Posted in Educational goals, History of education, Systems of Schooling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you like it.

Politics and Markets:

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

 David F. Labaree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics and Markets and the Founding of Central High

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increased Access Leads to a Tracked and Socially Reproductive Central High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lessons of Central High Applied to American Educational System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan Camille L., and Bauman, Kurt. “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” Current Population Reports, United States Census Bureau (March 2016), Table 1, accessed December 1, 2020,

United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports, “Mean Years of Schooling (Males, aged 25 years and above),” accessed December 1, 2020,


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Education policy, Higher Education, Systems of Schooling

Kroger — In Praise of American Higher Education

Every now and then in these difficult times, it’s nice to consider some of the institutions that are working pretty well.  One of these is the US system of higher education.  Yes, it’s fraught with some problems right now: Covid cutbacks and Zoom fatigue, high student debt loads, the increasing size of the contingent faculty, and diminished social mobility.  Ok, they’re major problems.  But it’s still one of the great success stories in the history of education.  So let’s dwell for a moment on the upside of this remarkable system.

This post is a piece by John Kroger, a former college president, about what’s good about our system of colleges and universities.  The original appeared last month in Inside Higher Education.  Enjoy.

In Praise of American Higher Education

 September 14, 2020

These are grim times, filled with bad news. Nationally, the death toll from COVID-19 has passed 190,000. Political polarization has reached record levels, with some scholars openly fearing a fascist future for America. In my hometown of Portland, Ore., we have been buffeted by business closures, violent clashes between protesters and police, and out-of-control wildfires that have killed an unknown number of our fellow citizens, destroyed over a thousand homes and filled our streets with smoke. And in the higher education community, we are struggling. Our campuses are now COVID-19 hot spots, hundreds of institutions have implemented layoffs and furloughs impacting a reported 50,000 persons, and many commentators predict a complete financial meltdown for the sector. As I started to write this essay, a friend asked, “Is there any good news to report?”

In America today, we love to bash higher education. The negative drumbeat is incessant. Tuition, we hear, is too high. Students have to take too many loans. College does not prepare students for work. Inequality and racism are widespread. Just look at recent book titles: The Breakdown of Higher EducationCrisis in Higher EducationIntro to FailureThe Quiet Crisis, How Higher Education is Failing AmericaHigher Education Under FireThe Dream Is OverCracks in the Ivory Tower, The Moral Mess of Higher Education; and The Coddling of the American Mind. Jeesh.

So, for good news today, I want to remind everyone that despite all the criticism, the United States possesses a remarkable higher education system. Yes, we have our problems, which we need to address. The government and our colleges and universities need to partner to expand access to college, make it more affordable and decrease loan burdens; we need to ensure that our students graduate with valuable job skills; we need to tackle inequality and systemic racism in admission, hiring and the curriculum. But let us not lose sight of the remarkable things we have achieved and the very real strengths our system possesses — the very strengths that will allow us to tackle and solve the problems we have identified. Consider the following:

The United States has, by far, the largest number of great universities in the world. In the latest Times World University Rankings, the United States is dominant, possessing 14 of the top 20 universities in the world. These universities — places like Yale, UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins — provide remarkable undergraduate and graduate educations combined with world-leading research outcomes. That reputation for excellence has made the United States the international gold standard for higher education.

We provide remarkable value to our students. As a recent Brookings Institution report noted, “Higher education provides extensive benefits to students, including higher wages, better health, and a lower likelihood of requiring disability payments. A population that is more highly educated also confers wide-ranging benefits to the economy, such as lower rates of unemployment and higher wages even for workers without college degrees. A postsecondary degree can also serve as a buffer against unemployment during economic downturns. Those with postsecondary degrees saw more steady employment through the Great Recession, and the vast majority of net jobs created during the economic recovery went to college-educated workers.”

Our higher education capacity is massive. At last count, almost 20 million students are enrolled in college. This is one reason we are fourth (behind Canada, Japan and South Korea) out of all OECD nations in higher education degree attainment, far ahead of nations like Germany and France. If we believe that mass education is critical to the future of our economy and democracy, this high number — and the fact that most of our institutions could easily grow — should give us great hope.

The United States dominates global research (though China is gaining). As The Economist reported in 2018, “Since the first Nobel prizes were bestowed in 1901, American scientists have won a whopping 269 medals in the fields of chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. This dwarfs the tallies of America’s nearest competitors, Britain (89), Germany (69) and France (31).” In a recent global ranking of university innovation — “a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries” — U.S. institutions grabbed eight out of the top 10 spots.

We possess an amazing network of community colleges offering very low-cost, high-quality foundational and continuing education to virtually every American. No matter where you live in the United States, a low-cost community college and a world of learning is just a few miles away. This network provides a great foundation for our effort to expand economic opportunity and reach underserved populations. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once remarked, “About half of all first-generation college students and minority students attend community colleges. It is a remarkable record. No other system of higher education in the world does so much to provide access and second-chance opportunities as our community colleges.”

We are nimble. Though higher education is often bashed for refusing to change, our ability to do so is remarkable. When COVID-19 broke out in spring 2020, almost every U.S. college and university pivoted successfully to online education in a matter of weeks. Faculty, staff and administrators, often criticized for failing to work together, collectively made this happen overnight. Now, no matter what the future holds, our colleges and universities have the ability to deliver education effectively through both traditional in-person and new online models.

We have a great tradition, starting with the GI Bill, of federal government support for college education. No one in Congress is calling for an end to Pell Grants, one of the few government programs to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan government support in this highly fractured political era. Instead, the only question is the degree to which those grants need to increase and whether that increase should be linked to cost containment by institutions or not. This foundation of political support is vital as we look to ways to expand college access and affordability.

Finally, we have amazing historically Black colleges and universities, with excellent academic programs, outstanding faculty and proud histories. As the nation begins to confront its history of racism and discrimination, these institutions provide a remarkable asset to help the nation come to terms with its past, provide transformational education in the present and move toward a better future.

So, as we go through tough times, and we continue to subject our institutions to necessary and valuable self-criticism, it is important to keep our failures and limitations in perspective. Yes, American higher education could be better. But it is remarkable, valuable and praiseworthy all the same.

Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling

Mary Metz: Real School

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

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

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

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

Roots of real school: the need for reassurance

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

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

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

  • What’s at stake is institutional legitimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic of school formalism

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

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

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

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

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

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


Real School Front Page

Posted in History of education, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling, Teaching

Pluck vs. Luck

This post is a piece I recently published in AeonHere’s the link to the original.  I wrote this after years of futile efforts to get Stanford students to think critically about how they got to their current location at the top of the meritocracy.  It was nearly impossible to get students to consider that their path to Palo Alto might have been the result of anything but smarts and hard work.  Luck of birth never seemed to be a major factor in the stories they told about how they got here.  I can understand this, since I’ve spent a lifetime patting myself on the back for my own academic accomplishments, feeling sorry for the poor bastards who didn’t have what it took to climb the academic ladder.

But in recent years, I have come to spend a lot of time thinking critically about the nature of the American meritocracy.  I’ve published a few pieces here on the subject, in which I explore the way in which this process of allocating status through academic achievement constitutes a nearly perfect system for reproducing social inequality — protected by a solid cover of legitimacy.  The story it tells to everyone in society, winners and losers alike, is that you got what you deserved.

So I started telling students my own story about how I got to Stanford — in two contrasting versions.  One is a traditional account of climbing the ladder through skill and grit, a story of merit rewarded.  The other is a more realistic account of getting ahead by leveraging family advantage, a story of having the right parents.

See what you think.

Pluck vs. Luck

David F. Labaree

Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed.

As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University. How did I get there? I tell the story both ways: one about pluck, the other about luck. One has the advantage of making me more comfortable. The other has the advantage of being more true.

I was born to a middle-class family and grew up in Philadelphia in the 1950s. As a skinny, shy kid who wasn’t good at sports, my early life revolved about being a good student. In upper elementary school, I became president of the student council and captain of the safety patrol (an office that conferred a cool red badge that I wore with pride). In high school, I continued to be the model student, eventually getting elected president of the student council (see a pattern here?) and graduating in 1965 near the top of my class. I was accepted at Harvard University with enough advanced-placement credits to skip freshman year (which, fortunately, I didn’t). There I majored in antiwar politics. Those were the days when an activist organisation such as Students for a Democratic Society was a big factor on campuses. I went to two of their annual conventions and wrote inflammatory screeds about Harvard’s elitism (who knew).

In 1970, I graduated with a degree in sociology and no job prospects. What do you do with a sociology degree, anyway? It didn’t help that the job market was in the doldrums. I eventually ended up back in Philadelphia with a job at the Federal Reserve Bank – first in public relations (leading school groups on tours) and then in bank relations (visiting banks around the Third Federal Reserve District). From student radical with a penchant for Marxist sociology, I suddenly became a banker wearing a suit every day and reading The Wall Street Journal. It got me out of the house and into my own apartment but it was not for me. Labarees don’t do finance.

After four years, I quit in disgust, briefly became a reporter at a suburban newspaper, hated that too, and then stumbled by accident into academic work. Looking for any old kind of work in the want ads in my old paper, I spotted an opening at Bucks County Community College, where I applied for three different positions – admissions officer, writing instructor, and sociology instructor. I got hired in the latter role, and the rest is history. I liked the work but realised that I needed a master’s degree to get a full-time job, so I entered the University of Pennsylvania sociology department. Once in the programme, I decided to continue on to get a PhD, supporting myself by teaching at the community college, Trenton State, and at Penn.

