Where Do the Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 4)

In the first three parts of this series, I answered the question of where “success” and “failure” as ideas came from. I identified and described three core values–individualism, equal opportunity, and community–that are inherent to the American character as far back as colonial times. Part 3 and this final section describe how those values are spread through distinctive American institution such as advertising and sports. This part deal with schools as a public vehicle for communicating and inculcating these values.


Establishing public schools to instill highly prized values in the young is a political decision. For centuries, newly formed nations concerned about replicating themselves have decided again and again to build patriotic, literate citizens who could protect the country against internal and external enemies (e.g., France, Britain, and the U.S in the 19th century, Soviet Union, China, Cuba in the 20thcentury).

Over two centuries ago, first in New England then in the Midwest and eventually the South and West, communities established tax-supported schools—called Common Schools–to nurture those core values in each generation. Recall the quote from historian James Truslow Adams in Part 1 about how the American Dream unfolded “imperfectly” meaning that ethnic and racial groups were initially segregated from white children into poorly resourced schools. Nonetheless, creating public schools is a political act done to insure that children and youth not only absorb but also display those values in what they say and do as adults.

Historically, then, public schools seek to mold the character of the young— being individualistic, expressing concern for community and prizing equal opportunity. Such political decisions then and now declare that these institutions are critical to forming literate, patriotic, self-sustaining, and community-minded citizens who in their daily actions within families and community display the core values essential to sustain the U.S.

And since the mid-19th century, school structures, curriculum, and pedagogy have not only mirrored those values but also worked to instill them in the next generation. For example, the age-graded organization promoted individualism, competitiveness, and winners and losers. Success and failure in age-graded schools was there for every single teacher and student to see.

Age-graded school

In the age-graded school’s definition of normal progress—children of an age complete the content and skills for that grade in so many months or will be held back for another school year—right-and-wrong rules for behavior, moral lessons taught explicitly to build character, and passing end-of-year achievement tests socialize the young into accepting individual performance and competing against others as essential as obeying rules.

The school curriculum required certain content and skills to be learned weekly. Language arts, math, science, social studies, foreign language, art, physical education were what students studied in elementary schools. In age-graded secondary schools the content of these subjects was more complex and harder to learn.

Late-19th and 20th century schools ran on daily schedules with 45-60 minute periods. For students to graduate they had to take so many years of each subject. Again, success and failure were tied to grade-point-averages, test scores, and the hardest subjects students took. Academic and behavioral performance was everything. Every year, a certain percentage of students dropped out of school—the failures. And a certain percentage of students became valedictorians—the successes. And other students who didn’t fit in or with disabilities or not yet attaining fluency in English were in the gray area between success and failure–call it mediocrity.

In each self-contained classroom and across the school with its age-graded curriculum, time schedule, and periodic tests, individual students succeeded, partially absorbed, failed to imbibe these values. Every year, winners and losers in competition for grades and teachers’ attention became clear.

How Teachers Teach

How teachers teach and have taught also reflect the larger American culture and character. As the authority in the classroom, the teacher evaluates and judges how and what individual students learn and how they behave. They can praise academic success and penalize failure; they are arbiters of fairness in dispensing rewards and sanctions; they can eject a student from a classroom and appoint hallway monitors. They also have the power to determine which students can move to the next grade.

Over the past century classroom pedagogy has shifted from total reliance on teacher-directed lessons heavy on recitation and lecture to ones where students participate far more in lessons and teachers orchestrate student learning in small groups and individually. Hybrids of both traditional and progressive ways of teaching have evolved in classrooms over the past century.

Teachers from the early 19th century also taught character through McGuffey readers  and didactic lessons on honesty, respect for authority, helping others, etc. Academic content contained pointers for students on how to behave as Americans.

By mid-20th century and in ensuing decades, progressive teachers saw the connection between  developing in students cooperative behavior and good will, creating a small community within the classroom, and encouraging students to learn from each other and the teacher.  Many teachers, then and now, prized creating collaboration and community in classrooms.

Schools were society’s vehicles for making the next generation into adults who practiced the core values prized by Americans.

Schools as Societal Problem Solvers

But tax-supported public schools, basically political institutions geared to socializing the young, were expected to do more than instill values in children and youth through age-graded schools, curricula, and teacher-directed pedagogy. Again and again, political, business, and civic leaders faced social, political, and economic issues they found too hard to directly solve by working on and altering those national and state structures actually creating the problems. Instead, these leaders often turned to schools to indirectly solve those pressing issues by putting it on the next generation.

Adults using too much alcohol, tobacco, and drug use became part of early 20th century school courses. Students had to learn to drink and smoke less and avoid addictive drugs. Too many deaths from car accidents on highways turned into schools establishing driver education classes throughout most of the 20th century. Too few mathematicians and scientists during the Cold War with the Soviet Union produced pumped up graduation requirements in these subjects.

