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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

Book Review / Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling by David F. Labaree

There's a catch-22 at the heart of the American vision for public education, a contradiction that can doom even the most passionate school reform efforts.
So argues David Labaree in this intriguing if sometimes repetitive book on school re-form. Here's the contradiction: Most U.S. citizens want their school system to not only provide equal opportunity for every child, but also to increase opportunity and weave a safety net for poor children whose community safety nets gape with holes. At the same time, individuals look to schools to give their offspring a leg up in life—which by definition in a capitalist system means a leg up over everyone else.
Politicians advocate more education for all (consider President Obama's calls for near-universal college-going). But parents freely admit they want their child to get a better education in order to stand a better chance against stiff competition. And if all who compete have a sterling degree, yours means little.
Hence, for schooling to fulfill one part of its tacit bargain with us, someone has to fail. Yet school reformers of all stripes strive to create a system in which no one fails. So we get rhetoric, but no movement. As Labaree puts it, "the system does what we want as consumers, even if it doesn't do what we ask as reformers .... As a result, we find ourselves trapped on an educational treadmill of our own making."
Labaree is the first to admit he has no solutions: "I'm not touting the system or trashing it; I'm simply trying to understand ... this convoluted, dynamic, contradictory, and expensive system." That's part of what makes the book valuable. Labaree writes with a historian's eye. He's interested in doing three things: (1) laying bare every feature of the massive elephant of American public schooling, including its genius and its contradictions; (2) explaining why—despite decades of expensive reform efforts—that system is so resistant to change; and (3) claiming that the status quo may be what American society most needs.

How (Half of) the Progressives Won

Labaree traces the assorted goals and conflicting rhetoric that molded schools into their present form, from the common school movement to the present push for standards and school choice. Chapters 2 and 3 give a meaty summary of how theorists, social reformers, and business types have sought to leave their mark on schools since the colonial days—mostly with scant success.
<P ID="fn.1">Chapter 3 on the progressive movement will be especially interesting for educators. Educational progressivists, according to Labaree, fell into two camps: the administrative progressives and the child-centered progressives. Both camps labored—through symposiums, treatises, and reports packed with recommendations—to change the nature of public schools in response to either high ideals (John Dewey's child-centered camp) or practical ideas about social efficiency (Edward Thorndike's administrative camp).
Labaree concludes that the administrative progressives "won" by staking out the characteristic structure of the comprehensive American high school that endures today. He calls the traditional high school "the Grand Compromise" because it offers individual opportunity to advance by opening the doors to a high school diploma to all comers but retains an advantage for elites through tracking.
Dewey's child-centered branch, on the other hand, won the battle in terms of school reform rhetoric while making little true change in schools. In fact, Labaree makes an unusual argument (in Chapter 5) that excellent instruction depends on the individual charismatic personality of each classroom teacher, a fact that makes standardized reform in individual classrooms impossible—and undesirable.

How "the Market" Stole the Spotlight

Labaree shows how the stated purpose for public education evolved from schooling as a common experience that would mold new Americans into citizens (think the common school movement of the 1840s) into a push for schooling as a way to enhance your child (think charters with admission lotteries). Our vision of school morphed from a "public good" to a "private good." Much of this change was unintentionally brought about by parents; reformers didn't quite notice as a focus on market forces became more and more central to public debates about school.
Although reformers still talk about equity, Labaree claims that "the market [has] gradually muscled its way into the educational spotlight." The idea that schooling is something kids must acquire so they can live the good life (or keep their country on top), he says, shapesboth the structure of the school system (by emphasizing inequality and discounting learning) and, more recently, the rhetoric of school reform (by emphasizing job skills and individual opportunity). (p. 15)
At the same time, Labaree argues, Americans are unable to shake the conviction that our public schools can—and must—cure a long list of social problems: generational poverty, violent crime, and so on. He calls this conviction our "school syndrome":The American tendency to resort to schooling is less a strategy than a syndrome. We have set up our school system for failure by asking it to fix all of our most pressing social problems, which we are unwilling to address more directly .... When it fails, we fiddle with the system and try again.

How to Be a Pessimist Who Persists

Labaree ends the book by listing, tongue-in-cheek, eight lessons school reformers should draw from his analysis in their efforts to improve U.S. schools. For example, "Assume Consumers are Driving the System," and (my favorite) "Be a Pessimist." Retaining his anti-solution stance to the end, he writes with cheerful cynicism, "I am quite confident that no one will follow them. The school system is too well entrenched." He implies that if reformers did follow his advice, they'd be unable to make even the little progress that a truly zealous reformer can make.
Don't read this book if you seek a vision, a pep talk, or hope that a new day in America's troubled schools system is right around the corner. But do read it if you want to understand the U.S. public school system. Jay P. Greene recently proclaimed in Education Next that "the education reform book is dead" in terms of influencing anyone's views; however, I nominate this book as one that can spur new thinking.
In the end, Someone Has to Fail is not pessimistic. Labaree's underlying attitude seems to be that of his very first sentence: "For better or worse, the American system of education is truly a marvel."
End Notes

1 Labaree credits historian David Tyack with originally making this distinction.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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