Posted in Inequality, Schooling, Social Programs

What Kids Miss When They Go Without School

This is an op-ed I published in the New York Daily News on Friday.  It’s on the things we miss about schools when they close – a reminder about the nonacademic functions of school that are closer to our hearts than its academic functions.

NY Daily News Photo

What Kids Miss When They Go Without School

David F. Labaree

            Often it’s only when an institution goes missing that we come to recognize its value.  That seemed particularly this spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools around the world.  Suddenly parents, children, officials, and citizens discovered just what they lost when the kids came home to stay.  You could hear voices around the globe pleading, “When are schools going to open again?”

            I’m not talking about the standard account of the value of schooling – the one that routinely appears in press, policy briefs, and the voluminous publications of the OECD.  In this version, schooling is all about making sure that students learn the formal curriculum (math, science, language, and social studies) at a high level of achievement in order to turn them into productive contributors to economic growth.  It’s a story of academic learning in service of human capital development. 

This story is familiar, but it’s not what’s creating the demand by parents and students for schools to reopen as soon as possible.  I haven’t heard people on the home front speak longingly about their desire to jump back into the academic production of human capital.  So today I want to explore the other things that schools do for us.  Here are a few, in no particular order.

Schools are a key place for children to get healthy meals.  In the U.S., about 30 million students receive free or discounted lunch (and often breakfast) at school every day.  It’s so common that researchers use the proportion of “students on free or reduced lunch” as a measure of the poverty rate in individual schools.  When schools close, these children go hungry.  In response to this problem, a number of closed school systems are continuing to prepare these meals for parents to pick up and take home with them.

            Schools are the main source of child care for working parents.  When schools close, someone needs to stay home to take care of the younger children.  For parents with the kind of white collar jobs that allow them to work from home, this causes a major inconvenience as they try to juggle work and child care and online schooling.  But for parents who can’t phone in their work, having to stay home with the kids is a huge sacrifice.

            Schools are crucial for the health of children.  In the absence of universal health care in the U.S., schools have served as a frail substitute.  They require all students to have vaccinations.  They provide health education.  And they have school nurses who can check for student ailments and make referrals.

            Schools are especially important for dealing with the mental health of young people.  Teachers and school psychologists can identify mental illness and serve as prompts for getting students treatment.  Special education programs identify developmental disabilities in students and devise individualized plans for treating them.

            Schools serve as oases for children who are abused at home.  Educators are required by law to look out for signs of mental or physical abuse and to report these cases to authorities.  When schools close, these children are trapped in abusive settings at home, which gives the lie to the idea of sheltering in place.  For many students, the true shelter is the school itself.

            Schools are domains for relative safety for students who live in dangerous neighborhoods.  For many kids, who live in settings with gangs and drugs and crime, getting to and from school is the most treacherous part of the day.  Once inside the walls of the school, they are relatively free of physical threats.  Closing school doors to students puts them at risk.

            Schools are environments that are often healthier than their own homes.  Students in wealthy neighborhoods may look on schools in poor neighborhoods as relatively shabby and depressing, but for many children the buildings have a degree of heat, light, cleanliness, and safety that they can’t find at home.  These schools may not have swimming pools and tennis courts, but they also don’t have rats and refuse.

            Schools may be the only institutional setting for many kids in which the professional norm is to serve the best interests of the child.  We know that students can be harmed by schools.  All it takes is a bully or a disparaging judgment.  The core of the educator’s job is to foster growth, spur interest, increase knowledge, enhance skill, and promote development.  Being cut off from such an environment for a long period of time is a major loss for any student, rich or poor.

These are some aspects of schooling that we take for granted but don’t think about very much.  For policymakers, these are side effects of the school’s academic mission, but for most families they are the main effect.  And the various social support roles that schools play are particularly critical in a country like the United States, where the absence of a robust social welfare system means that schools stand as the primary alternative.  School’s absence has made the heart grow fonder for it.  We’ve all become aware of just how much schools do for us.

Labaree is a retired professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education whose books include “Someone Has to Fail” and “A Perfect Mess.”

Posted in Higher Education, Inequality, Meritocracy

Markovits: Schooling in the Age of Human Capital

Today I’m posting a wonderful new essay by Daniel Markovits about the social consequences of the new meritocracy, which was just published in the latest issue of Hedgehog Review.  Here’s a link to the original.  As you may recall, last fall I posted a piece about his book, The Meritocracy Trap.  

In this essay, Markovits extends his analysis of the role that universities play in fostering a new and particularly dangerous kind of wealth inequality — one based on the returns on human capital instead of the returns on economic capital.  For all of history until the late 20th century, wealth meant ownership of land, stocks, bonds, businesses, or piles of gold.  The income it produced came to you simply for being the owner, whether or not you accumulated the wealth yourself.  One of the pleasures of being rich was the luxury of remaining idle. 

But the meritocracy has established a new path to wealth — based on the university-credentialed skills you accumulate early in your life and then cash in for a high paying job as an executive or professional.  Like the average wage earner, you work for a living and only retain the income if you keep working.  Unlike the average worker, however, you earn an extraordinary amount of money.  Markovits estimates that in the 1960s, between a sixth and a third of the people in the top one percent in income earned this from their own labor; now the proportion is two-thirds.  The meritocrats are the new rich.  And universities are the route to attaining these riches.

At one level, this is a fairer system by far than the old one based on simple inheritance and coupon clipping.  These people work for a living, and they work hard — longer hours than most people in the work force.  They can only attain their lucrative positions by proving their worth in the educational system, crowned by college and professional degrees.  These are the people who get the best grades and the best test scores and who qualify for entrance into and graduation from the best universities.  This provides the new form of inequality with a thick veneer of meritocratic legitimacy.  

