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Book Review: Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling

Book Review: Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling

Nowadays, the American education system faces a problem created by individual self-interest presented as the driving force in the reforms of the public schools. The current issue is the inability of institutions to fulfill the dreams of those who use it to make their lives better such as students and those who want to improve it to make the lives of students easier such as teachers (Rury, 2011, p.419). In his book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, Labaree (2012) maintains that schooling offers little economic benefit to the society (p. 81). However, he also states that it provides a conduit to a higher status by mediating the job market to get ahead in the United States of America to enable a person to live a better life. Americans want an egalitarian democracy where all people are equal to the same social status but prefer individualism with a lot of freedom (Clawson & Oxley, 2012, p.176). As a result, the school system reveals these contradictions in abundance that no matter how frequently it is reformed, it always destroys itself. Therefore, it is Labaree’s belief that school cannot fulfill the goal of democratic equality while, at the same time, satisfying that of social mobility (Jwan & Kisaka, 2017, p.1). This inability makes it impossible for people to realize the benefits of public school, including education that is affordable and creates a society with social people.

According to Labaree’s book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, the main goals of education is to create competing objectives which are in constant state of disagreement, generating a wave of unsuccessful reforms that go against the school system, which are to create a philosophical and sociological effect capable of making education beneficial. A philosophical effect gives the students the ability to stay thoughtful in the face of challenges or to approach a challenging situation in a levelheaded manner, while a sociological effect gives them the capability to stay in the society that encourages social relationships and interaction.A contrary view is that these competing goals create an ever-changing school system that is not perfect but is constantly improving in many ways. For example, a philosophical issue about the method of teaching used to teach the students may make them evaluate the philosophical message and decide whether the teachers have changed the way they teach. Therefore, the question concerning such an issue is whether the changes, also known as reforms that the teachers have made on the school system,can encourage social interactions and relationships that may improve the lives of students to a level where the reforms can be implemented permanently.

In his book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, Labaree (2012) emphasizes that the school system reform, similar to the political one, has resulted in the American school system to follow a downward path that has become extremely unproductive (p. 171. His evaluation seems to point to a cyclical equation that is predetermined. An example of such an equation can be seen in the school system where a teacher uses the same syllabus to teach students a specific subject. Regardless of whether the students are able to learn and understand what has been taught, teachers continue using the same syllabus to teach.The opposing argument is that if some part of the equation were changed, there may be another type of progress among the teachers and students. The argument that is dominant in the world, according to Labaree’s (2012) beliefs, is that the teachers are the main problem and not student (p. 143). If educators, rather than those in the business of making reforms, were to develop the next reforms for the public school system, the society will experience a massive qualitative change. One of the changes maybe an inability of students to apply what they have learned in the workplaces they find themselves. Therefore, due to the reasoning that teachers are the ones who are in the system, they can fully understand the needs and the problems of schooling and offer proper solutions to resolve them.For example, they can identify the part of the syllabus that does not help students when they start working. Moreover, educators see the current needs of their learners and can find proper means to fulfill these requirements.

In the first three chapters of Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, Labaree (2012) examines the school system reforms from a historical perspective; that is, from a philosophical point of view by focusing on history (p. 3). The historical perspective provides an adequate philosophical opinion on the entire system. Specifically, it provides all the important information on the old and new system where it explains how the teachers used to work in such systems.For example, in the old system, the teachers would follow the syllabus without changing anything even though it was not effective while in the new system, they would try to implement theactually effective syllabus. In chapters three and five, the author examines school system reforms from a sociological angle and explains why they have been unsuccessful, especially associated with the changes in learning and teaching. The focus is on the effectiveness in the student’s application of the knowledge they gain from the classroom teaching. They cannot apply the knowledge because it is not relevant to what they do in the society they reside. In chapter six, Labaree (2012) combines the historical analysis and the barriers to school system reforms mentioned in chapters four and five to find why schooling is not one of the solutions essential in answering the social problems; that is, problems that occur frequently in the society (p. 163). In chapter seven, the economic argument for school is noticeable, while chapter eight puts together all the arguments to describe the school syndrome; the school system is constantly in conflict, always in reform, and regularly is improved only to be unsuccessful in some time(Labaree, 2012, p.195).

