Why low standards for education are good
No education scholar in America throws an analytical knuckleball as well as David F. Labaree of Stanford University. You are reading along, enjoying the clarity of his prose and the depth of his research, thinking his argument is going one way when--whoops!--it breaks in another direction altogether.
It is dizzying, but in a fun way, like an intricate rollercoaster. In a recent book, for instance, Labaree showed that education schools like the one that employs him teach theories that have little to do with how schools work but--here comes the twist--that's okay because education school graduates ignore those courses once they start teaching.
He is at it again in his new book, "Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling." The book is only 280 pages long, but so rich in contrarian assaults on cherished American assumptions I cannot adequately summarize it. I will describe pieces of it instead, like the thrilling part where Labaree disembowels the argument for higher U.S. school standards made by Bob Compton, the high-tech entrepreneur who produced the film "Two Million Minutes" and completely skewered me once on cable TV.
Compton's documentary shows students in China and India spending every waking moment preparing for college, building up an impressive grasp of scientific facts and concepts. Two American students the film follows don't work nearly as hard. One does her math homework while watching the TV drama "Grey's Anatomy" with her friends. But they get into good colleges all the same.
This drives Compton nuts. He told me he put his two daughters on an academic schedule far more demanding that what their private school in Memphis provides because he thinks their success in life, and their nation's standing in the world, depends on American kids being much better educated in high school. Labaree shows why this may be a waste of time. With economies changing so fast, he says, it is better to produce generalists, like the well-rounded Americans in the documentary, "with thin knowledge about everything but good prospects for changing careers and adapting to a future unanticipated by their schooling."
One of the delights of Labaree--as well as a potential weakness in his arguments--is his colossal chutzpah. In one chapter he reviews a convincing and complex analysis by two economists who say the rise of American schooling has been a boon to the economy in the 20th century. Then, with a few deft counterarguments, he dismisses their point. What he said made sense, but I kept thinking: this guy is a sociologist, for heaven's sake. Economist street gangs have already hijacked much of U.S. education research. The ones at Stanford are particularly aggressive. Labaree better watch himself.
His central thesis is that American schools have had two main champions for most of their history, reformers and consumers. The reformers have tried to turn school into a public good---improving the economy, educating the electorate, softening social divisions. The consumers have had a more private agenda, getting good jobs and higher living standards for themselves and their kids.
He suggests the reformers have never really succeeded (although to buy that you have to accept his view that the economy has grown big mostly because management and machinery improved, not because workers became smarter and more productive). Consumers have been happy with the growth in opportunity and higher living standards they associate with more schooling, but now they are getting restless. Living standards are not improving so much. Everybody goes to high school. The colleges are filling up and raising tuition. It is becoming very expensive and stressful to win this race for the best credentials to get the best jobs.
"Shutting down the expansion of higher education is simply unthinkable in the political culture of the United States," Labaree says, "and to propose doing so is political suicide. . . . So it seems likely that we're going to need to invent new forms of doctoral degree programs to meet this demand, something that universities (always on the lookout for a new marketing opportunity) are quite willing to do."
To Labaree, all this worry about making schools better is good exercise, even if it doesn't make much of a difference. It keeps politicians busy and voters hopeful. He does not discuss in any detail the glaring need to provide at least a mediocre education to urban children who often get no worthwhile education at all, but maybe that's for his next book. Instead, he reveals the secret of how education reform works in the public sphere of campaign debates and newspaper editorials. It is nothing like the participants, including people like me, portray it.
"By the time the mayor or governor or president is leaving office after four years or at most eight years, the school reform process [that they got started with a new law or program] may just be getting in gear," Labaree says. "This time lag allows the politician to enjoy all the benefits of initiating a major effort to solve a social problem without ever having to take responsibility for the out-come . . . The next leader can easily blame the failure of the problem-solving effort on the flaws in the predecessor's policy."
Labaree has some suggestions for getting out of this useless cycle--don't pursue goals that schools can't accomplish, don't assume you have the answer--but gives the pitch his trademark backspin by saying he is sure no one will ever do what he recommends.
I think he misses some parts of the education system that actually work, but never mind. His candor and depth encourage humility. All of us arguing about how to improve schools could use some of that.
Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.
| October 8, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: David F. Labaree, why school reform always fails, why schools are better off not having standards too high, why the school reform process makes Americans feel good even if it doesn't work
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