Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Social Programs

What Schools Can’t Do: Understanding the Chronic Failure of American School Reform

This post is the text of a lecture I gave in 2009 at the University of Berne.  It was originally published in the Swiss journal Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Historiographie and then found its way into my 2010 book, Someone Has to Fail.  Here is the link to the first published version.

It’s about a longstanding problem in American educational policy:  We ask schools to pursue goals that are beyond their capabilities.  Schools are simply not very good at a lot of things we ask them to do.  They can’t promote equality, they can’t end poverty, they can’t create good jobs, they can’t drive economic growth, they can’t promote public health.  Yet we expect them to do all this heavy lifting for us.

Part of the story is about why schools aren’t good at these things.  Another is why we keep giving them such assignments anyway.  The answer to the second, I suggest, is that we pass off on schools social problems that we are unwilling to accomplish through the political process, where the capability for success actually resides.  Instead of addressing these problems directly through political action, we foist them off on schools and then blame them for continually falling short of the desired goal.  Herein lies the reason why school reform has been such steady work.  Read and weep.


What Schools Can’t Do:

Understanding the Chronic Failure of American School Reform

Americans have a long history of pinning their hopes on education as the way to realize compelling social ideals and solve challenging social problems.  We want schools to promote civic virtue, economic productivity, and social mobility; to alleviate inequalities in race, class, and gender; to improve health, reduce crime, and protect the environment.  So we assign these social missions to schools, and educators gamely accept responsibility for carrying them out.  When the school system inevitably falls far short of these goals, we initiate a wave of school reform to realign the institution with its social goals and ramp up its effectiveness in attaining them.  The result, as one pair of scholars has put it, is that educational reform in the U.S. is “steady work.”  In this lecture, I want to tell a story:  What history tells us about what schools cannot do.

At its heart, this is a story grounded in paradox.  On the one hand, American schooling has been an extraordinary success.  It started as a small and peripheral enterprise in the 18th century and grew into a massive institution at the center of American society in the 21st, where it draws the lion’s share of the state budget and a quarter of the lives of citizens.  Central to its institutional success has been its ability to embrace and embody the social goals that have been imposed upon it.  Yet, in spite of continually recurring waves of school reform, education in the U.S. has been remarkably unsuccessful at implementing these goals in the classroom practices of education and at realizing these goals in the social outcomes of education.

America, I suggest, suffers from a school syndrome.  We have set our school system up for failure by asking it to fix all of our most pressing social problems, which we are unwilling to address more directly through political action rather than educational gesture.  Then we blame the system when it fails.  Both as a society and as individuals, we vest our greatest hopes in an institution that is manifestly unsuited to realizing them.  In part the system’s failure is the result of a tension between our shifting social aims for education and the system’s own organizational momentum.  We created the system to solve a critical social problem in the early days of the American republic, and its success in dealing with this problem fooled us into thinking that we could redirect the system toward new problems as time passed.  But the school system has a mind of its own, and trying to change its direction is like trying to do a U-turn with a battleship.

Today I will explore the failure of school reform to realize the central social goals that have driven it over the years.  And at the end I explore the roots of schooling’s failure in its role as an agent of social reform.

The social missions of schooling in liberal democracies arise from the tensions that are inherent in such societies.  One of these tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  In the American setting, these tensions have played out through the politics of education in the form of a struggle among three major social goals for the educational system.  One goal is democratic equality, which sees education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens.  Another is social efficiency, which sees education as a mechanism for developing productive workers.  A third is social mobility, which sees education as a mechanism for individuals to reinforce or enhance their social position.

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

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

So let me look at how well – or rather, how poorly – American schools have done at accomplishing these three social missions.

Democratic Equality

School systems around the world have been more effective at accomplishing their political mission than either their efficiency or mobility missions.  At the formative stage in the construction of a nation state, virtually anywhere in the world, education seems to have an important role to play.  The key contribution in this regard is that schooling helps form a national citizenry out of a collection of local identities.  One country after another developed a system of universal education at the point when it was trying to transform itself into a modern state, populated by citizens rather than subjects, with a common culture and a shared national identity.  For the U.S. in the early 19th century, the key problem during this transitional period was how to establish a modern social order based on exchange relations and democratic authority out of the remnants of a traditional social order based on patriarchal relations and feudal authority.  A system of public education helps to make this transition possible primarily by bringing a disparate group of youths in the community together under one roof and exposing them to a common curriculum and a common set of social experiences.  The result was to instill in students social norms that allowed them to emerge as self-regulating actors in the free market while still remaining good citizens and good Christians.  Creating such cultural communities is one of the few things that schools can consistently do well.

So the evidence shows that at the formative stage, school systems in the U.S. and elsewhere have been remarkably effective in promoting citizenship and forming a new social order.  This is quite an accomplishment, which more than justifies the huge investment in constructing these systems.  And building on this capacity for forming community, schools have continued to play an important role as the agent for incorporating newcomers.  This has been particularly important in an immigrant society like the United States, where – from the Irish and Germans in the mid-19th century to the Mexicans and South Asians in the early 21st century – schools have been the central mechanism for integrating foreigners into the American experience.

But the ability of schooling to promote democratic equality in the U.S. has had little to do with learning, it has faded over time, and it has been increasingly undermined by counter tendencies toward inequality.  First, note that when schools have been effective at community building, this had little to with the content of the curriculum or the nature of classroom teaching.  What was important was that schools provided a common experience for all students.  What they actually learned in school was irrelevant as long as they all were exposed to the same material.  It could have been anything.  It was the form of schooling more than its content that helped establish and preserve the American republic.

Second, the importance of schooling in forming community has declined over time.  The common school system was critically important in the formative days of the American republic; but once the country’s continued existence was no longer in doubt, the role of the system grew less critical.  As a result, the more recent ways in which schools have come to promote citizenship have been more formalistic than substantive.  This is now embedded in classes on American history, speeches at school assemblies, pilgrim pageants around Thanksgiving, presidential portraits on classroom walls, and playing the national anthem before football games.  What had been the system’s foremost rationale for existence has now retreated into the background of a system more concerned with other issues.

Third, and most important, however, the role of schools in promoting democratic equality has declined because schools have simultaneously been aggressively promoting social inequality.  One of the recurring themes of my book is that every move by American schools in the direction of equality has been countered by a strong move in the opposite direction.  When we created a common school system in the early 19th century, we also created a high school system to distinguish middle class students from the rest.  When we expanded access to the high school at the start of the 20th century, we also created a system for tracking students within the school and opened the gates for middle class enrollment in college.  When we expanded access to college in the mid-20th century, we funneled new students into the lower tiers of the system and encouraged middle class students to pursue graduate study.  The American school system is at least as much about social difference as about social equality.  In fact, as the system has developed, the idea of equality has become more formalistic, focused primarily on the notion of broad access to education at a certain level, while the idea of inequality has become more substantive, embodied in starkly different educational and social trajectories.

Social Efficiency

In the current politics of education, the goal of social efficiency plays a prominent role.  One of the central beliefs of contemporary economics, international development, and educational policy is that education is the key to economic development as a valuable investment in human capital.  Today it is hard to find a political speech, reform document, or opinion piece about education that does not include a paean to the critical role that education plays in developing human capital and spurring economic growth – and the need to reform schools in order to fix what’s wrong with the economy.

Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have made a strong argument for the human capital vision of education in their recent book, The Race Between Education and Technology.  They argue that the extraordinary expansion of the American economy in the 20th century was to a large degree the result of an equally extraordinary expansion in educational enrollments during this period.  It is no coincidence, they say, that what turned out to be the American Century economically was also the Human Capital Century for the U.S.

The numbers are indeed staggering.  In the United States education levels rose dramatically for most of the 20th century.  For those born between 1876 and 1951, the average number of years of schooling rose a total of 6 years, which is an increase of 0.8 years per decade.  This means that the average education level of the entire U.S. population rose from less than 8 years of grade school to two years of college in only 75 years.  The authors estimate that the growth in education in the U.S. accounted for between 12 and 17 percent of the growth in economic productivity across the 20th century, with the average educational contribution at 13.5 percent.  Put another way, they argue that increased education alone accounted for economic growth of about one-third of one percent per year from 1915-2005.

One problem with this claim, however, is that the size of the human capital effect they show is relatively small.  On average they estimate that the growth in educational attainment accounted for less that 14 percent of the growth in economic productivity over the course of the 20th century.  That’s not negligible but it’s also not overwhelming.  This wouldn’t be a concern if education were a modest investment drawing a modest return, because every little bit helps when it comes to economic growth.  But that’s clearly not the case.  Education has long been the largest single expenditure of American state and local governments, which over the course of the 20th century devoured about 30 percent of their total budgets.  In 1995 this came to almost $400 billion in direct payments for elementary, secondary, and higher education.  In short, as costly as education is, it would seem that its economic benefits would need to be more substantial than they are in order to justify these expenses as a solid investment in the nation’s wealth instead of a large drain on this wealth.

Another problem is that it is hard to establish that in fact education was the cause and economy the effect in this story.  The authors make clear that the growth in high school and college enrollments both exceeded and preceded demand for such workers from the economy.  Employers were not begging high schools to produce more graduates in order to meet the needs for greater skill in the workplace; instead they were taking advantage of a situation in which large numbers of educated workers were available, and could be hired without a large wage premium, for positions that in the past had not required this level of education.  So why not hire them?  And once these high school graduates were on the job, the employers may have found them useful to have around (maybe they required less training), so employers began to express a preference for high school graduates in future hiring.  But just because the workforce was becoming more educated didn’t mean that the presence of educated workers was the source of increases in economic productivity.  It could just as easily have been the other way around.

Producing a large increase in high school graduates was enormously expensive, especially considering that the supply of these graduates was much greater than the economic demand for them.  But strong economic growth provided enough of a fiscal surplus that state and local governments were able afford to do so.  In short, it makes sense to think that it was economic growth that made educational growth possible.  We expanded high school because we could afford to.  And we wanted to do so not because we thought it would provide social benefits by improving the economy but instead because we hoped it would provide us with personal benefits.  The authors point out that the growth of high school enrollments was not the result of a reform movement.  Instead, the demand for high school came from educational consumers.  Middle class families saw high school and college as a way to gain an edge – or keep their already existing edge – in the competition for good jobs.  And working class families saw high school as a way to provide their children with the possibility of a better life than their own.  The demand came from the bottom up not the top down.  Administrative progressives later capitalized on the growth of the high school by trying to harness it for their own social efficiency agenda, as expressed in the 1918 Cardinal Principles report.  But by then the process of high school expansion was already well under way, with little help from them.

The major accomplishment of the American school system was not necessarily that it provided education but that it provided access.  The system may or may not have been effective at teaching students the kinds of skills and knowledge that would economically useful, but it was quite effective at inviting students into the schools and keeping them there for an extended period of time.  Early in their book, Goldin and Katz identify what they consider to be the primary “virtues” of the American educational system as it developed before the civil war and continued into the 20th century.  In effect, these virtues of the system all revolve around its broad accessibility.  They include:  “public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.”

Note that none of these virtues of the American school system speaks to learning the curriculum.  Instead all have to do with the form of the system, in particular its accessibility and flexibility.  I thoroughly agree.  But for the human capital argument that Goldin and Katz are trying to make, these virtues of the system pose a problem.  How was the system able to provide graduates with the skills needed to spur economic growth when the system’s primary claim to fame was that it invited everyone in and then was reluctant to penalize anyone for failing to learn?  In effect, the system’s greatest strength was its low academic standards.  If it had screened students more carefully on the way in and graded them more scrupulously on their academic achievement, high school and college enrollments and graduation rates never would have expanded so rapidly and we would all be worse off.  This brings us to the third goal of education, social mobility.

Social Mobility

In liberal democracies in general, and in the United States in particular, hope springs eternal that expanding educational opportunity will increase social mobility and social equality.  This has been a prime factor in the rhetoric of the American educational reform movements for desegregation, standards, and choice.  But the evidence to support that hope simply doesn’t exist.  The problem is this:  In the way that education interacts with social mobility and social equality, both of these measures of social position are purely relative.  Both are cases of what social scientists call a zero sum game:  A + B = 0.  If A goes up then B must go down in order to keep the sum at zero.  If one person gets ahead of someone else on the social ladder, then that other person has fallen behind.  And if the social differences between two people become more equal, then the increase in social advantage for one person means the decrease in social advantage for the other.  Symmetry is built into both measures.

Although social equality is inherently relative, it is possible to think of social mobility in terms of absolute rather than relative position.  During the 20th century in the U.S., the proportion of agricultural, manufacturing, and other blue collar workers declined while the proportion of clerical, managerial, professional, and other white collar workers rose.  At the same time the proportion of  people with a grade school education declined while the proportion with more advanced education rose.  So large numbers of families had the experience in which parents were blue collar and their children white collar, parents had modest education and their children had more education.  In absolute terms, therefore, social mobility from blue collar to white collar work during this period was substantial, as children not only moved up in job classification compared to their parents but also gained higher pay and a higher standard of living.  And this social mobility was closely related to a substantial rise in education levels.  This was a great success story, and it is understandable why those involved would attribute these social gains to education.  For large numbers of Americans, it seemed to confirm the adage: to get a good job, get a good education.  Schooling seemed to help people move up the ladder.

At the individual level, this perception was quite correct.  In the 20th century, it became the norm for employers to set minimum educational qualifications for jobs, and in general the amount of education required rose as one moved up the occupational ladder.  Youths overall had a strong incentive to pursue more education in order to reap social and economic rewards.  Economic studies regularly demonstrate a varying but substantial return on a family’s investment in education for their children.  For example, one estimate shows that males between 1914 and 2005 earned a premium in lifetime earnings for every year of college that ranged from 8 to 14 percent.  That makes education a great investment for families – better than the stock market, which had an average annual return of about 8 percent during the same period.

What is true for some individuals, however, is not necessarily true for society as a whole.  As I explained about social efficiency, it is not clear that increasing the number of college graduates leads to an increase in the number of higher level jobs for these graduates to fill.  To me it seems more plausible to look at the connection between education and jobs this way:  The economy creates jobs, and education is the way we allocate people to those jobs.  Candidates with more education qualify for better jobs.  What this means is that social mobility becomes a relative thing, which depends on the number of individuals with a particular level of education at a given time and the number of positions requiring this level of education that are available at that same time.  If there are more positions than candidates at that level, all of the qualified candidates get the jobs along with some who have lower qualifications; but if there are more candidates than positions, then some qualified applicants will end up in lower level positions.  So the economic value of education varies according to the job market.  An increase in education without a corresponding increase in higher level jobs in the economy will reduce the value of a degree in the market for educational credentials.

