In this post, I explore a key issue in understanding the social role that schools play: Why do we need schools anyway? For thousands of years, children grew up learning the skills, knowledge, and values they would need in order to be fully functioning adults. They didn’t need schools to accomplish this. The family, the tribe, the apprenticeship, and the church were sufficient to provide them with this kind of acculturation. Keep in mind that education is ancient but universal public schooling is a quite recent invention, which arose about 200 years ago as part of the creation of modernity.
Here I focus on a comparison between family and school as institutions for social learning. In particular, I examine what social ends schools can accomplish that families can’t. I’m drawing on a classic analysis by Robert Dreeben in his 1968 book, On What Is Learned in School. Dreeben is a sociologist in the structural functionalist tradition who was a student of Talcott Parsons. His book demonstrates the strengths of functionalism in helping us understand schooling as a critically important mechanism for societies to survive in competition with other societies in the modern era. The section I’m focusing on here is chapter six, “The Contribution of Schooling to the Learning of Norms: Independence, Achievement, Universalism, and Specificity.” I strongly recommend that you read the original, using the preceding link. My discussion is merely a commentary on his text.
I’m drawing on a set of slides I used when I taught this chapter in class.
This is structural functionalism at its best:
The structure of schooling teaches students values that modern societies require; the structure functions even if that outcome is unintended
He examines the social functions of the school compared with the family
Not the explicit learning that goes on in school – the subject matter, the curriculum (English, math, science, social studies)
Instead he looks as the social norms you learn in school
He’s not focusing on the explicit teaching that goes on in school – the formal curriculum
Instead he focuses on what the structure of the school setting teaches students – vs. what the structure of the family teaches children
The emphasis, therefore, is on the differences in social structure of the two settings
What can and can’t be learned in each setting?
Families and schools are parallel in several important ways
Socialization: they teach the young
Both provide the young with skills, knowledge, values, and norms
Both use explicit and implicit teaching
Selection: they set the young on a particular social trajectory in the social hierarchy
Both provide them with social means to attain a particular social position
School: via grades, credits and degrees
Families: via economic, social, and cultural capital
The difference between family and school boils down to preparing the young for two very different kinds of social relationships
Primary relationships, which families model as the relations between parent and child and between siblings
Secondary relationships, which schools model as the relations between teacher and student and between students
Each setting prepares children to take on a distinctive kind of relationship
Dreeben argues that schools teach students four norms that are central to the effective functioning of modern societies: Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity. These are central to the kinds of roles we play in public life, which sociologists call secondary roles, roles that are institutionally structured in relation to other secondary roles, such as employee-employer, customer-clerk, bus rider-bus driver, teacher-student. The norms that define proper behavior in secondary roles differ strikingly from the norms for another set of relationship defined as primary roles. These are the intimate relationship we have with our closest friends and family members. One difference is that we play a large number of secondary roles in order to function in complex modern societies but only a small number of primary roles. Another is that secondary roles are strictly utilitarian, means to practical ends, whereas primary roles are ends in themselves. A third is that secondary role relationships are narrowly defined; you don’t need or want to know much about the salesperson in the store in order to make your purchase. Primary relationship are quite diffuse, requiring deeper involvement — friends vs. acquaintances.
As a result, each of the four norms that schools teach, which are essential for maintaining secondary role relationships, correspond to equal and opposite norms that are essential for maintaining primary role relationships. Modern social life requires expertise at moving back and forth effortlessly between these different kinds of roles and the contrasting norms they require of us. We have to be good at maintaining our work relations and our personal relations and knowing which norms apply to which setting.
Secondary Roles Primary Roles
(Work, public, school) (Family, friends)
Independence Group orientation
Here is what’s involved in each of these contrasting norms:
Independence Group orientation
Self reliance Dependence on group
Individualism Group membership
Individual effort Collective effort
Act on your own Need/owe group support
Status based on what you do Status based on who you are
Equality within category — Personal uniqueness — my child
a 5th grade student
General rules apply to all Different rules for us vs. them
Central to fairness, justice Central to being special
Narrow relations Broad relations
Extrinsic relations Intrinsic relations
Means to an end An end in itself
Think about how the structure of the school differs from the structure of the family and what the consequences of these differences are.