In chapters five and six of his book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling,Labaree (2012) discusses the barriers to school system reforms describing them as classroom and organizational resistance, which have deterred substantive changes to education “teaching and learning” (p. 135).The classroom resistance, which has to do with the reception of students to the material being taught by the teachers,is significant. For example, if a mathematics syllabus does not lead to a good grade that can help students go to universities, then, the students are more likely to develop resistance towards it. The organizational resistance, which has to do with teachers’ reception of the syllabus they are teaching their students, is also important.For example, if the syllabus is difficult to teach students because the administration has refused to change it according to the wishes of the teacher, then, there is resistance towards it.In these chapters, the author explores the American education system through the loosely coupled multiple layers (Labaree, 2012, p.92). He explains that they comprise the six levels of the system’s structure that include classrooms, students, states, the federal government, and schools. Every layer of the school system has restricted influence on the other layers below and above so that none has an effect on the other one. According to Labaree (2012), resistance persists as an essential fail-safe switch that assists to decline the unhelpful reforms that do not assist students (p. 191). Such reforms are those that when implemented into the system, do not make any significant changes that can actually make education better in the United States of America. Doing so makes it possible for students to get an education that really helps them make meaningful changes in the society and their lives.

In his book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling,Labaree (2012)explains why teachers are uncertain to adopt and implement school system reforms into their practice through the sociological and philosophical perspectives. The teaching profession is embedded in a system that enrolls students and isolates educators in the creation of reforms that impact their learners is what is seen from a philosophical perspective to be what has been the norm. For example, a student is enrolled, gets an education, and leaves a school without getting any meaningful education that can actually change their lives for the better in the society (Labaree, 2012, p.11). Those teachers who manage to discuss the development of a teaching personality that brings success to their students are not ready to put aside the practices they have established for a reform. One reason for this is the effort they have put into experimenting the new reforms in their own classrooms. When the teachers can implement the system reforms, they are likely to maintain them because they have tested them in their classroom environment with their own students (Labaree, 2012, p.68). Therefore, an implementation of school reform by reformers is a failure because unlike teachers, they are not in a position to understand the reforms they are making.For example, when the reformers are making a decision on whether to include computer lessons into the syllabus, they may believe that students will spend a lot of time playing games. While this may be true, it may also be false because a majority of teachers supervise the way students use computers to accomplish a variety of objectives. As such, the teachers and not the reformers are in a position to make better reforms that change the lives of students and make them better people in the society.

Labaree’s book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling is rich with sociological and historical “philosophical” analysis. The author has played an important role in writing it well and presenting good and strong arguments; the tone is assertive, especially in matters concerning learning and teaching. However, the book does not come to the consent that the school system may look the same as it did in the past, but the teachers have changed the way they teach. Nowadays, they are able to make new reforms such as changing the syllabus based on evidence-based results from years of teaching students. Labaree‘s language is full of wisdom and is backed with theoretical knowledge that can bring understanding into the system. As such, this book is important to policymakers in the education systems who want to make guidelines that essentially may change the entire system. In particular, it is making an effort to inform the policymakers of the importance of working together with teachers in the system in order to make better reforms. It is likely that Labaree is trying to encourage teachers not only to implement school system reforms but also to realize that the current reforms are here to stay and the only way is to coexist. If they refuse to coexist, they are likely to find it challenging to make an impact in the system. The author concludes by making a controversial but truthful statement stating that no school system reforms will completely stick without the support of teachers and students because they will not be effective. Through acknowledging the perspective put forward by Labaree, the teachers can find sound logic in the new and different ways to create better school system reforms for a change in education in teaching and learning. Therefore, Labaree’s book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling offers a cynical view of the system reforms with a shrewd analysis of a great deal of historical knowledge that is important in the creation of a better system that benefits both teachers and students.







Clawson, R. A., &Oxley, Z. M. (2012). Public opinion: Democratic ideals, democtraticpractice(2nd ed.). Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Jwan, J., & Kisaka, S. (2017). Democracy, ethics and social justice: Implications for secondaryschool leadership in Kenya. South African Journal of Education, 37(3), 1-9.

Labaree, D. (2012). Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rury, J. (2011). Book Review: David F. Labaree.Someone has to fail: The zero sum game of public schooling.History of Education Quarterly, 51(3), 419-421.




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