In 1981, as I was nearing the end of my dissertation, I started applying for faculty positions. Little did I know that the job market was lousy and that I would be continually applying for positions for the next four years.

As someone who started at the bottom, I can tell you that everything is better at the top

The first year yielded one job offer, at a place so depressing that I decided to stay in Philadelphia and continue teaching as an adjunct. That spring I got a one-year position in sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In the fall, with the clock ticking, I applied to 60 jobs around the country. This time, my search yielded four interviews, all tenure-track positions – at Yale University, at Georgetown, at the University of Cincinnati and at Widener University.

The only offer I got was the one I didn’t want, Widener – a small, non-selective private school in the Philadelphia suburbs that until the 1960s had been a military college. Three years past degree, I felt I had hit bottom in the meritocracy. The moment I got there, I started applying for jobs while desperately trying to write my way into a better one. I published a couple of journal articles and submitted a book proposal to Yale University Press. They hadn’t hired me but maybe they’d publish me.

Finally, a lifeline came my way. A colleague at the College of Education at Michigan State University encouraged me to apply for a position in history of education and I got the job. In the fall of 1985, I started as an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at MSU. Fifteen years after college and four years after starting to look for faculty positions, my career in higher education finally took a big jump upward.

MSU was a wonderful place to work and to advance an academic career. I taught there for 18 years, moving through the ranks to full professor, and publishing three books and 20 articles and book chapters. Early on, I won two national awards for my first book and a university teaching award, and was later elected president of the History of Education Society and vice-president of the American Educational Research Association.

Then in 2002 came an opportunity to apply for a position in education at one of the world’s great universities, Stanford. It worked out, and I started there as a professor in 2003 in the School of Education, and stayed until retirement in 2018. I served in several administrative roles including associate dean, and was given an endowed chair. How cool.

As someone who started at the bottom of the hierarchy of US higher education, I can tell you that everything is better at the top. Everything: pay, teaching loads, intellectual culture, quality of faculty and students, physical surroundings, staff support, travel funds, perks. Even the weather is better. Making it in the meritocracy is as good as it gets. No matter how hard things go at first, talent will win out. Virtue earns its reward. Life is fair.

Of course, there’s also another story, one that’s less heartening but more realistic. A story that’s more about luck than pluck, and that features structural circumstances more than heroic personal struggle. So let me now tell that version.

Professor Robert M Labaree of Lincoln University in southeast Pennsylvania, the author’s grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

The short story is that I’m in the family business. In the 1920s, my parents grew up as next-door neighbours on a university campus where their fathers were both professors. It was Lincoln University, a historically black institution in southeast Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line. The students were black, the faculty white – most of the latter, like my grandfathers, were clergymen. The students were well-off financially, coming from the black bourgeoisie, whereas the highly educated faculty lived in the genteel poverty of university housing. It was a kind of cultural missionary setting, but more comfortable than the foreign missions. One grandfather had served as a missionary in Iran, where my father was born; that was hardship duty. But here was a place where upper-middle-class whites could do good and do well at the same time.

Both grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers, each descended from long lines of Presbyterian ministers. The Presbyterian clergy developed a well-earned reputation over the years of having modest middle-class economic capital and large stores of social and cultural capital. Relatively poor in money, they were rich in social authority and higher learning. In this tradition, education is everything. In part because of that, some ended up in US higher education, where in the 19th century most of the faculty were clergy (because they were well-educated men and worked for peanuts). My grandfather’s grandfather, Benjamin Labaree, was president of Middlebury College in the 1840s and ’50s. Two of my father’s cousins were professors; my brother is a professor. It’s the family business.

Rev Benjamin Labaree, who was president of Middlebury College, 1840-1866, and the author’s great-great-grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

Like many retirees, I recently started to dabble in genealogy. Using, I’ve traced back 10 or 12 generations on both sides of the family, some back to the 1400s, finding ancestors in the US, Scotland, England and France. They are all relentlessly upper-middle-class – mostly ministers, but also some physicians and other professionals. Not a peasant in the bunch, and no one in business. I’m to the manor born (well, really the manse). The most distant Labaree I’ve found is Jacques Laborie, born in 1668 in the village of Cardaillac in France. He served as a surgeon in the army of Louis XIV and then became ordained as a Calvinist minister in Zurich before Louis in 1685 expelled the reformed Protestants (Huguenots) from France. He moved to England, where he married another Huguenot, and then immigrated to Connecticut. Among his descendants were at least four generations of Presbyterian ministers, including two college professors. This is a good start for someone like me, seeking to climb the hierarchy of higher education – like being born on third base. But how did it work out in practice for my career?

I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school

My parents both attended elite colleges, Princeton University and Wilson College (on ministerial scholarships), and they invested heavily in their children’s education. They sent us to a private high school and private colleges. It was a sacrifice to do this, but they thought it was worth it. Compared with our next-door neighbours, we lived modestly – driving an old station wagon instead of a new Cadillac – but we took pride in our cultural superiority. Labarees didn’t work in trade. Having blown their money on schooling and lived too long, my parents died broke. They were neither the first nor the last victims of the meritocracy, who gave their all so that their children could succeed.

This background gave me a huge edge in cultural and social capital. In my high school’s small and high-quality classrooms, I got a great education and learned how to write. The school traditionally sent its top five students every year to Princeton but I decided on Harvard instead. At the time, I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school. No females and almost no minorities.

At Harvard, I distinguished myself in political activity rather than scholarship. I avoided seminars and honours programmes, where it was harder to hide and standards were higher. After the first year, I almost never attended discussion sections, and skipped the majority of the lectures as well, muddling through by doing the reading, and writing a good-enough paper or exam. I phoned it in. When I graduated, I had an underwhelming manuscript, with a 2.5 grade-point average (B-/C+). Not exactly an ideal candidate for graduate study, one would think.

And then there was that job at the bank, which got me out of the house and kept me fed and clothed until I finally recognised my family calling by going to grad school. After beating the bushes looking for work up and down the west coast, how did I get this job? Turned out that my father used to play in a string quartet with a guy who later became the vice-president for personnel at the Federal Reserve Bank. My father called, the friend said come down for an interview. I did and I got the job.

When I finally decided to pursue grad school, I took the Graduate Record Examinations and scored high. Great. The trouble is that an applicant with high scores and low grades is problematic, since this combination suggests high ability and bad attitude. But somehow I got into an elite graduate programme (though Princeton turned me down). Why? Because I went to Harvard, so who cares about the grades? It’s a brand that opens doors. Take my application to teach at the community college. Why hire someone with no graduate degree and a mediocre undergraduate transcript to teach college students? It turns out that the department chair who hired me also went to Harvard. Members of the club take care of each other.

If you have the right academic credentials, you get the benefit of the doubt. The meritocracy is quite forgiving toward its own. You get plenty of second and third chances where others would not. Picture if I had applied to Penn with the same grades and scores but with a degree from West Chester (state) University instead of Harvard. Would I really have had a chance? You can blow off your studies without consequence if you do it at the right school. Would I have been hired to teach at the community college with an off-brand BA? I think not.

And let’s reconsider my experience at Widener. For me – an upper-middle-class professor with two Ivy League degrees and generations of cultural capital – these students were a world apart. Of course, so were the community-college students I taught earlier, but they were taking courses on weekends while holding a job. That felt more like teaching night school than teaching college. At Widener, however, they were full-time students at a place that called itself a university, but to me this wasn’t a real university where I could be a real professor. Looking around the campus with the eye of a born-and-bred snob, I decided quickly that these were not my people. Most were the first in their families to be going to college and did not have the benefit of a strong high-school education.

In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them

A student complained to me one day after she got back her exam that she’d received a worse grade than her friend who didn’t study nearly as hard. That’s not fair, she said. I shrugged it off at the time. Her answer to the essay exam question was simply not as good. But looking back, I realised that I was grading my students on skills I wasn’t teaching them. I assigned multiple readings and then gave take-home exams, which required students to weave together a synthesis of these readings in an essay that responded to a broad analytical question. That’s the kind of exam I was used to, but it required a set of analytical and writing skills that I assumed rather than provided. You can do well on a multiple-choice exam if you study the appropriate textbook chapters; the more time you invest, the higher the grade. That might not be a great way to learn, but it’s a system that rewards effort. My exams, however, rewarded discursive fluency and verbal glibness over diligent study. Instead of trying to figure out how to give these students the cultural capital they needed, I chose to move on to a place where students already had these skills. Much more comfortable.

Oh yes, and what about that first book, the one that won awards, gained me tenure, and launched my career? Well, my advisor at Penn, Michael Katz, had published a book with an editor at Praeger, Gladys Topkis, who then ended up at Yale University Press. With his endorsement, I sent her a proposal for a book based on my dissertation. She gave me a contract. When I submitted the manuscript, a reviewer recommended against publication, but she convinced the editorial board to approve it anyway. Without my advisor, no editor. And without the editor, no book, no awards, no tenure, and no career. It’s as simple as that. In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them.