As Markovits points out below, however, the problem is that the entire meritocratic enterprise is not directed toward identifying and certifying excellence but instead toward creating degrees of superiority.  

Excellence is a threshold concept, not a rank concept. It applies as soon as a certain level of ability or accomplishment is reached, and while it can make sense to say that one person is, in some respect, more excellent than another, this does not eliminate (or even undermine) the other’s excellence. Moreover, excellence is a substantive rather than purely formal ideal. Excellence requires not just capacity or achievement, but rather capacity and achievement realized at something worthwhile. 

The university produced degrees do not certify excellence but instead define the degree-holder’s position in line for the very best jobs.  They are positional goods, whose value is in qualifying you for a spot as close to the front of the queue as possible.  Thus all of the familiar metrics for showing  where you are in line:  SAT, LSAT, US News college rank, college admission rate.  Since everyone knows this is how the game is played, everyone wants and needs to get the diploma that grants the highest degree of superiority in the race for position.  Being really qualified for the job is meaningless if your degree doesn’t get you access to it.  As a result, Markovits notes, you can never get enough education to ensure your success in the meritocratic rat race.

“The value to me of my education,” the economist Fred Hirsch once observed, “depends not only on how much I have but also on how much the man ahead of me in the job line has.”32 This remains so, moreover, regardless of how much education the person ahead of me and I both possess. Every meritocratic success therefore necessarily breeds a flip side of failure—the investments made by the rich exclude the rest, and also those among the rich who don’t quite keep up. This means that while the rich get sated on most goods (there is only so much caviar a person can eat), they cannot get sated on schooling.

Parents with lots of human capital have a huge advantage in guiding their children through educational system, but this only breeds insecurity.  They know that they’re competing with other families with the same advantages and that only a few will gain a place in the front of the line where the most lucrative positions are allocated.  Excellence is attainable, but superiority is endlessly elusive.

I hope you find this article as illuminating as I do.

Businessman running on hamster wheel

Schooling in the Age of Human Capital

Metrics do not and, in fact, cannot measure any intelligible conception of excellence at all.

Daniel Markovits

The recent “Varsity Blues” scandal brought corruption at American universities into the public eye. Rich people bought fraudulent test scores and bribed school officials in order to get their children into top colleges. Public outrage spread beyond the scandal’s criminal face, to the legacy preferences by which universities legally favor the privileged children of their own graduates. After all, the actions in the Varsity Blues case became criminal only because the universities themselves failed to capture the proceeds of their own corruption. The outrage was natural and warranted. There is literally nothing to say in favor of a system that allows the rich to circumvent the meritocratic competition that governs college admissions for everyone else. But the outrage also distracts from and even disguises a broader and deeper corruption in American education, which arises not from betraying meritocratic ideals but, rather, from pursuing them. Meritocracy itself casts a dark shadow over education, biasing decisions about who gets it, distorting the institutions that deliver it, and corrupting the very idea of educational excellence.The methods of meritocratic schooling drive the corruption forward. Scores on the SAT (formally called the Scholastic Assessment Test), grade point averages (GPAs), and college rankings—the metrics that organize and even tyrannize meritocratic education in the United States today—are manifestly absurd. It’s not just that SAT scores, GPAs, and rankings are culturally biased or that they lack predictive validity. These familiar complaints have a point, but they all proceed from the fanciful belief that merit may be measured and that meritocracy, if properly administered, supports opportunity for all and thereby makes unequal outcomes okay. The familiar objections argue only that the metrics are poorly designed and so miss their meritocratic marks. In some instances, as when SAT scores are criticized for poorly predicting college GPAs, the criticisms simply prefer one measure over another. But the real root of the trouble with SATs, GPAs, and rankings is deeper and different: These metrics do not and, in fact, cannot measure any intelligible conception of excellence at all. And really appreciating this objection requires stepping outside meritocracy’s conventional imaginative frame.

A Transparent Absurdity

Colleges and universities quantify applicants’ merits using SAT scores and GPAs. But as a measure of anything that is itself worthwhile—of any meaningful achievement or genuine human excellence—an SAT score or a GPA is not so much imprecise and incomplete, or biased and unfair, as simply nonsensical. Even if individual questions on the test identify real skills, and even if grades on individual assignments or courses reflect real accomplishments, the sums and averages that compose overall SAT scores and GPAs fail to track any credible concept of ability or accomplishment. What sense does it make to treat a person who uses language exceptionally vividly and creatively but cannot identify the core facts in a descriptive passage as possessing, overall, average linguistic aptitude or accomplishment? It is more absurd still to treat someone who reads and writes fantastically well but is terrible at mathematics as, in any way, an ordinary or middling student. But SAT scores and GPAs push inexorably toward both conclusions. Again, even if one sets aside doubts about whether individual skills can be measured by multiple-choice questions or whether particular course work can be accurately graded, these metrics create literally mindless averages—totally without grounding in any conception of how to aggregate skills or accomplishments into an all-things-considered sum, or even any argument that the these things are commensurable or that aggregating them is intelligible.

