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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.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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Comments

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Posted by: kevinmarlo07 | October 8, 2010 6:07 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: jameson08 | October 8, 2010 6:18 AM | Report abuse

I think we have had enough shoot-from-the-hip, don't-bother-with-the-facts-or-data type of education reform in the past century, haven't we? With little more than broad generalizations and over simplifications, Labaree dismisses the good and the bad of education reform ideas.

What cities/states/country is he talking about where mayors, governors and presidents leave office after 4 years? The State/city/country I live in predictably re-elects the incumbents cycle after cycle. Does he just make this stuff up?

How does he ignore the history of education reform in the past century? Remember when school reformers successfully ended one-room school houses taught by single young women with no education or training beyond high school? How about the movement that ended corporal punishment? Or the one that added art and music education? Lots of education reform movements have succeeded in the past. Plenty succeeded when they shouldn't have.

This guy sounds like an idiot.

Posted by: EduCrazy | October 8, 2010 7:15 AM | Report abuse

The difference between "urban children" (read non-Asian minorities) and "suburban non-Asian minorities" (where we spell it out) is very little. Hispanics and blacks in San Francisco and Los Angeles aren't doing much worse than non-cherry-picked Hispanics and blacks in Redwood City and Palo Alto.

Which suggests that so-called terrible schools problem ain't all that, because the whites and Asians in the suburbs are doing just fine.

What he's saying is that schools aren't going to get much better, and we should stop lying and sending kids to school for decades simply because we won't admit that the bottom half shouldn't even finish high school, much less go to college.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 8, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

"It is becoming very expensive and stressful to win this race for the best credentials to get the best jobs."

Best jobs? Try any job right now. I did everything "right" and still can't get an interview, let alone a job.

Posted by: RedBirdie | October 8, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Hard to comment intelligently until I read Labaree’s book but I can’t resist:

"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."
I often think that I’ve spent seven years unlearning just about everything I was taught in my credential program: grading, vocabulary lessons, rubrics, gold stars and behaviorist classroom management, et.al.

"Economist street gangs have already hijacked much of U.S. education research. The ones at Stanford are particularly aggressive. Labaree better watch himself."
Priceless. Bob Compton would hate my teaching methods.

"Labaree has some suggestions for getting out of this useless cycle--don't pursue goals that schools can't accomplish."
Reminds me of The Teaching Gap by Hiebert and somebody: we learn the way teaching is supposed to look by being submerged in it for 13 years. Trying to change that is nearly impossible. (They still have corporal punishment in many states, for instance). What I see are well-meaning people trying ‘reforms’ just for the sake of reform. Sometimes they are even salutary.
Jerry Heverly, San Leandro, CA

Posted by: heverlyj | October 8, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

How does he ignore the history of education reform in the past century? Remember when school reformers successfully ended one-room school houses taught by single young women with no education or training beyond high school?

This guy sounds like an idiot.
Posted by: EduCrazy
....................
The one room school house disappeared as population areas grew larger and not because there suddenly was the appearance of school reformers.

In China there still are one room school houses where the population of children are small and the teacher of schools may not even be a high school graduate. These are areas that lack the ability to transport these children to normal schools.

Oh and by the way corporal punishment in schools is still allowed in some states.

I wish we stop pretending that reform and reformers historically had anything to do with public education in this country. Reform and reformers historically worked to get crooked politicians out of government.

Historically reform in public education was simply used in the idea of reform schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 8, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Which suggests that so-called terrible schools problem ain't all that, because the whites and Asians in the suburbs are doing just fine.
Posted by: Cal_Lanier
.............................
The politicians need to pretend it is all the public schools.

If they actually said it was the poverty public schools there would be no gain for the politicians.

Remember it used to be a chicken in every pot. Then with Bush it was a proficient child in every pot. Now it is with Obama a college degree in every pot.

The stakes are rising and the next new President will have to promise a PHD in every pot.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 8, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

"It is becoming very expensive and stressful to win this race for the best credentials to get the best jobs."

Best jobs? Try any job right now. I did everything "right" and still can't get an interview, let alone a job.

Posted by: RedBirdie
......................
Last year most of the Christmas jobs went to those with a college degree. This year it is forecast that there will be a cut in the number of these jobs that are available.

It is interesting that while there are no jobs any longer the President is pretending that our future economy is dependent upon education.

I guess this means Americans should expect jobs for Americans in about 15 years.

David F. Labaree spoke about politicians with changes in public education that could not be evaluated until the politician was out of office. I guess this a new play on this where the supposed improvement in the economy based upon public education will not occur until the President is out of office.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 8, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

"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,"
.......................
Or recognized to be complete idiocy.

I have mentioned this a number of my times in my posts and I am surprised that Mr. Mathews thinks this idea is new.

Politicians have done this for years in many areas besides public education.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 8, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Jay really explained why low standards are good in this post. I'm assuming he means to say either that having our children learn in a half-hearted manner is ok because the future depends on generalists. Or he is saying that low standards will keep more people out of college so the economic stratification will stay in place, or even grow more extreme. I agree that children need to be generalists, but listening to tv, iming, playing a video game, painting your nails and talking on a cell phone all while doing homework simply means the information never sunk into the child's head. Multitasking is important but doesn't make a generalist. A generalist is someone who knows a bit about many varied topics. The kids have to be focused to be able to do that and the kid described here doesn't sound that way.