All of this, plus two more books at Yale, helped me make the move up to Stanford. Never would have happened otherwise. By then, on paper I began to look like a golden boy, checking all the right boxes for an elite institution. And when I announced that I was making the move to Stanford in the spring of 2003, before I even assumed the role, things started changing in my life. Suddenly, it seemed, I got a lot smarter. People wanted me to come give a lecture, join an editorial board, contribute to a book, chair a committee. An old friend, a professor in Sweden, invited me to become a visiting professor in his university. Slightly embarrassed, he admitted that this was because of my new label as a Stanford professor. Swedes know only a few universities in the US, he said, and Stanford is one of them. Like others who find a spot near the top of the meritocracy, I was quite willing to accept this honour, without worrying too much about whether it was justified. Like the pay and perks, it just seemed exactly what I deserved. Special people get special benefits; it only makes sense.

And speaking of special benefits, it certainly didn’t hurt that I am a white male – a category that dominates the professoriate, especially at the upper levels. Among full-time faculty members in US degree-granting institutions, 72 per cent of assistant professors and 81 per cent of full professors are white; meanwhile, 47 per cent of assistants and 66 per cent of professors are male. At the elite level, the numbers are even more skewed. At Stanford, whites make up 54 per cent of tenure-line assistant professors but 82 per cent of professors; under-represented minorities account for only 8 per cent of assistants and 5 per cent of professors. Meanwhile, males constitute 60 per cent of assistants and 78 per cent of professors. In US higher education, white males still rule.

Oh, and what about my endowed chair? Well, it turns out that when the holder of the chair retires, the honour moves on to someone else. I inherited the title in 2017 and held it for a year and a half before I retired and it passed on to the next person. What came with the title? Nothing substantial, no additional salary or research funds. Except I did get one material benefit from this experience, which I was allowed to keep when I gave up the title. It’s an uncomfortable, black, wooden armchair bearing the school seal. Mine came with a brass plaque on the back proclaiming: ‘Professor David Labaree, The Lee L Jacks Professor in Education’.

Now, as I fade into retirement, still enjoying the glow from my emeritus status at a brand-name university, it all feels right. I’ve got money to live on, a great support community, and status galore. I get to display my badges of merit for all to see – the Stanford logo on my jacket, and the Jacks emeritus title in my email signature. What’s not to like? The question about whether I deserve it or not fades into the background, crowded out by all the benefits. Enjoy. The sun’s always shining at the summit of the meritocracy.

Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game. They know that the key is doing well at school, since it’s the acquisition of degrees that determines what jobs you get and the life you live. They also know that it’s not just a matter of being a good student but of attending the right school – one that fosters academic achievement and, even more important, occupies an elevated position in the status hierarchy of educational institutions. Brand names open doors. This allows highly educated, upper-middle-class families to game the meritocratic system and to hoard a disproportionate share of the advantages it offers.

In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale. The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children. Through the jousting grounds of schooling, smart poor kids can, at times, displace dumb rich kids. The result is a system of status attainment that provides advantages for some while at the same time spreading fear for their children’s future across families of all social classes. In the end, the only thing that the meritocracy equalises is anxiety.

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 Education policy, Scholarship, School reform, Social Programs, Sociology, Systems of Schooling, Theory

Peter Rossi: The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules

This post is a classic paper by Peter Rossi from 1987 (Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Volume 4, pages 3-20) which addresses a chronic problem in all policy efforts to change complex social systems.  The social organizations of modern life are so large, so complex, so dependent on the cooperation of so many actors and agencies that making measurable changes in these organizations of the kind intended by the policymakers is fiendishly difficult.  These problems become particularly visible through the process of program evaluation.  As a result, Rossi comes up with a set of “laws” that govern the evaluation process.

The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.

The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.

The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will be zero.

The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.

Read this lovely piece and you will get a rich sense of how hard it is to design policies that will effect the kind of change that the policies aims to accomplish.  Social organizations have a life of their own whose momentum is difficult to deflect.

Here’s a link to the original paper.


Peter H. Rossi


Evaluations of social programs have a long history, as history goes in the
social sciences, but it has been only in the last two decades that evaluation
has come close to becoming a routine activity that is a functioning part of
the policy formation process. Evaluation research has become an activity
that no agency administering social programs can do without and still
retain a reputation as modern and up to date. In academia, evaluation
research has infiltrated into most social science departments as an integral
constituent of curricula. In short, evaluation has become institutionalized.
There are many benefits to social programs and to the social sciences
from the institutionalization of evaluation research. Among the more
important benefits has been a considerable increase in knowledge concerning
social problems and about how social programs work (and do not
work). Along with these benefits. however, there have also been attached
some losses. For those concerned with the improvement of the lot of
disadvantaged persons, families and social groups, the resulting knowledge
has provided the bases for both pessimism and optimism. On the
pessimistic side, we ha\e learned that designing successful programs is a
difficult task that is not easily or often accomplished. On the optimistic
side, we have learned more and more about the kinds of programs that can
be successfully designed and implemented. Knowledge derived from evaluations
is beginning to guide our judgments concerning what is feasible
and how to reach those feasible goals.

To draw some important implications from this knowledge about the
workings of social programs is the objective of this paper. The first step is
to formulate a set of “laws” that summarize the major trends in evaluation
findings. Next. a set of explanations arc provided for those overall findings.
Finally, we explore the consequences for applied social science activities
that flow from our new knowledge of social programs.


A dramatic but slightly overdrawn view of two decades of evaluation
efforts can be stated as a set of “laws,” each summarizing some strong
tendency that can be discerned in that body of materials. Following a 19th
Century practice that has fallen into disuse in social science. these laws
are named after substances of varying durability. roughly indexing each
law’s robustness.

The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.

The Iron Law arises from the experience that few impact assessments
of large scale social programs have found that the programs in question
had any net impact. The law also means that. based on the evaluation
efforts of the las twenty years. the best a priori estimate of the net impact
assessment of any program is zero, i.e., that the the program will have no

The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting
estimate of net impact to be zero.

This law means that the more technically rigorous the net impact
assessment. the more likely arc its results to be zero–ur no effect.
Specifically, this law implies that estimating net impacts through randomized
controlled experiments, the avowedly best approach to estimating
nd impacts. is more likely to show zero effects than other less
rigorous approaches.

The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed
to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will
be zero.

This law means that social programs designed to rehabilitate individuals
by changing them in some way or another are more likely to fail. The
Brass Law may appear to be redundant since all programs, including those
designed to deal with individuals, are covered by the Iron Law. This
redundancy is intended to emphasize the especially difficult task faced in
designing and implementing effective programs that are designed to rehabilitate

The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.

Of the several metallic laws of evaluation, the zinc law has the most
optimistic slant since it implies that there are effective programs but that
such effective programs are never evaluated. It also implies that if a social
program is effective, that characteristic is obvious enough and hence
policy makers and others who sponsor and fund evaluations decide
against evaluation.

It is possible to formulate a number of additional laws of evaluation,
each attached to one or another of a variety of substances varying in
strength ranging from strong, robust metals to flimsy materials. The substances
involved are only limited by one’s imagination. But, if such laws
are to mirror the major findings of the last two decades of evaluation
research they would all carry the same message: The laws would claim
that a review of the history of the last two decades of efforts to evaluate
major social programs in the United States sustain the proposition that
over this period the American establishment of policy makers, agency
officials, professionals and social scientists did not know how to design
and implement social programs that were minimally effective, let alone
spectacularly so.


How seriously should we take the metallic laws? Are they simply the
social science analogue of poetic license, intended to provide dramatic
emphasis? Or, do the laws accurately summarize the last two decades’
evaluation experiences?

First of all, viewed against the evidence, the iron law is not entirely
rigid. True, most impact assessments conform to the iron law’s dictates in
showing at best marginal effects and all too often no effects at all. There
are even a few evaluations that have shown effects in the wrong directions,
opposite to the desired effects. Some of the failures of large scale programs
have been particularly disappointing because of the large investments
of time and resources involved: Manpower retraining programs
have not been shown to improve earnings or employment prospects of
participants (Westat, 1976-1980). Most of the attempts to rehabilitate pris-
oners have failed to reduce recidivism (Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks, 1975).
Most educational innovations have not been shown to improve student
learning appreciably over traditional methods (Raizen and Rossi, 1981 ).

But, there are also many exceptions to the iron rule! The “iron” in the
Iron Law has shown itself to be somewhat spongy and therefore easily,
although not frequently, broken. Some social programs have shown
positive effects in the desired directions, and there are even some quite
spectacular successes: the American old age pension system plus Medicare
has dramatically improved the lives of our older citizens. Medicaid
has managed to deliver medical services to the poor to the extent that the
negative correlation between income and consumption of medical services
has declined dramatically since enactment. The family planning
clinics subsidized by the federal government were effective in reducing the
number of births in areas where they were implemented (Cutright and
Jaffe, 1977). There are also human services programs that have been shown
to be effective, although mainly on small scale, pilot runs: for example, the
Minneapolis Police Foundation experiment on the police handling of
family violence showed that if the police placed the offending abuser in
custody over night that the offender was less likely to show up as an
accused offender over the succeeding six months ( Sherman and Berk, 1984 ).
A meta-evaluation of psychotherapy showed that on the average, persons
in psychotherapy-no matter what brand-were a third of a standard
deviation improved over control groups that did not have any therapy
(Smith, Glass, and Miller, 1980). In most of the evaluations of manpower
training programs, women returning to the labor force benefitted
positively compared to women who did not take the courses, even though
in general such programs have not been successful. Even Head Start is
now beginning to show some positive benefits after many years of equivocal
findings. And so it goes on, through a relatively long list of successful

But even in the case of successful social programs, the sizes of the net
effects have not been spectacular. In the social program field, nothing has
yet been invented which is as effective in its way as the small pox vaccine
was for the field of public health. In short, as is well known (and widely
deplored) we arc not on the verge of wiping out the social scourges of our
time: ignorance, poverty, crime, dependency, or mental illness show great
promise to be with us for some time to come.

