Chapter One introduces basic vocabulary for understanding schools as social institutions. It discusses sociological theories of schooling and the advantages of a comparative-historical approach. It examines schooling from a macro-historical perspective, a meso-institutional perspective, and a micro-interactional perspective. It compares the scientific and humanistic sides of sociological analysis.
Chapter Two discusses schooling in the wealthier societies of the industrialized world. It charts the growth of enrollments at the primary, secondary, and tertiary level over time. It compares the premises of elite preparation and democratic uplift as starting points. It compares six distinctive forms of schooling systems: those found in the United States, Germany, England, France, Japan, and the former Soviet Union. It shows the convergence of schooling systems of the industrialized world and the role of transnational organizations in this convergence.
Chapter Three discusses schooling in the poorer countries of the developing world. It shows the divergence in schooling trajectories within the developing world. It discusses the role of the World Bank and other donor institutions in providing a common model of schooling. It discusses persistent problems of schooling in the developing world, including teachers who are not well trained and do not teach. It discusses the role of educational achievement in economic development, comparing three development theories: human capital, dependency, and state-led development.
Chapter Four describes how and why curricula change over time, focusing on the influence of ideological struggle among groups associated with the traditional liberal arts and those with more practical orientations. It discusses continuing regional variations in curriculum, the trends toward global convergence in primary school curricula, and the continuing variations in secondary school curricula that depend on commitments to general or mixed general-vocational curricula. It provides evidence on the achievement of students in different countries on international tests of reading comprehension, mathematics, and science. It shows that the performance of U.S. students is not as poor as many believe and analyzes the sources of variation in these scores.
Chapter Five discusses three dimensions of socialization: behavioral, moral, and cultural. It describes the historical transition from village to factory modalities of socialization and later toward the bureau-corporate/mass consumption modality. It discusses elements of the hidden curriculum of schooling that attempts to shape students who are fit for life in societies that are bureaucratic- and mass-consumption oriented. It discusses variation in socialization messages by social class, race-ethnicity, and gender. It compares the socialization messages of the playground to those of the classroom and the structural reasons for variation in these messages.
Chapter Six discusses the schools' role in fostering the mobility of students from lower social backgrounds. It shows that mobility occurs largely because of changes in the occupational structures. Within this context, schools in some societies provide greater opportunities for mobility than others. Most of these societies are relatively egalitarian in the economic and living conditions of the population. It discusses differences between individual level studies of mobility and group-level studies and shows that group-level studies show a less optimistic picture of mobility than individual-level, or status attainment, studies. It discusses the rise and fall of economic mobility through schooling in the United States and attributes the current era of reduced mobility to increasing inequality and the stronger connection between schooling and the life chances of affluent families who mobilize resources to maintain their privileges.
Chapter Seven looks at the opposite side of mobility, the reproduction of inequality through the schools. It discusses class inequality as the constant divider, racial-ethnic inequality as the varying divider, and gender inequality as the declining divider. It provides evidence to support these characterizations. It examines school organization for its role in reinforcing or reducing these inequalities, concluding that school resources, ability grouping, and small classes have little influence but that early tracking can have a large role as a reinforcer of inequality. It shows that groups do not simply accept their fates but rather adapt to leverage their resources to improve their situations inside and outside the educational system.
Chapter Eight discusses the social conditions, training, and values of teachers in comparative perspective. It also discusses the variation in student outlooks that influence teaching. It disputes theories of variation in learning styles. It describes the constraints and opportunities of bureaucratic, grouped learning environments on the lives of teachers and the influence of professional learning communities. It compares traditional and progressive philosophies of teaching and shows how elements of effective teaching combine features of both. It emphasizes that ideal teachers vary in different parts of the world and that the key to effectiveness is less a set of techniques than a cultural match between teacher performance and students' expectations.
Chapter Nine discusses four types of reform movements, characterized as the four Es of reform: efficiency, excellence, enhancement, and equity. It shows the roots of efficiency reform in the Progressive Era and the roots of student-centered, or enhancement, reforms during the same era and extending into the 1920s. The chapter focuses on excellence (or accountability) reforms and equity reforms. It evaluates the successes and failures of accountability legislation in the United States and other industrialized societies. It provides evidence on the effectiveness of such equity reforms as compensatory education, Head Start, comprehensive school reform, educational priority zones, and publicly supported early childhood education.
The coda ends the book on a positive note, focusing on what we have learned about effective schools. While arguing for forms of accountability that provide authentic assessments of student learning, it argues against losing track of the larger civic and cultural purposes of schooling, as described by theorists such as John Dewey and Benjamin Barber. It shows that variation in effectiveness is related to where schools and classrooms fall in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It describes the common characteristics of effective schools and elements of communal organization.