This poses a problem for the chances of social mobility between parents and children.  After all, children are not competing with their parents for jobs; they’re competing with peers.  And like themselves, their peers have a higher level of education than their parents do.  In relative terms, they only have an advantage in the competition for jobs if they have gained even more education than their peers have.  Educational gains relative to peers are what matter not gains relative to parents.  As a result, rates of social mobility have not increased over time as educational opportunity has increased, and societies with more expansive educational systems do not have higher mobility rates.

Raymond Boudon and others have shown that the problem is that increases in access to education affect everyone, both those who are trying to get ahead and those who are already ahead.  Early in the 20th century, working class parents had a grade school education and their children poured into high schools in order to get ahead; but at the same time, middle class parents had a high school education and their children were pouring into colleges.  So both groups increased education and their relative position remained the same.  The new high school graduates didn’t get ahead by getting more education; they were running just to stay in place.  The new college graduates didn’t necessarily get ahead either, but they did manage to stay ahead.

So school reform in the U.S. has failed to increase social mobility or reduce social inequality.  In fact, without abandoning our identity as a liberal democracy, there was simply no way that educational growth could have brought about these changes.  School reform can only have a chance to equalize social differences if it can reduce the gap in educational attainment between middle class students and working class students.  This is politically impossible in a liberal democracy, since it would mean restricting the ability of the middle class to pursue more and better education for their children.  As long as both groups gain more education in parallel, then the advantages of the one over the other will not decline.  And that is exactly the situation in the American school system.  It’s the compromise that has emerged from the interaction between reform and market, between social planning and consumer action: we expand opportunity and preserve advantage, both at the same time.  From this perspective, the defining moment in the history of American education was the construction of the tracked comprehensive high school, which was a joint creation of consumers and reformers in the progressive era.  That set the pattern for everything that followed.  It’s a system that is remarkably effective at allowing both access and advantage, but it’s not one that reformers tried to create.  In fact, it works against the realization of central aims of reform, since it undermines social efficiency, blocks social mobility, and limits democratic equality.

These three goals, however, have gained expression in the American educational system in at least two significant ways.  First, they have maintained a highly visible presence in educational rhetoric, as the politics of education continuously pushes these goals onto the schools and the schools themselves actively express their allegiance to these same goals.  Second, schools have adopted the form of these goals into their structure and process.  Democratic equality has persisted in the formalism of social studies classes, school assemblies, and the display of political symbols.  Social efficiency has persisted in the formalism of vocational classes, career days, and standards-based testing.  Social mobility has persisted in the formalism of grades, credits, and degrees, which students accumulate as they move through the school system.

Roots of the Failure of School Reform to Resolve Social Problems

In closing, let me summarize the reasons for the continuing failure of school reform in the U.S.

The Tensions Among School Goals:  One reason for the failure of reform to realize the social goals expressed in it is that these goals reflect the core tensions within a liberal democracy, which push both school and society in conflicting directions.  One of those tensions is between the demands of democratic politics and the demands of capitalist markets.  A related issue is the requirement that society be able to meet its collective needs while simultaneously guaranteeing the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests.  As we have seen, these tensions cannot be resolved one way or the other if we are going to remain a liberal democracy, so schools will inevitably fail at maximizing any of these goals.  The result is going to be a muddled compromise rather than a clear cut victory in meeting particular expectations.  The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the educational system, therefore, are not necessarily the result of bad planning, deception, or political cynicism; they are an institutional expression of the contradictions in the liberal democratic mind.

The Tendency Toward Organizational Conservatism:  There is also another layer of impediment that lies between social goals and their fulfillment via education, and that is the tension between education’s social goals and its organizational practices.  Schools gain their origins from social goals, which they dutifully express in an institutional form, as happened with the construction of the common school system.  This results in the development of school organization, curriculums, pedagogies, professional roles, and a complex set of occupational and organizational interests.  At this more advanced stage, schools and educators are no longer simply the media for realizing social aspirations; they become major actors in the story.  As such, they shape what happens in education in light of their own needs and interests, organizational patterns,  and professional norms and practices.  And this then becomes a major issue in educational reform.  Such reforms are what happens after schooling is already in motion organizationally, when society seeks to assign new ideals to education or revive old ones that have fallen into disuse, thus initiating an effort to transform the institution toward the pursuit of different ends.  But at that point society is no longer able simply to project its values onto the institution it created to express these values; instead it must negotiate an interaction with an ongoing enterprise.  As a result, reform has to change both the values embedded in education and the formal structure itself, which may well resist.  As I have shown elsewhere, three characteristics of the American school system – loose coupling, weak instructional control, and teacher autonomy – have made this system remarkably effective at blocking reforms from reaching the classroom.

Reformer Arrogance:  Another problem that leads to the failure of school reform is simple arrogance.  School reformers spin out an abstract vision of what school and society should be, and then they try to bring reality in line with the vision.  But this abstract reformist grid doesn’t map comfortably onto the parochial and idiosyncratic ecology of the individual classroom.  Trying to push too hard to make the classroom fit the grid may destroy the ecology of learning there; and adapting the grid enough to make it workable in the classroom may change the reform to the point that its original aims are lost.  Reformers are loath to give up their aims in the service of making the reform acceptable to teachers, so they tend to plow ahead in search of ways to get around the obstacles.  If they can’t make change in cooperation with teachers, then they will have to so in spite of them.  They see a crying need to fix a problem through school reform, and they have developed a theory for how to do this, which looks just great on paper.  Standing in the state capital or the university, they are far from the practical realities of the classroom, and they tend to be impatient with demands that they should respect the complexity of the settings in which they are trying to intervene.

The Marginality of School Reform to School Change:  Finally, we need to remind ourselves that school reform has always been only a small part of the broader process of school change.  Reform movements are deliberate efforts by groups of people to change schools in a direction they value and to resolve a social problem that concerns them.  We measure the success of these movements by the degree to which the outcomes match the intentions of the reformers.  But there’s another player in the school change game, and that’s the market.  By this I mean the accumulated actions of educational consumers who are pursuing their own interests through the schooling of their children.  From the colonial days, when the expressed purpose of schooling was to support the one true faith, consumers were pursuing literacy and numeracy for reasons that had nothing to do with religion and a lot to do with enhancing their ability to function in a market society.

That very personal and practical dimension of education was there from the beginning, even though no one wanted to talk about it, much less launch a reform movement in its name.  And this individual dimension of schooling has only expanded its scope over the years, becoming larger in the late 19th century and then dominant in the 20th century, as increasingly educational credentials became the ticket of admission for the better jobs.  The fact that public schools have long been creatures of politics – established, funded, and governed through the medium of a democratic process – means that they have been under unrelenting pressure to meet consumer demand for the kind of schooling that will help individuals move up, stay up, or at least not drop down in their position in the social order.  This pressure is exerted through individual consumer actions, such as by attending school or not, going to this school not that one, enrolling in this program not some other program.  It is also exerted by political actions, such as by supporting expansion of educational opportunity and preserving educational advantage in the midst of wide access.

These actions by consumers and voters have brought about significant changes in the school system, even though these changes have not been the aim of any of the consumers themselves.  They have not been acting as reformers with a social cause but as individuals pursuing their own interests through education, so the changes they have produced in schooling by and large have been inadvertent.  Yet these unintended effects of consumer action have often derailed or redirected the intended effects of school reformers.  They created the comprehensive high school, dethroned social efficiency, pushed vocational education to the margins, and blocked the attack on de facto segregation.  Educational consumers may well keep the current school standards movement from meeting its goals if they feel that standards, testing, and accountability are threatening educational access and educational advantage.  They may also pose an impediment to the school choice movement, even though it is being carried out explicitly in their name.  For consumers may feel more comfortable tinkering with the system they know than in taking the chance that blowing up this system might produce something that is less suited to serving their needs.  In the American system of education, it seems, the consumer – not the reformer – has long been king.


Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, History of education, Teaching, Writing

James March: Education and the Pursuit of Optimism

This post is aabout a 1975 paper by James G. March, which was published in, of all places, the Texas Tech Journal of Education.  Given that provenance, it’s something you likely have never encountered before unless someone actually handed it to you.  I used it in a number of my classes and wanted to share it with you.

March was a fascinating scholar who had a long a distinguished career as an organizational theorist, teaching at Carnegie-Mellon and later at the Stanford business and education schools. He died last year.  I had the privilege of getting to know him in retirement after I moved to Stanford.  He was the rare combination of cutting edge social scientist and ardent humanist, who among his other accomplishments published a half dozen volumes of poetry.

This paper shows both sides of his approach to issues.  In it he explores the role that education has played in the U.S., in particular its complex relationship with all-American optimism.  Characteristically, in developing his analysis, he relies not on social science data but on literature — among others, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Solzhenitsyn, and Borges.

I love how he frames the nature of teaching and learning in a way that is vastly distant from the usual language of social efficiency and human capital production — and also distant from the chipper American faith that education can fix everything.  A tragic worldview pervades his discussion, reflecting the perspective of the great works of literature upon which he draws.

I find his argument particularly salient for teachers, who have been the majority of my own students over the years.  It’s common for teachers to ask the impossible of themselves, by trying to fulfill the promise that education with save all their students.  Too often the result is the feeling of failure and/or the fate of burnout.

Below I distill some of the core insights from this paper, but there is no substitute for reading and reveling in the original, which you can find here.

He starts out by asserting that “The modern history of American education is a history of optimism.”  The problem with this is that it blinds us to the limited ability of social engineering in general and education in particular to realize our greatest hopes.

By insisting that great action be justified by great hopes, we encourage a belief in the possibility of magic. For examples, read the litany of magic in the literature on free schools, Montessori, Head Start, Sesame Street, team teaching, open schools, structured schools, computer-assisted instruction, community control. and hot lunches. Inasmuch as there appears to be rather little magic in the world, great hopes are normally difficult to realize. Having been seduced into great expectations, we are abandoned to a choice between failure and delusion.

The temptations of delusion are accentuated both by our investment in hope and by the potential for ambiguity in educational outcomes. To a substantial extent we are able to believe whatever we want to believe, and we want to believe in the possibility of progress. We are unsure about what we want to accomplish, or how we would know when we had accomplished it, or how to allocate credit or blame for accomplishment or lack of it. So we fool ourselves.

The conversion of great hopes into magic, and magic into delusion describes much of modern educational history. It continues to be a dominant theme of educational reform in the United States. But there comes a time when the conversion docs not work for everyone. As we come to rccognize the political, sociological, and psychological dynamics of repeated waves of optimism based on heroic hopes, our willingness to participate in the process is compromised.

As an antidote to the problem, he proposes three paradoxical principles for action:  pessimism without despair; irrelevance without loss of faith; and optimism without hope.

Pessimism without despair:  This means embracing the essential connection between education and life, without expecting the most desirable outcome.  It is what it is.  The example is Solzhenitsyn’s character Shukov, learning to live in a prison camp.  The message is this:  Don’t set unreasonable expectations for what’s possible, defining anything else as failure.  Small victories in the classroom are a big deal.

Irrelevance without loss of faith:  This means recognizing that you can’t control events, so instead you do what you can wherever you are.  His example is General Kutuzov in War and Peace.  He won the war against Napoleon by continually retreating and by restraining his officers from attacking the enemy.  Making things happen is overrated.  There’s a lot the teacher simply can’t accomplish, and you need to recognize that.

Optimism without hope:  The aim here is to do what is needed rather than what seems to be effective.  His example is Don Quixote, a man who cuts a ridiculous figure by tilting at windmills, but who has a beneficial impact on everyone he encounters.  The message for teachers is that you set out to do what you think is best for your students, because it’s the right thing to do rather than because it is necessarily effective.  This is moral-political logic for schooling instead of the usual utilitarian logic.

So where does this leave you as a teacher, administrator, policymaker?

  • Don’t let anyone convince you that schooling is all about producing human capital, improving test scores, or pursuing any other technical and instrumentalist goal.

  • Its origins are political and moral: to form a nation state, build character, and provide social opportunity.

  • Teaching is not a form of social engineering, making society run more efficiently

  • It’s not about fixing social problems, for which it is often ill suited

  • Instead, it’s a normative practice organized around shaping the kind of people we want to be — about doing what’s right instead of what’s useful.

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Uncategorized

From Citizens to Consumers — Abbreviated Version with New Conclusion about Why We Keep Trying to Reform Schools

This is an updated and abbreviated version of the lecture I posted on December 2.  It makes for an easier read, plus I’ve added a piece at the end trying to answer the question: Why do we keep trying to reform schools?

Here’s the new conclusion about the endless efforts to reform schools:


This still leaves open the question of why reforming American schools has proven to be such steady work over the years.  The answer is that we reform schools in an effort to solve pressing social problems.  And we have to keep coming up with new reform movements because schools keep failing to fix the problems we ask them to fix.  The issue is that we keep asking schools to do things they are incapable of doing.

For example, schools can’t eliminate or even reduce social inequality, racial divisions, or poor health.  These are social problems that require major political interventions to transform the social structure, which we are unwilling to undertake because they will provoke too much political opposition.  If we wanted, we could redistribute wealth and income and establish a universal public health system, but we don’t.  So we dump the problems on schools and then blame them for failing to solve these problems.

In addition, schooling is such a large and complex social institution that efforts to change it are more likely to introduce new problems than to solve old ones.  In U.S. history, the common school movement was the only truly successful reform, which created the social and cultural basis for the American republic.  The others caused problems.  Progressivism created a differentiated and vocationalized form of schooling that required the standards and choice movements to reintroduce commonality and choice.  Desegregation spurred whites to abandon urban schools, which are now as segregated as they ever were.  So we continue to tinker with schools in order to fix problems for which we lack the political will to fix ourselves.  And the work of school reformers is unlikely to ever reach an end.

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School reform, Systems of Schooling

From Citizens to Consumers: Evolution of Reform Rhetoric and Consumer Practice in the U.S.