The Stainless Steel Law appears to be more likely to hold up over a
The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules 7
large series of cases than the more general Iron Law. This is because the
fiercest competition as an explanation for the seeming success of any
program-especially human services programs-ordinarily is either selfor
administrator-selection of clients. In other words, if one finds that a
program appears to be effective, the most likely alternative explanation to
judging the program as the cause of that success is that the persons
attracted to that program were likely to get better on their own or that the
administrators of that program chose those who were already on the road
to recovery as clients. As the better research designs-particularly randomized
experiments-eliminate that competition, the less likely is a
program to show any positive net effect. So the better the research design,
the more likely the net impact assessment is likely to be zero.

How about the Zinc Law of Evaluation? First, it should be pointed out
that this law is impossible to verify in any literal sense. The only way that
one can be relatively certain that a program is effective is to evaluate it,
and hence the proposition that only ineffective programs are evaluated can
never be proven.

However, there is a sense in which the Zinc law is correct. If the a
priori, beyond-any-doubt expectations of decision makers and agency
heads is that a program will be effective, there is little chance that the
program will be evaluated at all. Our most successful social program,
social security payments to the aged has never been evaluated in a rigorous
sense. It is “well known” that the program manages to raise the incomes
of retired persons and their families, and “it stands to reason” that this
increase in income is greater than what would have happened, absent the
social security system.

Evaluation research is the legitimate child of skepticism, and where
there is faith, research is not called upon to make a judgment. Indeed, the
history of the income maintenance experiments bears this point out.
Those experiments were not undertaken to find out whether the main
purpose of the proposed program could be achieved: that is, no one
doubted that payments would provide income to poor people-indeed,
payments by definition are income, and even social scientists are not
inclined to waste resources investigating tautologies. Furthermore, no one
doubted that payments could be calculated and checks could be delivered
to households. The main purpose of the experiment was to estimate the
sizes of certain anticipated side effects of the payments, about which
economists and policy makers were uncertain-how much of a work
disincentive effect would be generated by the payments and whether the
payments would affect other aspects of the households in undesirable
ways-for instance, increasing the divorce rate among participants.

In short, when we look at the evidence for the metallic laws, the
evidence appears not to sustain their seemingly rigid character, but the
evidence does sustain the “laws” as statistical regularities. Why this
should be the case, is the topic to be explored in the remainder of this


A possibility that deserves very serious consideration is that there is
something radically wrong with the ways in which we go about conducting
evaluations. Indeed, this argument is the foundation of a revisionist school
of evaluation, composed of evaluators who are intent on calling into
question the main body of methodological procedures used in evaluation
research, especially those that emphasize quantitative and particularly
experimental approaches to the estimation of net impacts. The revisionists
include such persons as Michael Patton ( 1980) and Egon Guba (1981 ).
Some of the revisionists are reformed number crunchers who have seen
the errors of their ways and have been reborn as qualitative researchers.
Others have come from social science disciplines in which qualitative
ethnographic field methods have been dominant.

Although the issue of the appropriateness of social science methodology
is an important one, so far the revisionist arguments fall far short
of being fully convincing. At the root of the revisionist argument appears
to be that the revisionists find it difficult to accept the findings that most
social programs, when evaluated for impact assessment by rigorous quantitative
evaluation procedures, fail to register main effects: hence the
defects must be in the method of making the estimates. This argument per
se is an interesting one, and deserves attention: all procedures need to be
continually re-evaluated. There are some obvious deficiencies in most
evaluations, some of which are inherent in the procedures employed. For
example, a program that is constantly changing and evolving cannot
ordinarily be rigorously evaluated since the treatment to be evaluated
cannot be clearly defined. Such programs either require new evaluation
procedures or should not be evaluated at all.

The weakness of the revisionist approaches lies in their proposed
solutions to these deficiencies. Criticizing quantitative approaches for
their woodenness and inflexibility, they propose to replace current methods
with procedures that have even greater and more obvious deficiencies.
The qualitative approaches they propose are not exempt from issues of
internal and external validity and ordinarily do not attempt to address
these thorny problems. Indeed, the procedures which they advance as
substitutes for the mainstream methodology are usually vaguely des-
scribed, constituting an almost mystical advocacy of the virtues of qualitative
approaches, without clear discussion of the specific ways in which
such procedures meet validity criteria. In addition, many appear to adopt
program operator perspectives on effectiveness, reasoning that any effort
to improve social conditions must have some effect, with the burden of
proof placed on the evaluation researcher to find out what those effects
might be.

Although many of their arguments concerning the woodenness of many
quantitative researches are cogent and well taken, the main revisionist
arguments for an alternative methodology are unconvincing: hence one
must look elsewhere than to evaluation methodology for the reasons for
the failure of social programs to pass muster before the bar of impact


Starting with the conviction that the many findings of zero impact are real,
we are led inexorably to the conclusion that the faults must lie in the
programs. Three kinds of failure can be identified, each a major source of
the observed lack of impact:
The first two types of faults that lead a program to fail stem from
problems in social science theory and the third is a problem in the
organization of social programs:

I. Faults in Problem Theory: The program is built upon a faulty understanding
of the social processes that give rise to the problem to
which the social program is ostensibly addressed;

2. Faults in Program Theory: The program is built upon a faulty
understanding of how to translate problem theory into specific

3. Faults in Program Implementation: There are faults in the organizations,
resources levels and/or activities that are used to deliver
the program to its intended beneficiaries.

Note that the term theory is used above in a fairly loose way to cover all
sorts of empirically grounded generalized knowledge about a topic, and is
not limited to formal propositions.

Every social program, implicitly or explicitly is based on some understanding
of the social problem involved and some understanding of the
program. If one fails to arrive at an appropriate understanding of either,
the program in question will undoubtedly fail. In addition, every program
is given to some organization to implement. Failures to provide enough
resources, or to insure that the program is delivered with sufficient fidelity
can also lead to findings of ineffectiveness.

Problem Theory

Problem theory consists of the body of empirically tested understanding
of the social problem that underlies the design of the program in
question. For example, the problem theory that was the underpinning for
the many attempts at prisoner rehabilitation tried in the last two decades
was that criminality was a personality disorder. Even though there was a
lot of evidence for this viewpoint, it also turned out that the theory is not
relevant either to understanding crime rates or to the design of crime
policy. The changes in crime rates do not reflect massive shifts in personality
characteristics of the American population, nor does the personality
disorder theory of crime lead to clear implications for crime reduction
policies. Indeed, it is likely that large scale personality changes are beyond
the reach of social policy institutions in a democratic society.
The adoption of this theory is quite understandable. For example, how
else do we account for the fact that persons seemingly exposed to the
same influences do not show the same criminal (or noncriminal) tendencies?
But the theory is not useful for understanding the social distribution
of crime rates by gender, socio-economic level, or by age.

Program Theory

Program theory links together the activities that constitute a social
program and desired program outcomes. Obviously, program theory is
also linked to problem theory, but is partially independent. For example,
given the problem theory that diagnosed criminality is a personality disorder,
a matching program theory would have as its aims personality
change oriented therapy. But there are many specific ways in which
therapy can be defined and at many different points in the life history of
individuals. At the one extreme of the lifeline, one might attempt preventive
mental health work directed toward young children: at the other
extreme, one might provide psychiatric treatment for prisoners or set up
therapeutic groups in prison for convicted offenders.


The third major source of failure is organizational in character and has
to do with the failure to implement properly programs. Human services
programs are notoriously difficult to deliver appropriately to the appropriate
clients. A well designed program that is based on correct problem and
program theories may simply be implemented improperly, including not
implementing any program at all. Indeed, in the early days of the War on
Proverty, many examples were found of non-programs-the failure to
implement anything at all.

Note that these three sources of failure are nested to some degree:

1. An incorrect understanding of the social problem being addressed
is clearly a major failure that invalidates a correct program theory
and an excellent implementation.

