Our commentary on Christine Sleeter's landmark work, "Why Is There Learning Disabilities? A Critical Analysis of the Birth of the Field in Its Social Context," is presented in four sections. Each of the first three sections addresses one of the foci of her conflict analysis — ideology, institutions, and differentiated education — by summarizing her argument with respect to that aspect of her analysis, historicizing her line of argument in Foucault's sense of recontextualization or rereading a text in terms of categories and problems unavailable to its author, and assessing the social, historical and theoretical value of her analysis in general and with respect to the categories and problems of our recontextualization. In the first section we draw upon democratic theory to differentiate three strains of American liberalism — market, developmental, and managerial — which we use to extend Sleeter's argument regarding the ideology behind the creation of the learning disabilities category. In the second section we use institutional theory to reread her argument regarding schools as social institutions and what they had to gain from the creation of the learning disabilities category. For the third aspect of her analysis, we use the institutional history of public education to trace the roots of the discursive practice of differentiated education and to characterize the system that existed in the 1950s that the Brown decision, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 tried to change. In our concluding section we bring Sleeter's analysis forward in time to consider the new push for higher standards that she speculates about at the end of her paper. What she was referring to turned out to be the start of the neoliberal standards-based reform movement, which we review and relate to Sleeter's analysis and our recontextualization, as well as to her most recent work that addresses the intersection of accountability, equity, and democracy.

Christine Sleeter's 1987 chapter, "Why Is There Learning Disabilities? A Critical Analysis of the Birth of the Field in Its Social Context," is grounded metatheoretically in the radical structuralist research tradition, and theoretically in conflict theory, the tradition's principal theoretical orientation. She uses insights from both major conflict approaches in her analysis — the Marxian, which locates the main source of structural inequality "in the economic structure and material relations determined by the economy," and the (largely) Weberian, which locates it "in ideological as well as, or in place of, material relations and focuses on forms of social inequality other than economic" (1995, p. 154). However, Sleeter draws primarily on the latter approach, particularly with regard to its emphasis on status and power in social institutions, and the ways dominant groups sustain structural and cultural inequalities by developing ideologies and other modes of legitimation.

The main lines of Sleeter's analysis are summarized and commented upon in the sections to follow. Briefly, however, with respect to the analytic categories and problems of conflict theory, the groups with status and power in her analysis are business and military elites and white middle class parents. The former, supported by politicians, journalists, and school reformers, used their status and power to secure reforms before, and especially after, Sputnik that introduced higher academic standards and expanded the practice of differentiated education, which benefited them in terms of a more sharply stratified and scientifically adept workforce. The latter used their status and power to secure the learning disabilities category to differentiate and protect their children, who were failing under the higher standards, from poor and minority children who were overrepresented in existing, stigmatizing programs for students who were not keeping pace. In terms if structural and cultural inequalities in Sleeter's conflict analysis, higher educational standards and increased differentiation increased stratification and inequality in schools and society. The learning disabilities category, by claiming an organic cause of failure that upheld normalcy, maintained both the superiority of White culture and the ability of White middle class children "to attain and higher status occupations than other low achievers" (1987, p. 231). Finally, in terms of ideology, Sleeter argues that both the allegedly "scientific" student categories used in schools and the reforms sought by business and military elites are premised on the same ideology about the good economy and culture and the social function of schooling in such a society. The educational reforms informed by this ideology further elaborated an already stratified and unequal system of education. The student categories in schools conceal the economic and cultural interests behind the stratified system with the cover ideology of "individual differences and biological determinism" (p. 212), which pathologizes students in these categories and their families and cultures with "scientific" designations like "mentally retarded," "slow learner," "emotional disturbed," and "culturally deprived" (p. 220).

