED PROBLEMS IN TEACHER EDUCATION

Some of the problems that markets created for teacher education derived from the conflict between the goals of social efficiency and social mobility. One such difficulty was simple inefficiency. The consumer pressure for mobility through teacher education promoted considerable inefficiency, since it led to the expansion of a system of teacher education that was producing a large number of nonteaching graduates. In effect, this amounted to a collective subsidy of individual ambition. As a result of this situation, teacher education grew accustomed to functioning as a system of mass production with a low net yield. It was under constant pressure to produce ever more graduates and to keep ever more rigid control of the unit costs of this production, simply because the ultimate number of teachers produced was so small relative to the number of students processed.

In addition, teacher education developed a serious identity crisis because of the confusion over which market it was supposed to serve. Trying to run a teacher education program is quite difficult when you can’t agree on its purpose. Is the primary focus on general or vocational education? Should the program concentrate on liberal arts or on teaching methods? Is the aim to provide an individual benefit for the consumer of higher education or a collective benefit for citizens needing qualified teachers? This uncertainty about purpose has afflicted teacher education from the very beginning and has continued right up to the recent past.

Some of the problems that teacher education has experienced derive from market-based commonalities between the goals of social efficiency and social mobility. After all, both of these tendencies arose from the perceived need to adapt teacher education to market demand. In the case of social efficiency, this was expressed as a need for more bodies in the classroom; in the case of social mobility, it was expressed as a need for credentials to equip students to compete for social position. Neither of these, I suggest, was a terribly noble goal for an educational institution. Neither provided any political vision for teacher education – no vision of exactly what education and teacher education should be, what kind of teachers we needed, what kind of learning we wanted them to foster, or what political/moral/social outcomes we wanted to produce.

In addition, both approaches to teacher preparation tended to undercut the creation of a strong educational content in teacher education programs. Social efficiency undercut content in the rush by policymakers to mass-produce teachers of minimum competence. Social mobility undercut content in the rush by ambitious individuals to use teachers’ colleges as a means of climbing the social ladder. There is nothing in either goal that would press teacher education to provide an intensive and extensive educational experience for prospective teachers, nothing in either to promote academic rigor or prolonged application. In fact, everything urges toward superficiality (providing thin coverage of both subject matter and pedagogy), brevity (keeping the program short and unintrusive), accessibility (allowing entry to nearly anyone), low level of difficulty (making the process easy and graduation certain), and parsimony (doing all of this on the cheap). This, I submit, is the market-based legacy of limited vision and ineffectual process that afflicted teacher education in the past and continues to do so today.

AN ALTERNATIVE VISION: TEACHER PROFESSIONALIZATION

One recent effort to remedy some of these historical problems that are embedded in teacher education has come from within the community of teacher educators via the Holmes Group. This group is made up of approximately 100 deans from colleges of education at research-oriented universities. Their answer is a reform proposal that focuses on the goal of teacher professionalization.6

The Holmes Group argues that teachers need to receive an extensive and intensive professional education much like that accorded doctors and lawyers. Such an education, they assert, would help to free teachers from subordination within schools and, more important, would enable them to provide students with the kind of empowered learning that would allow them full participation in a democratic society. This approach tries to buffer teacher education from the corrupting influence of the marketplace by wrapping it in the armor of professionalism (and the rhetoric of democracy). However, as I have argued elsewhere, this movement is likely in practice to submit teachers and students to another kind of power – the intellectual and social power of the university within which teacher education has become imprisoned.7

The problem, I suggest, is that the movement to professionalize teaching has arisen from the status needs of teacher educators within the university. When it comes to academic prestige, teacher educators have always been at the bottom of the ladder. Arriving in the university relatively late and bearing the stigma of the normal school, they found themselves ill-equipped to compete for professional standing within the university. Yet the rules of academic status are well-defined. To gain prestige within the university, professors need to pursue a vigorous agenda of research activities, especially those framed in the methodology of science. Starting in the 1960s, teacher educators drew on the behavioral scientific model pioneered by educational psychologists and set off a landslide of research publications. The quantity of output since then has been so great that it has taken three large handbooks just to summarize the recent research on teaching and another to summarize the research on teacher education.8

The result for teacher education has been to push it to adopt a curriculum for training teachers that is based on its own scientific research. While this move may represent a partial reduction in the extent to which teacher education is a simple expression of the market, it serves to transform teacher education, at least in part, into an expression of the power and knowledge of the university – particularly reflecting the status concerns and scientific world view of the education professoriate. Like its market-based predecessors, driven by the goals of social efficiency and social mobility, this approach to teacher preparation undermines the kind of emphases that would support democratic schooling. What it promises to do is to add the rationalized authority of the university researcher to social efficiency and social mobility as driving forces behind teacher training.

