college of education | spring 1999

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Article 3 |
Professor's Analysis Reveals 'Individualistic Conception' of Public Education

What is American public education's raison d'etre?

A seemingly straightforward question, it is an intensely complex issue that poses the ultimate policy question. Is our educational system Horace Mann's high-minded vision of a citizenry capable of making informed decisions by the illuminating power of education? Or is the goal to mass-produce skilled workers? Or, most provocative of all, is our national aspiration for our schools at the end of century to simply provide individuals with the ability to get ahead?

"I have spent about 10 years trying to work out this set of conflicting goals," said David Labaree, professor in the Department of Teacher Education. "The issue for me is how education is undermined by market interests, and education turns into some sort of status attainment of getting ahead by getting an education."

Labaree, the author of the influential book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning (Yale University Press), has grounded his analysis in educational sociology and history to formulate the three competing forces that have shaped American public education.

The educational system, Labaree said, was founded in the early 19th Century on the idea he calls "democratic equality," which had as its goal a learned society in the furtherance of the democratic ideal. But by the late 19th Century, a new force in education had gained currency. Driven by industry leaders, the push was on for social efficiency, which emphasized practical skills that could translate to the workplace.

The third movement was social mobility. As democratic equality and social efficiency opened access to education for larger groups of people, upper middle-class parents sought to maintain prestige in the credentials their children were attaining.

Thus, when the barriers to high school were removed, the compromise was the comprehensive high school with its vocational and academic tracks. And when a high school diploma ceased to be rare, exclusivity was achieved by going to the "right" high school that was perceived to provide a higher quality education. The other way to stand out was to get more education.

For much of this century, the goals battled for prominence with each ebbing and flowing depending on the nation's circumstances. But things have changed. Social mobility appears to have won. It has now firmly entrenched itself as the predominant goal of our educational system, Labaree said, and the consequences are profound.

In the almost blind pursuit of credentials, students will do the least amount of work (or learning) for the greatest amount of gain.

"If credentials are the currency for getting ahead, then you want to get as much of that advantage as possible," Labaree said. "And like dollar bills, the intrinsic value is nil.

David Labaree

The only thing that really matters is what you can buy with it. So the content becomes less important than the advantage of having the credential will give you. The way you get a good job is not necessarily by mastering trigonometry and geometry, but by getting the three credits. So you take a business math class, it'll get you the credits and a higher grade and it still counts for the diploma. The strategy is like that of any other consumer good: You don't want to overpay for the product you buy. You want to get a deal.

"That is a very rational behavior within that vision of education. So the fear is that we are doing a very good job of creating students who are good educational consumers but not necessarily good learners. There isn't a lot of pressure on the learning side, the pressure is on the credential side."

Social efficiency is still a factor, but has declined in importance. Yet it has not faired as poorly as the democratic equality goal. With the preeminence of social mobility, not only is learning undermined, but the public good as well, Labaree said.

Democratic equality and social efficiency have at their base a better, more prosperous society. Social mobility has at its center only the individual.

Labaree is beginning to see the limits of public subsidy of social mobility at the university level, where social mobility made it possible for enrollments to swell.

But there is no end in sight at the K-12 level. Vouchers, choice and charters schools are all efforts, he said, to create a market-based system geared at meeting the needs of educational consumers.

What Labaree believes needs to take place is not doing away with social mobility, but rebalancing of the three.

"I think I've come to a more complicated view now, which is that a balance among the three is healthy," Labaree said. "To me the issue is not to resolve the tension inherent among the three goals, but to balance them. The problem that I see is the imbalance caused by the growing power of the social mobility goal. It's a radical, individualistic conception of what schooling is or should be."

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