Family vs. School:
Structure of the school (vs. structure of the family)
Teacher and student are both achieved roles (ascribed roles)
Large number of kids per adult (few)
No particularistic ties between teacher and students (blood ties)
Teachers deal with the class as a group (families as individuals based on sex and birth order)
Teacher and student are universalistic roles, with individuals being interchangeable in these roles (family roles are unique to that family and not interchangeable)
Relationship is short term, especially as you move up the grades (relations are lifelong)
Teachers and students are subject to objective evaluation (familie use subjective, emotional criteria)
Teachers and students both see their roles as means to an end (family relations are supposed to be selfless, ends in themselves)
Students are all the same age (in family birth order is central)
Consider the modes of differentiation and stratification in families vs. schools.
Children in families:
Race, class, ethnicity, and religion are all the same
Age and gender are different
Children in schools:
Age is the same
Race, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender are different
This allows for meritocratic evaluation, fostering the learning of achievement and independence
Do you agree that characteristics of school as a social structure makes it effective at transmitting secondary social norms, preparing for secondary roles?
Do you agree that characteristics of family as a social structure makes it ineffective at transmitting secondary norms, preparing for secondary roles?
But consider this complication to the story
Are schools, workplaces, public interactions fully in tune with the secondary model?
Are families, friends fully in tune with the primary model?
How do these two intermingle? Why?
Having friends at work and school, makes life nicer – and also makes you work more efficiently
Getting students to like you makes you a more effective teacher
But the norm for a professional or occupational relationship is secondary – that’s how you define a good teacher, lawyer, worker
The norm for primary relations is that they are ends in themselves not means to an end
Family members may use each other for personal gain, but that is not considered the right way to behave
If the greatest joy that comes from retirement is that I no longer have to attend faculty meetings, the second greatest joy is that I no longer have to grade student papers. I know, I know: commenting on student writing is a key component of being a good teacher, and there’s a real satisfaction that comes from helping someone become a better thinker and better writer.
But most students are not producing papers to improve their minds or hone their writing skills. They’re just trying to fulfill a course requirement and get a decent grade. And this creates a strong incentive not for excellence but for adequacy. It encourages people to devote most of their energy toward gaming the system.
The key skill is to produce something that looks and feels like a good answer to the exam question or a good analysis of an intellectual problem. Students have a powerful incentive to accomplish the highest grade for the lowest investment of time and intellectual effort. This means aiming for quantity over quality (puff up the prose to hit the word count) and form over substance (dutifully refer to the required readings without actually drawing meaningful content from them). Glibness provides useful cover for the absence of content. It’s depressing to observe how the system fosters discursive means that undermine the purported aims of education.
Back in the days when students turned in physical papers and then received them back with handwritten comments from the instructor, I used to get a twinge in my stomach when I saw that most students didn’t bother to pick up their final papers from the box outside my office. I felt like a sucker for providing careful comments that no one would ever see. At one point I even asked students to tell me in advance if they wanted their papers back, so I only commented on the ones that might get read. But this was even more depressing, since it meant that a lot of students didn’t even mind letting me know that they really only cared about the grade. The fiction of doing something useful was what helped keep me going.
I would rather do anything else than grade your Final Papers.
I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon that’s sitting in the department refrigerator or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.
I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government-supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.
I would rather go to Costco on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. With my preschooler. After preschool.
I would rather go through natural childbirth with twins. With triplets. I would rather take your chemistry final for you. I would rather eat beef stroganoff. I would rather go back to the beginning of the semester like Sisyphus and recreate my syllabus from scratch while simultaneously building an elaborate class website via our university’s shitty web-based course content manager and then teach the entire semester over again than grade your goddamn Final Papers.