Sadly, a truly democratic politics remains one goal that has never been implemented within the mainstream practice of teacher education. This more generous vision, which has intermittently influenced thinking about schools, also needs to become a factor in the way we think about the teachers within those schools and in the way they are prepared. Instead of structuring teacher education around the base concerns of efficient production and personal ambition, I suggest that we need to think about organizing it in a way that reflects what I hope are our more elevated concerns about the quality of education our teachers and students will receive and the political and social consequences that will emerge from that education.

  1. Rita Kramer, Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers (New York: Free Press, 1991).
  2. John Chubb and Terry Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990).
  3. I have developed this analysis of the impact of the market on American schools at greater length in the following works: 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); and “From Comprehensive High School to Community College: Politics, Markets, and the Evolution of Educational Opportunity,” in Ronald G. Corwin, ed., Research in Sociology of Education and Socialization, vol. 9 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1990), pp. 203-40.
  4. The best general history of American teacher education is Jurgen Herbst, And Sadly Teach: Teacher Education and Professionalization in American Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). See also John I. Goodlad, Roger Soder, and Kenneth A. Sirotnik, eds., Places Where Teachers Are Taught (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990).
  5. Herbst, op. cit.
  6. Tomorrow’s Teachers (East Lansing, Mich.: Holmes Group, 1986); and Tomorrow’s Schools: Principles for the Design of Professional Development Schools (East Lansing, Mich.: Holmes Group, 1990).
  7. David F. Labaree, “Power, Knowledge, and the Rationalization of Teaching: A Genealogy of the Movement to Professionalize Teachers,” Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1992, pp. 123-54; and idem, “Doing Good, Doing Science: The Holmes Group Reports and the Rhetorics of Educational Reform,” Teachers College Record, Summer 1992, pp. 628-40.
  8. Nathaniel L. Gage, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963); R. M. W. Travers, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1973); Merlin C. Wittrock, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1986); and W. Robert Houston, ed., Handbook of Research on Teacher Education (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
Posted in Educational goals, Inequality, Schooling, Social mobility

Guhin: How Covid Can Change What Schools Are For

This post is a short essay by Jeffrey Guhin published on August 27, 2020 in Hedgehog Review.  In it he puts forth an argument about the purpose of schooling that resonates with some of my own work, including recent posts here such as this, this, and this.  Here’s a link to the original.

Guhin Image

How COVID Can Change What Schools Are For

What if the purpose of education has nothing to do with social mobility?

Jeffrey Guhin

As school years start up again, just about everyone agrees COVID is hurting education, except, perhaps, those with healthy financial stakes in online learning. Parents are exhausted, students are bored, and teachers and staff are overwhelmed, plus terrified of getting sick. Yet if COVID does nothing else for education, it might force all of us to spend a bit more time examining what all this educational effort is actually for.

Listen to most policymakers, and you’d probably guess the purpose of education is social mobility—lifting poor kids out of poverty and getting middle-class kids into Harvard, even if schools aren’t achieving that goal. Meanwhile, the more radical among us argue that schools are simply doing what they were always intended to do, not fix inequality but maintain it, all the while convincing both winners and losers that where they wind up is where they deserve to be.

But what if—and just go with me here for a second—the purpose of education has nothing to do with social mobility? What if we let schools off the hook for fixing social inequalities and just fixed those inequalities instead? What if we took money from the wealthy and took privileges from the entrenched and we gave these boons to those who needed them more? There are dozens of ways such changes could take shape: wealth taxes, reparations for black and indigenous Americans, stronger unions, and universal child care, to name just a few.

As things are, a focus on social mobility pits students, families, and schools against each other for ever-diminishing resources, making it easy to forget that education could just as easily be about community as it is about competition. Whether it’s school choice and vouchers or simply ensuring it’s your kids who gets the best teachers and COVID pods, schooling as the solution to social mobility helps to reinforce that education, and, well, life, are about each individual getting ahead.  And that cynicism boils down to the experience of learning itself.

