Same Game, Different Losers: Rethinking the Public School “Syndrome”

Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling by David F. Labaree

By Emily Wojcik

Every year or so – more often during election cycles – politicians, reformers, and the public turn their attention to the public school system. This came to a dramatic head during the summer of 2011, when Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his Republican majority pushed through a budget that eliminated collective-bargaining rights for teachers. The move inspired a walkout of Democratic legislators and a weeks-long protest on the steps of the state capitol, culminating in the failed gubernatorial recall vote earlier this month. The lines were drawn: demoralized progressives and teachers on one side, frustrated voters and budget hawks on the other.

These lines are nothing new: Walker’s budget was merely the latest shot across the bow in a nearly 200-year-old battle over public education in the United States—a fact made clear in the course of David F. Labaree’s comprehensive and enlightening book, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling.

Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, has written what might be the most important recent analysis of public schooling—a study that should be required reading of any politician, teacher, or parent who feels they have a stake in what Labaree terms the “public school syndrome.” By this, he means the American tendency to “educationaliz[e] social problems instead of seeking to address these problems in ways that might be more effective” (such as direct political action). Labaree argues that we, as a country, reflexively expect the public school system to redress systemic issues—racism, social inequality, and civic responsibility—while simultaneously imparting knowledge and job training. In making such demands, we “have set up our school system for failure.”

What makes Labaree’s analysis both compelling and fresh is that it is not a call to reformative action, nor is it a reactionary dismissal of progressive idealism. Instead, as he makes clear early on, this analysis critically examines the history of public schooling in this country, from the common school movement of the early 19th century through President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. In so doing, Labaree demonstrates that “schooling in America has emerged from this history as a bad way to fix social problems but a good way to express (if not realize) personal dreams,” dreams which are themselves “deeply conflicted.” The ideal of free education is to ensure that every citizen has access to the same opportunities; the promise of such a system within a capitalist democracy is that only the very best and brightest (or some facsimile thereof) will achieve that success. The result is a system of education that “is highly accessible, radically unequal, organizationally fragmented, and instructionally mediocre.”

Labaree does not suggest political solutions, such as increased funding, nor does he advocate for any specific reforms. This allows him to focus instead on the paradox of how good intentions historically come into conflict with shifting ideals of  “success” within our educational system. While Labaree doesn’t promise solutions (indeed, he vehemently disabuses his reader of any such hopes within the first ten pages), I finished the book with a clearer understanding of the issues at stake, and how they got that way.

Someone Has to Fail traces the history of public schools and concurrent reform movements by detailing the role of education in public life as it manifested through America’s growth.  Labaree begins with the common school movement of the 1800’s, a time when public schools were established to inculcate common social and civic values to help make secure our unwieldy new country. Education has, from the beginning, struggled to meet the demands of “democratic equality” (to produce capable citizens), “social efficiency” (to develop a skilled labor force), and “social mobility” (to “reinforce or improve” social standing).

This conflict is endemic to liberal democracy, Labaree asserts, and his analysis provides a compulsively readable excavation of just how this affects our current situation. To remove one tension, like social mobility, is to undermine freedom and competition, while eliminating democratic equality jeopardizes the liberality that differentiates us from caste-based societies. An overemphasis on social efficiency, however, risks the totalitarian mechanization of our students, the stuff of Stalinist nightmares. As a result, our school system operates in a schizophrenic social space where we “ask it to promote social equality, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten individual liberty or private interests. We ask it to promote individual opportunity, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the integrity of the nation or the efficiency of the economy.”

The history detailed in his first few chapters provides a basis for a structural analysis of the efforts and failures of school reformers through the years, from the civil rights movement figured most prominently by Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, through the standards and assessment movement of “No Child Left Behind,” and ending in the current school-choice effort and the Obama “Race to the Top” grants initiative. Labaree refuses to demonize any one side: Teachers, students, and administrators are part of an incoherent institution that is itself at the mercy of conflicting and shifting public expectations.

Labaree concludes that the problem is not bloated teacher salaries or unions, as Gov. Walker argued in Wisconsin, nor is it systemic racism or cold-blooded capitalism, as progressive reformers suggest. What we see today is the triumph of the “consumer” model of education, where curricula and reforms are driven as much by the fickle and contradictory desires of the population they serve, a population that idealizes education while also holding it responsible for personal success (or failure).

Labaree insists that the educational system is by its very nature incoherent: All sides are deeply invested in maintaining the status quo at the expense—and insistence—of those being served by it. He concludes that we “can’t find a simple cure for this syndrome because we won’t accept any remedy that would mean giving up one of our aims for education in favor of another.” After reading Labaree’s sharp and, admittedly, pessimistic analysis of the public school “syndrome,” one can’t help but pity both the politicians and the teachers lined up on the capitol lawn, valiantly fighting a battle that is designed to be unwinnable.

Emily Wojcik teaches English at the University of Connecticut and Holyoke Community College, and is assistant editor at Paris Press in Massachusetts.

Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling by David F. Labaree
Press: Harvard University Press
Pages: 304
Price: $19.95 (trade paper)
ISBN: 9780674063860

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