This post is the text of a lecture I delivered last week in Japan at Kyoto University and Keio University.  It draws on the second chapter of my book, Someone Has to Fail (which has been translated into Japanese), and at the end I try to bring the analysis up to the present.  The subject is the evolving rhetoric of school reform over the course of the history of U.S. education.  At core, I try to explain how a system designed to produce citizens for the republic evolved into a system that seeks to produce human capital for the economy and to provide social opportunity and preserve social advantage for educational consumers.  If you’d like to see the sources, check out the book chapter.

Here’s a link to the text of the lecture, and here’s a link to the slides I used (which provide a useful overview of the argument).


From Citizens to Consumers:

Evolution of Reform Rhetoric and Consumer Practice in the U.S.


David F. Labaree

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus

Stanford University



Twitter: @Dlabaree


Lecture delivered at Kyoto University and Keio University

November, 2019


For better and for worse, the American system of education is truly a marvel.  Compared to other countries, public education in the U.S. has been extraordinarily accessible.  It emerged early, expanded quickly, and then rapidly extended access to high school and college.  In the process the United States claimed the distinction of having the first educational system in the world to attain something approaching universal elementary schooling, universal high school attendance, and mass higher education.

But to call American public education a system seems a contradiction in terms, because it also has the distinction of being radically decentralized, with some 14,000 school districts responsible for setting policy and running schools.  Even though the educational role of the federal government has been growing in the last several decades, it is still hard to find any structure of public education in the world that is more independent of national control.  And to applaud the American system of schooling for its great accessibility is to recognize only half the story, since the system balances radical equality of access with radical inequality of outcomes.  Students have an easy time gaining entry to education in the U.S., but they have strikingly different educational experiences and gain strikingly different social benefits from their education.  One other characteristic of the American educational system further dims its luster, and that is the chronically mediocre academic performance of its students.  In world comparisons over the last few decades, American elementary and secondary students have consistently scored at a level that is average at best.

In short, the American system of education is highly accessible, radically unequal, organizationally fragmented, and instructionally mediocre.  In combination, these characteristics have provided a strong and continuing incentive for school reformers to try to change the system, by launching reform movements that would seek to broaden access, reduce inequality, transform governance, and improve learning.  But at the same time that these traits have spurred reform efforts, they have also kept reformers from accomplishing their aims.

For example, every effort to expand access for new students at a given level of the system has tended to provoke counter efforts to preserve the educational advantage of the old students.  When high school enrollment began to expand sharply at the start of the 20th century, the response was to establish curriculum tracking in the high school (with the new students falling into the lower tracks) and to spur the old students to attend college.  But such efforts to preserve educational advantage at a given level of the system and extend it to the next level have tended to provoke counter measures to reduce this advantage by broadening access at the new level.  So by the mid-20th century growing demand for college access brought a flood of new students.  But this just continued the cycle of action and reaction, since the new students largely enrolled in new lower track institutions set up to handle the influx while traditional students concentrated at the established higher status institutions and increasingly moved on to graduate school.

At the same time, the local autonomy of districts, schools, and classrooms in the American educational system has made it hard for reform initiatives to reach the heart of the system where teaching and learning take place, and particularly hard to implement reforms that improve classroom learning.  Exacerbating this tendency has been one additional characteristic of the system, which is that most educational consumers have shown preference for a school system that provides an edge in the competition for jobs more than for one that enriches student learning.  We have continually demonstrated interest more in getting a diploma than getting an education.

In this lecture, I look at the visions that these reform movements projected onto the American school system.  Here I’m focusing not on the impact of reform but on its rhetoric.  As found in major reform documents, the shifting language of reform shows how the mission of the school system evolved over time, as reformers repeatedly tried to push the system to embrace new goals and refine old ones in an effort to solve an expanding array of social challenges.

Shifting the Focus of Schooling from Citizens to Consumers

This is a story about the evolving language of educational reform in the United States.  It starts in the early 19th century with a republican vision of education for civic virtue and ends in the early 21st century with a consumerist vision of education for equal opportunity.  The story is about how we got from there to here, drawing on major reform texts that span this period.  It’s also a story about how we developed the ideas about education that laid the groundwork for the American obsession with schooling.

This rhetorical change consisted of two main shifts, each of which occurred at two levels.  First, the overall balance in the purposes of schooling shifted from a political rationale (shoring up the new republic) to a market rationale (promoting social efficiency and social mobility).  And the political rationale itself evolved from a substantive vision of education for civic virtue to a procedural vision of education for equal opportunity.  Second, in a closely related change, the reform rhetoric shifted from viewing education as a public good to viewing it as a private good.  And the understanding of education as a public good itself evolved from a politically-grounded definition (education for republican community) to a market-grounded definition (education for human capital).

I explore these changes through an examination of a series of reform documents that represent the major reform movements in the history of American education, starting with the common school movement in the mid-19th century and ending with the movements for curriculum standards and school choice in the 21st century.

The evolution of educational rhetoric in the U.S. fits within a larger cross-national pattern in the evolving republican conversation about schooling.  Republican ideas played a foundational role in the formation of public education in a number of countries during the long 19th century.  Although this role varied from one context to another, the republican vision in general called for a system of education that would shape the kind of self-regulating and civic minded citizen needed to sustain a viable republican community.  That system was the modern public school.  At the heart of its mission was the delicate and critical task of balancing two elements at the heart of republican thinking – the autonomous individual and the common good.  The primary contribution of the school was its ability to instill a vision of the republic within future citizens in a manner that promoted individual choice while inducing them to pursue the public interest of their own will.  This effort posed twin dangers:  too much emphasis on individual interests could turn republican community into a pluralist society defined by the competition of private interests; but too much emphasis on community could turn the republic into authoritarian society that sacrificed individual freedom to collective interests.  A liberal republican society requires an educational system that can instill a commitment to both individual liberty and civic virtue.

As I show today, the rhetoric of education in the U.S. shifted over time from a political vision of a civic-minded citizen to a market vision of a self-interested consumer.  But the idea of republican community did not disappear from the educational mission.  Instead the political goal of education shifted from producing civic virtue in the service of the republic to producing human capital and individual opportunity.  The end result, however, was to redirect the republican vision of education sharply in the direction of private interests and individual opportunities.

Competing Social Goals for Schooling

A major factor in the transformation of reform rhetoric was the market.  While a number of reform efforts – the common school movement, the progressive movement, the civil rights movement, the standards movement, and the school choice movement – occupied center stage in the drama of school reform, the market initially exerted its impact from a position off stage.  Over time, however, the market gradually muscled its way into the center of American education, shaping both the structure of the school system (by emphasizing inequality and discounting learning) and more recently the rhetoric of school reform (by emphasizing occupational skills and promoting individual opportunity).  In the current period, when the market vision has come to drive the educational agenda, the political vision of education’s social role remains prominent as an actor in the reform drama, frequently called upon by reformers of all stripes.  (I examine here the way the standards and choice movements both belatedly adopted political rhetoric after originally trying to do without it.)  But the definition of this political vision has become more abstract, its deployment more adaptable, and its impact more diffuse than in the early 19th century, when a well-defined set of republican ideals drove the creation of the American system of common schools.

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

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

The collectivist side of liberal republicanism is expressed by a combination of democratic equality and social efficiency.  Both aim at having education provide broad social benefits, with both conceiving of education as a public good.  Investing in the political capital of the citizenry and the human capital of the workforce benefits everyone in society, including those families who do not have children in school.  In contrast, the social mobility goal represents the individualist side of liberal democracy.  From this perspective, education is a private good, which benefits only the student who receives educational services and owns the resulting educational diplomas.

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

In this sense, then, these educational goals represent the contradictions embedded in any liberal republic, contradictions that cannot be resolved without removing either the society’s liberalism or its republicanism.  Therefore when we project our liberal republican goals on schools, we want them to take each of these goals seriously but not to implement any one of them beyond modest limits, since to do so would be to put the other equally valued goals in significant jeopardy.  We ask it to promote social equality, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten individual liberty or private interests.  We ask it to promote individual opportunity, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the integrity of the nation or the efficiency of the economy.  As a result, the educational system is an abject failure in achieving any one of its primary social goals.  It is also a failure in solving the social problems assigned to it, since these problems cannot be solved in a manner that simultaneously satisfies all three goals.  In particular, social problems rooted in the nature of the social structure simply cannot be resolved by deploying educational programs to change individuals.  The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the educational system, therefore, are not the result of bad planning, deception, or political cynicism; they are an institutional expression of the contradictions in the liberal republican mind.

The Common School Movement:  Schools for the Republic

As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Public Education in the 1840s, Horace Mann became the most effective champion of the American common school movement, which established the American public school system in the years before the Civil War.   Its primary accomplishment was not in increasing literacy, which was already widespread in the U.S., but in drawing public support for a publicly funded and publicly controlled system of education that served all the members of the community.  What was new was less the availability of education than its definition as an institution that both expressed and reinforced community.

Mann’s Twelfth Annual Report, published in 1848, provides the most comprehensive summary of the argument for the common schools.  In it he made clear that the primary rationale for this institution was political:  to create citizens with the knowledge, skills, and public-spirited dispositions required to maintain a republic and to protect it from the sources of faction, class, and self interest that pose the primary threat to its existence.  After exploring the dangers that the rapidly expanding market economy posed to the fabric of republican community by introducing class conflict, he proclaimed:

Now, surely, nothing but Universal Education can counter-work this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor….

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery….  It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor….  If this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.

A few pages later, he summed up his argument with the famous statement, “It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.”  In his view, then, schools were given the centrally important political task of making citizens for a republic.  All other functions were subordinate to this one.

Emerging Consumerism:  Schools for Social Mobility

Horace Mann and the other leaders of the common school movement were reluctant to portray education as a mechanism for promoting worldly gain, but the students and parents who were consuming this new cultural commodity showed less reluctance in that regard.  Compelled by the need to survive and the ambition to thrive in a market economy, citizens quickly began to think of education as something more than a politically desirable mechanism for preserving the republic; they also saw it as a way to get ahead in society.  Reading, writing, and the manipulation of numbers were essential for anyone who wanted to function effectively in the commercial life of the colonial and early national periods of American history.  Individuals did not need republican theory or compulsory schooling laws to make them acquire these skills, which is one reason why literacy was a precursor rather than an outcome of the common school movement in the U.S.

But this compelling rationale for education – schooling for social mobility – was not something that appeared prominently in the rhetoric of school reform until well into the 20th century.  One reason for this silence was that the idea of education as a way to get ahead was a matter of common sense in a society that was founded in market relations.  It was not the subject of reform rhetoric because this idea was already widely accepted.  Another reason was that people felt a bit embarrassed about voicing such a self-interested motive for education in the face of the selfless political rationale for education that dominated public discussion in the early United States.  But the absence of such talk did not deny the reality that commercial motives for schooling were strong.

This relative silence about an important factor shaping education resonates with an important paradox in the history of school reform identified by David Tyack and Larry Cuban in their book, Tinkering Toward Utopia.  Reform rhetoric swirls around the surface of schools, making a lot of noise but not necessarily penetrating below the surface; while evolutionary forces of structural change may be proceeding powerfully but slowly outside of view, making substantial changes over time without ever necessarily being verbalized or becoming part of a reform agenda.

The story I’m telling in this lecture is about the interaction between these two levels – the changing rhetoric of educational reform in the U.S. over the past 200 years and its relationship with the quiet but increasingly potent impact of market forces on American schools.  I suggest that the rhetorical shifts in subsequent educational reform movements were attempts to reach an accommodation between economy and society through the institution of education, which turned increasingly critical as education itself became more economically useful to both employers and employees in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

By the 1890s, growing clerical and managerial occupations created a defined market for high school graduates.  The result was enormous demand by educational consumers for access to high school, which until them was open only to a small elite.  In response, US high school enrollments doubled every decade for the next 50 years.  The consumer was now king.

Administrative Progressivism: Schools for Social Efficiency

The progressive education movement burst on the scene in the U.S. at the start of the 20th century.  It was a complex movement with a wide range of actors and tendencies embedded within it, but two main strands in particular stand out.  Child-centered progressives (such as John Dewey) focused on teaching and learning in classrooms, advocating child centered pedagogy, discovery learning, and student engagement.  Administrative progressives (such as Edward Thorndike) focused on the structure of school governance and curriculum, advocating a mission of social efficiency for schools, which meant preparing students for their future social roles.  I focus on administrative progressivism here for the simple reason that they won and the pedagogues lost in the competition over exerting an impact on American schools.

In 1918, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education issued a report to the National Education Association titled Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, which spelled out the administrative progressive position on education more clearly and more consequentially than any other single document.  The report announces at the very beginning that secondary schools need to change in response to changes in society.

Within the past few decades changes have taken place in American life profoundly affecting the activities of the individual.  As a citizen, he must to a greater extent and in a more direct way cope with problems of community life, State and National Governments, and international relationships.  As a worker, he must adjust himself to a more complex economic order.  This calls for a degree of intelligence and efficiency on the part of every citizen that can not be secured through elementary education alone, or even through secondary education unless the scope of that education is broadened.

Here we see the basic themes of the report:  Schools exist to help individuals adapt to the needs of society; as society becomes more complex, schools must transform themselves accordingly; and in this way they will help citizens develop the socially needed qualities of “intelligence and efficiency.”

This focus on social efficiency, however, didn’t deter the authors from drawing on political rhetoric to support their position.  In fact, the authors framed this report in explicitly political terms.  In a 12,000 word report, they used the terms “democracy” or “democratic” no fewer than 40 times.  (The words “republic” and “republican” are nowhere to be found.)

What do they mean by democracy?  They spell this out in two statements in bold-faced type in a section called “The Goal of Education in a Democracy.”

The purpose of democracy is so to organize society that each member may develop his personality primarily through activities designed for the well-being of his fellow members and of society as a whole….

So democracy is about organizing individuals for the benefit of society, and education is about readying individuals to assume their proper place in that society.  This is as crisp a definition as one can find for socially efficient education.

The commission follows up on this statement principles to spell out the implications for the high school curriculum:

This commission, therefore, regards the following as the main objectives of education: 1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical character.