When we’re obsessed with schools as the primary solution to social inequality, the content of learning—everything from fractions to Franz Ferdinand—becomes a means to an end. Some of that content might be useful (like learning to read or touch-type). Students might even find some of it meaningful, like the elegance of a complex math solution or the thrill of a well-crafted experiment. Yet all too often that content is treated as a checkbox to complete, with each lesson bringing students one step closer to the degree, the credential they really need.

Education becomes no longer about what students do but rather where students arrive, and so it’s no wonder young people feel alienated by all the time between beginning and end. And, because of our unwillingness to consider more dramatic solutions to inequality, these students and their families know they have no other choice. Families might believe the strangely radical idea that your value as a person is entirely separate from your achievement in school. But until we live in a society that sees inequality as a problem rather than a justification, that kind of commitment to human dignity is a pretty idea that can’t pay the bills.

Concerns about social mobility also dominate discussions about COVID and education. Marginalized students fall behind benchmarks while privileged students get further ahead, whether via pods, readily available parents, or simply the certainty they have the medical care and financial support to handle whatever COVID University sends their way. Fixing these inequalities is as necessary as ever, and they highlight the vital role schools play in the lives of our nation’s children. Schools, often quite literally, feed those who need to be fed.

Yet too often schools are tasked not simply with caring for their students but with repairing an entire social order. Schools can do so much we do not ask of them, like developing solidarity, fostering political responsibility, and ensuring a love of learning for its own sake. Yet the one thing we are most insistent they accomplish, the ensuring of “equal opportunity,” is something even the best school is simply not capable of achieving. We’re asking our schools to do the wrong things, and then blaming them, and their students, when they fail. And now we’re going to try it all again while remote learning.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The potential freedom new COVID syllabi and pedagogies provide us could give room for different ways to think about education, both while we’re in this mess and maybe even when we get back to our classrooms. In her vital work on the purpose of schoolsbell hooks provides a model for such rethinking, echoing the landmark work of John Dewey, Anna J. Cooper, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

hooks helps us recognize that what we learn must be connected to how we live, centered within the relationships students forge with their teachers and with each other. Learning should always be meaningful—capable, at any moment, of bringing us to moral and political transformations. It is through this context of a safe and trusting community that students can learn about injustice and privilege, about problems they can see in their own stories or recognize as their own responsibilities. Ironically, educating for justice becomes much easier when education is no longer considered the only means of building a just society.

As we get ready for another COVID semester, the stress of combining full-time work and full-time de-facto homeschooling is matched by the sadness of smushing all the power and beauty of education into the meritocratic ideology it has come to represent. Our students, our children, are more than achieving automatons. Yet this is where our focus on schools as agents of social mobility has brought them, and us. Don’t let the crisis go to waste. Fix inequality in whatever ways we can. And then we can let education actually be about education, even if we’re still just doing it at home.

Posted in Educational goals, History of education

Are Students Consumers?

This post is a piece I published in Education Week way back in 1997.  It’s a much shorter and more accessible version of the most cited paper I ever published, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals.”  Drawing on the latter, it lays out a case of three competing educational goals that have shaped the history of American schooling: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. 

In reading it over, I find it holds up rather well, except for a tendency to demonize social mobility.  Since then I’ve come to think that, while the latter does a lot of harm, it’s also an essential component of schooling.  We can’t help but be concerned about the selective benefit that schooling provides us and our children even as we at the same time are concerned about supporting the broader benefits that schooling provides the public as a whole.

See what you think.  Here’s a link to the original and also to a PDF in case you can’t get past the paywall.  

 

Are Students “Consumers”?

David F. Labaree

Observers of American education have frequently noted that the general direction of educational reform over the years has not been forward but back and forth. Reform, it seems, is less an engine of progress than a pendulum, swinging monotonously between familiar policy alternatives. Progress is hard to come by.

However, a closer reading of the history of educational change in this country reveals a pattern that is both more complex and in a way more troubling than this. Yes, the back-and-forth movement is real, but it turns out that this pattern is for the most part good news. It simply represents a periodic shift in emphasis between two goals for education — democratic equality and social efficiency — that represent competing but equally indispensable visions of education.

The bad news is that in the 20th century, and especially in the past several decades, the pendulum swings increasingly have given way to a steady movement in the direction of a third goal, social mobility. This shift from fluctuation to forward motion may look like progress, but it’s not. The problem is that it represents a fundamental change in the way we think about education, by threatening to transform this most public of institutions from a public good into a private good. The consequences for both school and society, I suggest, are potentially devastating.

