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 conflicting 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 consumers on democratic education; the other is the peculiar nature of higher education as it has 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