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

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Getting ahead and getting an education are inseparable in the minds of most Americans. David Labaree argues, however, that the connection between schooling and social mobility may be doing more harm than good, for the pursuit of educational credentials has come to take precedence over the acquisition of knowledge. Labaree examines the competing intellectual and ideological Getting ahead and getting an education are inseparable in the minds of most Americans. David Labaree argues, however, that the connection between schooling and social mobility may be doing more harm than good, for the pursuit of educational credentials has come to take precedence over the acquisition of knowledge. Labaree examines the competing intellectual and ideological traditions that have fought for dominance in our public schools from the nineteenth century to the present. He claims that by thinking of education primarily as the route to individual advancement, we are defining it as a private good—a means of gaining a competitive advantage over other people. He endorses an alternative vision, one that sees education as a public good, providing society with benefits that can be collectively shared—for example, by producing citizens who are politically responsible and workers who are economically productive. He points out that when education is seen primarily as a private consumer good, a number of consequences follow. Formal characteristics of schooling—grades, credits, and degrees—come to assume greater weight than substantive characteristics, such as actually learning something. Grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses. For these and other reasons, the pursuit of certification and degrees takes precedence over the goals of learning, and the private benefits of schooling take precedence over its democratic and civic functions.


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Getting ahead and getting an education are inseparable in the minds of most Americans. David Labaree argues, however, that the connection between schooling and social mobility may be doing more harm than good, for the pursuit of educational credentials has come to take precedence over the acquisition of knowledge. Labaree examines the competing intellectual and ideological Getting ahead and getting an education are inseparable in the minds of most Americans. David Labaree argues, however, that the connection between schooling and social mobility may be doing more harm than good, for the pursuit of educational credentials has come to take precedence over the acquisition of knowledge. Labaree examines the competing intellectual and ideological traditions that have fought for dominance in our public schools from the nineteenth century to the present. He claims that by thinking of education primarily as the route to individual advancement, we are defining it as a private good—a means of gaining a competitive advantage over other people. He endorses an alternative vision, one that sees education as a public good, providing society with benefits that can be collectively shared—for example, by producing citizens who are politically responsible and workers who are economically productive. He points out that when education is seen primarily as a private consumer good, a number of consequences follow. Formal characteristics of schooling—grades, credits, and degrees—come to assume greater weight than substantive characteristics, such as actually learning something. Grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses. For these and other reasons, the pursuit of certification and degrees takes precedence over the goals of learning, and the private benefits of schooling take precedence over its democratic and civic functions.

43 review for How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    It is easy for a critic of today's American public education system to quickly point to any number of its flaws. What Labaree does especially well in this book is to trace the development of public education in the U.S. back to the late nineteenth century, so that at least some of today's flaws make sense as components of yesterday's instructional design, or as side-effects of the development of public education. The development and expansion of the education system is important to understand, a It is easy for a critic of today's American public education system to quickly point to any number of its flaws. What Labaree does especially well in this book is to trace the development of public education in the U.S. back to the late nineteenth century, so that at least some of today's flaws make sense as components of yesterday's instructional design, or as side-effects of the development of public education. The development and expansion of the education system is important to understand, as it is considered here, through the lens of the market forces to which the system is subjected in this country. What we consider flaws today are better understood as well when we consider that education has always been pulled in different directions by its different-minded constituencies: taxpayers, employers, and educational consumers. Throughout the chapters we are reminded of the often-conflicting goals of education: democratic equality (producing responsible citizens), social efficiency (producing effective workers), and social mobility (moving to a more desirable social position). It is difficult to fault policy-makers, employers, administrators, teachers, parents, or students for flaws in American public education when we remember their conflicting motivations and desired outcomes of education. While the three goals of education have each taken their turn in the policy spotlight over the years, the social mobility goal has emerged as the most important over the past 100 years as a result of market forces and consumer demand, creating with it the "credentials race" that Labaree discusses. In their race to get ahead socially, consumers of education (students and parents) have placed less stress on learning for its use-value or for knowledge itself, and more emphasis on the exchange value of learning (to get a good job) and attaining credentials through grades, credits, and diplomas. In our struggle to ever improve our social status, we become obsessed with credentials to lead us to better jobs and higher societal positions. Treating education, a public service, as we would a private good in a market environment, creates (among other flaws) unnecessarily high numbers of graduates who are certified on paper but lack the knowledge and skills to succeed as employees, parents, and citizens. The overarching influence of the social mobility goal over the other two is a large part of the reason American public education has fallen so far behind that of other advanced countries. Labaree's style is very clear and easy and enjoyable to follow. While he sometimes repeats an example or research citation, it is helpful to illustrate different points using the same example (as he does with his case study of Central High School in Philadelphia). The only criticism I have is that there is no discussion of the reason for the low status of teaching as a profession, and why this status has remained low even as more men have joined the profession and teachers tend to stay in the profession for their entire careers. There is a chapter about the low status of teacher education and the reasons behind that, but the low respect for teaching itself is never really addressed. I would have liked to see a discussion of some possibilities for this trend and the political forces that have preserved it. Overall though, this book was a great introduction to the history of and motivations in American public education.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Shayne