I do not want to read your 3AM-energy-drink-fueled excuse for a thesis statement. I do not want to sift through your mixed metaphors, your abundantly employed logical fallacies, your incessant editorializing of your writing process wherein you tell me As I was reading through articles for this paper I noticed that — or In the article that I have chosen to analyze, I believe the author is trying to or worse yet, I sat down to write this paper and ideas kept flowing into my mind as I considered what I should write about because honestly, we both know that the only thing flowing into your mind were thoughts of late night pizza or late night sex or late night pizza and sex, or maybe thoughts of that chemistry final you’re probably going to fail later this week and anyway, you should know by now that any sentence about anything flowing into or out of or around your blessed mind won’t stand in this college writing classroom or Honors seminar or lit survey because we are Professors and dear god, we have Standards.
I do not want to read the one good point you make using the one source that isn’t Wikipedia. I do not want to take the time to notice that it is cited properly. I do not want to read around your 1.25-inch margins or your gauche use of size 13 sans serif fonts when everyone knows that 12-point Times New Roman is just. Fucking. Standard. I do not want to note your missing page numbers. Again. For the sixth time this semester. I do not want to attempt to read your essay printed in lighter ink to save toner, as you say, with the river of faded text from a failing printer cartridge splitting your paper like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only there, it was a sea and an entire people and here it is your vague stand-in for an argument.
I do not want to be disappointed.
I do not want to think less of you as a human being because I know that you have other classes and that you really should study for that chemistry final because it is organic chemistry and everyone who has ever had a pre-med major for a roommate knows that organic chemistry is the weed out course and even though you do not know this yet because you have never even had any sort of roommate until now, you are going to be weeded out. You are going to be weeded out and then you will be disappointed and I do not want that for you. I do not want that for you because you will have enough disappointments in your life, like when you don’t become a doctor and instead become a philosophy major and realize that you will never make as much money as your brother who went into some soul-sucking STEM field and landed some cushy government contract and made Mom and Dad so proud and who now gives you expensive home appliances like espresso machines and Dyson vacuums for birthday gifts and all you ever send him are socks and that subscription to that shave club for the $6 middle-grade blades.
I do not want you to be disappointed. I would rather do anything else than disappoint you and crush all your hopes and dreams —
Except grade your Final Papers.
The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.
This post is a piece I recently published in Aeon. Here’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 TheWall 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.
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.
Like many retirees, I recently started to dabble in genealogy. Using Ancestry.com, 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.
This post is aabout a 1975 paper by James G. March, which was published in, of all places, the Texas Tech Journal of Education. Given that provenance, it’s something you likely have never encountered before unless someone actually handed it to you. I used it in a number of my classes and wanted to share it with you.
March was a fascinating scholar who had a long a distinguished career as an organizational theorist, teaching at Carnegie-Mellon and later at the Stanford business and education schools. He died last year. I had the privilege of getting to know him in retirement after I moved to Stanford. He was the rare combination of cutting edge social scientist and ardent humanist, who among his other accomplishments published a half dozen volumes of poetry.
This paper shows both sides of his approach to issues. In it he explores the role that education has played in the U.S., in particular its complex relationship with all-American optimism. Characteristically, in developing his analysis, he relies not on social science data but on literature — among others, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Solzhenitsyn, and Borges.
I love how he frames the nature of teaching and learning in a way that is vastly distant from the usual language of social efficiency and human capital production — and also distant from the chipper American faith that education can fix everything. A tragic worldview pervades his discussion, reflecting the perspective of the great works of literature upon which he draws.
I find his argument particularly salient for teachers, who have been the majority of my own students over the years. It’s common for teachers to ask the impossible of themselves, by trying to fulfill the promise that education with save all their students. Too often the result is the feeling of failure and/or the fate of burnout.
He starts out by asserting that “The modern history of American education is a history of optimism.” The problem with this is that it blinds us to the limited ability of social engineering in general and education in particular to realize our greatest hopes.
By insisting that great action be justified by great hopes, we encourage a belief in the possibility of magic. For examples, read the litany of magic in the literature on free schools, Montessori, Head Start, Sesame Street, team teaching, open schools, structured schools, computer-assisted instruction, community control. and hot lunches. Inasmuch as there appears to be rather little magic in the world, great hopes are normally difficult to realize. Having been seduced into great expectations, we are abandoned to a choice between failure and delusion.