Applicants, for their parts, measure colleges and universities by rankings, including most prominently those published by US News & World Report. These rankings are, if anything, even less intelligible than the metrics used to evaluate applicants. For colleges, for example, the rankings aggregate many factors: graduation and retention rates (both in fact and as compared to US News’s expectations), an idiosyncratic measure of “social mobility,” class size, faculty salaries, faculty education, student-faculty ratio, share of faculty who are full-time, expert opinion, academic spending per student, student standardized test scores, student rank in high school class, and alumni giving.1 Once again, even supposing that these factors reflect particular educational excellences and that the data US News gathers measure the factors, the aggregate that it builds by combining them, using weights specified to within one-tenth of one percent, remains incoherent. Berea College, for example, enrolls students who skew more toward first-generation college graduates than Princeton University, and in this way adds more to the education of each student (especially compared to her likely alternatives), but it has a less renowned, scholarly, and highly paid faculty. What possible conception of “excellence” can underwrite an all-things-considered judgment of which is “better”? US News boasts that “our methodology is the product of years of research.”2 But the basic question of what this research is studying—of what excellence this method of deciding which colleges and universities are “best” could conceivably measure, or whether any such excellence is even intelligible—remains entirely unaddressed.

In spite of their patent absurdities, the metrics deployed by both sides of the college admissions complex dominate how students and colleges are matched: Schools use test scores and grades to decide whom to admit, and applicants use rankings to decide where to enroll. The five top-ranked law schools, for example, enroll roughly two-thirds of applicants with Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores in the ninety-ninth percentile.3 And although law schools hold precise recruitment data close, one can reasonably estimate that of the roughly 2,000 people admitted to the top five law schools each year, no more than five (which is to say effectively none) attend a law school outside the top ten.4 Law school is likely an extreme case. But instead of being outlandish, it lies at the end of a continuum and emphasizes patterns that repeat themselves (less acutely) across American higher education. Metrics that are literally nonsense drive an incredibly efficient two-way matching system.

When a transparent absurdity dominates a prominent social field, something profound lies beneath. And the metrics that tyrannize university life rise out of deep waters indeed. Elites increasingly owe their income and status not to inherited physical or financial capital but to their own skill, or human capital, acquired through intensive and even extravagant training. Colleges and universities provide the training that builds human capital, and going to college (and to the right college) therefore substantially determines who gets ahead. The practices that match students and colleges must answer the need to legitimate the inequalities this human capitalism produces, by justifying advantage on meritocratic grounds. Even when they are nonsense, numbers provide legitimacy in a scientific age. The numbers that tyrannize university life in America today, and the deformations that education suffers as a result, are therefore the inevitable pathologies of schooling in an age of human capitalism.

The Superordinate Working Class

In 2018, the average CEO of an S&P 500 company took home about $14.5 million in total compensation,5 and in a recent year, the five highest-paid employees of the S&P 1500 firms (7,500 workers overall) captured total pay equal to nearly 10 percent of the S&P 1500’s collective profits.6 In finance, twenty-five hedge fund managers took home more than $100 million in 2016,7 for example, while the average portfolio manager at a mid-sized hedge fund was reported to have made more than $2 million in 2014.8 The Office of the New York State Comptroller reported in 2018 that the average securities industry worker in New York City made more than $400,000.9 Meanwhile, the most profitable law firm in America yields profits per partner in excess of $5 million per year, and more than seventy firms generate more than $1 million per partner annually.10 Anecdotes accumulate to become data. Taken together, employees at the vice-presidential level or higher at S&P 1500 companies, professional finance workers, top management consultants, top lawyers, and specialist medical doctors account for more than half of the richest 1 percent of households in the United States.11

These and other similar jobs enable a substantial subset of the most elaborately educated people to capture enormous incomes by mixing their accumulated human capital with their contemporaneous labor. This group now composes a superordinate working class. A cautious accounting attributes over half of the 1 percent’s income to these and other kinds of labor,12 while my own more complete estimate puts the share above two-thirds.13 Moreover—and notwithstanding capital’s rising domination over ordinary workers—roughly three-quarters of the increase in the top 1 percent’s share of national income overall stems from the rise of this superordinate working class, in particular a shift of income away from middle-class workers and in favor of elite ones. The result is a society in which the greatest source of wealth, income, and status (including for the mass affluent) is the skill and training—the human capital—of free workers.

The rise of human capitalism has transformed the colleges and universities that create human capital. Two facets of the transformation matter especially. First, education has acquired an importance it never had before. Until only a few generations ago, education and the skills it produces had little economic value. Even generously calculated, the top 0.1 and the top 1 percent of the income distribution in 1960 derived only about one-sixth and one-third of their incomes, respectively, from labor, which is to say by working their own human capital.14 Moreover, schools and universities did not dominate production of such human capital as there was; both blue- and white-collar workers received substantial workplace training, throughout their careers. In Detroit, for example, young men might quit childhood jobs on their eighteenth birthdays and present themselves to a Big Three automaker, to take up unionized, lifetime jobs that would (if they were capable and hard working) eventually make them into tool-and-die-makers, earning the equivalent of nearly $100,000 per year—all with no more than a high school education.15 And in New York, a college graduate joining junior management at IBM could expect to spend four years (or 10 percent of his career) in full-time, fully paid workplace training as he ascended the corporate ladder.16 Small wonder, then, that the college wage premium was modest at midcentury, and that the graduate-school wage premium (captured above what was earned by workers with just a bachelor’s degree) was more modest still.17 Elite schools and colleges, in this system, were sites of social prestige rather than economic production. Education had little direct economic payoff; rather, it followed, and merely marked, hierarchies that were established and sustained on other grounds. The critics of the old order were clear eyed about this. Kingman Brewster—the president who did more than anyone to modernize Yale University—called the college he inherited “a finishing school on Long Island Sound.”18