What a striking array of goals for education this is.  In comparison with Horace Mann’s grand vision of schooling for the republic, we have a list of useful functions that schools can serve for society, only one of which focuses on citizenship.  Furthermore, this list confines the rich array of liberal arts subjects to a single category; the authors give it the dumbed-down and dismissive title, “command of fundamental processes;” and they assign it a parallel position with such mundane educational objectives as “worthy home membership” and “worthy use of leisure.”

Later in the report, the commission spelled out an important implication of their vision of secondary education.  Not only must the curriculum be expanded radically, but it must also be sharply differentiated if it is going to meet the needs of a differentiated occupational structure.  The commission is explaining that their call for a socially efficient education in practice means vocationalism, with the vocational skills required by the job market driving the curriculum and slicing it into segments based on the specific jobs toward which students are heading.  Any leftover space in the curriculum could then be used for “those having distinctively academic interests and needs.”

This report, the keystone of the administrative progressive movement, represents two major transformations in the rhetoric of the common school movement.  First, whereas Mann’s reports used economic arguments to support a primarily political purpose for schooling (preparing citizens with civic virtue), Cardinal Principles turned this upside down, using political arguments about the requirements of democracy to support a vision of schooling that was primarily economic (preparing efficient workers).  The politics of the Cardinal Principles thus serves as a thin veneer on a structure of socially efficient education, dressing up what would otherwise be a depressingly pedestrian vision, without being specified in sufficient depth as to intrude on the newly asserted vocational function of schooling.

Second, in Cardinal Principles the administrative progressives preserved the common school movement’s understanding of education as a public good.  There is no talk in the report about education as a kind of personal property, which offers selective benefits to the credential holder; instead, the emphasis is relentlessly on the collective benefits of education to society.  What is new, however, is this:  Whereas the common school men defined education as a public good in political terms, the progressives defined it a public good in economic terms.  Yes, education serves the interests of society as a whole, said the progressives; but it does so not by producing civic virtue but by producing human capital.

The Civil Rights Movement:  Schools for Equal Opportunity

If the administrative progressive movement marginalized the political argument for education, using it as window-dressing for a vision of education as a mechanism for creating productive workers, the civil rights movement brought politics back to the center of the debate about schools.  In the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for a unanimous court, made a forceful political argument for the need to desegregate American schools.  The question he was addressing was whether to overturn the Court’s doctrine of “separate but equal,” established in an earlier decision, as a violation of the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution (passed at the end of the Civil War) which guaranteed all citizens the “equal protection of the laws.”

The Court’s reasoning moved through two main steps in reaching this conclusion.  First, Warren argued that the social meaning of education had changed dramatically in the 90 years since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the years after the Civil War, “The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states, and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown.”  As a result, education was not seen as an essential right of any citizen; but that had now changed.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments….  In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

This led to the second part of the argument.  If education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms,” then the question was whether segregated education could be seen as providing truly equal educational opportunity for black and white students.  Here Warren drew on social science research to argue that “To separate [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

In combination, these two arguments – education is an essential right and segregated education is inherently harmful – led Warren to his conclusion:

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The argument in this decision was at heart political, asserting that education is a constitutional right of every citizen that must be granted to everyone on equal terms.  But note that the political vision in Brown is quite different from the political vision put forward by Mann.  For the common school movement, schools were critically important in the effort to build a republic; their purpose was political.  But for the civil rights movement, schools were critically important as a mechanism of social opportunity.   Their purpose was to promote social mobility.  Politics was just the means by which one could demand access to this attractive educational commodity.  In this sense, then, Brown depicted education as a private good, whose benefits accrue to the degree holder and not to society as a whole.  The Court’s argument was not that granting access to equal education for blacks would enhance society, both black and white; instead, it argued that blacks were suffering from segregation and would benefit from desegregation.  Quality education was an important form of property that they had been denied, and the remedy was to provide them with access to it.

This is an argument that shows how much schools had come of age more than 100 years after Horace Mann.  Once created to support the republic, in a time when schools were marginal to the practical business of making a living, they had become central to every citizen’s ability to get a good job and get ahead socially.  In the process, however, the political vision of education has changed from a substantive focus on producing the citizens needed to sustain the republic to a procedural focus on providing social opportunities.  The idea of education as opportunity was already visible in Mann, but it was subordinated to the political project; here educational opportunity has become the project, and politics has become the means for asserting one’s right to it.

The Standards Movement 1.0:  Social Efficiency and Commonality

In 1983, the National Commission for Excellence in Education produced a report titled A Nation at Risk, which helped turn the nascent standards effort into a national reform movement.  It is useful to think of this movement in relation to its predecessors, both in the way it drew from them and the way it reacted against them rhetorically.  The standards movement emphasized a core academic curriculum for all students, which in turn stood as a harsh rebuke to the diffuse, differentiated, and nonacademic curriculum posed by Cardinal Principles; yet A Nation at Risk also shows a clear affinity with Cardinal Principles by defining the primary purpose of education as social efficiency.  At the same time, the standards movement’s emphasis on academic content and learning outcomes served as a counter to the civil rights movement, which focused primarily on access to educational opportunity rather than on the substance of learning; and its stress on education as a public good contrasted with Brown’s emphasis on education as a form of individual benefit.

The reports got off to a fast start, levying a dire warning about how bad things were and how important it was to reform the educational system.

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur – others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

This passage set the tone for the rest of the report.  It asserted a vision of education as an intensely public good:  All Americans benefit from its successes, and all are threatened by its failures.  The nation is at risk.  This was in striking contrast with the vision of education in the Brown decision, which depicted education as a private good, one that was critically important to the possibility of social success for every individual.  In that view, it was black educational consumers who were at risk from segregation, not the nation.

But the report represented education as a particular type of public good, which benefited American society by providing it with the human capital it needed in order to be economically competitive with other nations.  The risk to the nation posed here was primarily economic, and the main role that education could play in alleviating this risk was to develop a more efficient mechanism for turning students into productive workers.  In parallel with the argument in Cardinal Principles, A Nation at Risk asserted that the issue of wealth production was the most important motive in seeking higher educational standards.

The report’s first three recommendations spelled out the core substance of the changes at the top of the priority list for the standards movement.  Under the heading, “Content,” the commission recommended “that State and local high school graduation requirements be strengthened.”  Under the heading “Standards and Expectations,” the commission recommended “more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student content” measured by means of “Standardized tests of achievement.”  Under the heading, “Time,” the commission recommended “more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.”

In stressing the need to refocus attention on a core academic curriculum for all students, A Nation at Risk stands as a rebuke to the differentiated and vocationalized curriculum of the Cardinal Principles, but it embraced the Principles’ vision of education for social efficiency.  It deployed a modest form of political rhetoric to support the standards effort (using some version of “citizen” 18 times and “democracy” two times in a nearly 18,000 word report), but the emphasis here was on education as a way to produce the human capital needed by the nation in global competition rather than Brown’s emphasis on education as a way to promote individual opportunity.  And by focusing on student learning rather than student access, it also represented a turn away from the equal opportunity concerns of the Brown decision.

School Choice Movement 1.0:  Markets Make Effective Schools

The school choice movement had its roots in Milton Friedman, who devoted a chapter to the subject in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom.  But the movement really took off as a significant reform effort in the 1990s, and a major text that shaped the policy discourse of these movement was a book by John Chubb and Terry Moe – Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools – which was published in 1990.  The argument they raised in favor of school choice consisted of two key components.  First, they used the literature on school effectiveness to argue that schools are most effective (that is, they are most efficient at promoting student learning) if they have the greatest degree of autonomy in administration, teaching, and curriculum.  Second, they argued that democratic governance of school systems necessarily leads to bureaucratic control of schools, which radically limits autonomy; whereas market-based governance, based on empowering educational consumers instead of empowering the state, leads to greater school autonomy.  As a result, they concluded, we need to shift from democratic to market control of schooling in order to make schools more educationally effective.

Like the standards movement, the choice movement inverted the rhetorical priorities of the common school movement, putting markets before politics.  But the approach was more radical than the one proposed in A Nation at Risk, because Chubb and Moe argued that democratic politics was in fact the reason that schools performed badly, and the remedy was remove schools from democratic control and hand them over to educational consumers:  “Our guiding principle in the design of a choice system is this: public authority must be put to use in creating a system that is almost entirely beyond the reach of public authority.”   Markets, they argued, are simply more efficient at promoting the school autonomy needed for effective teaching and learning.

The authors welcomed the fact that, by shifting control from a democratic polity to the educational consumer, the proposed school choice system would change education from a public good to a private good.

Under a system of democratic control, the public schools are governed by an enormous, far-flung constituency in which the interests of parents and students carry no special status or weight.  When markets prevail, parents and students are thrust onto center stage, along with the owners and staff of schools; most of the rest of society plays a distinctly secondary role, limited for the most part to setting the framework within which educational choices get made.

In this way, then, the rhetoric of the school choice movement at the close of the 20th century represented the opposite end of the scale from the rhetoric of the common school movement that set in motion the American public school system in middle of the 19th century.  In educational reform texts, we have moved all the way from a political rationale for education to a market rationale, and from seeing education as a public good to seeing it as a private good.  Instead of extolling the benefits of having a common school system promote a single virtuous republican community, reformers were extolling the benefits of having an atomized school system serve the differential needs a vast array of disparate consumer subcultures.

Standards 2.0:  Broadening the Base with a Political Appeal to Equal Opportunity

The start of the 21st century saw an interesting shift in the rhetoric of the standards movement and the choice movement, as both incorporated the language of equal opportunity from the civil rights movement.  Whether these changes represented a change of heart or merely change of strategy is beyond the scope of my argument here.  My focus in this lecture is on the changing rhetoric of reform, and in both cases the change helped broaden the appeal of the reform effort by expanding the reasons for joining the movement.  In their original form, both movements ran into significant limitations in their ability to draw support, and both turned to a very effective political argument from the civil rights movement to add passion and breadth to their mode of appeal.

A Nation at Risk made a strong case for supporting educational standards and accountability on the grounds of social efficiency.  Whereas this approach was necessary and effective in encouraging governors and legislators to pass enabling legislation at the state level, it was not sufficient to gain the support of Congress and the general public for a national standards initiative.  Talking about education as an investment in human capital made the reform sound sensible and prudent as a matter of general policy, but it was difficult to get people excited about this effort.

A Nation at Risk made a political appeal in a manner that was limited and not terribly effective.  Both the first President Bush and President Clinton used this strategy in trying to launch a national standards policy and both failed.  However in January, 2002, the second President Bush signed into law a wide-reaching piece of standards legislation passed with broad bipartisan support.

The title of this law explains the rhetorical shift involved in gaining approval for it:  The No Child Left Behind Act.  Listen to the language in the opening section of this act, which constitutes the most powerful accomplishment of the school standards movement:

The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by —

(1) ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards;

(2) meeting the educational needs of low-achieving children in our Nation’s highest-poverty schools;

(3) closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children….

What we find here is a marriage of the standards movement and the civil rights movement.  From the former comes the focus on rigorous academic subjects, core curriculum for all students, and testing and accountability; from the latter comes the urgent call to remediate social inequality by enhancing educational opportunity.  The opening sentence captures both elements succinctly:  “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.”

Choice 2.0:  A Parallel Appeal to Equal Opportunity

The school choice movement had a rhetorical problem that was similar in some ways to the one facing the standards movement ways, and the message of equal opportunity worked just as well for choice reformers as it did for standards reformers.  What was similar about the choice problem was the difficulty in selling choice as an exercise in effectiveness.  Chubb and Moe stressed that market-based schools are more effective than politics-based schools, but effectiveness alone is not the kind of issue that mobilizes the citizenry to support a major change in the way schools are structured.  That is particularly the case for the choice movement, since the proposed transformation was such a radical departure from the time-honored pattern of school governance established in the common school era.  Standards reformers were tinkering with curriculum and tests; choice reformers were attacking the democratic control of schools.  It is hard to win a political fight in the U.S. if you cede the pro-democracy position to your opponents.  Compounding the problem was the possibility that market-based schooling would exacerbate social inequality by allowing schools to segregate themselves along lines of class and race in response to consumer preferences.  If the possible benefits were defined only as greater school effectiveness and the possible costs were defined as a retreat from democracy and equality, then the battle for school choice looked hopeless.  A series of ballot failures in proposals for school vouchers seemed to confirm this judgment.

In the late 1990s, however, the politics of school choice became more complex with the introduction of a new rhetorical approach to the choice movement’s repertoire.  The key change was to introduce the issue of equity in addition to efficiency.  Adding equity changed the valence of the choice argument.  Instead of being seen as a threat to social equality, choice now could be presented as a way to spread social opportunity to the disadvantaged.  One account put the issue this way:

We have always had school choice in the United States, through the right of parents to send their child to a private school and through the ability of parents to pick a public school for their child by choosing where to live.  Clearly, affluent parents have typically been the main beneficiaries of these forms of school choice.

Another added the kicker:

We must give low-income and working-class parents the power to choose schools – public or private, nonsectarian or religious – where their children will succeed.  And we must give all schools the incentives to work to meet children’s needs.

This shift toward a rhetoric of equal opportunity dramatically changed the way the choice argument was received, and also it transformed the political complexion of the effort.  Once favored primarily by libertarians, economists, and free market Republicans, it was now able to pick up support from a variety of sectors.  Adding equal opportunity to the argument helped broaden the appeal of both the standards movement and the choice movement.

Developments since Publication of the Book

Let’s look at the changing landscape of education policy in the United States in the last half dozen years.  On the surface, the changes have been substantial.  In 2015, the federal government passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the 2001 law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The latter had, for the first time, thrust the federal government directly into the realm of educational policy, which had traditionally been the responsibility of the 50 state governments.  It constituted the triumph of the movement for educational standards, which had been advancing at the state level since the 1980s.  NCLB compelled states to establish standards for the curriculum used in local schools and to hold schools accountable through state-wide tests that would assess how well student achievement was meeting these standards.  The policy was aimed at accomplishing two goals, to reduce the inequality of schooling available to students from different social and ethnic backgrounds and to promote economic development by raising the level of educational outcomes.  In the language of the book, the first was an expression of the social mobility goal and the second of the social efficiency goal.  I argue that these two goals, along with the democratic equality goal, have framed the politics of education in the U.S. throughout its history over the last 200 years.

