Wednesday, March 7, 2012

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

Book cover from Harvard University Press website: 

This past week I published an in-depth review of Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, a book of interrelated essays by Stanford University Professor of Education David F. Labaree, for H-Net's history of education network. You can access a PDF of the review here: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=34440.

Labaree's book divides into two parts. In the first of these he attempts to reconstruct the history of education reform in the United States in broad strokes from the 1630s in Boston to the close of the twentieth century, citing five major waves of reform: 

(1) the Common School Movement, pioneered in the early 1800s; 
(2) the Progressive movement, which prevailed from the late 1800s up to the 1950s; 
(3) the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; 
(4) the Standards and Standarization movements, set in motion in the 1980s and 1990s; 
(5) and finally the Choice movement, dating from the late 1990s and continuing today. 

The second part of his book is given over to exploring the syndrome Labaree calls 'educationalization,' the phenomenon by which the vast majority of Americans look to education as a means of resolving social problems. Schools alone, he concludes, cannot achieve such goals as enhancing social mobility, social equality, or social efficiency. 

In my review I redraw Labaree's historical narrative in miniature, while detailing his understanding of the limitations of American public schooling. I argue that his book is less about the limits of public schooling than it is about the limits of liberalism. Finally, I question whether the limits of liberalism, as far as America is concerned, are really relevant any longer, as the United States, it seems to me, is best characterized as a corporatocracy as opposed to a liberal democracy. 

Those interested in probing the issue of education reform and public schooling further should read American education historian Diane Ravitch's recent New York Review of Books articles: