What do we really want from schools? Only everything, in all its contradictions. Most of all, we want access and opportunity for all children—but all possible advantages for our own. So argues historian in this provocative look at the way “this archetype of dysfunction works so well at what we want it to do even as it evades what we explicitly ask it to do.”
Ever since the common school movement of the nineteenth century, mass schooling has been seen as an essential solution to great social problems. Yet as wave after wave of reform movements have shown, schools are extremely difficult to change. Labaree shows how the very organization of the locally controlled, administratively limited school system makes reform difficult.
At the same time, he argues, the choices of educational consumers have always overwhelmed top-down efforts at school reform. Individual families seek to use schools for their own purposes—to pursue social opportunity, if they need it, and to preserve social advantage, if they have it. In principle, we want the best for all children. In practice, we want the best for our own.
Provocative, unflinching, wry, Someone Has to Fail looks at the way that unintended consequences of consumer choices have created an extraordinarily resilient educational system, perpetually expanding, perpetually unequal, constantly being reformed, and never changing much.
Why do American schools keep failing? As David Labaree shows, the real question is why we expect them to succeed, given the enormous demands we make of them. Labaree's answers won't please anyone looking for a big quick fix for American education. But they will fascinate anyone who wants to understand our enduring faith in the public schools.
The book is only 280 pages long, but so rich in contrarian assaults on cherished American assumptions I cannot adequately summarize it...[Labaree's] candor and depth encourage humility. All of us arguing about how to improve schools could use some of that.
Labaree is perceptive and lucid in presenting his view that individual self-interest is a driving force in schooling and school reform. Parents are, in principle, committed to equal education for all, but in practice pursue educational advantages for their child. This pursuit of advantage often blunts the common good. Indeed, Labaree's skeptical realism is well taken in this continuing age of consumerism.
In this important book, the skeptical, contrarian, and cheerfully pessimistic Stanford education professor Labaree trenchantly exposes the true purposes behind the establishment and the reforms of American public schools and explains why the institution can never fulfill the dreams of those who use it or those who attempt to improve it...Americans want an egalitarian democracy, but they prize individualism; they demand utility, but they are forever socially optimistic. Our school system manifests these contradictory values in abundance, so no matter how often it's reformed, it must perpetually thwart itself.
- 312 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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