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Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling

3.6 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674050686
ISBN-10: 0674050681
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Editorial Reviews

Review

No education scholar in America throws an analytical knuckleball as well as David F. Labaree of Stanford University.
--Jay Mathews, Class Struggle Blog in Washington Post

In this new book, Stanford Professor David Labaree offers a bleak reality-check on American public education, explaining that the system itself...is to blame for the failure of education reform. --Remmert Dekker in The Education Gadfly

Labaree--a vocal skeptic of the American public school system--is no stranger to writing about education. Here, he makes a solid case that American public schools are failing in many ways. --Library Journal

"In this important book...the skeptical, contrarian, and cheerfully pessimistic Stanford education professor Labaree trenchantly exposes the true purposes behind...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. " 
--The Atlantic Monthly


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. (Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory)

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. (Jay Mathews Washington Post 2010-10-08)

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. (J. L. DeVitis Choice 2011-07-01)

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. (Benjamin Schwarz The Atlantic 2012-09-01)

About the Author

David F. Labaree is Professor of Education at Stanford University.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (November 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674050681
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674050686
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #432,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Gerald A. Heverly on January 9, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a bit like Jim Clark's launch of 3D computing. Before Labaree all ed writing was flat earth; two dimensional; pre-Columbian.
Read an education writer and you'll hear about why we should change A in order to move B along toward nirvana (higher test scores; greater literacy; victory over all those smart Chinese and Finns).
But in this book when you change A it moves B along, which moves C in the opposite direction so that we end up more or less where you began. Why is this, according to Dr. Labaree? Because Americans want their school system to provide two mutually contradictory results: social mobility (Horatio Alger) and social equality (no child left behind). And then to really assure failure we ask the schools to tackle a myriad of social problems that we don't want to tackle in more controversial ways (re-ordering the economy; empowering the masses). We want the schools to solve the problem of racism; reduce teen pregnancy; convince kids to stay off drugs; even produce safe drivers; and more.
All these conflicting goals guarantee failure. And the way we've coped with this dilemma is to allow the schools to get by without much emphasis on what kids learn. We settle for permitting the schools to certify that they put in their time. If we tried to do more than that we'd be at each other's throats all the time trying to reconcile individual liberty with group cohesion.
I wish there was some way to mass produce chapter five of this book and show it to teachers all over the US. It does a wonderful job of showing how all these national problems are played out in individual classrooms. Once you read it you'll have a better idea why I resist outside interference in the way I teach--even though I know I'm a long way from competent.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I was looking for a book for my grad students to read. This was the perfect choice as it triggered some interesting, thought provoking conversations on the nature of public schools in this country. I usually don't repeat such selections in my grad course, but I'm leaning towards actually using this book again in fall 2013.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Pros:
1) Overview of the history of the education system in the US
2) Some compelling arguments about why education reform is unlikely to work

Cons:
1) Incredibly repetitive. You often have to skim through pages at a time looking for new ideas.
2) Its approach is quite unscientific. There are no references to academic studies or data points as evidence, only academic rhetoric and, eventually, a single case study. As a result, it reads less like an academic gathered a plethora of information, synthesized it, and came to a conclusion, but rather, like he started with a thesis, then constructed an argument to support it.
3) As other reviews have pointed out, parts of his argument fall flat. For example, he defines social mobility as one's ability to change their relative position on a socioeconomic hierarchy, completely absent an ability to actually improve their quality of life and access to goods.

Conclusion: Know what this book is and isn't. It will provide you with some interesting and valuable perspective on the history and status of the US education system. It won't be easy-to-read, rigorously researched, or academically satisfying. While I certainly learned from it, I think I could've absorbed this information in a better-packaged form.
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Format: Paperback
As I started reading this book I thought it was a good four-star read due to its excellent discussion of the origins of the common school movement; the survey of the various reform movements; and the authors educational skepticism. As I read on the book's flaws knocked off one star--and nearly two.

The author's coverage of relevant research is thin and his grasp of economics is weak. For instance:

Per the book's title, Labaree argues that schooling is a zero-sum chase for a status good. But he also hints that going to school provides non-cognitive benefits. He apparently does not realize the contradiction, nor does he discuss the research examining either view.

An international perspective that looks at other countries' educational systems is a glaringly obvious test of Labaree's theories. Labaree tells us nothing of the expansion of education in other countries.

If, as Labaree contends, the expansion of education has been the result of middle class voters trying to keep one step ahead in the credential race, why did they keep voting for things like compulsory schooling? And why are lower class voters continuously fooled by tracking?

Labaree relies primarily on sociologists for support. At the end of the book the reader is left with the impression that sociology is cynicism with tenure.

Labaree should be commended for his accessible style. Although, the book is repetitive. The book could probably be 50 pages shorter.
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By sherry on January 28, 2016
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Has some interesting parts, though it was mostly a dry read. Writing style tend to sound pretentious.
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