Getting past the smoke to study the fire fueling school choice

Public education, like most American institutions, seems in such a state of flux that anxiety about what comes next is rampant. The controversial appointment of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education has focused much of that anxiety around the question of “choice” and its implications for public education. Linda Darling-Hammond, a finalist for the Secretary role herself when Barack Obama became President, wrote recently on just that question, asking “can choice and democracy coexist?”.

But widespread media coverage of any momentary anxiety makes me suspicious of the controversy du jour it throws up: Where there’s smoke there’s probably fire, but the fire is the thing to watch. Reflecting on why “choice” has become such a lightning rod led me to a 1997 article worth reading for all: “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals” by David F. Labaree, then of Michigan State and now of Stanford University.

Labaree argued that American education has three conflicting goals:

  • Democratic equality — Public schools exist to prepare the citizens of this democratic republic. All citizens of course, so equal access and equal treatment are an essential part of this goal. Citizens are the “customers” served by democratic equality.
  • Social efficiency — Public schools train workers and develop human capital. This goal supports stratification because the focus is on getting students “competently prepared for and efficiently allocated” to available occupational roles and social positions. Taxpayers are the “customers” served by social efficiency.
  • Social mobility — Public schools help students fulfill their potential and pursue their possibilities. Framed in competitive market language, Labaree talks of helping students “compete for social position” and “status attainment”. Students and their families are the “customers” of social mobility.

Historically, focus on social efficiency and social mobility promoted educational stratification: High schools in the 19th century and then colleges in the 20th century helped cull, train, and anoint an elite. But focus on democratic equality and social mobility jointly promoted greater access to these higher strata of education: The high school graduation rate went from less than 10% in 1910 to 83% in 2015, and the percent of American adults with a bachelors degree from 5% in 1940 to 30% in 2009.

Labaree goes on to argue that our commitment to democratic equality fuels our quest for the “common school”, while social mobility and efficiency drive our insistence on differentiation to support opportunities for students to distinguish themselves and a sorting function to feed the employers and other institutions with roles to fill. And democratic equality and social mobility lead us to promote possibilities for all students, while social efficiency drives us to limits.

“Public Goods, Private Goods” ends on a note well worth contemplating today as we wrestle with institutional upheaval in education:

“In a school system that is determined primarily by the requirements of democratic equality, the problem of occupational placement is irrelevant… in a school system determined primarily by the demands of social efficiency, the problem of filling jobs is paramount, and thus the credentials market is wholly subordinate…. [Because] the standoff between democracy and the market economy prevents the hegemony of either, social mobility emerges as an intriguing alternative goal for schools… [and] establishes the credentials market as a zone of individual enterprise, located between school and economy, where a few students with “merit” can make their way.” (p. 71)

One can see the rise of school choice in primary and secondary education — and the emergence of for-profit post-secondary education — as manifestations of the credentials market’s failure to serve Americans. As opportunities for “advancement” (whether you define in economic or social status terms) have faded or disappeared for so many in America, and the institutions on which we depended in previous eras have failed to fully meet the challenge, increasing numbers have, perhaps desperately, sought alternatives.

In primary and secondary education, I see evidence of this grassroots response to the credential market’s in the emergence of homeschooling and charters from radical ideas in the 1970s to mainstream movements serving roughly 4 to 5 million students and with charter schools supported by two-thirds of Americans today (I can’t find reliable polling on attitudes toward homeschooling). And in post-secondary education, the rise of for-profit institutions seems more clearly a response to this market failure, though I am less knowledgeable about the area. I will explore these topics in future posts.

(Note: I am a practitioner, not an academic, and this term “credential market” is new to me — I have not yet had the chance to dig into its academic meaning and may well be misconstruing in some nuanced ways. If I discover I am and it changes my view, I’ll change what I’ve posted!)