But today, education has become itself a source of income, status, and power for a meritocratic elite whose wealth consists, principally, in its own human capital. The college wage premium has risen dramatically, so that the present discounted value of a bachelor’s degree (net of tuition) is nearly three times greater today than in 1965.19 The postgraduate wage premium has risen more steeply still, and the median worker with a postgraduate degree now makes well over twice the wage of the median worker with a high school diploma only, and about 1.5 times the wage of the median worker with a four-year degree only. College and postcollege degrees also protect against unemployment, so that the effects of education on lifetime earnings are more dramatic still. Just one in seventy-five workers who have never finished high school, just one in forty workers with a high school education only, and just one in six workers with a bachelor’s degree enjoy lifetime earnings equal only to those of the median professional school graduate.20

Graduates of the top colleges and universities capture yet higher incomes, enjoying more than double the income boost of an average four-year degree, with even greater gains at the very top. The highest-paid 10 percent of Harvard College graduates make an average salary of $250,000 just six years out,21 while a recent study of Harvard Law School graduates ten years out reported a median annual income (among male graduates) of nearly $400,000.22 Overall, graduates of top-ten law schools make on average a quarter more than graduates of schools ranked eleventh to twentieth, and a half more than graduates of schools ranked twenty-first to one-hundredth;23 and 96 percent of the partners at the $5 million-a-year law firm graduated from a top-ten law school.24 More broadly, a recent survey reports—incredibly—that nearly 50 percent of America’s corporate leaders, 60 percent of its financial leaders, and 50 percent of its highest government officials attended only twelve universities.25 This makes elite education one of the best investments money can buy. Purely economic rates of return have been estimated at 13 to 14 percent for college and as high as 30 percent for law school, or more than double the rate of return provided by the stock market.26 Meanwhile, the educational alternatives to college have all but disappeared. According to a recent study, the average US firm invests less than 2 percent of its payroll budget on training.27

A second transformation follows from the first. Education, especially at top-tier colleges and universities, is now distributed in very different ways from before. Colleges, especially elite ones, have never welcomed poor or even middle-class people in large numbers. But once those schools chose students based on effectively immutable criteria—breeding, race, gender—so that while college was exclusive, it was nevertheless (at least among those who qualified) effectively nonrivalrous and not competitive. Even the very top schools routinely accepted perhaps a third of their applicants, and some took much greater shares still.28 As recently as 1995, the University of Chicago admitted 71 percent of those who applied. These rates naturally produced an application process that appears almost preposterously casual today. A midcentury graduate of Yale Law School, for example, recollects that when he met the dean of admissions at a college fair, he was told, based only on their conversation, “You’ll get in if you apply.” An easy confidence suffused the very language of going to college, as the sons of wealthy families did not apply widely but rather “put themselves down for” whatever colleges their fathers had attended. The game was rigged, and the stakes were small.

But today, education is parceled out through an enormous competition that becomes most intense at the very top. Even as poor and even middle-class children have virtually no chance at succeeding, rich children (no matter how privileged) have no guarantee of success. Colleges today—especially the top ones—are therefore both extremely exclusive and ruthlessly competitive. In a recent year, for example, children who had at least one parent with a graduate degree had, statistically, a 150 times greater chance of achieving the Ivy League median on their verbal SAT than children neither of whose parents had graduated high school.29 Small wonder, then, that the Ivy Plus colleges now enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half.30 This makes these schools more economically exclusive than even notorious bastions of the old aristocracy such as Oxford and Cambridge. At the same time, while being born to privilege is nearly a necessary condition for admission to a really elite American university, it is far from sufficient. Last year, the University of Chicago admitted just six percent of applicants, and Stanford fewer than five percent.

These admissions rates mean that any significant failure—any visible blot on a record—effectively excludes an applicant. Rich families respond to this fact by investing almost unimaginable resources in getting their children perfect records. Prestigious private preschools in New York City now charge $30,000 per year to educate four-and-five-year-olds, and they still get ten or twenty applications for every space. These schools feed into elite elementary schools, which feed into elite high schools that charge $50,000 per year (and, on account of their endowments, spend even more). Rich families supplement all this schooling with private tutors who can charge over $1,000 per hour. If a typical household from the richest 1 percent took the difference between the money devoted to educating its children and what is spent on a typical middle-class education, and invested these sums in the S&P 500 to give to the rich children as bequests on the deaths of their parents, this would amount to a traditional inheritance of more than $10 million per child.31 This meritocratic inheritance effectively excludes working- and middle-class children from elite education, income, and status.

These expenditures are almost as inevitable as they are exorbitant. When one set of institutions dominates the production of wealth and status in a society, the privileged few set out to monopolize places, and the pressure to gain admission becomes enormous. Human capitalism, moreover, makes schooling a positional good. “The value to me of my education,” the economist Fred Hirsch once observed, “depends not only on how much I have but also on how much the man ahead of me in the job line has.”32 This remains so, moreover, regardless of how much education the person ahead of me and I both possess. Every meritocratic success therefore necessarily breeds a flip side of failure—the investments made by the rich exclude the rest, and also those among the rich who don’t quite keep up. This means that while the rich get sated on most goods (there is only so much caviar a person can eat), they cannot get sated on schooling. Finally, rather than pick schools based on family tradition, applicants make deliberate choices about where to apply, and almost always attend the highest-ranked school that admits them, as when effectively nobody admitted to a top-five law school attends a school outside the top ten.