Sally Tomlinson (1995), another prominent conflict theorist, noted that structuralist perspectives like Sleeter's are unpopular in the field of special education because "they suggest ways of looking at events and practices that are uncomfortable for [the field]" (p. 132). The degree to which Sleeter caused discomfort among defenders of the field's functionalist knowledge tradition was apparent in their harsh reaction to her analysis. Whereas they merely dismissed Lous Heshusius' (1982) equally powerful subjectivist critique of the field's objectivist practices and discourses as unscientific "superstition" (Ulman & Rosenberg, 1986, p. 459), they condemned Sleeter's structuralist critique as "ideological rhetoric.... a distorted account of history" that is dangerous because of its "ready appeal to egalitarian 'instincts' and warping of reality" (Kavale & Forness, 1987, p. 7).1 The reaction from those who also were questioning special education practices and discourses was quite different, of course. Sleeter's analysis of the social construction of a disability category was immediately recognized as a landmark work, an invaluable theoretical contribution to the critical discourse in and around the field of special education at the time (see, e.g., Sigmon, 1987; Skrtic, 1991a; Tomlinson, 1995). And, as this issue of Disability Studies Quarterly rightfully attests, her analysis continues to be very influential today, especially among those in the critical discourse concerned with the intersection of race, class, and disability in school and society (e.g., Ferri, 2004; Ferri & Connor, 2005; Harry & Klingner, 2006; Kalyanpur & Harry, 2004; Reid & Valle, 2004).2

Each of the three sections to follow addresses what we take to be a focal aspect of Sleeter's analysis: ideology, institutions, and differentiated education. Each section begins with a summary of her argument with respect to that aspect of her analysis, followed by an attempt to historicize that line of argument — in Foucault's (1972) sense of historicization as recontextualization, as rereading a text in terms of categories and problems unavailable to its author. Each of these sections concludes with an assessment of the social, historical, and theoretical value of Sleeter's analysis in general and with respect to the categories and problems of our recontextualization. In the first section we draw upon democratic theory to differentiate three strains of American liberalism — market, developmental, and managerial — which we use to extend Sleeter's argument regarding the ideology behind the creation of the learning disabilities category. In the second section we use institutional theory to reread her argument regarding schools as social institutions and what they had to gain form the creation of the learning disabilities category. For the third aspect of her analysis, we use the institutional history of public education to trace the roots of the discursive practice of differentiated education and to characterize the system that existed in the 1950s that Brown decision, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA) tried to change. Finally, in a concluding section we bring Sleeter's analysis forward in time to consider the new push for higher standards that she speculates about at the end of her chapter. What she referred to as "schools currently being called on again to raise standards" (p. 232), was the beginning stage of the standards-based reform movement, which we review and relate to Sleeter's analysis and our recontextualization, as well as to her most recent work that addresses the intersection of accountability, equity, and democracy.


Given her conflict perspective, ideology plays a central role in Sleeter's analysis. Her general aim in the chapter is to challenge the assumption that the student categories used in schools reflect real differences among children and thereby provide an objective, scientific basis for grouping and teaching them most effectively. Rather, she argues, these allegedly "'scientific' categories and resulting school structures" (p. 211) reflect an ideology about "what schools are for, what society should be like, and what the 'normal' person should be like" (p. 211). Given this premise, her task in the chapter is to expose the "hidden ideology" behind the creation of the category of learning disabilities, which she contends is "an ideology regarding the 'good' US economy, the 'proper' social function of schooling, and the 'good' culture" (p. 211). In addition to these social-political ideologies, the interpretation of the development of the learning disabilities category by the field itself carries the "ideological message . . . that schools, supported by medical and psychological research, are involved in an historic pattern of progress" (p. 212), one in which the combination of scientific research on neurological impairment and parental pressure in the late 1950s led to development of programs for children with an organically-based disorder "whose needs [were] finally recognized and met" (p. 212). Sleeter's opposing interpretation argues that "the category emerged for a political purpose: to differentiate and protect white middle class children who were failing in school from lower class and minority children, during a time when schools were being called upon to raise standards for economic and military purposes" (p. 212). Finally, in addition to these social-political and professional ideologies, the actual political purpose of the learning disabilities category was "cloaked in the ideology of individual differences and biological determinism, thus making it appear scientifically sound" (p. 212).