Let me explain why. First we’ll consider the role that these three goals have played in American education, and then we can explore the implications of the movement from equality and efficiency to mobility.

The first goal is democratic equality, which is the oldest of the three. From this point of view, the purpose of schooling is to produce competent citizens. This goal provided the primary impetus for the common school movement, which established the foundation for universal public education in this country during the middle of the 19th century. The idea was and is that all citizens need to be able to think, understand the world around them, behave sociably, and act according to shared political values — and that public schools are the best places to accomplish these ends. The corollary of this goal is that all these capabilities need to be equally distributed, and that public schools can serve as what Horace Mann called the great “balance wheel,” by providing a common educational competence that helps reduce differences.

Some of the most enduring and familiar characteristics of our current system of education were formed historically in response to this goal. There are the neighborhood elementary school and the comprehensive high school, which draw together students from the whole community under one roof. There is the distinctively American emphasis on general education at all levels of the educational system. There is the long-standing practice of socially promoting students from grade to grade. And there is the strong emphasis on inclusion, which over the years has led to such innovations as racial integration and the mainstreaming of special education students.

The second goal is social efficiency, which first became prominent in the Progressive era at the turn of the century. From this perspective, the purpose of education is not to produce citizens but to train productive workers. The idea is that our society’s health depends on a growing economy, and economy needs workers with skills that will allow them to carry out their occupational roles effectively. Schools, therefore, should place less emphasis on general education and more on the skills needed for particular jobs. And because skill requirements differ greatly from job to job, schools need to tailor curricula to the job and then sort students into the different curricula.

Consider some of the enduring effects that this goal has had on education over the years. There is the presence of explicitly vocational programs of study within the high school and college curriculum. There is the persistent practice of tracking and ability grouping. And there is the prominence of social efficiency arguments in the public rhetoric about education, echoing through every millage election and every race for public office in the past half-century. We are all familiar with the argument that pops upon these occasions — that education is the keystone of the community’s economic future, that spending money on education is really an investment in human capital that will pay big dividends.

Notice that the first two goals are in some ways quite different in the effects they have had on schools. One emphasizes a political role for schools while the other stresses an economic role. One pushes for general education, the other for specialized education. One homogenizes, the other differentiates.

But from another angle, the two take a similar approach, because they both treat education as public good. A public good is one that benefits all members of a community, which means that you cannot avoid being affected by it. For example, police protection and road maintenance have an impact directly or indirectly on the life of everyone. Likewise, everyone stands to gain from a public school system that produces competent citizens and productive workers, even those members of the community who don’t have children in public schools.

This leads us to something that is quite distinctive about the third educational goal, the one I call social mobility. From the perspective of this goal, education is not a public good but a private good. If the first goal for education takes the viewpoint of the citizen and the second takes that of the taxpayer, the third takes the viewpoint of the individual educational consumer.

The purpose of education from this angle is not what it can do for democracy or the economy but what it can do for me. Historically, education has paid off handsomely for individuals who stayed in school and came away with diplomas. Educational credentials have made it possible for people to distinguish themselves from their competitors, giving them a big advantage in the race for good jobs and a comfortable life. As a result, education has served as a springboard to upward mobility for the working class and a buttress against downward mobility for the middle class.

Note that if education is going to serve the social-mobility goal effectively, it has to provide some people with benefits that others don’t get. Education in this sense is a private good that only benefits the owner, an investment in my future, not yours, in my children, not other people’s children. For such an educational system to work effectively, it needs to focus a lot of attention on grading, sorting, and selecting students. It needs to provide a variety of ways for individuals to distinguish themselves from others — such as by placing themselves in a more prestigious college, a higher curriculum track, the top reading group, or the gifted program. In this sense the social-mobility goal reinforces the same sorting and selecting tendency in education that is promoted by the social-efficiency goal, but without the same concern for providing socially useful skills.

Now that I’ve spelled out some of the main characteristics of these three goals for education, let me show how they can help us understand the major swings of the pendulum in educational reform over the last 200 years.

During the common school era in the mid-19th century, the dominant goal for American education democratic equality. The connection between school and work at this point was weak. People earned job skills on the job rather than in school, and educational credentials offered social distinction but not necessarily preference in hiring.