The temptations of delusion are accentuated both by our investment in hope and by the potential for ambiguity in educational outcomes. To a substantial extent we are able to believe whatever we want to believe, and we want to believe in the possibility of progress. We are unsure about what we want to accomplish, or how we would know when we had accomplished it, or how to allocate credit or blame for accomplishment or lack of it. So we fool ourselves.
The conversion of great hopes into magic, and magic into delusion describes much of modern educational history. It continues to be a dominant theme of educational reform in the United States. But there comes a time when the conversion docs not work for everyone. As we come to rccognize the political, sociological, and psychological dynamics of repeated waves of optimism based on heroic hopes, our willingness to participate in the process is compromised.
As an antidote to the problem, he proposes three paradoxical principles for action: pessimism without despair; irrelevance without loss of faith; and optimism without hope.
Pessimism without despair: This means embracing the essential connection between education and life, without expecting the most desirable outcome. It is what it is. The example is Solzhenitsyn’s character Shukov, learning to live in a prison camp. The message is this: Don’t set unreasonable expectations for what’s possible, defining anything else as failure. Small victories in the classroom are a big deal.
Irrelevance without loss of faith: This means recognizing that you can’t control events, so instead you do what you can wherever you are. His example is General Kutuzov in War and Peace. He won the war against Napoleon by continually retreating and by restraining his officers from attacking the enemy. Making things happen is overrated. There’s a lot the teacher simply can’t accomplish, and you need to recognize that.
Optimism without hope: The aim here is to do what is needed rather than what seems to be effective. His example is Don Quixote, a man who cuts a ridiculous figure by tilting at windmills, but who has a beneficial impact on everyone he encounters. The message for teachers is that you set out to do what you think is best for your students, because it’s the right thing to do rather than because it is necessarily effective. This is moral-political logic for schooling instead of the usual utilitarian logic.
So where does this leave you as a teacher, administrator, policymaker?
Don’t let anyone convince you that schooling is all about producing human capital, improving test scores, or pursuing any other technical and instrumentalist goal.
Its origins are political and moral: to form a nation state, build character, and provide social opportunity.
Teaching is not a form of social engineering, making society run more efficiently
It’s not about fixing social problems, for which it is often ill suited
Instead, it’s a normative practice organized around shaping the kind of people we want to be — about doing what’s right instead of what’s useful.
In this piece, I explore a major problem I have with recent educational policy discourse — the way we have turned teachers from the heroes of the public school story to its villains. If students are failing, we now hear, it is the fault of teachers. This targeting of teachers employs a new form of educational firepower, value-added measures. I show how this measure misses the mark by profoundly misunderstanding the nature of teaching as a professional practice, which has the following core characteristics:
Teaching is hard
Teachers depend on their students for the professional success
Students are conscripts in the classroom
Teachers need to develop a complex teacher persona in order to manage their relationship with students
Teachers need to carry out their practice under conditions of high uncertainty
Teaching looks easy
It looks like an extension of child raising
It is widely familiar to anyone who has been a student
The knowledge and skills that teachers teach are ones that most competent adults have
Unlike any other professionals, teachers give away their expertise instead of renting it to the client, so success means your students no longer need you
Teachers are an easy target
Teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite
They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions — so no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise
This piece originally appeared in Dissent in 2011. Here’s a link to the original.
David F. Labaree
The mantra of the current school reform movement in the U.S. is that high quality teachers produce high achieving students. As a result, we should hold teachers accountable for student outcomes, offering the most effective teachers bonus pay and shoving the least effective ones out the door. Of course, in order to implement such a policy you need a valid and reliable measure of teacher quality, and the reformers have zeroed in on one such measure, which is known as the value-added approach. According to this method, you calculate the effectiveness of individual teachers by the increase in test scores that students demonstrate after a year in their classroom.