If we are talking about keeping the economic stratification in place, I don't see that as particularly smart. The world is still moving into more service oriented jobs and the hands based positions continue to shrink. If someone isn't able to make it in college, he won't. It's that simple. We shouldn't stop encouraging all children to go to pursue higher education. Many children have the aptitude but come from poor areas where the support systems aren't there to help them get into and graduate from college. We only benefit when as many children as possible try to apply themselves and do their best.

So I still don't know what the main point of this post was, but it almost doesn't matter. The media and politicians will keep telling us all our schools are wastelands while most parents will continue to rave about how much they love their child's teacher. This is the way it's always been and always will be.

Posted by: lafilleverte | October 8, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

The consumers have had a more private agenda, getting good jobs and higher living standards for themselves and their kids.
..................
The writer has some funny comments but is very shallow when it comes to this idea. Based upon this definition the manufacturer who has no children to educate would be a consumer if he supported public education to have workers with better skills.

Categorizing those that are interested in education as consumers is really meaningless. Even the reformer or politician can be placed in this category since they could be characterized as having a private agenda.

Ms. Rhee had a private agenda of making a living while calling for reform so she is a consumer.

The President with call for reform is trying to keep his job so he is a consumer.

The King in 1211 decides to underwrite public education because he has the private agenda of strengthening his country.

Apparently everyone will fall under the definition given by the author and so there would be no one that could be characterized as a "reformer".

I really wish logic was once again taught in colleges and universities.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 8, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

So I still don't know what the main point of this post was, but it almost doesn't matter. The media and politicians will keep telling us all our schools are wastelands while most parents will continue to rave about how much they love their child's teacher. This is the way it's always been and always will be.

Posted by: lafilleverte
.............................
Not really as this is a new phenomenon that started in 2000 with Bush and is now being carried on with Obama.

This is new at the national level. In the past you had a few media blitzes of "Why Johnnie Can't Read" but these never meant changes in national policies.

In the past there was the 1957 policies of President Eisenhower to increase education in the sciences and the 1965 policies of President Johnson to improve education specifically in the poverty public schools.

Now we have each new President with this pretense that the public schools are all sewers instead of the reality that there are still problems in the poverty public schools. We should expect this from the next new President.

I guess as we get Presidents that are more and more incapable of dealing with the real problems of this nation we should expect them to pretend the most serious problem is in public education.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 8, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

My grandfather attended a 1 room schoolhouse up through 8th grade and he always swore that he had a better education because of it. He was allowed to move at his own pace through the curriculum rather than being arbitrarily placed into a classroom by age. The textbooks used were more challenging than modern ones as well, especially in the humanities. He also studied both Latin and Greek, neither of which are offered at the elementary school for which my children are zoned.

Not all change has been in a positive direction...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 8, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Jay, this observation pinged something that has been working in the back of my mind a while:

"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."

Remember the threat Bennett was decrying in "A Nation at Risk"? Did you remember this morning to be afraid of a "rising tide of mediocrity"?

I always though it was a really funny malapropism - how does a tide of mediocrity rise? By definition, it's going to stay right in the middle of the distribution.

When I read the Linda Darling Hammond's review of statistics showing the rapid narrowing of the college access gap for minorities during the seventies, though, I realized what "rising tide" was worrying Bennett.

http://www.amazon.com/Flat-World-Education-Commitment-Multicultural/dp/0807749621/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1286574130&sr=8-1

Reaganomics attacked the rising tide of educational equity with a vengeance, and the (now supposedly intractable) "gap" widened again, to become the chasm that yawns before us today. It took only a few decades to eradicate all the educational progress made by the civil rights generation, and even its memory is being ground down.

In my district, the low-income children are now tracked in 5th grade - the select honors cohort moves into some kind of college preparatory track in middle school, and the majority are destined for all-MCAS-all-the-time drills that culminate in a tenth grade high stakes test and leads nowhere beyond that.
http://www.racetonowhere.com/

There is no plan for the growing numbers of poor children, on the test-prep track, to compete with the children of privilege for slots in college, or for living-wage jobs.

The rising tide of mediocrity has been turned back from the college gates - not by Lester Maddox with his axe handle, but by the deliberate under-resourcing and remorseless attack on the schools and teachers that serve minority children.

The pride and legacy of the civil rights breakthrough generation (my generation) was the wave of first-in-family minorities and low-income whites who achieved a college education with OEP support (I was one). We dedicated our own lives to public education because we had seen, first hand, its power to transform lives. We are determined to save it, for coming generations. How strange is it, that neither we nor Darling-Hammond's factual history even exist in your dry historical bloviation of dueling pundits?

Posted by: mport84 | October 8, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

In contrast to mport84's experience, it's been my observation that there is far LESS tracking in schools today than in the past.

The schools my father attended started ability tracking in 3rd grade for all subjects.

The schools I attended started it in 5th for math & English and 7th for all other subjects. By the time my youngest brother went through, tracking started in 7th for math & English and 9th for the other subjects.

The high school for which my children are zoned doesn't offer ANY honors classes until 11th grade.

To me, this is what Bennett is talking about with "the rising tide of mediocrity". And it makes me long for the good-ole-days of the 1 room schoolhouse where my grandfather was allowed to work at his own pace...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 9, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

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