By the end of the 19th century, however, both social efficiency and social mobility emerged as major factors in shaping education, while the influence of democratic equality declined. High school enrollments began to take off in the 1890s, which posed two big problems for education — a social-efficiency problem (how to provide education for the new wave of students), and a social-mobility problem (how to protect the value of high school credentials for middle-class consumers). The result was a series of reforms that defined the Progressive era in American education during the first half of the 20th century. These included such innovations as tracking, ability testing, ability grouping, vocationalism, special education, social promotion, and life adjustment.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s we saw a swing back from social efficiency to democratic equality (reinforced by the social-mobility goal). The national movement for racial equality brought pressure to integrate schools, and these arguments for political equality and individual opportunity led to a variety of related reforms aimed at reducing educational discrimination based on class, gender, and handicapping condition.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the momentum shifted back from democratic equality to social efficiency — again reinforced by social mobility. The emerging movement for educational standards responded both to concerns about declining economic competitiveness (seen as a deficiency of human capital) and to concerns about a glut of high school and college credentials (seen as a threat to social mobility).

However, another way to think about these historical trends in educational reform is to turn attention away from the pendulum swings between the first two goals and to focus instead on the steady growth in the influence of the third goal throughout the last 100 years. Since its emergence as a factor in the late 19th century, social mobility has gradually grown to become the dominant goal in American education. Increasingly, neither of the other two goals can make strong headway except in alliance with the third. Only social mobility, it seems, can afford to go it alone any longer. A prime example is the recent push for educational choice, charters, and vouchers. This is the strongest educational reform movement of the 1990s, and it is grounded entirely within the consumer-is-king perspective of the social-mobility goal.

So, you may ask, what are the implications of all this? I want to mention two problems that arise from the history of conflicting goals in American education — one deriving from the conflict itself and the other from the emerging dominance of social mobility. The second problem is more serious than the first.

On the issue of conflict: Contradictory goals have shaped the basic structure of American schools, and the result is a system that is unable to accomplish any one of these goals very effectively — which has been a common complaint about schools. Also, much of what passes for educational reform may be little more than ritual swings back and forth between alternative goals — another common complaint. But I don’t think this problem is really resolvable in any simple way. Americans seem to want and need an education system that serves political equality and economic productivity and personal opportunity, so we might as well learn how to live with it.

The bigger problem is not conflict over goals but the possible victory of social mobility over the other two. The long-term trend is in the direction of this goal, and the educational reform initiatives in the last decade suggest that this trend is accelerating. At the center of the current talk about education is a series of reforms designed to empower the educational consumer, and if they win out, this would resolve the tension between public and private conceptions of education decisively in the favor of the private view. Such a resolution to the conflict over goals would hurt education in at least two ways.

First, in an educational system where the consumer is king, who will look after the public’s interest in education? As supporters of the two public goals have long pointed out, we all have a stake in the outcomes of public education, since this is the institution that shapes our fellow citizens and fellow workers. In this sense, the true consumers of education are all of the members of the community — and not just the parents of school children. But these parents are the only ones whose interests matter forth school choice movement, and their consumer preferences will dictate the shape of the system.

A second problem is this: In an educational system where the opportunity for individual advancements is the primary focus, it becomes more important to get ahead than to get an education. When the whole point of education is not to ensure that I learn valuable skills but instead to give me a competitive social advantage, then it is only natural for me to focus my ingenuity as a student toward acquiring the most desirable grades, credits, and degrees rather than toward learning the curriculum.

We have already seen this taking place in American education in the past few decades. Increasingly, students have been acting more like smart consumers than eager learners. Their most pointed question to the teacher is “Will this be on the test?” They see no point in studying anything that doesn’t really count. If the student is the consumer and the goal is to get ahead rather than to get an education, then it is only rational for students to look for the best deal. And that means getting the highest grades and the most valuable credentials for the lowest investment of effort. As cagey consumers, children in school have come to be like the rest of us when we’re in the shopping mall: They hate to pay full price when they can get the same product on sale.

That’s the bad news from this little excursion into educational history, but don’t forget the good news as well. For 200 years, Americans have seen education as a central pillar of public life. The contradictory structure of American education today has embedded within it an array of social expectations and instructional practices that clearly express these public purposes. There is reason to think that Americans will not be willing to let educational consumerism drive this public-ness out of the public schools.