And since the late-1970s, a floundering economy with too few skilled workers and automated technologies reducing manufacturing and other industrial jobs led to increased vocationalism in the nation’s schools. Everyone goes to college or enters a career, the slogans ran. Again and again, policy elites handed the baton to schools to solve the nation’s problems. U.S. problems became “educationalized.”

So schools in mirroring the contents and discontents of the larger society ever since the 1800s have also the primary task of socializing the core values of American society into the young. While they receive much help from other social institutions such as media, corporate advertising, sports, religion, and the workplace in reinforcing individualism, community, and equal opportunity–school goals, structures and ways of working with children and youth that yield school-based definitions of “success” and “failure” mirror societal ways of seeing these oh-so American values.

In short, “success” and “failure” are hard-wired into the democratic, market-driven society called America. Of course, the strength and vigor of these values play out differently among Americans depending on geography, social class, ethnicity, race, religion, and personal preferences. But they are in the DNA of the American character.

Notions of “success” and “failure” in schools, then, are deeply enmeshed in the core values that have characterized Americans as Americans since the founding of the nation.


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9 responses to “Where Do the Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 4)

  1. Jim Masters

    If the aims of education are to instill the core values of individualism, equal opportunity, and community, what are the long term implications for, say American society, in a context where the notion of the greater good defaults to those who live, look, and think alike? In combination, would “fixing the kids” and “choice” serve to concentrate narrower perspectives? Something of a diverse but separate social structure masquerading as community.

    • larrycuban

      There are many aims, James, in addition to socialization. Academic, political (see section on “educationalization” of national problems), and others. Schoolsegregation by race, ethnicity, and social class occur as a result of societal and political factors beyond the power of schooling to remedy. Schools can help reduce such effects–charter proponents make that case–but evidence remains debatable. Thus, I can say that you raise points that need far more openness than now exists. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    “Again and again, policy elites handed the baton to schools to solve the nation’s problems.”

    I think that the recent policy elites correspond to the very rich and politically savvy who are not asking public education to solve problems, but saying that public education is the problem–whether the problem is linked to the economy or to the cultural values forwarded in public school ( e.g., too liberal, too conservative).

    Policy elites of this era do not ask permission from anyone. They pay for political influence and they are collectively organized in an effort to ensure that education (and all related social services) are market-based and managed for maximum efficiency with measurable “impacts.” For many policy elites of our era, public education is valued insofar as it can be exploited as a market with high profit potential, especially if it remains tax-subsidized, compulsory, but de-schooled and re-made in the service of making profits. Profit-seeking is enabled by non-stop surveillance and data-gathering and using that information for endless marketing.

    Case in point: The GreatSchools website funded by the Gates, Walton, Robertson, and Arnold Foundations (logos displayed) and 19 others (standard type) including the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Bradley Foundation, Goldman Sachs Gives, and New Schools Venture Fund greatschools.org. The website has a system for ranking schools (including schools in the CORE districts of California http://coredistricts.org). Among other offerings this faux non-profit leases the data to Zillow, Scholastic, and other vendors. Schools can pay to have their ratings “pushed,” a feature similar to that used by platforms such as Facebook and Amazon. The principle of redlining is not just preserved but is allowed to thrive as if a virtue.

    Poke around the greatschools website to see how a non-profit can operate as a for-profit and serve the real estate, charter, testing and text industries; capture media outlets as “partners,” co-opt entire school districts into partnerships, also the US Department of Housing and Urban Development plus Fannie Mae. And then there are Social Impact Bonds, a new financial product for selected education markets, notably the preschool programs in Utah and in Chicago, both designed to produce profits for investors is the children enrolled in the program meet targets chosen by the inventors of these products. See for example http://mckinseyonsociety.com/downloads/reports/Social-Innovation/McKinsey_Social_Impact_Bonds_Report.pdf.

    • larrycuban

      You make a case for policy elites being unified in their interests and beliefs–schools are the problem and a market that can be exploited. I do not see such unanimity in “policy elites” as you do. There are varied interests and motives across the wealthy, comfortable, and market-driven elites who make social, political, and educational policy. Your description of Great Schools’ funders and their activities I did not know. Thanks for comment, Laura.

  3. Thanks. 😉 I’m a new subscriber to your blog and enjoying it. So interesting. Is there a reference section for someone like me who’ s interested enough to keep reading on the topic? Or if not, maybe a book recommendation of two? Gracias, D

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for subscribing to my blog. Historians of education who have written about schooling, teaching, and the role of schools in a democratic society are David Tyack, The One Best System and Tinkering toward Utopia (I was co-author of the latter book), David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail,William Reese, Jonathan Zimmerman. Happy reading.

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