In these ways, human capitalism creates an educational competition in which the stakes are immense and everyone competes for the same few top prizes. Whereas aristocracies perpetuated elites by birthright, meritocratic inequality establishes school and especially college admissions committees as de facto social planners, choosing the next generation of meritocrats. Education becomes a powerful mechanism for structural exclusion—the dominant dynastic technology of our enormously unequal age. This places extreme pressure on the schools, and especially admissions committees, which must decide which people to privilege, using what criteria, and to what ends.

Bohr’s Lucky Horseshoe

What happens to schools when the degrees they grant grow so valuable that the demand for them outstrips their supply, and when admissions decisions make or break applicants’ life plans and determine who gets ahead in society? How have schools and colleges responded to their admissions decisions’ raised stakes? And what has the rise of human capital, its dominant role in wealth (even among the rich), done to the nature of education itself—to education’s aims, and to the standards by which it determines success? Measurement, and the tyranny of numbers, turns out to play a central part in the answer to all these questions—and for reasons not just shallow but deep. The manifestly absurd metrics that dominate university life are direct consequences of the role that schooling plays in our present economic and social order.

That which is measured becomes important. But at the same time, that which is important must be measured—and on a scale that allows for the sort of confident and exact judgments and comparisons that numbers yield. In a technocratic age—suspicious (for good reasons as well as bad) of humanist, interpretive, and therefore discretionary judgments about value—the demand for certainty and precision becomes irresistible when the stakes get high enough. The rise of human capitalism therefore makes it essential to construct metrics that schools and colleges might use to assess human capital and to compare the people who possess it, in order to determine whose human capital should receive additional investments.

The problem becomes more pressing still because education is lumped into standardized units called degrees, so that schools (especially the most exclusive ones, which have no part-time students or “honors colleges”) cannot hedge their bets by offering applicants varying quantities or qualities of training, but must instead make a binary choice to accept or to reject, full stop. The metrics that admissions offices use must therefore be able to aggregate across dimensions of skill and ability, in order to construct a single, all-things-considered measure of ability and accomplishment capable of supporting a “yes” or a “no.” This task becomes especially demanding in a world that has rejected the unity of the virtues and insists instead that people and institutions may excel in some ways even as they fail in others. GPAs and standardized test scores, especially on the SAT, as well as university rankings as provided by US News & World Report, provide the required metrics—comprehensive and complete orderings that can make fine distinctions that all who accept the metrics must agree on. Averages, scores, and rankings operate as prices do in economic markets, corralling judgments made unruly by normative pluralism and fragmentation into a single, public, shared measure of value.

These metrics—especially the SAT—are of course themselves disputed, sometimes vigorously. Certainly, they rest on arbitrary assumptions, and precision comes only at the cost of simply ignoring anything intractable, no matter how important. Nevertheless, even challenges to particular measures of human capital often accept the general approach that lies behind them all, and therefore give away the evaluative game—as (once again) when the SAT is criticized for lacking much power to predict GPAs. And even when they are contested, metrics like the GPA and SAT suppress ambiguities that they cannot eliminate, by pushing contestation into the background, far away from the individual cases and the evaluation of particular applicants. We may disagree about the validity of the SAT, and indeed harbor doubts about the test’s value, but we will nevertheless all agree on who has the highest score. In this sense, GPAs and SATs are like Niels Bohr’s lucky horseshoe—they work even if you don’t believe in them. In a world in which people cannot possibly agree on any underlying account of virtue or success, but literally everything turns on how success is measured, numerical scores allow admissions committees to legitimate their choices of whom to admit.

The early meritocrats understood this. At Harvard, James Bryant Conant, president from 1933 to 1953, introduced the SAT into college admissions with the specific purpose of identifying deserving applicants from outside the aristocratic elite. (James Tobin, who would serve on President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers and win a Nobel Prize, was an early success story.33) Yale came to meritocracy later, but (perhaps for this very reason) embraced the logic of numbers-based meritocratic evaluation more openly and explicitly. Kingman Brewster, president from 1963 to 1977, called himself an “intellectual investment banker” and encouraged his admissions office to compose Yale’s class with the aim of admitting the students who would maximize the human capital that his investments would build. R. Inslee “Inky” Clark, Brewster’s dean of undergraduate admissions from 1963 to 1969, called his selection process “talent searching” and equated talent with “who will benefit most from studying at Yale.” The new administration, moreover, deployed test scores and GPAs not just affirmatively, to find overlooked talent, but also negatively, to break the old aristocratic elite’s monopoly over places at top colleges. Clark called the old, breeding-based elite “ingrown,” and aggressively turned Yale against aristocratic prep schools. In 1968, for example, when Harvard still accepted 46 percent of applicants from Choate and Princeton took 57 percent, Yale accepted only 18 percent.34

The meritocrats aimed by these means to build a new leadership class. The old guard recognized the threat and resisted, both privately and even publicly. Brewster’s predecessor had scorned Harvard’s meritocratic admissions, which he said would favor the “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual.” When Brewster’s revolution was presented to the Yale Corporation, one member objected, “You’re talking about Jews and public-school graduates as leaders. Look around you at this table. These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public-school graduates here.” And William F. Buckley lamented that Brewster’s Yale would prefer “a Mexican-American from El Paso High…[over]…Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul’s School.” Just so, the meritocrats replied.35

They added that their meritocratic approach to building an elite—because numbers measure ability and, just as important, block overt and direct appeals to breeding—would launder the hierarchy that it produced. Prior inequalities—especially aristocratic ones—were prejudicial, malign, and offensive. But meritocracy purports to be wholesome: backed by objective numbers, open to all comers, and resolutely focused on earned advantage. Indeed, meritocracy aspires to redeem the very idea of inequality—to make unequal outcomes compatible with equal opportunities, and to render hierarchy acceptable to a democratic age. In this way, the early meritocrats combined stark criticism of the present with a profound optimism about the future.

