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Faculty members

Labaree, David F.

Academic Title 
Other Titles 

Professor of History (by courtesy)

Contact Information
Program Affiliations 
SHIPS (PhD): Educational Policy
SHIPS (PhD): Higher Education
SHIPS (PhD): History of Education
SHIPS (PhD): Sociology of Education
Higher Education
History of Education
Race, Inequality, and Language in Education (RILE)
School Reform Issues
Sociology of Education

Most Recent Book:

My new book – Someone Has to Fail:  The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling – 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.

Current Research:

I am currently working on a book about the historically evolved nature of American higher education (preliminary title: The Improbable Rise of American Higher Ed (and How It Works by Doing Everything Wrong).  American higher education is an anomaly.  In the second half of the 20th century it surged past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world – with more money, influence, Nobel prizes, and drawing power than any of the systems that served as its models.  By all rights, this never should have happened.  Its origins were remarkably humble, arising from a loose assortment of parochial 19th century liberal arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction.  It was not even a system in the usual sense of the word, since it emerged with no plan, no planner, no prospects, and no reliable source of support.  Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the 19th century turned out to be strengths in the 20th.  From the difficult circumstances of trying to survive in an environment with a weak state, a divided church, and intense competition with peer institutions, American colleges developed into a system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, consumer-sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.  This put the system in a strong position to expand and prosper when, before the turn of the century, it finally got what it was most grievously lacking:  academic credibility (which came when it adopted elements of the German research university) and large student enrollments (which came when middle class families started to see social advantage in sending their children to college).   

This system is extraordinarily complex, bringing together contradictory educational goals, a broad array political constituencies, diverse sources of funds, and multiple forms of authority into a single institutional arena characterized by creative tension and local autonomy. One tension is between the influence of the market and the influence of the state. Another arises from the conflict among three social-political visions of higher education – as undergraduate college (populist), graduate school (elite), and land grant college (practical). A third arises from the way the system combines three alternative modes of authority – traditional, rational, and charismatic. In combination, these elements promote organizational complexity, radical stratification, broad political and financial support, partial autonomy, and adaptive entrepreneurial behavior.

I am a sociologically oriented historian of education who seeks to explore some of the major processes and patterns that define the relationship between education and society in the United States. In my research, I aim to analyze the evolving institutional character of educational organizations (such as the high school, community college, education school, and university) and the evolving role of key groups that affect education (such as teachers, teacher educators, and reform movements) in the context of the broader purposes and functions of education in a liberal democracy. Within this broad approach to the subject, I have focused in the past on two major areas of study. One is the pressure exerted by markets on democratic education; the other is the peculiar nature of education schools as they have evolved over the years in the U.S.

“The history of American school reform helps us see what has made reform so ineffective.  Reformers have continually tried to impose social missions on schools and then failed to accomplish them, because consumers – the families who send children to school – have had something entirely different in mind.  Consumers have wanted schools to allow them to accomplish goals that are less noble socially but more resonant personally:  to get ahead and stay ahead.  The school system, I argue, emerged as the unintended consequence of these consumer preferences, expressed through the cumulative choices made by families trying to fortify the future of their children through the medium of schooling.  In short, the vision of education as a private good (formed by the self interested actions of individual consumers) has consistently won out over education as a public good (formed by the social aims of reform movements). At the same time, consumers have pushed the system in contradictory directions because they want sharply different benefits from it.  Throughout the history of American education, some consumers have demanded greater access to school in order to climb the social ladder while others have demanded greater advantage from school in order to protect themselves from these same social climbers.  Obligingly, the school system has let us have it both ways, providing access and advantage, promoting equality and inequality.”

From Someone Has to Fail

  • PhD (Sociology), University of Pennsylvania, 1983
  • MA (Sociology), University of Pennsylvania, 1978
  • BA (Social Relations), Harvard College, 1970

David Labaree's CV

Since 2003

Professor of Education (2003 - )

Professor of History (by courtesy, 2008 - )

Associate Dean for Student Affairs (2005 - 2008)

Chair of SHIPS Area Committee (2009 - )

Assistant Professor to Professor of Teacher Education, Michigan State University (1985-2003)

Coordinator of MSU Ph.D. program in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy (1996-2001)

  • History of School Reform (Ed 220D)
  • School -- What Is It Good For (ED 207)
  • Academic Writing with Clarity and Grace (ED 292)
  • History of Higher Education (Ed 265/165)

Current Syllabus: ED 220D/HIST 258E Syllabus.pdf

Labaree, David F. (Forthcoming 2014). College – What is it good for?  Education and Culture.

Labaree, David F. (Forthcoming 2014). Let’s measure what no one teaches: PISA, NCLB, and the shrinking aims of education. Teachers College Record.

Labaree, David F. (2013). A system without a plan: Emergence of an American system of higher education in the twentieth century.  Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 3:1, 46-59.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Balancing access and advantage in the history of American schooling. In Rolf Becker, Patrick Bühler, & Thomas Bühler (Eds.), Bildungsungleichheit und Gerechtigkeit: Wissenschaftliche und Gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen (pp. 101-114). Bern: Haupt Verlag.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Targeting teachers.  In Michael B. Katz & Mike Rose (Eds.), Public education under siege (pp. 30-39). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labaree, David F. (2013). The power of the parochial in shaping the American system of higher education.  In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Institutional spaces of educational research (pp. 31-46). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2012). School syndrome: Understanding the USA’s magical belief that schooling can somehow improve society, promote access, and preserve advantage. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44:2, 143-163.

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Do no harm. Teacher Education and Practice, 24:4, 434-439.

Labaree, David F. (2011). The lure of statistics for educational researchers. Educational Theory, 61:6, 621-631.

can Education (Yale University Press, 1997)

Labaree, David F. (2011). When is school an answer to what social problems? Lessons from the early American republic.  In Daniel Tröhler & Ragnhild Barbu (Eds.), Educational systems in historical, cultural and sociological perspectives (pp. 77-90). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Adventures in scholarship. In Wayne Urban (Ed.), Leaders in the historical study of American education (pp. 193-204). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Citizens and consumers: Changing visions of virtue and opportunity in U.S. education, 1841-1954. In Daniel Tröhler, Thomas Popkewitz, and David F. Labaree (Eds.), Schooling and the making of citizens in the long nineteenth century (pp. 168-183). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Labaree, David F. (2010).  Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2007). Education, markets, and the public good: Selected works of David F. Labaree (in series: Routledge World Library of Educationalists). London: Routledge.

Labaree, David F. (2004).  The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Member, Board of Directors, John Dewey Society (2104-)

President, History of Education Society (2004-2005)

Vice president of Division F (History of Education), American Educational Research Association (2003-2006)

Member of Executive Board, American Educational Research Association (2004-2005)

American Educational Research Association

History of Education Society

American Sociological Association