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David F. Labaree

Professor of Education


Curriculum Vitae
Selected Papers


Most Recent Book:

My new book, "Someone Has to Fail," 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. A central aim of this study is to explore how the peculiar structure of the U.S. system of higher education helps explain its relatively recent rise to the top of world rankings. 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 (elitist), 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.

Professional Experience:

  • Chair, Area Committee in Social Sciences, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Policy Studies in Education (SHIPS), 2009 to present.
  • Professor, School of Education, Stanford University, 2003 to present
  • Professor (by courtesy), History Department, Stanford University, 2008 to present
  • Associate Dean for Student Affairs, School of Education, Stanford University, 2005-2008
  • Assistant Professor to Professor, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University (1985-2003)
  • Coordinator of MSU Ph.D. program in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy (1996-2001)

Recent Roles in Professional Organizations

President, History of Education Society (2004-2005)
Vice president of Division F (History of Education), American Educational Research Association (2003-2006)
Member, executive board, AERA (2004-2005

Selected Recent Publications:

Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling. (Harvard University Press, 2010).

"Consuming the Public School." Educational Theory,(2011).

"Understanding the Rise of American Higher Education: How Complexity Breeds Autonomy" (translated into Chinese). Peking University Education Review (2010).

"What Schools Can't Do." Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Historiographie (2010).

"An Uneasy Relationship: The History of Teacher Education in the University," in Cochran-Smith et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Teacher Education, 3rd ed. (Association of Teacher Educators, forthcoming 2008)

"Mutual subversion: A short history of the liberal and the professional in American higher education." History of Education Quarterly (2006)

The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004)

"The Peculiar Problems of Preparing and Becoming Educational Researchers," Educational Researcher (2003)

"On the Nature of Teaching and Teacher Education: Difficult Practices that Look Easy," in Journal of Teacher Education (2000)

"Educational Researchers: Living with a Lesser Form of Knowledge," in Educational Researcher (1998)

How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale University Press, 1997)