Propelling this trend forward is a flood of research purporting to show that differences in teacher quality can lead to huge differences in the outcomes of schooling, both for students and for society. For example, in a 2010 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Eric Hanushek argues that a strong teacher by the value-added measure (one standard deviation above the mean) might raise the lifetime earnings of a student by $20,000. From this perspective, improving the quality of teaching promises to increase individual opportunity for the disadvantaged, which will reduce social inequality, and at the same time to increase human capital, which will promote economic growth and national competitiveness. Sounds great. Of course, this calculation is based on the assumption that test scores measure the economically useful knowledge of the future worker, which is far from obvious. But arguments like these provide a big incentive to generate actionable data on who’s a good teacher and who’s not.
All of this makes the current effort to develop a simple and statistically sound measure for good teaching quite understandable. But that doesn’t make it justifiable. The problem with this approach is that teaching is in fact an extraordinarily complex and demanding form of professional practice, whose quality is impossible to capture accurately in a simple metric. The push to develop such a metric threatens to reduce good teaching – and good education – to whatever produces higher scores on a standardized test. As a result, the value-added measure of teacher quality may end up promoting both the wrong kind of teaching and the wrong kind of schooling.
In this article, I explore three major questions that arise from this development. Why did the value-added measure of teaching emerge at this point in the history of American education? What are the core characteristics of teaching as a professional practice that makes it so hard to perform effectively and so hard to measure accurately? And under these circumstances, what are the likely consequences of using the value-added measure of teaching?
Roots of the Value-Added Measure of Teacher Quality
Until the last 30 years, Americans have been comfortable measuring the effectiveness of their schools by their broad social outcomes. As long as graduates have tended to find jobs at a higher level than the jobs their parents had, then schools must be effectively promoting social opportunity. And as long as the economy has been growing in size and productivity, then schools must be effectively producing human capital and spurring economic prosperity. Under these circumstances, which lasted from the emergence of the common school in the early 19th century until the 1980s, there was little reason to seek out hard data about how much students were actually learning in school.
In the 1980s, however, this began to change with the emergence of a new kind of educational reform movement, which focused on raising the standards for student achievement. Starting with the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, the idea was to set strict curriculum standards and enforce them with high-stakes tests in order to shore up the American economy with higher achievement. Then came the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, which required schools to demonstrate that they were distributing educational and social opportunity more equally.
This radical shift to measuring learning outcomes in schooling came about in the late 20th century because of two converging changes in the politics of education: growing fiscal constraints and growing educational inequality. For one thing, the rising cost of financing the expansion of schooling was beginning to run into severe fiscal limits. By the end of the 20th century, state and local governments in the United States were spending about 30 percent of their total budgets on education, at an aggregate cost of about $400 billion. Exacerbating this cost rise was the rise in educational level of the population. From 1900 to 1975 the average education level of a 24 year-old rose from 8 years of elementary school to two years of college. The problem is that the per-student cost of education is markedly higher as you move up the system, from elementary to secondary to college to graduate school. As a result, schools at all levels came under pressure to demonstrate that they were producing learning outcomes that would justify the cost.
At the same time, a parallel concern emerged about radical differences in educational quality and outcomes for different groups in the population, sharply undercutting the hoary fiction that all high school or college diplomas were the same. Middle class parents have long shown an acute awareness of this distinction and have had the means to pursue the best schools for their children. Parents with more limited resources, however, have been stuck with their local schools, which were too often dirty, dangerous, and dysfunctional.
Under these circumstances, value-added measures of education have obvious value in potentially helping us zero in on the contribution that a school makes to the educational and social outcomes of its students. The value-added approach seeks to take into account the educational achievement of students coming into a school or a classroom, in order to measure what added contribution the school or teacher makes to student achievement. By controlling for the selection effect, this technique seeks to focus on the school’s socialization effect.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has plunged $355 million into the effort to measure teacher effectiveness. Grounded in the value-added approach, this effort is using analysis of videos of teaching in individual classrooms to establish which teacher behaviors are most strongly associated with the highest value-added scores for students. And the Brookings Institution published a study in 2010 that provided support for the value-added approach. But, as Kevin Welner points out in the previous issue of Dissent, the evidence for the validity of the Gates value-added measures is weak. In a recently published review, economist Jesse Rothstein from University of California, Berkeley performed an analysis of Gates data, which shows that 40 percent of teachers whose performance placed them in the bottom quartile using the value-added measure scored in the top half by an alternative measure of student achievement. In short, the value-added approach is hardly the gold standard for measuring teacher effectiveness that its supporters claim it is.