The Soldier, the Artist, and the Financier

The meritocrats’ optimism fell, if not at once, then soon. And it fell at hurdles erected by their own reliance on numbers. The metrics that the meritocrats constructed, and that now dominate education, turned out to be not just absurd but destructive.

To begin with, numerical metrics of accomplishment naturally inflame ruthlessly single-minded competition. There is no general way to rank learning, or creativity, or achievement—merit—directly. There is no way to say, all things considered, who has better skills, wider knowledge, or deeper understanding, much less who has accomplished more overall. People value different things for different reasons. We disagree with one another about what is most valuable: the entrepreneur’s resourcefulness, the doctor’s caring, the writer’s insight, or the statesperson’s wisdom. Moreover, each of us is unsure, in our own judgments, about how best to balance these values when they conflict—unsure, to pick a famous example, about whether to pursue a life of politics or of reflection, to pursue the executory or the deliberative virtues. The agreement and repose needed to sustain a stable direct ranking simply can’t be had. This is not all bad: Ineliminable uncertainties about value diffuse and therefore dampen our competition to achieve. The soldier and the artist simply do not compete with each other, and neither competes with the financier.

By contrast, numerical metrics—again including especially GPAs and SAT scores—aggregate across incommensurables to produce a single, complete ranking of merit. Indeed, producing this ranking is part of such metrics’ point—the thing that makes them useful to admissions offices. But now, competition whose natural state is disorganized and diffuse becomes highly organized and narrowly focused. Aspiring businesspeople, doctors, writers, and statespeople all will benefit, in reaching their professional goals, from high SAT scores and GPAs, and, accordingly, they all compete to join the top ranks. The numbers on which admissions offices rely to validate their selections therefore create competition and hierarchy where the incommensurability of value once made rank unintelligible. SATs and GPAs do to human capital what prices earlier did to physical or financial capital—they make it possible to say, all things considered, who has more, who is richest. Unreasoning accumulation and open inequality follow inexorably.

The competition that the numerical metrics create, moreover, aims at foolish and indeed fruitless ambitions. SAT scores and GPAs, once again, do not measure any intelligible excellences, and high scores and averages therefore have no value in themselves. At best, pursuing them wastes effort and attention and almost surely deforms schooling, by diverting effort and attention from the many genuine excellences that education can produce. This is even more vividly true on the side of colleges and universities, with respect to the wasteful and even destructive contortions they put themselves through in pursuit of higher US News rankings.

The numbers-based distortions induced by students’ pursuit of higher test scores and institutions’ pursuit of higher rankings both may be given a natural framing in terms of the distinction between excellence and superiority. Excellence is a threshold concept, not a rank concept. It applies as soon as a certain level of ability or accomplishment is reached, and while it can make sense to say that one person is, in some respect, more excellent than another, this does not eliminate (or even undermine) the other’s excellence. Moreover, excellence is a substantive rather than purely formal ideal. Excellence requires not just capacity or achievement, but rather capacity and achievement realized at something worthwhile. It is a moral error to speak of excellence in corruption, wickedness, or depravity. Superiority, on the other hand, is opposite in both respects. It is a rank—rather than a threshold—concept, and one person’s superior accomplishment undoes rather than just exceeds the superiority of those whom she surpasses. In addition, superiority is purely formal rather than substantive. It makes perfect sense to speak in terms of superiority at activities that are worthless or even harmful.

When the numbers that rule over the processes that match students and schools under human capitalism subject education to domination by a single and profoundly mistaken conception of merit, they depose excellence, installing in its place a merciless quest for superiority. Human capitalism distorts schooling in much the same way that financialization distorts for-profit sectors of the real economy. Once, firms committed to particular products (General Motors to cars, IBM to computers) might view profits as a happy side-effect of running their businesses well. But in finance, whose only product is profit, the distinction between success and profitability becomes literally unintelligible, and financialization therefore subjects the broader economy to a tyranny of profit. Similarly, flourishing schools and universities will view their reputations and status as salutary side-effects of one or another form of academic excellence. But human capitalism shuts schools off from these conceptions of excellence and enslaves them to the pursuit of superiority. Schooling in an age of human capitalism thus becomes subjected to a tyranny of SATs, GPAs, and college rankings.

All these consequences, moreover, are neither accidents nor the result of individual vices: the shallowness of applicants or the vanity of universities. Rather, a social and economic hierarchy based on human capital creates a pitiless competition for access to the meritocratic education that builds human capital. Working- and middle-class children lack the resources to compete in the educational race and so are excluded not just from income and status but from meaningful opportunity. Rich children, meanwhile, are run ragged in a competition to achieve an intrinsically meaningless superiority that devours even those whom it appears to favor. And the colleges and universities that provide training, and administer the competition, are deformed in ways that betray any plausible conceptions of academic excellence. The Varsity Blues scandal exposed this corruption alongside the frauds that conventional responses emphasized. Why would intelligent and otherwise prudent people—one of the culprits was cochair of a major global law firm—pursue such a ham-fisted scheme other than from a desperate fear of losing meritocratic caste? No one escapes the meritocracy trap.

The only way out—for schools as well as for students—involves structural reforms that extend well beyond education, to reach economic and social inequalities writ large. But although reforms cannot end with schools, colleges, and universities, they might begin there. In particular, the familiar hope that making standardized tests less biased and more accurate and making rankings more comprehensive—that is, perfecting meritocracy—might more effectively launder social and economic inequalities without diminishing them is simply a fantasy. Colleges and universities, in particular, cannot redeem their educational souls while retaining their exclusivity. Instead, elite schools must become, simply, less elite.