ESSA was an effort to ameliorate some of the resistance that had developed to NCLB in the previous decade.  Some of the opposition came from the political right, which saw the law as an egregious intrusion on states’ rights.  Additional opposition came from the educational establishment, which was unhappy with the impact that rigid testing requirements had on the ability of school systems to carry out their work effectively.  ESSA softened the accountability requirements on states and provided greater latitude for state policymakers to craft their own approaches to meeting broad standards for both elevating student achievement and reducing the achievement gap.  At the same time that NCLB was stirring up resistance, so did the effort to develop a Common Core curriculum that would cut across state boundaries.  In response, the Common Core effort continued at the state level, but under conditions that gave more freedom for states to deal with this process on their own terms.

Then came the presidential election and a dramatic change in educational policy that came with the election of Donald Trump.  In the new administration, the federal Department of Education shifted dramatically in favor of school choice, putting its weight behind charter schools and school vouchers.  It also loosened the restrictions on for-profit higher education that had been imposed by the Obama administration.

These policy changes had more impact on the surface of the American educational system than on its core.  Education remains primarily a function under the control of state and local government.  And the basic structure of the system, as spelled out in my book, remains largely the same.  The consumer is still king in shaping the dynamics of the system of schooling at all levels, with government policy playing a secondary role.


This has been a story about the changing rhetoric of American educational reform.  We have seen a transition from a political vision to a market vision of education, from a focus on education as a way to create citizens for an emerging republic to a focus on education as a way to allow citizens to get ahead in a market society.  During this century and a half, however, we have not seen the political argument for education disappear.  Instead, we have seen it become transformed from the argument that education promotes civic virtue among citizens to the argument that education promotes social mobility among consumers.  In the latter form, the political vision of education has retained a strong rhetorical presence in the language of educational reform.  Yet the persistence of a political argument for education has come at a cost.  Gone is the notion that schools exist to promote civic virtue for the preservation of a republican community; in its place is the notion that schools exist to give all consumers access to a valuable form of educational property.  This is a political vision of a very different sort, which transforms education from a public good to a private good, and from a source of political community to a source of economic opportunity.  By undermining education as a public good and empowering educational consumers, this privatized and pragmatic vision of the American school system is directly at odds with the public and communitarian vision of Horace Mann.


Posted in Higher Education, History of education, Uncategorized

Research Universities and the Public Good

This post is a review essay of a new book called Research Universities and the Public Good.  It appeared in the current issue of American Journal of Sociology.  Here’s a link to a PDF of the original.

Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future

By Jason Owen-Smith. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,
2018. Pp. xii + 213. $35.00.

David F. Labaree
Stanford University

American higher education has long been immune to the kind of criticism
levied against elementary and secondary education because it has been seen
as a great success story, in contrast to the popular narrative of failure that
has been applied to the lower levels of the system. And the rest of the world
seems to agree with this distinction. Families outside the United States have
not been eager to send their children to our schools, but they have been
clamoring for admission to the undergraduate and graduate programs at
our colleges and universities. In the last few years, however, this reputational
immunity has been quickly fading. The relentlessly rationalizing reformers
who have done so much harm to U.S. schools in the name of accountability
have now started to direct their attention to higher education. Watch out,
they’re coming for us.

One tiny sector of the huge and remarkably diverse structure of U.S.
higher education has been particularly vulnerable to this contagion, namely,
the research university. This group represents only 3% of the more than
5,000 degree-granting institutions in the country, and it educates only a
small percentage of college students while sucking up a massive amount of
public and private resources. Its highly paid faculty don’t teach very much,
instead focusing their time instead on producing research on obscure topics
published in journals for the perusal of their colleagues rather than the public.
No wonder state governments have been reducing their funding for public
research universities and the federal government has been cutting its support
for research. No wonder there are strong calls for disaggregating the
multiplicity of functions that make these institutions so complex, so that
the various services of the university can be delivered more cost-effectively
to consumers.

In his new book, Jason Owen-Smith, a sociology professor at the University
of Michigan, mounts a valiant and highly effective defense of the apparently
indefensible American research university. While acknowledging the
complexity of functions that run through these institutions, he focuses his
attention primarily on the public benefits that derive from their research
production. As he notes, although they represent less than 3% of the institutions
of higher education, they produce nearly 90% of the system’s research and development. In an era when education is increasingly portrayed as primarily a private good—providing degrees whose benefits only accrue to the degree holders—he deliberately zeroes in on the way that university research constitutes a public good whose benefits accrue to the community as a whole.

He argues that the core public functions of the research university are to
serve as “sources of knowledge and skilled people, anchors for communities,
industries, and regions, and hubs connecting all of the far-flung parts of society”
(p. 1; original emphasis). In chapter 1 he spells out the overall argument,
in chapter 2 he explores the usefulness of the peculiarly complex
organization of the research university, in chapters 3–5 he examines in more
detail each of the core functions, and at the end he suggests ways that university
administrators can help position their institutions to demonstrate
the value they provide the public.

The core function is to produce knowledge and skill. The most telling
point the author makes about this function is that it works best if allowed
to emerge organically from the complex incentive structure of the university
itself instead of being directed by government or industry toward solving
the most current problems. Trying to make research relevant may well
make it dysfunctional. Mie Augier and James March (“The Pursuit of Relevance
in Management Education,” California Management Review 49
[2007]: 129–46) argue that the pursuit of relevance is afflicted by both ambiguity
(we don’t know what’s going to be relevant until we encounter the
next problem) and myopia (by focusing too tightly on the current case we
miss what it is a case of ). In short, as Owen-Smith notes, investing in research
universities is a kind of social insurance by which we develop answers
to problems that haven’t yet emerged.While the private sector focuses
on applied research that is likely to have immediate utility, public funds are
most needed to support the basic research whose timeline for utility is unknown
but whose breadth of benefit is much greater.

The second function of the research university is to serve as a regional anchor.
A creative tension that energizes this institution is that it’s both cosmopolitan
and local. It aspires to universal knowledge, but it’s deeply grounded
in place. Companies can move, but universities can’t. This isn’t just because
of physical plant, a constraint that also affects companies; it’s because universities
develop a complex web of relationships with the industries and governments
and citizens in their neighborhood. Think Stanford and Silicon
Valley. Owen-Smith makes the analogy to the anchor store in a shopping

The third function of the research university is to serve as a hub, which is
the cosmopolitan side of its relationship with the world. It’s located in place
but connected to the intellectual and economic world through a complex
web of networks. Like the university itself, these webs emerge organically
out of the actions of a vast array of actors pursuing their own research enterprises
and connecting with colleagues and funding sources and clients
and sites of application around the country and the globe. Research
universities are uniquely capable of convening people from all sectors
around issues of mutual interest. Such synergies benefit everyone.

The current discourse on universities, which narrowly conceives of them
as mechanisms for delivering degrees to students, desperately needs the
message that Owen-Smith delivers here. Students may be able to get a degree
through a cheap online program, but only the complex and costly system
of research universities can deliver the kinds of knowledge production,
community development, and network building that provide such invaluable
benefits for the public as a whole. One thing I would add to the author’s
analysis is that American research universities have been able to develop
such strong public support in the past in large part because they combine
top-flight scholarship with large programs of undergraduate education that
are relatively accessible to the public and rather undemanding intellectually.
Elite graduate programs and research projects rest on a firm populist base
that may help the university survive the current assaults, a base grounded
as much in football and fraternities as in the erudition of its faculty. This,
however, is but a footnote to this powerfully framed contribution to the literature
on U.S. higher education.

American Journal of Sociology, 125:2 (September, 2019), pp. 610-12

Posted in Higher Education, History of education, Meritocracy, Uncategorized

US Higher Education and Inequality: How the Solution Became the Problem

This post is a paper I wrote last summer and presented at the University of Oslo in August.  It’s a patchwork quilt of three previously published pieces around a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately:  the role of US higher education — for better and for worse — in creating the new American aristocracy of merit.

In it I explore the way that systems of formal schooling both opened up opportunity for people to get ahead by individual merit and created the most effective structure ever devised for reproducing social inequality.  By defining merit as the accumulation of academic credentials and by constructing a radically stratified and extraordinarily opaque hierarchy of educational institutions for granting these credentials, the system grants an enormous advantage to the children of those who have already negotiated the system most effectively.

The previous generation of academic winners learned its secrets and decoded its inner logic.  They found out that it’s the merit badges that matter, not the amount of useful learning you acquire along the way.  So they coach their children in the art of gaming the system.  The result is that these children not only gain a huge advantage at winning the rewards of the meritocracy but also acquire a degree of legitimacy for these rewards that no previous system of inherited privilege ever attained.  They triumphed in a meritocratic competition, so they fully earned the power, money, and position that they derived from it.  Gotta love a system that can pull that off.

Here’s a PDF of the paper.


U.S. Higher Education and Inequality:

How the Solution Became the Problem


David F. Labaree

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus

Stanford University



Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https:/


GSE Logo

Lecture delivered at University of Oslo

August 14, 2019


One of the glories of the emergence of modernity is that it offered the possibility and even the ideal that social position could be earned rather than inherited.  Instead of being destined to become a king or a peasant by dictate of paternity, for the first time in history individuals had the opportunity to attain their roles in society on the basis of merit.  And in this new world, public education became both the avenue for opportunity and the arbiter of merit.  But one of the anomalies of modernity is that school-based meritocracy, while increasing the fluidity of status attainment, has had little effect on the degree of inequality in modern societies.

In this paper, I explore how the structure of schooling helped bring about this outcome in the United States, with special focus on the evolution of higher education in the twentieth century.  The core issue driving the evolution of this structure is that the possibility for social mobility works at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy, with one group seeing the chance of rising up and the other facing the threat of falling down.  As a result, the former sees school as the way for their children to gain access to higher position while the latter sees it as the way for their children to preserve the social position they were born with.  Under pressure from both sides, the structure of schooling needs to find a way to accommodate these two contradictory aims.  In practice the system can accomplish this by allowing children from families at the bottom and the top to both increase their educational attainment beyond the level of their parents.  In theory this means that both groups can gain academic credentials that allow them to qualify for higher level occupational roles than the previous generation.  They can therefore both move up in parallel, gaining upward mobility without reducing the social distance between them.  Thus you end up with more opportunity without more equality.

Theoretically, it would be possible for the system to reduce or eliminate the degree to which elites manage to preserve their advantage through education simply by imposing a ceiling on the educational attainment allowed for their children.  That way, when the bottom group rises they get closer to the top group.  As a matter of practice, that option is not available in the U.S.  As the most liberal of liberal democracies, the U.S. sees any such limits on the choices of the upper group as a gross violation of individual liberty.  The result is a peculiar dynamic that has governed the evolution of the structure of American education over the years.  The pattern is this.  The out-group exerts political pressure in order to gain greater educational credentials for their children while the in-group responds by increasing the credentials of their own children.  The result is that both groups move up in educational qualifications at the same time.  Schooling goes up but social gaps remain the same.  It’s an elevator effect.  Every time the floor rises, so does the ceiling.

In the last 200 years of the history of schooling in the United States, the dynamic has played out like this.  At the starting point, one group has access to a level of education that is denied to another group.  The outsiders exert pressure to gain access to this level, which democratic leaders eventually feel compelled to grant.  But the insiders feel threatened by the loss of social advantage that greater access would bring, so they press to preserve that advantage.  How does the system accomplish this?  Through two simple mechanisms.  First, at the level where access is expanding, it stratifies schooling into curricular tracks or streams.  This means that the newcomers fill the lower tracks while the old-timers occupy the upper tracks.  Second, for the previously advantaged group it expands access to schooling at the next higher level.  So the system expands access to one level of schooling while simultaneously stratifying that level and opening up the next level.

This process has gone through three cycles in the history of U.S. schooling.  When the common school movement created a system of universal elementary schooling in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it also created a selective public high school at the top of the system.  The purpose of the latter was to draw upper-class children from private schools into the public system by offering access to the high school only to graduates of the public grammar schools.  Without the elite high school as inducement, public schooling would have been left the domain for paupers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century, elementary grades filled up and demand increased for wider access to high school, so the system opened the doors to this institution.  But at the same it introduced curriculum tracks and set off a surge of college enrollments by the former high school students.  And when high schools themselves filled by the middle of the twentieth century, the system opened access to higher education by creating a range of new nonselective colleges and universities to absorb the influx.  This preserved the exclusivity of the older institutions, whose graduates in large numbers then started pursuing postgraduate degrees.

Result: A Very Stratified System of Higher Education

By the middle of the twentieth century, higher education was the zone of advantage for any American trying to get ahead or stay ahead.  And as a result of the process by which the tertiary system managed to incorporate both functions, it became extraordinarily stratified.  This was a system that emerged without a plan, based not on government fiat but the competing interests of educational consumers seeking to use it to their own advantage.  A market-oriented system of higher education such as this one has a special dynamic that leads to a high degree of stratification.  Each educational enterprise competes with the others to establish a position in the market that will allow it to draw students, generate a comfortable surplus, and maintain this situation over time.  The problem is that, given the lack of effective state limits on the establishment and expansion of colleges, these schools find themselves in a buyer’s market.  Individual buyers may want one kind of program over another, which gives colleges an incentive to differentiate the market horizontally to accommodate these various demands.  At the same time, however, buyers want a college diploma that will help them get ahead socially.  This means that consumers don’t just want a college education that is different; they want one that is better – better at providing access to good jobs.  In response to this consumer demand, the U.S. has developed a multi-tiered hierarchy of higher education, ranging from open-access institutions at the bottom to highly exclusive institutions at the top, with each of the upper tier institutions offering graduates a degree that provides invidious distinction over graduates from schools in the lower tiers.

This stratified structure of higher education arose in the nineteenth century in a dynamic market system, where the institutional actors had to operate according to four basic rules.  Rule One:  Age trumps youth.  It’s no accident that the oldest American colleges are overrepresented in the top tier.  Of the top 20 U.S. universities,[1] 19 were founded before 1900 and 7 before 1776, even though more than half of all American universities were founded in the twentieth century.  Before competitors had entered the field, the oldest schools had already established a pattern of training the country’s leaders, locked up access to the wealthiest families, accumulated substantial endowments, and hired the most capable faculty.