Why This Measure Misses the Mark
So far I’ve been explaining where this new measure of teaching effectiveness came from and why it emerged when it did. But I haven’t addressed why it fails to capture the elements of good teaching and why school reformers are so willing to deploy it anyway in formulating school policy.
The nature of American teaching arose from the structure of the American school system that was established before the Civil War, a system whose primary mission was political. Founders wanted these schools to solve the core problem of a liberal democracy: to reconcile the self-interested pursuit of personal advantage demanded by a market economy with the civic commitment to community required by a republic. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, this problem was particularly acute, since the market was expanding at an extraordinary clip and the republic was young and fragile. The idea was to create community schools that would instill republican principles in the young while also giving them a shared experience that might ameliorate growing class divisions. To accommodate the huge influx of students, and to provide a setting in which students could be taught as a group and ranked by ability, they established the self-contained classroom, graded by age. And to make sure that the school community was inclusive, they gradually made school attendance compulsory.
From this structure, emerge three core characteristics of teaching in the U.S.: Teaching is hard; teaching looks easy; and teachers are an easy target. Let me say a little about each.
Teaching Is Hard
In many ways, teaching is the most difficult of professions. In other professions, professional success lies in the skills and knowledge of the practitioner and outcomes are relatively predictable. Not so with teaching. Why?
Teachers Depend on Students for their Success: Teachers can only be successful if students choose to learn. This is the core problem facing every teacher every day in every classroom. Surgeons operate on clients who are unconscious; lawyers represent clients who remain mute; but teachers need to find a way to motivate students to learn the curriculum. The teacher’s knowledge of the subject and skill at explaining this knowledge amount to nothing if students choose not to learn what they’re taught. Student resistance to learning can come from a wide variety of sources. Maybe students don’t like the subject or the teacher. Maybe they don’t want to be in school at all. Maybe they’re distracted by fear of a bully, hunger in the belly, or lust for the student in the next seat. Maybe they’re bored to death. The reasons for not learning are endless, and the teacher’s job is to find a way to understand these reasons and work around them, one student at a time.
What makes this even more difficult is that the teacher’s task extends beyond just getting students to learn the subject. Teaching is a people-changing profession. Education involves more than acquiring knowledge, since we ask it to take students and turn them into something else: law abiding citizens, productive workers, ambitious achievers. Changing people’s behavior and attitude and character and cultural yearnings is a lot harder than fixing a technical problem within the human body. A surgeon can remove a diseased appendix, a physician can prescribe a pill to cure an infection. But teaching is less like these highly esteemed and technically advanced arenas of medicine and more like the less prestigious and less certain practice of psychotherapy. For therapists, the problem is getting patients to abandon a set of practices that they are unwilling or unable to manage on their own – like countering negative thoughts or calming anxiety. Changing people in these nether realms of medicine is very difficult, but these practitioners do enjoy one advantage: the patient approaches the therapist asking for help in making the change. But this is not the case with teachers, where students enter class under duress.
Students Are Conscripts in the Classroom: Students are in the classroom for a variety of reasons that often have nothing to do with wanting to learn. They are compelled by strong pressures from their parents, the job market, cultural norms, and truant officers. Also all of their friends are there, so what would they do if they stayed home? Except for the rare case, however, one thing that does not bring them to the classroom is a burning desire to learn the formal curriculum. As a result, unlike the clients of nearly all other professionals, they are not volunteers asking for a professional service but conscripts who have little reason to cooperate with, much less actively pursue, the process of learning that teachers are trying to facilitate.
