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How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education [Paperback]

David F. Labaree
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

April 10, 1999 0300078676 978-0300078671
An examination of the competing ideological traditions that have fought for dominance in American public schools since the 19th century. It considers what the social consequences are when certification and degrees become more important than the acquisition of knowledge.

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How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education + Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (April 10, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300078676
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300078671
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #594,917 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am a professor of education at Stanford University who writes about the history and sociology of American education. I have written about the evolution of high schools ("The Making of an American High School," 1988), the growing role of consumerism in education ("How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning," 1997), and the origins and character of schools of education in American universities ("The Trouble With Ed Schools," 2004). Along the way I also published a collection of essays ("Education, Markets, and the Public Good," 2007).

My new book, "Someone Has to Fail," is an essay about the nature of the American system of schooling. We ask the schools to serve contradictory goals - to provide social access and also to preserve social advantage - and they have been willing to comply with our wishes, even though this has undercut their ability to foster academic learning. I explore why school reform has been such a failure over the years, why that's not necessarily such a bad thing, and why the main effects that schools have had on society are the unintended consequences of consumer choices rather than the planned outcomes of reform movements.

Instead of reforming schools, my aim in this book is to explore how the school system developed and how it works - in its own peculiar way. I'm not touting the system or trashing it; I'm simply trying to understand it. And in the process of developing an understanding of this convoluted, dynamic, contradictory, and expensive system, I hope to convey a certain degree of wonder and respect for the way in which this apparent model of dysfunction works so well at what we want it to do even as it evades what we explicitly ask it to do. In its own way the system is extraordinarily successful, not just because it is so huge and growing so rapidly but because it stands at the heart of the peculiarly American version of the welfare state, providing us with educational opportunity instead of social equality.

For more information, see my website at

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We got the schools we demanded February 28, 2011
This is a book written by an academic for academics. In another of his books Labaree, himself, confesses that he isn't trying to write in a popular style: "One problem," he wrote, " is that I tend to write history without actors." You won't find John Holt-style polemics or engaging stories about struggling teenagers. This is Labaree working out his own ideas on how American education got the way that it is.
Hidden in here are some brilliantly insightful notions about American education, ideas that I've not seen anywhere else. Dr. Labaree believes that our education system evolved into what we have now because the people shaping it were/are the people who pay the freight: the consumers of that education. Unlike European and Asian systems, where the State funds the system, in the U.S. we allowed students to use their dollars to demand diplomas and degrees that exist as currency to buy the owner a better life--or at least a life with increased status. The result is that we have schools where students care little about the specifics of what they learn. He does a brilliant job of tracing the history of this evolution, then he shows how high schools, normal schools, junior colleges and land grant universities all fit themselves into this scheme.
This book paved the way for Labaree's later work (Someone Has to Fail) and truthfully that book--also very academic--goes further and talks more about the problems with contemporary reform movements. So this work is probably only for those who want to trace the evolution of Labaree's ideas.
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