Rule Two:  The strongest rewards go to those at the top of the system.  This means that every college below the top has a strong incentive to move up the ladder, and that top colleges have a strong incentive to preserve their advantage.  Even though it is very difficult for lower-level schools to move up, this doesn’t keep them from trying.  Despite long odds, the possible payoff is big enough that everyone stays focused on the tier above.  A few major success stories allow institutions to keep their hopes alive.  University presidents lie awake at night dreaming of replicating the route to the top followed by social climbers like Berkeley, Hopkins, Chicago, and Stanford.

Rule Three:  It pays to imitate your betters.  As the research university emerged as the model for the top tier in American higher education in the twentieth century, it became the ideal toward which all other schools sought to move.  To get ahead you needed to offer a full array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, selective admissions and professors who publish, a football stadium and Gothic architecture.  (David Riesman called this structure of imitation “the academic procession.”)[2]  Of course, given the advantages enjoyed by the top tier, imitation has rarely produced the desired results.  But it’s the only game in town.  Even if you don’t move up in the rankings, you at least help reassure your school’s various constituencies that they are associated with something that looks like and feels like a real university.

Rule Four:  It’s best to expand the system by creating new colleges rather than increasing enrollments at existing colleges.  Periodically new waves of educational consumers push for access to higher education.  Initially, existing schools expanded to meet the demand, which meant that as late as 1900 Harvard was the largest U.S. university, public or private.[3]  But beyond this point in the growth process, it was not in the interest of existing institutions to provide wider access.  Concerned about protecting their institutional advantage, they had no desire to sully their hard-won distinction by admitting the unwashed.  Better to have this kind of thing done by additional colleges created for that purpose.  The new colleges emerged, then, as a clearly designated lower tier in the system, defined as such by both their newness and their accessibility.

Think about how these rules have shaped the historical process that produced the present stratified structure of higher education.  This structure has four tiers.  In line with Rule One, these tiers from top to bottom emerged in roughly chronological order.  The Ivy League colleges emerged in the colonial period, followed by a series of flagship state colleges in the early and mid-nineteenth century.  These institutions, along with a few social climbers that emerged later, grew to form the core of the elite research universities that make up the top tier of the system.  Schools in this tier are the most influential, prestigious, well-funded, exclusive, research-productive, and graduate-oriented – in the U.S. and in the world.

The second tier emerged from the land grant colleges that began appearing in the mid to late nineteenth century.  They were created to fill a need not met by existing institutions, expanding access for a broader array of students and offering programs with practical application in areas like agriculture and engineering.  They were often distinguished from the flagship research university by the word “state” in their title (as with University of Michigan vs. Michigan State University) or the label “A & M” (for Agricultural and Mechanical, as with University of Texas vs. Texas A & M).  But, in line with Rules Two and Three, they responded to consumer demand by quickly evolving into full service colleges and universities; and in the twentieth century they adopted the form and function of the research university, albeit in a more modest manner.

The third tier arose from the normal schools, established in the late nineteenth century to prepare teachers.  Like the land grant schools that preceded them, these narrowly vocational institutions evolved quickly under pressure from consumers, who wanted them to model themselves after the schools in the top tiers by offering a more valuable set of credentials that would provide access to a wider array of social opportunities.  Under these market pressures, normal schools evolved into teachers colleges, general-purpose state colleges, and finally, by the 1960s, comprehensive regional state universities.

The fourth tier emerged in part from the junior colleges that first arose in the early twentieth century and eventually evolved into an extensive system of community colleges.  Like the land grant college and normal school, these institutions offered access to a new set of students at a lower level of the system.  Unlike their predecessors, for the most part they have not been allowed by state governments to imitate the university model, remaining primarily as two-year schools.  But through the transfer option, many students use them as a more accessible route into institutions in the upper tiers.

What This Means for Educational Consumers

This highly stratified system is very difficult for consumers to navigate.  Instead of allocating access to the top level of the system using the mechanism employed by most of the rest of the world – a state-administered university matriculation exam – the highly decentralized American system allocates access by means of informal mechanisms that in comparison seem anarchic.  In the absence of one access route, there are many; and in the absence of clear rules for prospective students, there are multiple and conflicting rules of thumb.  Also, the rules of thumb vary radically according to which tier of the system you are seeking to enter.

First, let’s look at the admissions process for families (primarily the upper-middle class) who are trying to get their children entrée to the elite category of highly selective liberal arts colleges and research universities.  They have to take into account the wide array of factors that enter into the complex and opaque process that American colleges use to select students at this level:  quality of high school; quality of a student’s program of study; high school grades; test scores in the SAT or ACT college aptitude tests; interests and passions expressed in an application essay; parents’ alumni status; whether the student needs financial aid; athletic skills; service activities; diversity factors such as race, ethnicity, class, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation; and extracurricular contributions a student might make to the college community.  There is no centralized review process; instead every college carries out its own admissions review and employs its own criteria.

This open and indeterminate process provides a huge advantage for upper-middle-class families.  If you are a parent who is a college graduate and who works at a professional or managerial job, where the payoff of going to a good college is readily apparent, you have the cultural and social capital to negotiate this system effectively and read its coded messages.  For you, going to college is not the issue; it’s a matter of which college your children can get into that would provide them with the greatest competitive advantage in the workplace.  You want for them the college that might turn them down rather than the one that would welcome them with open arms.  So you enroll your children in test prep; hire a college advisor; plan out a strategic plan for high school course-taking and extracurriculars; craft a service resume that makes them look appropriately public-spirited; take them on the obligatory college tour; and come up with just the right mix of applications to the stretch schools, the safety schools, and those in between.  And all this pays off handsomely: 77 percent of children from families in the top quintile by income gain a bachelor’s degree.[4]

If you are a parent farther down the class scale, who didn’t attend college and whose own work environment is not well stocked with college graduates, you have a lot more trouble negotiating the system.  The odds are not good:  for students from the fourth income quintile, only 17 percent earn a BA, and for the lowest quintile the rate is only 9 percent.[5]  Under these circumstances, having your child go to a college, any college, is a big deal; and one college is hard to distinguish from another.  But you are faced by a system that offers an extraordinary diversity of choices for prospective students:  public, not-for-profit, or for-profit; secular or religious; two-year or four-year; college or university; teaching or research oriented; massive or tiny student body; vocational or liberal; division 1, 2, or 3 intercollegiate athletics, or no sports at all; party school or nerd haven; high rank or low rank; full-time or part-time enrollment; urban or pastoral; gritty or serene; residential, commuter, or “suitcase college” (where students go home on weekends).  In this complex setting both consumers and providers somehow have to make choices that are in their own best interest.  Families from the upper-middle class are experts at negotiating this system, trimming the complexity down to a few essentials:  a four-year institution that is highly selective and preferably private (not-for-profit).  Everything else is optional.

If you’re a working-class family, however – lacking deep knowledge of the system and without access to the wide array of support systems that money can buy – you are more likely to take the system at face value.  Having your children go to a community college is the most obvious and attractive option.  It’s close to home, inexpensive, and easy to get into.  It’s where your children’s friends will be going, it allows them to work and go to school part time, and it doesn’t seem as forbiddingly alien as the state university (much less the Ivies).  You don’t need anything to gain admission except a high school diploma or GED.  No tests, counselors, tours, or resume-burnishing is required.  Of you could try the next step up, the local comprehensive state university.  To apply for admission, all you need is a high school transcript.  You might get turned down, but the odds are in your favor.  The cost is higher but can usually be paid with federal grants and loans.  An alternative is a for-profit institution, which is extremely accessible, flexible, and often online.  It’s not cheap, but federal grants and loans can pay the cost.  What you don’t have any way of knowing is that the most accessible colleges at the bottom of the system are also the ones where students are least likely to graduate.  (Only 29 percent of students entering two-year colleges earn an associate degree in three years;[6] only 39 percent earn a degree from a two-year or four-year institution in six years.[7])  You also may not be aware that the economic payoff for these colleges is lower; or that the colleges higher up the system may not only provide stronger support toward graduation and but might even be less expensive because of greater scholarship funding.

In this way, the complexity and opacity of this market-based and informally-structured system helps reinforce the social advantages of those at the top of the social ladder and limit the opportunities for those at the bottom.  It’s a system that rewards the insider knowledge of old hands and punishes newcomers.  To work it effectively, you need reject the fiction that a college is a college is a college and learn how seek advantage in the system’s upper tiers.

On the other hand, the system’s fluidity is real.  The absence of state-sanctioned and formally structured tracks means that the barriers between the system’s tiers are permeable.  Your children’s future is not predetermined by their high school curriculum or their score on the matriculation exam.  They can apply to any college they want and see what happens.  Of course, if their grades and scores are not great, their chances of admission to upper level institutions are poor.  But their chances of getting into a teaching-oriented state university are pretty good, and their chances of getting into a community college are virtually assured.  And if they take the latter option, as is most often the case for children from socially disadvantaged families, there is a real (if modest) possibility that they might be able to prove their academic chops, earn an AA degree, and transfer to a university, even a research university.  The probabilities of moving up in the system are low:  most community college students never earn an AA degree; and transfers have a harder time succeeding in the university than students who enroll there as freshmen.  But the possibilities are nonetheless genuine.

American higher education offers something for everyone.  It helps those at the bottom to get ahead and those at the top to stay ahead.  It provides socially useful educational services for every ability level and every consumer preference.  This gives it an astonishingly broad base of political support across the entire population, since everyone needs it and everyone can potentially benefit from it.  And this kind of legitimacy is not possible if the opportunity the system offers to the lower classes is a simple fraud.  First generation college students, even if they struggled in high school, can attend community college, transfer to San Jose State, and end up working at Apple.  It’s not very likely, but it assuredly is possible.  True, the more advantages you bring to the system – cultural capital, connections, family wealth – the higher the probability that you will succeed in it.  But even if you are lacking in these attributes, there is still an outside chance that you just might make it through the system and emerge with a good middle class job.

This helps explain how the system gets away with preserving social advantage for those at the top without stirring a revolt from those at the bottom.  Students from working-class and lower-class families are much less likely to be admitted to the upper reaches of the higher education system that provides the greatest social rewards; but the opportunity to attend some form of college is high, and attending a college at the lower levels of the system may provide access to a good job.  The combination of high access to the lower levels of the system and high attrition on the way to attaining a bachelor’s degree creates a situation where the system gets credit for openness and the student bears the burden for failing to capitalize on it.  The system gave you a chance but you just couldn’t make the grade.  The ready-made explanations for personal failure accumulate quickly as students try to move through the system.  You didn’t study hard enough, you didn’t get good grades in high school, you didn’t get good test scores, so you couldn’t get into a selective college.  Instead you went to a community college, where you got distracted from your studies by work, family, and friends, and you didn’t have the necessary academic ability; so you failed to complete your AA degree.  Or maybe you did complete the degree and transferred to a university, but you had trouble competing with students who were more able and better prepared than you.  Along with the majority of students who don’t make it all the way to a BA, you bear the burden for your failure – a conclusion that is reinforced by the occasional but highly visible successes of a few of your peers.  The system is well defended against charges of unfairness.

So we can understand why people at the bottom don’t cry foul.  It gave you a chance.  And there is one more reason for keeping up your hope that education will pay off for you.  A degree from an institution in a lower tier may pay lower benefits, but for some purposes one degree really is as good as another.  Often the question in getting a job or a promotion is not whether you have a classy credential but whether you have whatever credential is listed as the minimum requirement in the job description.  Bureaucracies operate on a level where form often matters more than substance.  As long as you can check off the box confirming that you have a bachelor’s degree, the BA from University of Phoenix and the BA from University of Pennsylvania can serve the same function, by allowing you to be considered for the job.  And if, say, you’re a public school teacher, an MA from Capella University, under the district contract, is as effective as one from Stanford University, because either will qualify you for a $5,000 bump in pay.

At the same time, however, we can see why the system generates so much anxiety among students who are trying to use the system to move up the social ladder for the good life.  It’s really the only game in town for getting a good job in twenty-first century America.  Without higher education, you are closed off from the white collar jobs that provide the most security and pay.  Yes, you could try to start a business, or you could try to work your way up the ladder in an organization without a college degree; but the first approach is highly risky and the second is highly unlikely, since most jobs come with minimum education requirements regardless of experience.  So you have to put all of your hopes in the higher-ed basket while knowing – because of your own difficult experiences in high school and because of what you see happening with family and friends – that your chances for success are not good.  You either you choose to pursue higher ed against the odds or you simply give up.  It’s a situation fraught with anxiety.

What is less obvious, however, is why the American system of higher education – which is so clearly skewed in favor of people at the top of the social order – fosters so much anxiety in them.  Upper-middle-class families in the U.S. are obsessed with education and especially with getting their children into the right college.  Why?  They live in the communities that have the best public schools; their children have cultural and social skills that schools value and reward; and they can afford the direct cost and opportunity cost of sending their high school grads to a residential college, even one of the pricey privates.  So why are there only a few colleges that seem to matter to this group?  Why does it matter so much to have your child not only get into the University of California but into Berkeley or UCLA?  What’s wrong with having them attend Santa Cruz or even one of the Cal State campuses?  And why the overwhelming passion for pursuing admission to Harvard or Yale?

The urgency behind all such frantic concern about admission to the most elite level of the system is this:  As parents of privilege, you can pass on your wealth to your children, but you can’t give them a profession.  Education is built into the core of modern societies, where occupations are no longer inherited but more or less earned.  If you’re a successful doctor or lawyer, you can provide a lot of advantages for your children; but in order for them to gain a position such as yours, they must succeed in school, get into a good college, and then into a good graduate school.  Unless they own the company, even business executives can’t pass on position to their children, and even then it’s increasingly rare that they would actually do so.  (Like most shareholders, they would profit more by having the company led by a competent executive than by the boss’s son.)  Under these circumstances of modern life, providing social advantage to your children means providing them with educational advantage.  Parents who have been through the process of climbing the educational hierarchy in order to gain prominent position in the occupational hierarchy know full well what it takes to make the grade.