The problem is that teachers don’t have much ability to impose their will on students in order to make them learn. They have weak disciplinary tools, they are vastly outnumbered, and they have to deal with their students behind the doors of the self contained classroom, without the help of colleagues. In the end, all that strict discipline can achieve is to maintain classroom order; inducing learning is another thing entirely. The result is that teachers have to develop a complex mechanism for motivating their students to learn.
Teachers Need to Develop a Teaching Persona to Manage the Relationship with Their Students: Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum. And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona. That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities. You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you. You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded “teacher look.” You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter infectious, so they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.
Constructing such a persona is a complex task, which takes years of development. It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona has fallen in place and becomes second nature. The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this. The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands – the grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students – and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests. It can’t be an obvious disguise, since students have an eye toward the fake and place high value on authenticity, and since it has to be maintained day in and day out over the years of a teaching career. So the persona has to be a mix of who you are as a person and what you need and want to be as a teacher.
When it all comes together, it’s a marvel to behold. In his book Small Victories, Samuel Freedman provides a vivid portrait of the teaching persona of a New York high school English teacher named Jessica Siegel. She wears eye-catching clothing (one student asks, “Miss Siegel, do you water that dress?”), moves effortlessly between captivating and controlling her students, making wisecracks out of the corner of her mouth (“Gimme a break.”). He calls this persona The Tough Cookie. That works for her, but all successful teachers need to find their own right persona. Think about it: How can you measure this? Measurement is particularly difficult because the criteria for defining a successful professional performance are up in the air.
Teachers Need to Carry Out Their Practices Under Conditions of High Uncertainty: The problem is that there is no definitive code for effective teaching practice to parallel the kinds of codes that exist in other professions. In general, professionals can defend themselves against malpractice by demonstrating that they were following standard professional practice. The patient died but the physician was doing her job appropriately. Teaching has no guide for optimal professional standards. Instead there are rules about minimum criteria of acceptable behavior: Don’t hit kids, show up for class.
One reason for the absence of such a code of professional practice for teachers is that, as I have been showing, the task of teaching involves the effort to manage a complex process of motivating learning in your students through the construction of a unique teaching persona. Another is the problem of trying to identify what constitutes a definitive measure of teaching success. The things that are easiest to measure are the most trivial: number of right answers on a Friday quiz, a homework assignment, or – I might add – what’s represented in value-added test scores. These things may show something about what information students retained at that point, but they don’t say anything about the long-term benefits of the class on these students. Did the teacher make students better citizens, more productive workers, life-long learners, innovative entrepreneurs? These are the outcomes we care about, but how can you measure them? Even if you could find a way to measure such outcomes later in life, how could you trace back the impact that the student’s fourth grade teacher had on those outcomes?
This suggests another problem that raises the uncertainty of defining good teaching. As a society, we are not of one mind about what individual and social ends we want schools to produce. If we can’t agree on ends, how can we determine if a teacher was effective or not? Effective at what? One goal running through the history of American schooling is to create good citizens. Another is to create productive workers. A third is to provide individuals with social opportunity. These goals lead schools in conflicting directions, and teachers can’t accomplish them all with the same methods.
One final form of uncertainty facing teachers is that we can’t even agree on who is the teacher’s client. In some ways the client is the student, who is the object of education. But students don’t contract with teachers to carry out their role, school boards do, as representatives of the community as a whole, which would make them the client. But then there are the parents, a third constituency for teachers to deal with and try to please. Are teachers the agents of the child, the society that sets up the school system, or the parents who send their children to school? The answer is yes.
Teaching Looks Easy
So teaching is very hard, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to construct a good measure of effective teaching. But at the same time, in the eyes of the public, teaching doesn’t look that hard at all. And this makes us easy targets for anyone selling a simple mechanism for distinguishing the good teacher from the bad.
One reason teaching looks easy is that it seems to be an extension of child-raising. You don’t need professional training to be a parent, which means that being a teacher doesn’t seem like a big thing. Students coming into teacher education programs are often already imbued with this spirit. I care for the kids, so I’ll be a good teacher.