    Dense. Not exactly a pleasure to read, but provides an important and cohesive view of the forces underlying contemporary education's structure and neatly framing the a lot of the debate around education. Fifteen years on, this book still rings smart. And true. Dense. Not exactly a pleasure to read, but provides an important and cohesive view of the forces underlying contemporary education's structure and neatly framing the a lot of the debate around education. Fifteen years on, this book still rings smart. And true.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Annie Wilt

    It was a good analysis of the issues at hand and not a difficult academic book to read, but also not the most enjoyable book I've ever read. It was a good analysis of the issues at hand and not a difficult academic book to read, but also not the most enjoyable book I've ever read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    David Labaree may well be the most perceptive analyst of American education currently working in the field. In this book, Professor Labaree considers the transformation of knowledge, packaged and sold in this country as education, from a public good to a consumer commodity. The mention of the "credentials race" in the book's subtitle tells the story, and if you are interested in the subject, it is a compelling tale. What I found most interesting about the analysis contained herein was its presci David Labaree may well be the most perceptive analyst of American education currently working in the field. In this book, Professor Labaree considers the transformation of knowledge, packaged and sold in this country as education, from a public good to a consumer commodity. The mention of the "credentials race" in the book's subtitle tells the story, and if you are interested in the subject, it is a compelling tale. What I found most interesting about the analysis contained herein was its prescience. In 1991, when I started college, I was keenly aware of the numerous diploma mills in post-secondary education in the United States, and avoided them accordingly. Now that I have (regrettably) earned a degree from one of them, and watched these same "institutions" (that is a noun I use most charitably when describing these schools) duplicate and flourish, I can read a book like this and understand exactly what it addresses. If Allen Bloom had wanted to study seriously the cheapening and commodification of knowledge in American education rather than indulging in the hyperbolic exercise in hand wringing that is The Closing of the American Mind, he would have written this book. Very highly recommended.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kiehl Christie

    I read a chapter of this book - Public Schools for Private Advantage, and my thoughts pertain to that chapter. A fantastic analysis of the political contest surrounding schools and how the commoditizing of education undermines the intended goals and more general public goods of a public education system. Labaree provides a unique analysis as to why the American public education system is in shambles and why meaningful reform keeps failing to occur.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jerry Heverly

  7. 5 out of 5

    Derek

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jen

  9. 4 out of 5

    Pavithra

  10. 4 out of 5

    Amber Peterson

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lara

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jennell McHugh

  13. 4 out of 5

    Louis Tomsons

  14. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

  15. 4 out of 5

    Julio Alicea

  16. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  17. 5 out of 5

    Brandon

  18. 5 out of 5

    Maria

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Bolz

  20. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

  21. 4 out of 5

    Dr.

  22. 4 out of 5

    David Labaree

  23. 5 out of 5

    Iliana Gomez

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tovah

  25. 5 out of 5

    Julie

  26. 5 out of 5

    Christina

  27. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jen Chau

  29. 5 out of 5

    Pamela J.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Erins

  31. 5 out of 5

    Shifting Phases

  32. 5 out of 5

    dw

  33. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

  34. 4 out of 5

    Melanie Hughes

  35. 4 out of 5

    Oliver Bateman

  36. 4 out of 5

    Ben Labe

  37. 4 out of 5

    Dwroblew

  38. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

  39. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  40. 5 out of 5

    PAT OMAHONY

  41. 5 out of 5

    KnittaPhd

  42. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Martens

  43. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Smythe

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