If it mattered less where people got educated, applicants could pursue different paths for different reasons. And schools and colleges, freed from the burden of allocating life chances, could abandon their craving for superiority and instead pursue scholarly insight, practical innovation, community engagement, and a thousand other incommensurable virtues. Along the way, by freeing themselves from superiority’s jealous grasp, universities might redeem the very idea of excellence.

 

Posted in Inequality, School organization, Schooling, Sociology

Two Cheers for School Bureaucracy

This post is a piece I wrote for Kappan, published in the March 2020 edition.  Here’s a link to the PDF.

Bureaucracies are often perceived as inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and too devoted to rules and red tape. But here I make a case for these characteristics being a positive in the world of public education. U.S. schools are built within a liberal democratic system, where the liberal pursuit of self-interest is often in tension with the democratic pursuit of egalitarianism. In recent years, I argue, schools have tilted toward the liberal side, enabling privileged families to game the system to help their children get ahead. In such a system, an impersonal bureaucracy stands as a check that ensures that the democratic side of schooling, in which all children are treated equally, remains in effect.

 

Cover page from Two Cheers Magazine version-page-0.

 

Two Cheers for School Bureaucracy

By David F. Labaree

To call an organization “bureaucratic” has long been taken to mean that it is inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and strongly favors a literal rather than substantive interpretation of rules. In the popular imagination, bureaucracies make it difficult to accomplish whatever you want to do, forcing you to wade through a relentless proliferation of red tape.

School bureaucracy is no exception to this rule. Teachers, students, administrators, parents, citizens, reformers, and policymakers have long railed against it as a barrier that stands between them and the kind of schools they want and need. My aim here is to provide a little pushback against this received wisdom by proposing a modest defense of school bureaucracy. My core assertion is this: Bureaucracy may make it hard to change schools for the better, but at the same time it helps keep schools from turning for the worse.

Critiques of bureaucracy

Criticisms of school bureaucracy have taken different forms over the years. When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, the critique came from the left. From that perspective, the bureaucracy was a top-down system in which those at the top (policy makers, administrators) impose their will on the actors at the bottom (teachers, students, parents, and communities). Because the bureaucracy was built within a system that perpetuated inequalities of class, race, and gender, it tended to operate in a way that made sure that White males from the upper classes maintained their position, and that stifled grassroots efforts to bring about change from below. Central critical texts at the time were Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools, published in 1971 by Michael Katz (who was my doctoral advisor at the University of Pennsylvania) and Schooling in Capitalist America, published in 1976 by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.

By the 1990s, however, attacks on school bureaucracy started to come from the right. Building on the Reagan-era view of government as the problem rather than the solution, critics in the emergent school choice movement began to develop a critique of bureaucracy as a barrier to school effectiveness. The central text then was Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe (1990), who argued that organizational autonomy was the key factor that made private and religious schools more effective than public schools. Because they didn’t have to follow the rigid rules laid down by the school-district bureaucracy, they were free to adapt to families’ demands for the kind of school that met their children’s needs. To Chubb and Moe, state control of schools inevitably stifles the imagination and will of local educators. According to their analysis, democratic control of schools fosters a bureaucratic structure to make sure all schools adhere to political admonitions from above. They proposed abandoning state control, releasing schools from the tyranny of bureaucracy and politics so they could respond to market pressures from educational consumers.

So the only thing the left and the right agree on is that school bureaucracy is a problem, one that arises from the very nature of bureaucracy itself — an organizational system defined as rule by offices (bureaus) rather than by people. The central function of any bureaucracy is to be a neutral structure that carries the aims of its designers at the top down to the ground level where the action takes place. Each actor in the system plays a role that is defined by their particular job description and aligned with the organization’s overall purpose, and the nature of this role is independent of the individual who fills it. Actors are interchangeable, but the roles remain. The problem arises if you want something from the bureaucracy that it is not programmed to provide. In that case, the organization does indeed come to seem inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and rigidly committed to following the rules.

The bureaucracy of schools

Embedded within the structure of the school bureaucracy are the contradictory values of liberal democracy. Liberalism brings a strong commitment to individual liberty, preservation of private property, and a tolerance of the kinds of social inequalities that arise if you leave people to pursue their own interests without state interference. It sees education as a private good (Labaree, 2018). These are the characteristics of school bureaucracy — private interests promoting outcomes that may be unequal — that upset the left. Democracy, on the other hand, brings a strong commitment to political and social equality, in which the citizenry establishes schooling for its collective betterment, and the structure of schooling seeks to provide equal benefits to all students. It sees education as a public good. These are the characteristics — collectivist and egalitarian — that upset the right.

Over the years, I have argued — in books such as How to Succeed in School without Really Learning (1997) and Someone Has to Fail (2012) — that the balance between the liberal and democratic in U.S. schools has tilted sharply toward the liberal. Increasingly, we treat schooling as a private good, whose benefits accrue primarily to the educational consumer who receives the degree. It has become the primary way for people to get ahead in society and a primary way for people who are already ahead to stay that way. It both promotes access and preserves advantage. Families that enjoy a social advantage have become increasingly effective at manipulating the educational system to ensure that their children will enjoy this same advantage. In a liberal democracy, where we are reluctant to constrain individual liberty, privileged parents have been able to game the structure of schooling to provide advantages for their children at the expense of other people’s children. They threaten to turn education into a zero-sum game whose winners get the best jobs.