Another reason it looks easy is that teaching is extremely familiar. Every prospective teacher – every adult – has done a 12-year apprenticeship of observation in the elementary and secondary classroom. We have watched teachers, up close and personal, during our formative years, and nothing about the practice of teaching seems obscure or complicated. You keep order, give out and collect assignments, talk, test, and take the summer off. No big deal. Missing from this observation, of course, is all the thinking and planning that goes into the process that students experience in the classroom, much less the laborious construction of the teaching persona.
A third thing that makes teaching look easy is that the knowledge and skills teachers convey are the knowledge and skills that all competent adults have. This isn’t the kind of complex and obscure knowledge you find in medical texts or law books; it’s ordinary knowledge that doesn’t seem to require an advanced degree of skill for the practitioner. Of course, missing from this kind of understanding of teaching is an acknowledgement of the kind of skill required to teach these subjects and motivate students to learn these subjects, which is not obvious at all. But the impression of ordinariness is hard for teaching to shake.
A factor that enhances this problem is that, unlike other professionals, teachers give away their expertise. One test of a successful teacher is that the student no longer needs her. Good teachers make themselves dispensable. In contrast, other professions don’t give away their expertise; they rent it by the hour. You have to keep going back to the doctor, lawyer, accountant, and even pharmacist. In these arenas, you’re never on your own. But teachers are supposed to launch you into adult life and then disappear into the background. As a result, it is easy for adults to forget how hard it was for them to acquire the skills and knowledge they now have and therefore easy to discount the critical role that teachers played in getting them to their current state.
Teachers Are an Easy Target
It’s tough being in a profession that is extraordinarily difficult to practice effectively and that other people consider a walk on the beach. As a group, teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite. They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions. As a result, no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise. Teachers, school administrators, and education professors have all had the experience of sitting next to someone on an airplane or at a dinner party who proceeds to tell them what the problem with schools is and also what the cure is. Everyone is an expert on education except the educator.
One consequence of this is that teachers become an easy target for school reformers. This follows from the nature of teaching as a practice, as I’ve been describing here, and also from the nature of school reform as a practice. The history of school reform in the United States is a history of efforts to change the education of Other People’s Children. The schools that reformers’ own children attend tend to be seen as pretty good; the problem is with the schooling of Others. It’s those kids who need more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their learning up to a useful level. They are the ones who are dragging down our cities and holding back our economic growth. And public school teachers are the keepers of Other People’s Children. Since we don’t think those children are getting the kind of schooling they need, then teachers must be a major part of the problem. As a result, these teachers too are seen as needing more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their teaching up to a socially useful level.
We tell ourselves that we’re paying more than we can afford for schools that don’t work, so we have to intervene. The value-added measure of teacher performance is ideally suited to this task. It’s needed because, in the eyes of reformers, teachers are not sufficiently professional, competent, or reliable to be granted the autonomy of a real profession. And what will be the consequences?
As in medicine, the first rule of school reform should be: At least, do no harm. But the value-added intervention violates this rule, driven by the arrogance of reformers who are convinced that teaching is a simple process of delivering content and that learning is just a matter of exerting the effort to acquire this content. That approach is likely to increase test scores, simply by pressuring teachers to teach to the test. But my concern is that in the process it’s also likely to interfere with teachers’ ability to lure students into learning. This requires them to develop and nurture an effective teacher persona, so they can in turn develop and nurture in students the motivation to learn and to continue learning over a lifetime.
As usual, the results of this reform are likely to be skewed by social class. Schools for the disadvantaged are going to be under great pressure to teach to the test and raise scores on core skills, while schools for the advantaged will be free to pursue a much richer curriculum. If your children, unlike Others’, are not At Risk, then the schools they attend will not need to be obsessed with drilling to meet minimum standards. Teachers in these schools will be able to lead their classes in exploring a variety of subjects, experiences, and issues that will be excluded from the classrooms farther down the social scale. In the effort to raise standards and close the achievement gap, we will creating just another form of educational distinction to divide the top from the bottom.