They also know something else:  When you’re at the top of the social system, there is little opportunity to rise higher but plenty of opportunity to fall farther down.  Consider data on intergenerational mobility in the U.S.  For children of parents in the top quintile by household income, 60 percent end up at least one quintile lower than their parents and 37 fall at least two quintiles.[8]  That’s a substantial decline in social position.  So there’s good reason for these parents to fear downward mobility for their children and to use all their powers to marshal educational resources to head it off.  The problem is this:  Even though your own children have a wealth of advantages in negotiating the educational system, there are still enough bright and ambitious students from the lower classes who manage to make it through the educational gauntlet to pose them a serious threat.  So you need to make sure that your children attend the best schools, get into the high reading group and the program for the gifted, take plenty of advanced placement classes, and then get into a highly selective college and graduate school.  Leave nothing to chance, since some of your heirs are likely to be less talented and ambitious than those children who prove themselves against all odds by climbing the educational ladder.  When the higher education system opened up access after World War II, it made competition for the top tier of the system sharply higher, and the degree of competitiveness continued to increase as the proportion of students going to college grew to a sizeable majority.  As Jerome Karabel has noted in his study of elite college admissions, the American system of higher education does not equalize opportunity but it does equalize anxiety.[9]  It makes families at all levels of American society nervous about their ability to negotiate the system effectively, because it provides the only highway to the good life.

The American Meritocracy

The American system of education is formally meritocratic, but one of its social effects is to naturalize privilege.  This starts when a student’s academic merit is so central and so pervasive in schooling that it embeds itself within the individual person.  You start saying things like:  I’m smart.  I’m dumb.  I’m a good student.  I’m a bad student.  I’m good at reading but bad at math.  I’m lousy at sports.  The construction of merit is coextensive with the entire experience of growing up, and therefore it comes to constitute the emergent you.  It no longer seems to be something imposed by a teacher or a school but instead comes to be an essential part of your identity.  It’s now less what you do and increasingly who you are.  In this way, the systemic construction of merit begins to disappear and what’s left is a permanent trait of the individual.  You are your grade and your grade is your destiny.

The problem, however – as an enormous amount of research shows – is that the formal measures of merit that schools use are subject to powerful influence from a student’s social origins.  No matter how you measure merit, it affects your score.  It shapes your educational attainment.  It also shows up in measures that rank educational institutions by quality and selectivity.  Across the board, your parents’ social class has an enormous impact on the level of merit you are likely to acquire in school.  Students with higher social position end up accumulating a disproportionately large number of academic merit badges.

The correlations between socioeconomic status and school measures of merit are strong and consistent, and the causation is easy to determine.  Being born well has an enormously positive impact on the education merit you acquire across your life.  Let us count the ways.  Economic capital is one obvious factor.  Wealthy communities can support better schools. Social capital is another factor.  Families from the upper middle classes have a much broader network of relationships with the larger society than those form the working class, which provides a big advantage for their schooling prospects.  For them, the educational system is not foreign territory but feels like home.

Cultural capital is a third factor, and the most important of all.  School is a place that teaches students the cognitive skills, cultural norms, and forms of knowledge that are required for competent performance in positions of power.  Schools demonstrate a strong disposition toward these capacities over others:  mental over manual skills, theoretical over practical knowledge, decontextualized over contextualized perspectives, mind over body, Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft.  Parents in the upper middle class are already highly skilled in these cultural capacities, which they deploy in their professional and managerial work on a daily basis.  Their children have grown up in the world of cultural capital.  It’s a language they learn to speak at home.  For working-class children, school is an introduction to a foreign culture and a new language, which unaccountably other students seem to already know.  They’re playing catchup from day one.  Also, it turns out that schools are better at rewarding cultural capital than they are at teaching it.  So kids from the upper middle class can glide through school with little effort while others continually struggle to keep up.  The longer they remain in school, the larger the achievement gap between the two groups.

In the wonderful world of academic merit, therefore, the fix is in.  Upper income students have a built-in advantage in acquiring the grades, credits, and degrees that constitute the primary prizes of the school meritocracy.  But – and this is the true magic of the educational process – the merits that these students accumulate at school come in a purified academic form that is independent of their social origins.  They may have entered schooling as people of privilege, but they leave it as people of merit.  They’re good students.  They’re smart.  They’re well educated.  As a result, they’re totally deserving of special access to the best jobs.  They arrived with inherited privilege but they leave with earned privilege.  So now they fully deserve what they get with their new educational credentials.

In this way, the merit structure of schooling performs a kind of alchemy.  It turns class position into academic merit.  It turns ascribed status into achieved status. You may have gotten into Harvard by growing up in a rich neighborhood with great schools and by being a legacy.  But when you graduate, you bear the label of a person of merit, whose future accomplishments arise alone from your superior abilities.  You’ve been given a second nature.

Consequences of Naturalized Privilege: The New Aristocracy

The process by which schools naturalize academic merit brings major consequences to the larger society.  The most important of these is that it legitimizes social inequality.  People who were born on third base get credit for hitting a triple, and people who have to start in the batter’s box face the real possibility of striking out.  According to the educational system, divergent social outcomes are the result of differences in individual merit, so, one way or the other, people get what they deserve.  The fact that a fraction of students from the lower classes manage against the odds to prove themselves in school and move up the social scale only adds further credibility to the existence of a real meritocracy.

In the United States in the last 40 years, we have come to see the broader implications of this system of status attainment through institutional merit.  It has created a new kind of aristocracy.  This is not Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, grounded in public accomplishments, but a caste of meritocratic privilege, grounded in the formalized and naturalized merit signaled by educational credentials.  As with aristocracies of old, the new meritocracy is a system of rule by your betters – no longer defined as those who are better born or more accomplished but now as those who are better educated.  Michael Young saw this coming back in 1958, as he predicted in his fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy.[10]  But now we can see that it has truly taken hold.

The core expertise of this new aristocracy is skill in working the system.  You have to know how to play the game of educational merit-getting and pass this on to your children.  The secret is in knowing that the achievements that get awarded merit points through the process of schooling are not substantive but formal.  Schooling is not about learning the subject matter; it’s about getting good grades, accumulating course credits, and collecting the diploma on the way out the door.  Degrees pay off, not what you learned in school or even the number of years of schooling you have acquired.  What you need to know is what’s going to be on the test and nothing else.  So you need to study strategically and spend of lot of effort working the refs.  Give teacher what she wants and be sure to get on her good side.  Give the college admissions officers the things they are looking for in your application.  Pump up your test scores with coaching and learning how to game the questions.

Members of the new aristocracy are particularly aggressive about carrying out a strategy known as opportunity hoarding.  There is no academic advantage too trivial to pursue, and the number of advantages you accumulate can never be enough.  In order to get your children into the right selective college you need send them to the right school, get them into the gifted program in elementary school and the right track in high school, hire a tutor, carry out test prep, do the college tour, pursue prizes, develop a well-rounded resume for the student (sport, student leadership, musical instrument, service), pull strings as a legacy and a donor, and on and on and on.

As we saw earlier, such behavior by upper-middle-class parents is not a crazy as it seems.  The problem with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down.  The system is just meritocratic enough to keep the most privileged families on edge, worried about having their child bested by a smart poor kid.   Again, as Karabel put it, the only thing U.S. education equalizes is anxiety.

As with earlier aristocracies, the new aristocrats of merit cluster together in the same communities, where the schools are like no other.  Their children attend the same elite colleges, where they meet their future mates and then transmit their combined cultural, social, and economic capital in concentrated form to their children, a process sociologists call assortative mating.  And one consequence of this increase concentration of educational resources is that the achievement gap between low and high income students has been rising; Sean Reardon’s study shows the gap growing 40 percent in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  This is how educational and social inequality grows larger over time.

By assuming the form of meritocracy, schools have come to play a central role in defining the character of modern society.  In the process they have served to increase social opportunity while also increasing social inequality.  At the same time, they have established a solid educational basis for the legitimacy of this new inequality, and they have fostered the development of a new aristocracy of educational merit whose economic power, social privilege, and cultural cohesion would be the envy of the high nobility in early modern England or France.  Now, as then, the aristocracy assumes its outsized social role as a matter of natural right.



Community College Research Center. (2015). Community College FAQs. Teachers College, Columbia University. (accessed 8-3-15).

Geiger, Roger L. (2004). To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American research Universities, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Transaction.

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Mariner Books.

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

Pell Institute and PennAHEAD. (2015). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States (2015 revised edition). Philadelphia: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD). (accessed 8-10-15).

Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project. (2012). Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations. Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts. (accessed 8-10-15).

Riesman, David.  (1958).  The Academic Procession.  In Constraint and variety in American education.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday.

U.S. News and World Report. (2015). National Universities Rankings. (accessed 4-28-15).

Young, Michael D. (1958). The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2023.  New York:  Random House.


[1] U.S. News (2015).

[2] Riesman, (1958).

[3] Geiger (2004), 270.

[4] Pell (2015), p. 31.

[5] Pell (2015), p. 31.

[6] NCES (2014), table 326.20.

[7] CCRC (2015).

[8] Pew (2012), figure 3.

[9] Karabel (2005), p. 547.

[10] Young (1958).

Posted in Course Syllabus, Higher Education, History of education, History of Higher Education Class

Course on the History of Higher Education in the U.S.

This post contains all of the material for the class on the History of Higher Education in the US that I taught for at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last 15 years.  In retirement I wanted to make the course available on the internet to anyone who is interested.  If you are a college teacher, feel free to use any of it in whole or part.  If you are a student or a group of students, you can work your way through the class on your own at your own pace.  Any benefits that accrue are purely intrinsic, since no one will get college credits.  But that also means you’re free to pursue the parts of the class that you want and you don’t have any requirements or papers.  How great is that.

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 except three required books 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.


History of Higher Education in the U.S.

A 10-Week Class

David Labaree


Twitter: @Dlabaree


Course Description

This course provides an introductory overview of the history of higher education in the United States.  We will start with Perkin’s account of the world history of the university, and two chapters from my book about the role of the market in shaping the history of American higher education and the pressure from consumers to have college provide both social access and social advantage.  In week two, we examine an overview of the history of American college and university in the 18th and 19th centuries from John Thelin, and my chapter on the emerging nature of the college system.  In week three, we focus on the rise of the university in the latter part of the 19th century using two more chapters from Thelin, and my own chapter on the subject.  In week four, we read a series of papers around the issue of access to higher education, showing how colleges for many years sought to repel or redirect the college aspirations of women, blacks, and Jews.  In week five, we examine the history of professional education, with special attention to schools of business, education, and medicine.  In week six, we read several chapters from Donald Levine’s book about the rise of mass higher education after World War I, my piece about the rise of community colleges, and more from Thelin.  In week seven, we look at the surge of higher ed enrollments after World War II, drawing on pieces by Rebecca Lowen, Roger Geiger, Thelin, and Labaree.  In week eight, we look at the broadly accessible full-service regional state university, drawing on Alden Dunham, Thelin, Lohmann, and my chapter on the relationship between the public and private sector.  In week nine, we read a selection of chapters from Jerome Karabel’s book about the struggle by elite universities to stay on top of a dynamic and expanding system of higher education.  And in week 10, we step back and try to get a fix on the evolved nature of the American system of higher education, drawing on work by Mitchell Stevens and the concluding chapters of my book.

Like every course, this one is not a neutral survey of all possible perspectives on the domain identified by the course title; like every course, this one has a point of view.  This point of view comes through in my book manuscript that we’ll be reading in the course.  Let me give you an idea of the kind of approach I will be taking.

The American system of higher education is an anomaly.  In the twentieth century it surged past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world – with more money, talent, scholarly esteem, and institutional influence than any of the systems that served as its models.  By all rights, this never should have happened.  Its origins were remarkably humble: a loose assortment of parochial nineteenth-century liberal-arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction.  These colleges had no academic credibility, no reliable source of students, and no steady funding.  Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the nineteenth century turned out to be strengths in the twentieth.  In the absence of strong funding and central control, individual colleges had to learn how to survive and thrive in a highly competitive market, in which they needed to rely on student tuition and alumni donations and had to develop a mode of governance that would position them to pursue any opportunity and cultivate any source of patronage.  As a result, American colleges developed into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.  This put the system in a strong position to expand and prosper when, before the turn of the twentieth century, it finally got what it was most grievously lacking:  a surge of academic credibility (when it assumed the mantle of scientific research) and a surge of student enrollments (when it became the pipeline to the middle class).  This course is an effort to understand how a system that started out so badly turned out so well – and how its apparently unworkable structure is precisely what makes the system work.

That’s an overview of the kind of argument I will be making about the history of higher education.  But you should feel free to construct your own, rejecting mine in part or in whole.  The point of this class, like any class, is to encourage you to try on a variety of perspectives as part of the process of developing your own working conceptual framework for understanding the world.  I hope you will enjoy the ride.


Books:  We will be reading the following books:

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2017). A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

             Supplementary Resources:  There is a terrific online archive of primary and secondary readings on higher education, which is a supplement to The History of Higher Education, 3rd ed., published by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE):

Course Outline

Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.

Week 1

Introduction to course

Tips for week 1 readings

Labaree, David F. (2015). A system without a plan: Elements of the American model of higher education.  Chapter 1 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Balancing access and advantage.  Chapter 5 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Perkin, Harold. (1997). History of universities. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-32). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 1

Week 2

Overview of the Early History of Higher Education in the U.S.

Tips for week 2 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (introductory essay and chapters 1-3).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Unpromising roots:  The ragtag college system in the nineteenth century.  Chapter 2 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 2

Week 3

Roots of the Growth of the University in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

Thursday 4/19

Tips for week 3 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapters 4-5).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Adding the pinnacle and keeping the base: The graduate school crowns the system, 1880-1910.  Chapter 3 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (1995).  Foreword (to book by Brown, David K. (1995). Degrees of control: A sociology of educational expansion and occupational credentialism. New York: Teachers College Press).

Class slides for week 3

 Week 4

Educating and Not Educating the Other:  Blacks, Women, and Jews

Tips for week 4 readings

Wechsler, Harold S. (1997).  An academic Gresham’s law: Group repulsion as a theme in American higher education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 416-431). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Anderson, James D. (1997).  Training the apostles of liberal culture: Black higher education, 1900-1935. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 432-458). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Gordon, Lynn D. (1997).  From seminary to university: An overview of women’s higher education, 1870-1920. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 473-498). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 4

Week 5

History of Professional Education

Tips for week 5 readings

Brubacher, John S. and Rudy, Willis. (1997). Professional education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 379-393). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Bledstein, Burton J. (1976). The culture of professionalism. In The culture of professionalism: The middle class and the development of higher education in America (pp. 80-128). New York:  W. W. Norton.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Mutual subversion: The liberal and the professional. Chapter 4 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Starr, Paul. (1984). Transformation of the medical school. In Social transformation of American medicine (pp. 112-127). New York: Basic.