Gaming the system

So how do upper-middle-class families boost their children’s chances for success in this competition? The first and most obvious step is to buy a house in a district with good schools. Real estate agents know that they’re selling a school system along with a house — I recall an agent once telling me not to consider a house on the other side of the street because it was in the wrong district — and the demand in areas with the best schools drives up housing prices. If you can’t move to such a district, you enter the lottery to gain access to the best schools of choice in town. Failing that, you send your children to private schools. Then, once you’ve placed them in a good school, you work to give your children an edge within that school. You already have a big advantage if you are highly educated and thus able to pass on to your children the cultural capital that constitutes the core of what schools teach and value. If students come to school already adept at the verbal and cognitive and behavioral skills that schools seek to instill, then they have a leg up over students who must rely on the school alone to teach them these skills.

In addition, privileged parents have a wealth of experience at doing school at the highest levels, and they use this social capital to game the system in favor of their kids: You work to get your children into the class of the best available teacher, then push to get them into the top reading group and the gifted and talented program. When they get to high school, you steer them into the top academic track and the most advanced placement classes, while also rounding out their college admissions portfolios with an impressive array of extracurricular activities and volunteer work. Then comes the race to get into the best college (meaning the one with the most selective admissions), using an array of techniques including the college tour, private admissions counselors, test prep tutoring, legacies, social networks, and strategic donations. Ideally, you save hundreds of thousands of dollars by securing this elite education within the public system. But whether you send your kids to public or private school, you seek out every conceivable way to mark them as smarter and more accomplished and more college-admissible than their classmates.

At first glance, these frantic efforts by upper-middle class parents to work the system for the benefit of their children can seem comically overwrought. Children from economically successful and highly educated families do better in school and in life than other children precisely because of the economic, cultural, and social advantages they have from birth. So why all fuss about getting kids into the best college instead of one of the best colleges? The fix is in, and it’s in their favor, so relax.

The anxiety about college admissions among these families is not irrational (see, for example, Doepke & Zilibotti, 2019). It arises from two characteristics of the system. First, in modern societies social position is largely determined by educational attainment rather than birth. Your parents may be doctors, but they can’t pass the family business on to their children. Instead, you must trace the same kind of stellar path through the educational system that your parents did. This leads to the second problem. If you’re born at the top of the system, the only mobility available to you is downward. And because jobs are allocated according to educational attainment, there are always a number of smart and motivated poor kids who may win the academic contest instead of you, who may not be as smart or motivated. There’s a real chance that you will end up at a lower social position than your parents, so your parents feel pressure to leave no stone unturned in the effort to give you an educational edge.

The bureaucracy barrier

Here is where bureaucracy enters the scene, as it can create barriers to the most affluent parents’ efforts to guarantee the success of their children. The school system, as a bureaucracy established in part with the egalitarian values of its democratic control structure, just doesn’t think your children are all that special. This is precisely the problem Chubb and Moe and other choice supporters have identified.

When we’re talking about a bureaucracy, roles are roles and rules are rules. The role of the teacher is to serve all students in the class and not just yours. School rules apply to everyone, so you can’t always be the exception. Get over it. At one level, your children are just part of the crowd of students in their school, subject to the same policies and procedures and educational experiences as all of the others. By and large, privileged parents don’t want to hear that.

So school bureaucracy sometimes succeeds in rolling back a few of the structures that privilege upper-middle class students.  They seek to eliminate ability grouping in favor of cooperative learning, abandon gifted programs for the few in favor of using the pedagogies of these programs for the many, and reduce high school tracking by creating heterogenous classrooms.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the bureaucracy always or even usually wins out in the competition with parents seeking special treatment for their children.  Parents often succeed in fighting off efforts to eliminating ability groups, tracks, gifted programs, and other threats.  Private interests are relentless in trying to obtain private schooling at public expense, but every impediment to getting their way is infuriating to parents lobbying for privilege.

For these parents, the school bureaucracy becomes the enemy, which you need to bypass, suborn, or overrule in your effort to turn school to the benefit of your children. At the same time, this same bureaucracy becomes the friend and protector of the democratic side of liberal democratic schooling. Without it, empowered families would proceed unimpeded in their quest to make schooling a purely private good. So two cheers for bureaucracy.

References

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America New York, NY: Basic Books.

Chubb, J. & Moe, T. (1990). Politics, markets, and America’s schools. Washington, DC: Brookings.

Doepke, M. & Zilibotti, F. (2019). The economic roots of helicopter parenting. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (7), 22-27.

Katz, M. (1971). Class, bureaucracy, and schools. New York, NY: Praeger.

 Labaree, D.L. (1997) How to succeed in school without really learning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Labaree, D.L. (2018). Public schools for private gain: The declining American commitment to serving the public good. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 8-13

Labaree, D.L. (2010). Someone has to fail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 AUTHORID

DAVID F. LABAREE (dlabaree@stanford.edu; @DLabaree) is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, emeritus, at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education in Palo Alto, CA. He is the author, most recently, of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

 

ABSTRACT

Bureaucracies are often perceived as inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and too devoted to rules and red tape. But David Labaree makes a case for these characteristics being a positive in the world of public education. U.S. schools are built within a liberal democratic system, where the liberal pursuit of self-interest is often in tension with the democratic pursuit of egalitarianism. In recent years, Labaree argues, schools have tilted toward the liberal side, enabling privileged families to game the system to help their children get ahead. In such a system, an impersonal bureaucracy stands as a check that ensures that the democratic side of schooling, in which all children are treated equally, remains in effect.