2. No matter how good the problem theory may be, an inappropriate
program theory will lead to failure.

3. And, no matter how good the problem and program theories, a
poor implementation will also lead to failure.

Sources of Theory Failure

A major reason for failures produced through incorrect problem and
program theories lies in the serious under-development of policy related
social science theories in many of the basic disciplines. The major problem
with much basic social science is that social scientists have tended to
ignore policy related variables in building theories because policy related
variables account for so little of the variance in the behavior in question.It
does not help the construction of social policy any to know that a major
determinant of criminality is age, because there is little, if anything, that
policy can do about the age distribution of a population, given a committment
to our current democratic, liberal values. There are notable exceptions
to this generalization about social science: economics and political
science have always been closely attentive to policy considerations; this
indictment concerns mainly such fields as sociology, anthropology and

Incidentally, this generalization about social science and social scientists
should warn us not to expect too much from changes in social policy.
This implication is quite important and will be taken up later on in this

But the major reason why programs fail through failures in problem and
program theories is that the designers of programs are ordinarily amateurs
who know even less than the social scientists! There are numerous examples
of social programs that were concocted by well meaning amateurs
(but amateurs nevertheless). A prime example are Community Mental
Health Centers, an invention of the Kennedy administration, apparently
undertaken without any input from the National Institute of Mental
Health, the agency that was given the mandate to administer the program.
Similarly with Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and
its successor, the current Job Partnership Training Act (JPTA) program,
both of which were designed by rank amateurs and then given over to the
Department of Labor to run and administer. Of course, some of the
amateurs were advised by social scientists about the programs in question,
so the social scientists are not completely blameless.

The amateurs in question are the legislators, judicial officials, and other
policy makers who initiate policy and program changes. The main problem
with amateurs lies not so much in their amateur status but in the fact
that they may know little or nothing about the problem in question or
about the programs they design. Social science may not be an extraordinarily
well developed set of disciplines, but social scientists do know
something about our society and how it works, knowledge that can prove
useful in the design of policy and programs that may have a chance to be
successfully effective.

Our social programs seemingly are designed by procedures that lie
somewhere in between setting monkeys to typing mindlessly on typewriters
in the hope that additional Shakespearean plays will eventually be
produced, and Edisonian trial-and-error procedures in which one tactic
after another is tried in the hope of finding out some method that works.
Although the Edisonian paradigm is not highly regarded as a scientific
strategy by the philosophers of science, there is much to recommend it in
a historical period in which good theory is yet to develop. It is also a
strategy that allows one to learn from errors. Indeed, evaluation is very
much a part of an Edisonian strategy of starting new programs, and
attempting to learn from each trial.


One of the more persistent failures in problem theory is to under-estimate
the complexity of the social world. Most of the social problems with which
we deal are generated by very complex causal processes involving interactions
of a very complex sort among societal level, community level, and
individual level processes. In all likelihood there are biological level processes
involved as well, however much our liberal ideology is repelled by
the idea. The consequence of under-estimating the complexity of the
problem is often to over-estimate our abilities to affect the amount and
course of the problem. This means that we are overly optimistic about how
much of an effect even the best of social programs can expect to achieve. It
also means that we under-design our evaluations, running the risk of
committing Type II errors: that is, not having enough statistical power in
our evaluation research designs to be able to detect reliably those small
effects that we are likely to encounter.

It is instructive to consider the example of the problem of crime in our
society. In the last two decades, we have learned a great deal about the
crime problem through our attempts by initiating one social program aft~r
another to halt the rising crime rate in our society. The end result of this
series of trials has largely failed to have significant impacts on the crime
rates. The research effort has yielded a great deal of empirical knowledge
about crime and criminals. For example, we now know a great deal about
the demographic characteristics of criminals and their victims. But, we
still have only the vaguest ideas about why the crime rates rose so steeply
in the period between 1970 and 1980 and, in the last few years, have started
what appears to be a gradual decline. We have also learned that the
criminal justice system has been given an impossible task to perform and,
indeed, practices a wholesale form of deception in which everyone acquiesces.

It has been found that most perpetrators of most criminal acts go
undetected, when detected go unprosecuted, and when prosecuted go
unpunished, Furthermore, most prosecuted and sentenced criminals are
dealt with by plea bargaining procedures that are just in the last decade
getting formal recognition as occurring at all. After decades of sub-rosa
existence, plea bargaining is beginning to get official recognition in the
criminal code and judicial interpretations of that code.

But most of what we have learned in the past two decades amounts to a
better description of the crime problem and the criminal justice system as
it presently functions. There is simply no doubt about the importance of
this detailed information: it is going to be the foundation of our understanding
of crime; but, it is not yet the basis upon which to build policies
and programs that can lessen the burden of crime in our society.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the descriptive and
evaluative researches of the past two decades is that crime and criminals
appear to be relatively insensitive to the range of policy and program
changes that have been evaluated in this period. This means that the
prospects for substantial improvements in the crime problem appear to be
slight, unless we gain better theoretical understanding of crime and criminals.
That is why the Iron Law of Evaluation appears to be an excellent
generalization for the field of social programs aimed at reducing crime and
leading criminals to the straight and narrow way of life. The knowledge
base for developing effective crime policies and programs simply does not
exist; and hence in this field, we are condemned-hopefully temporarilyto
Edisonian trial and error.


As defined earlier, program theory failures are translations of a proper
understanding of a problem into inappropriate programs, and program
implementation failures arise out of defects in the delivery system used.
Although in principle it is possible to distinguish program theory failures
from program implementation failures, in practice it is difficult to do so.
For example, a correct program may be incorrectly delivered, and hence
would constitute a “pure” example of implementation failure, but it would
be difficult to identify this case as such, unless there were some instances
of correct delivery. Hence both program theory and program implementation
failures will be discussed together in this section.

These kinds of failure are likely the most common causes of ineffective
programs in many fields. There are many ways in which program theory
and program implementation failures can occur. Some of the more common
ways are listed below.

Wrong Treatment

This occurs when the treatment is simply a seriously flawed translation
of the problem theory into a program. One of the best examples is the
housing allowance experiment in which the experimenters attempted to
motivate poor households to move into higher quality housing by offering
them a rent subsidy, contingent on their moving into housing that met
certain quality standards (Struyk and Bendick, 1981). The experimenters
found that only a small portion of the poor households to whom this offer
was made actually moved to better housing and thereby qualified for and
received housing subsidy payments. After much econometric calculation,
this unexpected outcome was found to have been apparently generated by
the fact that the experimenters unfortunately did not take into account
that the costs of moving were far from zero. When the anticipated dollar
benefits from the subsidy were compared to the net benefits, after taking
into account the costs of moving, the net benefits were in a very large
proportion of the cases uncomfortably close to zero and in some instances
negative. Furthermore, the housing standards applied almost totally
missed the point. They were technical standards that often characterized
housing as sub-standard that was quite acceptable to the households
involved. In other words, these were standards that were regarded as
irrelevant by the clients. It was unreasonable to assume that households
would undertake to move when there was no push of dissatisfaction from
the housing occupied and no substantial net positive benefit in dollar
terms for doing so. Incidentally, the fact that poor families with little
formal education were able to make decisions that were consistent with
the outcomes of highly technical econometric calculations improves one’s
appreciation of the innate intellectual abilities of that population.

Right Treatment But Insufficient Dosage

A very recent set of trial policing programs in Houston, Texas and
Newark, New Jersey exemplifies how programs may fail not so much
because they were administering the wrong treatment but because the
treatment was frail and puny (Police Foundation, 1985). Part of the goals of
the program was to produce a more positive evaluation of local police
departments in the views of local residents. Several different treatments
were attempted. In Houston, the police attempted to meet the presumed
needs of victims of crime by having a police officer call them up a week of
so after a crime complaint was received to ask “how they were doing” and
to offer help in “any way.” Over a period of a year, the police managed to
contact about 230 victims, but the help they could offer consisted mainly
of referrals to other agencies. Furthermore, the crimes in question were
mainly property thefts without personal contact between victims and
offenders, with the main request for aid being requests to speed up the
return of their stolen property. Anyone who knows even a little bit about
property crime in the United States would know that the police do little or
nothing to recover stolen property mainly because there is no way they can
do so. Since the callers from the police department could not offer any
substantial aid to remedy the problems caused by the crimes in question,
the treatment delivered by the program was essentially zero. It goes
without saying that those contacted by the police officers did not differ
from randomly selected controls-who had also been victimized but who
had not been called by the police-in their evaluation of the Houston
Police Department.

It seems likely that the treatment administered, namely expressions of
concern for the victims of crime, administered in a personal face-to-face
way, would have been effective if the police could have offered substantial
help to the victims.

Counter-acting Delivery System

It is obvious that any program consists not only of the treatment
intended to be delivered, but it also consists of the delivery system and
whatever is done to clients in the delivery of services. Thus the income
maintenance experiments’ treatments consist not only of the payments,
but the entire system of monthly income reports required of the clients,
the quarterly interviews and the annual income reviews, as well as the
payment system and its rules. In that particular case, it is likely that the
payments dominated the payment system, but in other cases that might
not be so, with the delivery system profoundly altering the impact of the

Perhaps the most egregious example was the group counselling program
run in California prisons during the 1960s (Kassebaum, Ward, and
Wilner, 1972). Guards and other prison employees were used as counseling
group leaders, in sessions in which all participants-prisoners and
guards-were asked to be frank and candid with each other! There are
many reasons for the abysmal failure3 of this program to affect either
criminals’ behavior within prison or during their subsequent period of
parole, but among the leading contenders for the role of villain was the
prison system’s use of guards as therapists.

