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Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling

reviewed by Floyd M. Hammack - November 10, 2010

coverTitle: Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling
Author(s): David F. Labaree
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674050681, Pages: 312, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

In this very well written and documented book, David Labaree provides a succinct answer to the vexing question about American education: why does it not do what we want it to? Why are we always in an educational crisis and working to reform it? His answer: because we ask it to do contradictory things. Building on his 1996 article, Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals, and his more recent book, Education, Markets, and the Public Good (2007), Labaree argues that the public good is served by extending opportunity, expanding enrollments, and making education inclusive for all Americans. Yet, from the countrys beginning, education has also provided a private good, a market for consumers to purchase advantage in the process of becoming [educated] adults. Educational credential attainment became the device for rationing access to desirable positions in societyofficially, individual achievement trumped class, gender, and race. Educational credentials have become the coin of the realm; however, their distribution is very unequalthe advantaged do much better in obtaining a valued education. We focus on making the system inclusive at one level and exclusive at the next, in order to make sure that it meets demands for both access and advantage (p. 256). We expect education to extend opportunity and at the same time to offer exclusivity to some. How can it do both at the same time?

The book begins its analysis with a review of the social and political crises of the early nineteenth century, when differences of class, religion, region, among other divisions, were growing at an alarming rate. The creation of the common school movement, extending elementary education far and wide around the country with a focus on the development of common sentiments and experiences, sought to bridge the emerging differences. The idea of public schooling caught on and, within a few decades, elementary schooling was almost universalnot including rural areas (but see Fischel, 2009). The common school success had consequences, however, for future educational development, Labaree asserts. Perhaps most importantly, as a public good, it fostered access and opportunity and, without a major emphasis on the academic aspects, the enterprise. As schools were most important as agencies of community solidarity, the content of their curriculum was secondary. At the same time, secondary academies and a few public high schools offered access to educational advantages including college, but these private uses of education were at the fringe of the larger scene.

This is why the Committee of Tens (1892) recommendation about the focus of secondary schools, that they should only teach subjects that were a part of the collegiate curriculum, was a failure. Tellingly, the first goals for secondary education announced by the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education report (1918) covered health before fundamental processes of reading, oral and written expression, and math. Next were home skills, vocational education, recreation, and civic participation. Preparation for college was not on the list. The comprehensive high school, with separate tracks for students headed to work or family and to college was the increasingly dominant model and embodied the contradictory goals we had for schools. On the one hand, the opportunity for high school was widely sought by community members who saw that the economy was developing opportunities for middle-class occupations for which a high school diploma was increasingly important. On the other hand, by continuing the college preparatory track, high schools could offer a distinctive credential that allowed its possessors entry into higher education, and on to upper middle-class professions and occupations: opportunity and advantage in the same school. This compromise lasted about 100 years, and is celebrated by Labaree.

However, since about the middle of the 20th century, educations role as a public good has been defined in part as developing human capital, not only providing for social solidarity and middle-class aspirations. From Bestor and Rickover in the 1950s to the Reagan administrations focus on education for work, to the standards movement in the 1990s, many policymakers and critics have seen that what is learned in school, the academic curriculum, is essential to national health. As the Nation At Risk report put it, our low educational standards are leading us to committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament (U.S. Department of Education, 1983).

Using fixed levels of achievement as the criteria for moving through the schools, this movement has put primary emphasis on the content of the curriculum, on what is taught and what is learned. Largely ignored by earlier reformers, who made progress in part by not emphasizing what was actually learned in school, at least by students not preparing for college, the standards movement intends to drill down into what really happens in classrooms between teachers and students. There has been a significant effort to resist this push, by teachers and others who see their autonomy threatened, and by many families who see schools as serving wider goals than only test score results. We will not know the fate of these reforms for some time, but Labaree is not optimistic. The standards movement threatens opportunity and takes away from schools their ability to provide advantage. What happens if everyone does meet standards?

As the books title makes clear, for schools to provide advantages to some, there must be losers, or failures. The perplexing thing here is that the extension of opportunity forces the inflation of credentials. With more students attaining a level of education, the advantage such a level provides is reduced, driving those seeking advantage to further credentials. Thus, even though we have vastly expanded educational attainment, we have not reduced the amount of inequality in our society. A good example is physical therapy. In the recent past, the initial credential for a license has gone from a bachelors degree in PT to a clinical doctorate requiring about 130 credit hours beyond the bachelors degree. One obviously can make the argument that the technical demands of the profession have increased proportionately to the expansion in required schooling, but one can also make the argument that credential inflation is at work here as well (Collins, 2002). An important part of Labarees argument takes on the recent book by Golden and Katz (2008) who assert that Americas economic ascendancy in the 20th century was the result of our investment in human capital development, in what our children learned in school and in college. Labaree disagrees with this, and while I find his argument compelling, I am sure that economists will argue back.

So, what are the prospects for school reform? Essentially, more of the same as has been proposed before. What else could we use to serve the purpose education provides in guiding access to desirable jobs? How could we abandon the expansion of opportunity to attain valuable credentials? In his last chapter, Labaree lists things he thinks schools could do better and where improvements could be attained, but he sees little chance for our contradictory expectations to be resolved. His arguments lead to the conclusion that the promise of Waiting for Superman, is false. But I am not sure if he really wants citizens to become aware of that reality.

I find his arguments very persuasive. There is not much that is new here, but no one has put it all together as elegantly as it is presented here. I have several small issues, including that the best, most original work on educational credentials is by Randall Collins, but his work is not cited in the book. This leads to the one area I think Labaree might have explored in more depth. At the end of the book, he says that the rise of higher education enrollments has declined, and we can also note that the proportion of 25-29 year olds with a bachelors degree has been essentially level for the last ten years (Condition of Education, 2010, Table A-22-1). As college costs soar, the rise of attainment has leveled off. Whether this is simply a breathing point or an historical shift denoting the end of educational expansion, or even the beginning of a credential deflation, is hard to predict, but it has meant that the relative payoff of a college degree has been stable and the proportion of all 25-29 year-olds with a masters degree has only risen by two percentage points during the same period. These considerations are not given the full examination they deserve, but the book already covers such a vast terrain that we can afford to wait for his next book to more fully address our educational future. This is an important and very timely book that deserves a wide audience.


Collins, R. (2002). Credential inflation and the future of higher education. In S. Brint (Ed.), The future of the city of intellect: The changing American university (pp. 23-46). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fischel, W. A. (2009). Making the grade: The economic evolution of American school districts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2008). The race between education and technology. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34, 39-81.

Labaree, D.F. (2007). Education, markets, and the public good. London: Routledge.

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for education reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from U.S. Department of Education website at http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 10, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16229, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 10:39:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Floyd Hammack
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    FLOYD M. HAMMACK is Associate Professor of Sociology of Education and Higher Education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development of New York University. His most recent publications include "Paths to Legislation or Litigation for Educational Privilege: New York and San Francisco Compared." American Journal of Education, 116, 371-395, and "Social Capital, Financial Knowledge, and Hispanic Student College Choice," with Noga O'Connor and Marc A. Scott. Research in Higher Education, 51, 195-219.
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