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

Remmert Dekker

David F. Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2010).

In this new book, Stanford Professor David Labaree offers a bleak reality-check on American public education, explaining that the system itself—in its structure and contradictory ideals—is to blame for the failure of education reform. In our competition between societal and personal aims for education—creating good citizens and curing social ills versus assisting individuals to prosper in a market economy—personal aims have won the day. It is the consumers of education, rather than its reformers, who shape its direction. Labaree offers an historical account of reform movements in American public schooling, explaining their inherent failure at each juncture. Though he remains at the 30,000 foot level, addressing such massive reforms as desegregation, academic standards and school choice in just a few pages each, Labaree does show how the complex organization of a four-level education structure and the loose couplings among those levels create insurmountable barriers for reformers. More fundamentally, he questions America’s education goals. In his final pages, Labaree offers defeatist recommendations to reformers: scale down your ambitions, be pessimistic, and remember that consumers—not you and your fellow reformers—are driving the system.