Another example is the failure of transitional aid payments to released
prisoners when the payment system was run by the state employment
security agency, in contrast to the strong positive effect found when run by
researchers (Rossi, Berk, and Lenihan, 1980). In a randomized experiment
run by social researchers in Baltimore, the provision of 3 months of
minimal support payments lowered the re-arrest rate by 8 percent, a small
decrement, but a significant one that was calculated to have very high cost
to benefit ratios. When, the Department of Labor wisely decided that
another randomized experiment should be run to see whether YOAA”
Your Ordinary American Agency”-could achieve the same results,
large scale experiments in Texas and Georgia showed that putting the
treatment in the hands of the employment security agencies in those two
states cancelled the positive effects of the treatment. The procedure which
produced the failure was a simple one: the payments were made contingent
on being unemployed, as the employment security agencies usually
administered unemployment benefits, creating a strong work disincentive
effect with the unfortunate consequence of a longer period of unemployment
for experimentals as compared to their randomized controls and
hence a higher than expected re-arrest rate.

Pilot and Production Runs

The last example can be subsumed under a more general point — namely,
given that a treatment is effective in a pilot test does not mean that
when turned over to YOAA, effectiveness can be maintained. This is the
lesson to be derived from the transitional aid experiments in Texas and
Georgia and from programs such as The Planned Variation teaching demonstration.
In the latter program leading teaching specialists were asked to
develop versions of their teaching methods to be implemented in actual
school systems. Despite generous support and willing cooperation from
their schools, the researchers were unable to get workable versions of
their teaching strategies into place until at least a year into the running of
the program. There is a big difference between running a program on a
small scale with highly skilled and very devoted personnel and running a
program with the lesser skilled and less devoted personnel that YOAA
ordinarily has at its disposal. Programs that appear to be very promising
when run by the persons who developed them, often turn out to be
disappointments when turned over to line agencies.

Inadequate Reward System

The internally defined reward system of an organization has a strong
effect on what activities are assiduously pursued and those that are
characterized by “benign neglect.” The fact that an agency is directed to
engage in some activity does not mean that it will do so unless the reward
system within that organization actively fosters compliance. Indeed, there
are numerous examples of reward systems that do not foster compliance.
Perhaps one of the best examples was the experience of several police
departments with the decriminalization of public intoxification. Both the
District of Columbia and Minneapolis-among other jurisdictions-rescinded
their ordinances that defined public drunkenness as misdemeanors,
setting up detoxification centers to which police were asked to
bring persons who were found to be drunk on the streets. Under the old
system, police patrols would arrest drunks and bring them into the local
jail for an overnight stay. The arrests so made would “count” towards the
department measures of policing activity. Patrolmen were motivated
thereby to pick up drunks and book them into the local jail, especially in
periods when other arrest opportunities were slight. In contrast, under the
new system, the handling of drunks did not count towards an officer’s
arrest record. The consequence: Police did not bring drunks into the new
detoxification centers and the municipalities eventually had to set up
separate service systems to rustle up clients for the dextoxification

The illustrations given above should be sufficient to make the general
point that the apropriate implementation of social programs is a problematic
matter. This is especially the case for programs that rely on persons to
deliver the service in question. There is no doubt that federal, state, and
local agencies can calculate and deliver checks with precision and efficiency.
There also can be little doubt that such agencies can maintain a
physical infra-structure that delivers public services efficiently, even
though there are a few examples of the failure of water and sewer systems
on scales that threaten public health. But there is a lot of doubt that human
services that are tailored to differences among individual clients can be
done well at all on a large scale basis.
We know that public education is not doing equally well in facilitating
the learning of all children. We know that our mental health system does
not often succeed in treating the chronically mentally ill in a consistent
and effective fashion. This does not mean that some children cannot be
educated or that the chronically mentally ill cannot be treated-it does
mean that our ability to do these activities on a mass scale is somewhat in


This paper started out with a recital of the several metallic laws stating
that evaluations of social programs have rarely found them to be effective
in achieving their desired goals. The discussion modified the metallic laws
to express them as statistical tendencies rather than rigid and inflexible
laws to which all evaluations must strictly adhere. In this latter sense, the
laws simply do not hold. However, when stripped of their rigidity, the laws
can be seen to be valid as statistical generalizations, fairly accurately
representing what have been the end results of evaluations “on-the-average.”
In short, few large-scale social programs have been found to be even
minimally effective. There have been even fewer programs found to be spectacularly
effective. There are no social science equivalents of the Salk vaccine.

Were this conclusion the only message of this paper, then it would tell a
dismal tale indeed. But there is a more important message in the examination
of the reasons why social programs fail so often. In this connection,
the paper pointed out two deficiencies:

First, policy relevant social science theory that should be the intellectual
underpinning of our social policies and programs is either deficient or
simply missing. Effective social policies and programs cannot be designed
consistently until it is thoroughly understood how changes in policies and
programs can affect the social problems in question. The social policies
and programs that we have tested have been designed, at best, on the basis
of common sense and perhaps intelligent guesses, a weak foundation for
the construction of effective policies and programs.

In order to make progress, we need to deepen our understanding of the
long range and proximate causation of our social problems and our understanding
about how active interventions might alleviate the burdens of
those problems. This is not simply a call for more funds for social science
research but also a call for a redirection of social science research toward
understanding how public policy can affect those problems.

Second, in pointing to the frequent failures in the implementation of
social programs, especially those that involve labor intensive delivery of
services, we may also note an important missing professional activity in
those fields. The physical sciences have their engineering counterparts;
the biological sciences have their health care professionals; but social
science has neither an engineering nor a strong clinical component. To be
sure, we have clinical psychology, education, social work, public administration,
and law as our counterparts to engineering, but these are only
weakly connected with basic social science. What is apparently needed is
a new profession of social and organizational engineering devoted to the
design of human services delivery systems that can deliver treatments
with fidelity and effectiveness.

In short, the double message of this paper is an argument for
further development of policy relevant basic social science and the establishment
of the new profession of social engineer.


I. Note that the law emphasizes that it applied primarily to “large scale” social
programs, primarily those that are implemented by an established governmental agency
covering a region or the nation as a whole. It does not apply to small scale demonstrations or to programs run by their designers.
2. Unfortunately, it has proven difficult to stop large scale programs even when evaluations prove them to be ineffective. The federal job training programs seem remarkably resistant to the almost consistent verdicts of ineffectiveness. This limitation on the Edisonian paradigm arises out of the tendency for large scale programs to accumulate staff and clients that have extensive stakes in the program’s continuation.
3. This is a complex example in which there are many competing explanations for the
failure of the program. In the first place, the program may be a good example of the failure of problem theory since the program was ultimately based on a theory of criminal behavior as psychopathology. In the second place, the program theory may have been at fault for employing counselling as a treatment. This example illustrates how difficult it is to separate out the three sources of program failures in specific instances.


Cutright, P. and F. S. Jaffe
1977 Impact of Family Planning Programs on Fertility: The U.S. Experience. New
York: Praeger.
Guba, E. G. and Y. S. Lincoln
1981 Effective Evaluation: Improving the Usefulness of Evaluation Results Through
Responsive and Naturalistic Approaches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kassebaum, G., D. Ward, and D. Wilner
1971 Prison Treatment and Parole Survival. New York: John Wiley.
Lipton, D., R. Martinson, and L. Wilks
1975 The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment. New York: Praeger.
Patton, M.
1980 Qualitative Evaluation Methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
Police Foundation
1985 Evaluation of Newark and Houston Policing Experiments. Washington, DC.
Raizen, S. A. and P. H. Rossi (eds.)
1980 Program Evaluation in Education: When? How? To What Ends? Washington,
DC: National Academy Press.
Rossi, P. H., R. A. Berk and K. J. Lenihan
1980 Money, Work and Crime. New York: Academic.
Sherman, L. W. and R. A. Berk.
1984. “Deterrent effects of arrest for domestic assault.” American Sociological Review
49: 261-271.
Smith, M. L., G. V. Glass, and T. I. Miller
1980 The Benefits of Psychotherapy: An Evaluation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press.
Struyk, R. J. and M. Bendick
1981 Housing Vouchers for the Poor. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Westat, Inc.
1976- Continuous Longitudinal Manpower Survey, Reports 1-10. Rockville, MD:
1980 Westat, Inc.

Posted in Higher Education, History, Systems of Schooling

An Unlikely Triumph: How US Higher Education Went from Rags in the 19th Century to Riches in the 20th

This is a piece I published in Aeon in October, 2017.  It provides an overview of my book that came out that year, “A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press).

From the perspective of 19th-century visitors to the United States, the country’s system of higher education was a joke. It wasn’t even a system, just a random assortment of institutions claiming to be colleges that were scattered around the countryside. Underfunded, academically underwhelming, located in small towns along the frontier, and lacking in compelling social function, the system seemed destined for obscurity. But by the second half of the 20th century, it had assumed a dominant position in the world market in higher education. Compared with peer institutions in other countries, it came to accumulate greater wealth, produce more scholarship, win more Nobel prizes, and attract a larger proportion of talented students and faculty. US universities dominate global rankings.

How did this remarkable transformation come about? The characteristics of the system that seemed to be disadvantages in the 19th century turned out to be advantages in the 20th. Its modest state funding, dependence on students, populist aura, and obsession with football gave it a degree of autonomy that has allowed it to stand astride the academic world.

