The Unintended Consequences of Exaggerated Expectations

Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling
by David Labaree
(Harvard University Press, 312 pages, $29.95)

Reviewed by A. Graham Down

I can’t think of enough nice things to say about this book.  It is well-written, entirely logical in its constructively skeptical approach, and captures more powerfully than any other book on education that I have read the unintended consequences of exaggerated expectations.

As David Labaree points out, traditionally, schools have been thought of as instruments of social policy, in spite of the tension between individual and collective advancement. This results, predictably enough, in the relative neglect of the academic aspects of schooling.

I am not surprised by the book’s quality; Labaree comes from a long line of distinguished policy analysts (to whom the book is dedicated) at Stanford.  In Chapter 1 he clearly outlines the architecture of the book, a structure he follows to the letter.

He begins by deftly summarizing the history of American education. He catalogues the successes that relate to its assimilative capacity, emphasizing the schools’ central role in shaping the civic complexion of American society through the adoption of the common school approach, while at the same time noting its limitations.  As Labaree puts it, “Educational consumers show a preference for a school system that provides an edge in the competition for jobs more than one which enriches academic achievement.”

The core of this book explains why the various tides of school reform have failed to make a serious dent in the system that had evolved by the late 1920’s.

In his survey, the author writes that the standards movement of the late 20th century was the first conscious effort to improve the level of student achievement in the various academic subjects.  (Previous reforms had concentrated on issues of access, governance and accountability.)  Regrettably, Labaree chooses to overlook the best efforts of the Council for Basic Education to the contrary (one of my few quibbles – as a former Executive Director and President of the Council – with the author).

However, he does identify the four necessary pre-requisites to effective change – rhetorical agreement, structural considerations (14,000 school systems in a highly decentralized system), teaching practices in the self-contained classroom (3 million public school teachers in 95,000 schools), and, most important of all, student compliance.  In this context, one cannot help but be reminded of Clemenceau’s famous dictum that “ is easier to move a graveyard than to change a school curriculum.”   Schools are simply relatively impervious to societal change, organized as they are locally and reflecting the values and aspirations of parents, who are typically more nostalgic than realistic in their vision of education.

Finally, David Labaree deliberately resists the temptation to provide a panacea or anything that even looks like a list of recommendations.  On the contrary, he engages in a set of cautionary suggestions.  Like me, he believes that education in its present form is not susceptible to lasting revolutionary change.  Rather, he is a realist who subscribes to the view that “less is more” when it comes to school reform.  Putting it another way, expectations and outcomes need to become both more realistic and attainable if they are to last.  This book should be required reading for both theorists and practitioners in this field.

-A. Graham Down

More book reviews by Graham Down can be found here.

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