54 10.2 The Competing Goals of Public Education: A Historical Perspective

Frontloading Activity

Before continuing the reading, take some time to review the history of American public education and write on the following questions:

  • What are one or two goals of public education over the course of American history?
  • Do the original goals of Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann still inform public policy for education? Why or why not?

David Labaree (1997), an educational historian, argued that there had been three overarching goals of public education in the United States since the inception of public education in the 1800s: 1) democratic equality, 2) social efficiency, and 3) social mobility. A democratic equality goal aims at educating an engaged citizenry capable of actively participating in a democratic society. A social efficiency goal aims at educating young people to help the economic success of the country. Finally, a social mobility goal aims at educating young people for people to “gain a competitive advantage in the struggle for competitive social positions” (p. 42). Two of these goals—democratic equality and social efficiency—can be defined as public goods or goods that benefit society as a whole, whereas the social mobility goal positions education as a private resource or commodity.  Each of these goals, Labaree argued, tacitly guides the direction of public education policy. At times, these three goals compete against the other goals’ inherent aims, i.e., public goods versus private goods. In some cases, such as social mobility, there are internal contradictions, or aporias, within a single goal’s overall aims. For example, families with higher socioeconomic status tend to protect and ensure their children’s social status, creating gatekeeping mechanisms to limit access to educational opportunities. However, families in lower socio-economic strata seek to expand equitable access to educational opportunities to advance their children’s economic and social well-being. In either case, social mobility goals envision education as a private and limited resource.

Consolidating Understanding Activity

The following podcast and webinar further elaborate Labaree’s model of public education goals and describe how each goal competes with one another. As you listen to the podcast’s first twenty minutes, paraphrase each of the three goals and give concrete examples of each goal.

After listening to the previous podcast, watch David Labaree’s webinar up to minute 26:20. As you watch, take notes on the ways Labaree elaborates on how the goals compete with one another.

  • In what ways does each goal compete with one another?
  • In what ways does the tension between public and private goods manifest themselves in real-world situations?

Take note of the internal contradictions of social mobility goals:

  • What are the gatekeeping mechanisms that influence who gets access to certain classes like Advanced Placement?
  • In what ways do the internal contradictions of social mobility manifest themselves in real-world situations?

Review this chapter and videos on the periods of educational history. Return to your original ideas on what you thought were/are the goals of public education in the U.S. Write on the following questions:

  • Give one example of each of Labaree’s educational goals from this chapter or the linked videos.
  • Which of Labaree’s goals most resemble your own thesis on the goals of public education?
  • Which of Labaree’s goals best fits your own personal goal for education as a student? Explain.
  • Which of Labaree’s goals best fits your emerging philosophy of education? Explain.

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Introduction to Education by Shannon M. Delgado and Sarah Mark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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