The system emerged under trying circumstances early in US history, when the state was weak, the market strong, and the church divided. Lacking the strong support of church and state, which had fostered the growth of the first universities in medieval Europe, the first US colleges had to rely largely on support from local elites and tuition-paying student consumers. They came into being with the grant of a corporate charter from state government, but this only authorised these institutions. It didn’t fund them.

The rationale for starting a college in the 19th century usually had less to do with promoting higher learning than with pursuing profit. For most of US history, the primary source of wealth was land, but in a country with a lot more land than buyers, the challenge for speculators was how to convince people to buy their land rather than one of the many other available options. (George Washington, for instance, accumulated some 50,000 acres in the western territories, and spent much of his life unsuccessfully trying to monetise his holdings.) The situation became even more desperate in the mid-19th century, when the federal government started giving away land to homesteaders. One answer to this problem was to show that the land was not just another plot in a dusty agricultural village but prime real estate in an emerging cultural centre. And nothing said culture like a college. Speculators would ‘donate’ land for a college, gain a state charter, and then sell the land around it at a premium, much like developers today who build a golf course and then charge a high price for the houses that front on to it.

Of course, chartering a college is not the same as actually creating a functioning institution. So speculators typically sought to affiliate their emergent college with a religious denomination, which offered several advantages. One was that it segmented the market. A Presbyterian college would be more attractive to Presbyterian consumers than the Methodist college in the next town. Another was staffing. Until the late-19th century, nearly all presidents and most faculty at US colleges were clergymen, who were particularly attractive to college founders for two reasons. They were reasonably well-educated, and they were willing to work cheap. A third advantage was that the church just might be induced to contribute a little money from time to time to support its struggling offspring.

Often the motives of profit and faith converged in the same person, producing a distinctive American character – the clergyman-speculator. J B Grinnell was a Congregational minister who left the church he founded in Washington, DC, to establish a town out west as a speculative investment. In 1854 he settled on a location in Iowa, named the town Grinnell, gained a charter for a college, and started selling land for $1.62 an acre. Instead of organising a college from scratch, he convinced Iowa College to move from Davenport and assume the name Grinnell College.

This process of college development helps to explain a lot of things about the emergent form of the US higher-education system in the 19th century. Less than a quarter of the colleges were in the strip of land along the eastern seaboard where most Americans lived. More than half were in the Midwest and Southwest: the sparsely populated frontier. If your aim is to attract a lot of students, this was not a great business plan, but it was useful in attracting settlers. The frontier location also helps to explain the nominal church support for the colleges. In the competitive US setting where no church was dominant, it was each denomination for itself, so everyone wanted to plant the denominational flag in the new territories for fear of ceding the terrain to the opposition. Together, land speculation and sectarian competitions help to explain why, by 1880, Ohio had 37 colleges – and France just 16.

The sheer number of such college foundings was remarkable. In 1790, at the start of the first decade of the new republic, the US already had 19 institutions called colleges or universities. The numbers grew gradually in the first three decades, rising to 50 by 1830, and then started accelerating. By the 1850s they had reached 250, doubling again in the following decade (563), and in 1880 totalled 811. The growth in colleges vastly exceeded the growth in population, with a total of five colleges per million people in 1790, rising to 16 per million in 1880. In that year, the US had five times as many colleges as the entire continent of Europe. This was the most overbuilt system of higher education the world had ever seen.

Of course, as European visitors liked to point out, it was a stretch to call most of these colleges institutions of higher learning. For starters, they were small. In 1880, the average college boasted 131 students and 10 faculty members, granting only 17 degrees a year. Most were located far from centres of culture and refinement. Faculty were preachers rather than scholars, and students were whoever was willing to pay tuition for a degree whose market value was questionable. Most graduates joined the clergy or other professions that were readily accessible without a college degree.

For American students, it was often a choice of going to high school or to college

On the east coast, a small number of colleges – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary – drew students from families of wealth and power, and served as training grounds for future leaders. But closer to the frontier, there were no established elites for colleges to bond with, and they offered little in the way of social distinction. The fact that every other town had its own college led to intense competition for students, which meant that tuition charges remained low. This left colleges to operate on a shoestring, making do with poor facilities, low pay, struggles to attract and retain students and faculty, and continual rounds of fundraising. And it meant that students were more middle- than upper-class, there for the experience rather than the learning; the most serious students were those on scholarship.

Another sign of the lowly status of these 19th-century colleges is that they were difficult to distinguish from the variety of high schools and academies that were also in abundance across the US landscape. For students, it was often a choice of going to high school or to college, rather than seeing one as the feeder institution for the other. As a result, the age range of students attending high schools and colleges was substantially the same.

By the middle of the century, a variety of new forms of public colleges arose in addition to the independent institutions that today we call private. States started establishing their own colleges and universities, for much the same reasons as churches and towns did: competition (if the state next door had a college, you needed one too) and land speculation (local boosters pushed legislatures to grant them this plum). In addition, there were the colleges that arose from federal land grants and came to focus on more practical rather than classical education, such as engineering and agriculture. Finally came the normal schools, which focused on preparing teachers for the growing public school system. Unlike the privates, these newer institutions operated under public control, but that did not mean they had a steady flow of public funding. They didn’t start getting annual appropriations until the start of the 20th century. As a result, like the privates, they had to rely on student tuition and donations in order to survive, and they had to compete for students and faculty in the larger market already established by their private predecessors.

By 1880, the US system of higher education was extraordinarily large and spatially dispersed, with decentralised governance and a remarkable degree of institutional complexity. This system had established a distinctive structure early in the century, and then elaborated on it over the succeeding decades. It might seem strange to call the motley collection of some 800 colleges and universities a system at all. ‘System’ implies a plan and a form of governance that keeps things working according to the plan, and that indeed is the formal structure of higher-education systems in most other countries, where a government ministry oversees the system and tinkers with it over time. But not in the US.

The system of higher education in the US did not arise from a plan, and no agency governs it. It just happened. But it is nonetheless a system, which has a well-defined structure and a clear set of rules that guides the actions of the individuals and institutions within it. In this sense, it is less like a political system guided by a constitution than a market-based economic system arising from an accumulation of individual choices. Think urban sprawl rather than planned community. Its history is not a deliberate construction but an evolutionary process. The market systems just happen, but that doesn’t keep us from understanding how it came about and how it works.

People did try to impose some kind of logical form and function on to the system. All US presidents until Andrew Jackson argued for the need to establish a national university, which would have set a high standard for the system, but this effort failed because of the widespread fear of a strong central government. And a number of actors tried to impose their own vision of what the purpose of the system should be. In 1828, the Yale faculty issued a report strongly supporting the traditional classical curriculum (focused on Latin, Greek and religion); in the 1850s, Francis Wayland at Brown argued for a focus on science; and the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 called for colleges that would ‘teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts … in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life’. These visions provided support for a wide array of alternative college missions within a diversified system that was wed to none of them.

The weaknesses of the college system were glaringly obvious. Most of the colleges were not created to promote higher learning, and the level of learning they did foster was modest indeed. They had a rudimentary infrastructure and no reliable stream of funding. They were too many in number for any of them to gain distinction, and there was no central mechanism for elevating some of them above others. Unlike Europe, the US had no universities with the imprimatur of the national government or the established church, just a collection of marginal public and private institutions located on the periphery of civilisation. What a mess.

Take Middlebury College, a Congregational institution founded in 1800, which has now become one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the country, considered one of the ‘little Ivies’. But in 1840, when its new president arrived on campus (a Presbyterian minister named Benjamin Labaree, my grandfather’s grandfather), he found an institution that was struggling to survive, and in his 25-year tenure as president this situation did not change much for the better. In letters to the board of trustees, he detailed a list of woes that afflicted the small college president of his era. Hired for a salary of $1,200 a year (roughly $32,000 today), he found that the trustees could not afford to pay it. So he immediately set out to raise money for the college, the first of eight fundraising campaigns that he engaged in, making a $1,000 contribution of his own and soliciting gifts from the small faculty.

Money worries are the biggest theme in Labaree Snr’s letters (struggling to recruit and pay faculty, mortgaging his house to make up for his own unpaid salary, and perpetually seeking donations), but he also complained about the inevitable problems that come from trying to offer a full college curriculum with a small number of underqualified professors:

I accepted the Presidency of Middlebury College, Gentlemen, with a full understanding that your Faculty was small and that in consequence a large amount of instruction would devolve upon the President – that I should be desired to promote the financial interests of the Institution, as convenience and the duties of instruction would permit, was naturally to be expected, but I could not have anticipated that the task of relieving the College from pecuniary embarrassment, and the labor and responsibility of procuring funds for endowment for books, for buildings etc, etc would devolve on me. Could I have foreseen what you would demand of me, I should never have engaged in your service.

At one place in the correspondence, Labaree Snr listed the courses he had to teach as president: ‘Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, Political Economy, International Law, Evidences of Christianity, History of Civilization, and Butler’s Analogy’. US college professors could not afford to have narrow expertise.

Colleges survived by hustling for dollars from prospective donors and marketing themselves to prospective students

In short, the US college system in the mid-19th century was all promise and no product. Nonetheless, it turns out that the promise was extraordinary. One hidden strength was that the system contained nearly all the elements needed to respond to a future rapid expansion of student demand and burgeoning enrolments. It had the necessary physical infrastructure: land, classrooms, libraries, faculty offices, administration buildings, and the rest. And this physical presence was not concentrated in a few population centres but scattered across the landmass of a continental country. It had faculty and administration already in place, with programmes of study, course offerings, and charters granting colleges the ability to award degrees. It had an established governance structure and a process for maintaining multiple streams of revenue to support the enterprise, as well as an established base of support in the local community and in the broader religious denomination. The main thing the system lacked was students.