Class slides for week 5

Week 6

Emergence of Mass Higher Education

Tips for week 6 readings

Levine, Donald O. (1986).  The American college and the culture of aspiration, 1915-1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  Read introduction and chapters 3, 4, and 8.

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 6).

Labaree, David F. (1997). The rise of the community college: Markets and the limits of educational opportunity.  In How to succeed in school without really learning:  The credentials race in American education (chapter 8, pp. 190-222). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Class slides for week 6

Week 7

The Huge Surge of Higher Education Expansion after World War II

Tips for week 7 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 7).

Geiger, Roger. (2004). University advancement from the postwar era to the 1960s. In Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since World War II (chapter 5, pp. 117-156).  Read the first half of the chapter, which focuses on the rise of Stanford.

Lowen, Rebecca S. (1997). Creating the cold war university: The transformation of Stanford. Berkeley: University of California Press.  Introduction and Chapters 5 and 6.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Learning to love the bomb: America’s brief cold-war fling with the university as a public good. Chapter 7 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 7

Week 8

Populist, Practical, and Elite:  The Diversity and Evolved Institutional Character of the Full-Service American University

Tips for week 8 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 8).

Dunham, Edgar Alden. (1969). Colleges of the forgotten Americans: A profile of state colleges and universities. New York: McGraw Hill (introduction, chapters 1-2).

Lohmann, Suzanne. (2006). The public research university as a complex adaptive system. Unpublished paper, University of California, Los Angeles.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Private advantage, public impact. Chapter 6 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 8

Week 9

The Struggle by Elite Universities to Stay on Top

Tips for week 9 readings

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Read introduction and chapters 2, 4, 9, 12, 13, 17, and 18.

Class slides for week 9

Week 10

Conclusions about the American System of Higher Education

Tips for week 10 readings

Stevens, Mitchell L., Armstrong, Elizabeth A., & Arum, Richard. (2008). Sieve, incubator, temple, hub: Empirical and theoretical advances in the sociology of higher education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34 (127-151).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Upstairs, downstairs: Relations between the tiers of the system. Chapter 8 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (2015). A perfect mess. Chapter 9 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 10


Guidelines for Critical Reading

Whenever you set out to do a critical reading of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal, conference paper), 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/interpretation issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  3. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  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?

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 critical reaction 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 Credentialing, Curriculum, Education policy, History of education, School reform

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

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

Education Week Commentary

The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform

By David F. Labaree

May 19, 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 42-44

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


Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, History of education

Do No Harm

This is a piece I wrote about the harm that educational research has inflicted over the years.  Given a track record of making things worse for school and society, educational researchers would do well to heed the wisdom in the Hippocratic Oath.  If our work often fails to make things better, we should at least strive to do no harm.

The paper first appeared in Teacher Education and Practice in 2011.  Here’s a link to the original.


Do No Harm

David F. Labaree

Education is a field of dreams and so is educational research.  As educators, we dream of schools that can improve the lives of students, solve social problems, and enrich the quality of life; and as educational researchers, we dream that our studies will enhance the effectiveness of schools in achieving these worthy goals.  Both fields draw recruits who see the possibilities of education as a force for doing good, and that turns out to be a problem, because the history of both fields shows that the chances for doing real harm are substantial.  Over the years, research on teaching and teacher education – the topic of the discussion in this special issue – has caused a lot of damage to teaching and learning and learning-to-teach in schools.  So I suggest a good principle to adopt when considering the role of research in teacher education is a version of the Hippocratic Oath:  First do no harm.

The history of educational research in the United States in the twentieth century supports a pessimistic assessment of the field’s impact on American school and society.  There was Edward L. Thorndike, whose work emphasized the importance of differentiating the curriculum in order to provide the skills and knowledge that students would later need in playing sharply different roles in a stratified workforce.  There was David Snedden, who labored tirelessly to promote narrowly vocational training for that large group of students who would end up serving in what he called “the rank and file.”  There were the kingpins of educational testing, such as Lewis Terman, who developed instruments that allowed educators to measure student ability and student learning, which in turn helped determine which track students should occupy and what role they should play in later life.  Put together, these kinds of enormously productive educational researchers helped build a system of schooling that emphasized sorting over learning and promoted a vision of teaching that emphasized the delivery of curriculum over the engagement of students.  They laid the foundation for the current machinery of curriculum standards and high-stakes testing that has turned American teaching into a machinery for raising test scores.

Of course, these educational researchers usually did not intend to do harm.  (Snedden is the exception here, a man who was on a mission to dumb down schooling for the lower classes.)  For the most part, they saw making curriculum more scientific and intelligence testing more accurate as ways to allow individuals with merit to escape from the clutches of their social origins.  Like most educational researchers, they were optimists about the possible impact of their work.  But their examples should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers who see their work as an unmitigated exercise in human improvement.

One factor in particular tends to bend the work of researchers toward the dark side of the force, and that is research funding.  Very few government agencies and foundations are eager to support basic research in education.  Instead, funding aligns with the latest educational policy objectives, and to get funded researchers need to demonstrate that their work will in some manner serve these objectives.  That is not to say that the researchers necessarily support these policy missions, but in order to win the grant they do have to harness their work, at least rhetorically, to the aims that motivate the request for proposals.  In the current global policy climate, that means the work needs to address issues around accountability and standards and improving test scores.  If you cannot spin your work in this direction, you will have trouble getting funded.

Another factor that interferes with the educational researcher’s desire to do good for teachers and teacher educators is the need to confront an educational version of Gresham’s Law:  Bad research tends to displace good.  The best research is complex, and this puts the researcher at a competitive disadvantage, since policymakers and teacher educators prefer results that are definitive and easy to understand.  The most sophisticated work we produce tends to show an educational reality that has a complex array of elements interacting within a fiendishly complex organizational structure, which means that research findings have be carefully qualified to the point where it is nearly impossible to say with clarity that a particular form of educational practice is effective or ineffective.  Instead, we have to report that it all depends.  In addition, in order to understand the research findings in any depth, you need to be able to sort through issues of design, methodology, and validity that are only accessible to experts in the field.

Meanwhile, there is a vast array of research available to policymakers and practitioners that supports clear answers to educational problems and does so in a manner that is easy for the layperson to comprehend.  This kind of work comes from two kinds of groups: think tanks, and entrepreneurial organizations for the delivery of education.  Think tanks removes a key element of complexity from the research process by deciding in advance what the politically desirable policy is and then conducting studies that provide clear support for that policy.  In the U.S. there are also a variety of non-governmental organizations that are active in promoting and delivering a particular brand of educational service, such as Teach For America (TFA, with its alternative to traditional teacher preparation) and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP, with its alternative approach to running schools in low income neighborhoods).  These organizations commission research that conveniently demonstrates the effectiveness of what they do.  And both types of research producers are particularly effective at marketing their findings to the relevant actors in the policy and education communities.

University based educational research cannot compete with these other producers in clarity and understandability, but they can undercut the impact of this work a bit by doing what university researchers have always been good at.  We have an advantage in being the only group without a dog in the policy hunt, which allows us to perform credible fundamental research about how schools work, how teaching and learning happens, and how teachers learn to teach.  Work like this can help show how simplistic and politically biased these other research products really are.  And it won’t do much harm.

Posted in Higher Education, History, History of education

Q and A about A Perfect Mess

This is a Q and A I did with Scott Jaschik about my book, A Perfect Mess, shortly after it came out.  It was published in Inside Higher Ed in 2017.

‘A Perfect Mess’

Author discusses his new book about American higher education, which suggests it may be better off today than people realize … because it has always faced so many problems and has always been a “hustler’s paradise.”


Scott Jaschik
May 3, 2017


David F. Labaree’s new book makes a somewhat unusual argument to reassure those worried about the future of American higher education. Yes, it has many serious problems, he writes. But it always has and always will. And that is in fact a strength of American higher education, he argues.

Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, answered questions via email about his new book, A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press).

Q: What do you consider the uniquely American qualities in the development of higher education in the U.S.?

A: The American system of higher education emerged in a unique historical setting in the early 19th century, when the state was weak, the market strong and the church divided. Whereas the European university was the creature of the medieval Roman Catholic church and then grew strong under the rising nation-state in the early modern period, the American system lacked the steady support of church or state and had to rely on the market in order to survive. This posed a terrible problem in the 19th century, as colleges had to scrabble around looking for consumers who would pay tuition and for private sponsors who would provide donations. But at the same time, it planted the seeds of institutional autonomy that came to serve the system so well in the next two centuries. Free from the control of church and state, individual colleges learned to survive on their own resources by meeting the needs of their students and their immediate communities.

By the 20th century, this left the system with the proven ability to adapt to circumstances, take advantage of opportunities, build its own sources of political and economic support, and expand to meet demand. Today the highest-rated universities in global rankings of higher education institutions are the ones with the greatest autonomy, in particular as measured by being less dependent on state funds. And American institutions dominate these rankings; according to the Shanghai rankings, they account for 16 of the top 20 universities in the world.

Q: How significant is the decentralization of American higher education, with public and private systems, and publics reflecting very different traditions in different states?

A: Decentralization has been a critically important element in the American system of higher education. The federal government never established a national university, and state governments were slow in setting up their own colleges because of lack of funds. As a result, unlike anywhere else in the world, private colleges in the U.S. emerged before the publics. They were born as not-for-profit corporations with state charters but with little public funding and no public control.

The impulse for founding these colleges had little to do with advancing higher learning. Instead founders established these institutions primarily to pursue two other goals — to promote the interests of one religious denomination over others and to make land in one town more attractive to buy than land in a neighboring town. Typically, these two aims came together. Developers would donate land and set up a college, seek affiliation with a church, and then use this college as a way to promote their town as a cultural center rather than a dusty agricultural village. Remember that early America had too much land and not enough buyers. The federal government was giving it away. This helps explain why American colleges arose in the largest numbers in the sparsely populated frontier rather than in the established cities in the East — why Ohio had so many more colleges than Massachusetts or Virginia.

Q: What eras strike you as those in which American higher education was most threatened?

A: American higher education was in the greatest jeopardy in the period after the Civil War. The system was drastically overbuilt. In 1880 the U.S. had more than 800 colleges, five times the number in the entire continent of Europe. Overall, however, they were poor excuses for institutions of higher education. On average they had only 130 students and 10 faculty, which made them barely able to survive from year to year, forced to defer faculty salaries and beg for donations. European visitors loved to write home about how intellectually and socially undistinguished they were.

The system as a whole had only one great asset — a huge amount of capacity. What it lacked, however, was sufficient students and academic credibility. Fortunately, both of these elements arose in the last quarter of the century to save the day. The rise of white-collar employment in the new corporations and government agencies created demand for people with strong cognitive, verbal and social skills, the kinds of things that students learn in school. And with the public high schools filling up with working-class students, the college became the primary way for middle-class families to provide their children with advantaged access to managerial and professional work. At the same time, the import of the German model of the university, with a faculty of specialized researchers sporting the new badge of merit, the Ph.D., offered American colleges and universities the possibility for academic stature that had so long eluded them. This steady flow of students and newfound academic distinction allowed the system to realize the potential embedded in its expansive capacity and autonomous structure.

Q: You seem to be suggesting not to worry too much about today’s problems, because higher education has always been a “perfect mess.” But are there issues that are notably worse today than in the past?

A: First, let me say a little about the advantages of the system’s messiness. In the next section, I’ll respond about the problem facing the system today. The relative autonomy and decentralization of American higher education allows individual colleges and universities to find their own ways of meeting needs, finding supporters and making themselves useful. They can choose to specialize, focusing on particular parts of the market — by level of degree, primary consumer base, religious orientation or vocational function. Or, like the big public and private universities, they can choose to provide something for everyone. This makes for individual institutions that don’t have a clean organization chart, looking instead like what some researchers have called “organized anarchies.”

The typical university is in constant tension between autonomous academic departments, which control curriculum and faculty hiring and promotion, and a strong president, who controls funding and is responsible only to the lay board of directors who own the place. Also thrown into the mix are a jumble of independent institutes, research centers and academic programs that have emerged in response to a variety of funding opportunities and faculty initiatives. The resulting institution is a hustler’s paradise, driven by a wide array of entrepreneurial actors: faculty trying to pursue intellectual interests and forge a career; administrators trying to protect and enrich the larger enterprise; and donors and students who want to draw on the university’s rich resources and capitalize on association with its stellar brand. These actors are feverishly pursuing their own interests within the framework of the university, which lures them with incentives, draws strength from their complex interactions and then passes these benefits on to society.

Q: What do you see as the major challenges facing academic leaders today?

A: The biggest problem facing the American system of higher education today is how to deal with its own success. In the 19th century, very few people attended college, so the system was not much in the public spotlight. Burgeoning enrollments in the 20th century put the system center stage, especially when it became the expectation that most people should graduate from some sort of college. As higher education moved from being an option to becoming a necessity, it increasingly found itself under the kind of intense scrutiny that has long been directed at American schools.

Accountability pressure in the last three decades has reshaped elementary and secondary schooling, and now the accountability police are headed to the college campus. As with earlier iterations, this reform effort demands that colleges demonstrate the value that students and the public are getting for their investment in higher education. This is particularly the case because higher education is so much more expensive per student than schooling at lower levels. So how much of this cost should the public pay from tax revenues and how much debt should individual students take on?

The danger posed by this accountability pressure is that colleges, like the K-12 schools before them, will come under pressure to narrow their mission to a small number of easily measurable outcomes. Most often the purpose boils down to the efficient delivery of instructional services to students, which will provide them with good jobs and provide society with an expanding economy. This ignores the wide array of social functions that the university serves. It’s a laboratory for working on pressing social problems; a playpen for intellectuals to pursue whatever questions seem interesting; a repository for the knowledge needed to address problems that haven’t yet emerged; a zone of creativity and exploration partially buffered from the realm of necessity; and, yes, a classroom for training future workers. The system’s organizational messiness is central to its social value.