Another source of strength was that this disparate collection of largely undistinguished colleges and universities had succeeded in surviving a Darwinian process of natural selection in a fiercely competitive environment. As market-based institutions that had never enjoyed the luxury of guaranteed appropriations (this was true for public as well as private colleges), colleges survived by hustling for dollars from prospective donors and marketing themselves to prospective students who could pay tuition. They had to be adept at meeting the demands of the key constituencies in their individual markets. In particular, they had to be sensitive to what prospective students were seeking in a college experience, since they were paying a major part of the bills. And colleges also had a strong incentive to build longstanding ties with their graduates, who would become a prime source for new students and for donations.

In addition, the structure of the college – with a lay board, strong president, geographical isolation, and stand-alone finances – made it a remarkably adaptable institution. These colleges could make changes without seeking permission from the education minister or the bishop. President were the CEOs of the enterprise, and their clear mission was to maintain the viability of the college and expand its prospects. They had to make the most of the advantages offered to them by geography and religious affiliation, and to adapt quickly to shifts in position relative to competitors concerning such key institutional matters as programme, price and prestige. The alternative was to go out of business. Between 1800 and 1850, 40 liberal arts colleges closed, 17 per cent of the total.

Successful colleges were also deeply rooted in isolated towns across the country. They represented themselves as institutions that educated local leaders and served as cultural centres for their communities. The college name was usually the town’s name. The colleges that survived the mid-19th century were well-poised to take advantage of the coming surge of student interest, new sources of funding, and new rationales for attending college.

US colleges retained a populist aura. Because they were located in small towns all across the country and forced to compete with peers in the same situation, they became more concerned about survival than academic standards. As a result, the US system took on a character that was middle-class rather than upper-class. Poor families did not send their children to college, but ordinary middle-class families could. Admission was easy, the academic challenge moderate, the tuition manageable. This created a broad popular foundation for the college that saved it, for the most part, from Oxbridge-style elitism. The college was an extension of the community and denomination, a familiar local presence, a source of civic pride, and a cultural avatar representing the town to the world. Citizens did not have to have a family member connected with the school to feel that the college was theirs. This kind of populist base of support came to be enormously important when higher education enrolments started to skyrocket.

One final characteristic of the US model of higher education was its practicality. As it developed in the mid-19th century, the higher-education system incorporated this practical orientation into the structure and function of the standard-model college. The land-grant college was both an effect and a cause of the cultural preference for usefulness. The focus on the useful arts was written into the DNA of these institutions, as an expression of the US effort to turn a college for gentlemen or intellectuals into a school for practical pursuits, with an emphasis on making things and making a living, rather than on gaining social polish or exploring the cultural heights. And this model spread widely to the other parts of the system. The result was not just the inclusion of subjects such as engineering and applied science into the curriculum but also the orientation of the college itself as a problem-solver for the businessmen and policymakers. The message was: ‘This is your college, working for you.’

All of this was quite popular with consumers, but it didn’t make US colleges centres of intellectual achievement and renown. That, however, began to change in the 1880s, when the German research university burst on to the US educational scene. In this emerging model, the university was a place that produced cutting-edge scientific research, and provided graduate-level training for the intellectual elite. The new research model gave the institutionally overbuilt and academically undistinguished US system of higher education an infusion of scholarly credibility, which had been so clearly lacking. For the first time, the system could begin to make the claim of being the locus of learning at the highest level. At the same time, colleges received a large influx of enrolments, which remedied another problem with the old model – the chronic shortage of students.

The system had to make students happy, which meant an academic programme that was not overly challenging

But the US did not adopt the German model wholesale. Instead, the model was adapted to US needs. The research university was an add-on, not a transformation. The German university was an elitist institution, focused primarily on graduate instruction and high-level research, which were possible only with a strong and steady flow of state support. Since such funding was not forthcoming in the US, graduate education and scholarly research could exist only at a modest level and only if grafted on to the hardy stock of the US undergraduate college. It needed the financial support that comes from a large number of undergraduate students, who paid tuition and drew per-capita appropriations for state institutions. It also needed the political support and social legitimacy that came from the populism and practicality of the existing US college. High-level graduate learning depended on an undergraduate experience that was broadly accessible and not too demanding intellectually. In short, it needed students. And in the 20th century, the students arrived.

By then, the US higher-education system was in a strong position to capitalise on the capacities it had built during its competitive struggle for survival in the preceding years. Compared with the much older and more distinguished European institutions, it enjoyed a broad base of public support as a populist enterprise that offered a lot of practical benefits. It felt like our institution rather than theirs. To survive, the system had to go out of its way to make students happy, which meant providing a rich array of social entertainments – including fraternities, sororities and, of course, football – and an academic programme that was not overly challenging. The idea was to get students so enmeshed in the institution that they come to identify with it – which helps to ensure that later in life they will continue to wear the school colours, return for reunions, enrol their own children, and make generous donations.

One way you see this populist quality today is in the language people use. Americans tend to employ the labels college and university interchangeably. Elsewhere in the world, however, ‘university’ refers to the highest levels of postsecondary education, which offers bachelors and graduate degrees, while ‘college’ refers to something more like what Americans would call a community college, offering associate degrees and vocational training. So when Brits or Canadians say: ‘I’m going to university,’ it carries an elitist edge. But for Americans, the term university is considered a bit prissy and pretentious. They tend to prefer saying: ‘I’m going to college,’ whether that institution is Harvard or the local trade school. This is quite misleading, since US higher education is extraordinarily stratified, with the benefits varying radically according to the status of the institution. But it is also characteristically populist, an assertion that college is accessible to nearly anyone.

Coming into the 20th century, another advantage enjoyed by the system was that US colleges and universities tended to enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy. This was most obvious in the case of the private not-for-profit institutions that still account for the majority of US higher-education institutions. A lay board owns the institution and appoints the president, who serves as CEO, sets the budget, and administers faculty and staff. Private universities now receive a lot of government money, especially for research grants and student loans and scholarships, but they have broad discretion over tuition, pay, curriculum and organisation. This allows the university to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, respond to funding opportunities, develop new programmes, and open research centres.

Public universities are subject to governance from the state, which provides appropriations in support of core functions and also shapes policy. This limits flexibility about issues such as budget, tuition and pay. But state funding covers only a portion of total expenses, with the share declining as you go up the institutional status ladder. Flagship public research universities in the US often receive less than 20 per cent of their budget from the state; for the University of Virginia, the portion is below 5 per cent. Regional state universities receive around half of their funds from the state. So public institutions need to supplement their funds using the same methods as private institutions – with student tuition, research grants, fees for services, and donations. And this gives them considerable latitude in following the lead of the privates in adapting to the market and pursuing opportunities. Public research universities have the greatest autonomy from state control. And the public universities that have long topped the rankings – the University of California and the University of Michigan – have their autonomy guaranteed in the state constitution.

By the 21st century, US universities accounted for 52 of the top 100 in the world, and 16 of the top 20

It turns out that autonomy is enormously important for a healthy and dynamic system of higher education. Universities operate best as emergent institutions, in which initiative bubbles up from below – as faculty pursue research opportunities, departments develop programmes, and administrators start institutes and centres to take advantage of possibilities in the environment. Central planning by state ministries of higher education seeks to move universities toward government goals, but this kind of top-down policymaking tends to stifle the entrepreneurial activities of the faculty and administrators who are most knowledgeable about the field and most in tune with market demand. You can quantify the impact that autonomy from the state has on university quality. The economist Caroline Hoxby at Stanford and colleagues did a study that compared the global rankings of universities with the proportion of university funding that comes from the state (using the ranks computed by Shanghai Jiao Tong University). They found that when the proportion of the budget from state funds rises by one percentage point, the university falls three ranks. Conversely, when the proportion of the budget from competitive grants rises by one percentage point, the university goes up six ranks.

In the 19th century, weak support from church and state forced US colleges to develop into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, partially self-supporting, and radically decentralised. These humble beginnings provided the system with the core characteristics that helped it to become the leading system in the world. This undistinguished group of colleges came to top world rankings. By the 21st century, US universities accounted for 52 of the top 100 universities in the world, and 16 of the top 20. Half of the Nobel laureates in the 21st century were scholars at US institutions. At the same time, the system’s hand-to-mouth finances turned into extraordinary wealth. The university in the US with the largest endowment is Harvard, at $35 billion; the largest in Europe is Cambridge, at $8 billion. The largest endowment on the continent is held by a brand-new institution, Central European University in Budapest with $900 million, thanks to a donation from George Soros. This would place CEU in the 103rd position in the US, behind Brandeis University.

Rags to riches indeed. No longer a joke, the US system of higher education has become the envy of the world. Unfortunately, however, since it’s a system that emerged without a plan, there’s no model for others to imitate. It’s an accident that arose under unique circumstances: when the state was weak, the market strong, and the church divided; when there was too much land and not enough buyers; and when academic standards were low. Good luck trying to replicate that pattern anywhere in the 21st century.