Ideological Tension in Liberal Democracy

What is the "correct" answer to the questions about the proper social function of schools and schooling in these hidden ideologies? For Sleeter, it is inscribed in the recommendations for reforming American education in the 1950s and 1960s: to "efficiently fit every child for a 'place' in society, with some 'places' clearly more desirable and profitable than others" (1987, p. 219). This answer succinctly defines and links social mobility and social efficiency, two of the three traditional purposes of American public education. The third purpose, democratic equality, is concerned with preparing all of our young "with equal care" for effective democratic citizenship and, as an essential corollary, with minimizing social inequality to permit equal participation in the political process (Labaree, 1997, p. 17). Whereas democratic equality is a public good, social mobility is a private good because it is concerned with providing individual students with an advantage over others in the competition for desirable social positions. By turning education into a commodity, the purpose of social mobility makes schooling increasingly stratified and unequal, thus undermining the purpose of democratic equality. Social efficiency is concerned with preparing students to fill useful positions in the economy, which is a public good in that we all benefit from an efficient economy, as well as a private good because it differentially benefits individuals and groups in the private sector. In either case, however, social efficiency also undermines democratic equality because efficient allocation of students to particular positions requires schools to mirror the stratified and unequal structure of the market economy. This incompatibility of purposes can be traced to the ideological tension at the core of all liberal or capitalist democracies — the tension between democracy and capitalism, between the ideal of political equality and the reality of social inequality (Labaree, 1997).3

Although social institutions are meant to minimize this tension by balancing their competing purposes, this becomes increasingly difficult when one or more purpose becomes inordinately dominant. Ultimately, the relative weight given to such competing purposes in a liberal democracy depends on which strain of liberal political theory is dominant in society, market liberalism, developmental liberalism, or managerial liberalism, each of which balances the tension between democracy and capitalism differently (Macpherson, 1977; Ryan, 1972).4 Market liberalism is the oldest strain of liberal political theory, emerging in the first half of the 19th century with roots in classical laissez-faire economics and Benthamite utilitarianism (Young, 1996). In the 20th century it was associated most often with conservative economists Friedrich Hayek (1978) and Milton Friedman (e.g., 1962), both of whom are intellectual authorities for contemporary neoliberalism, which is largely a throwback to the classical liberalism of the 19th century (Freeden, 1996). Market liberalism views economic markets as the ideal coordinating mechanism of liberal societies and thus sees politics simply as an extension of market competition. This view casts citizens as individual competitors in the consumption of political goods, and government merely as a protector of economic markets and private rights (Waligorski, 1990). Democracy in this view is thin or weak, amounting to little more than occasional voting for self-selected political elites. Market liberals favor the educational purposes of social efficiency and social mobility over democratic equality. They want limited citizen participation in the political process to protect the market from government interference.

Conversely, developmental liberalism views democratic politics itself as a social good, a process of reciprocal self and social improvement in which citizens develop their capacities for reflective discourse and collective problem solving (Held, 1996; Macpherson, 1977). Developmental liberals — most notably John Dewey (1991b [1935]), Jane Addams (1902), and Herbert Croly (1965 [1909]) in the early 20th century — want a strong, participatory form of democracy in which all social institutions are sites of political education through participatory politics (Barber, 1984). This is why Dewey saw schools as having a dual mission as sites of democratic training for the young and political education for citizens and professionals. Fulfilling this developmental mission required what he called "democratic administration" in schools, leadership in engaging citizens and civically-oriented professionals in deliberative problem solving aimed at balancing public education's purposes, activities, and competing values and interests (Dewey, 1976 [1899], 1980[1916], 1991a [1937]).

During the progressive era, Dewey and other developmental progressives promoted democratic administration and civic professionalism as antidotes to unchecked market liberalism and weak democracy (Dewey, 1988b). But their civic vision of progressivism lost out to that of the other more technocratic strain of progressivism which, though also opposed to pure market liberalism, championed technical efficiency through science and bureaucracy as the way to an advanced and just society (Price, 1974). Inspired by positivism, utilitarianism, and the professionalization of engineering and business management, the victory of this approach made technocratic rather than democratic administration the dominant model of public administration in the 20th century and, moreover, established its technocratic vision of expert-driven democracy as a new managerial form of liberalism (Furner, 2005; Kloppenberg, 1986).5

Whereas market liberals consider economic markets to be the ideal coordinating mechanism of a liberal society, managerial liberals give this distinction to bureaucracy, and specifically to the early 20th century capitalist firm, which they adopted as a model for government and public administration (Kloppenberg, 1986; Price, 1974). Managerial liberals are also weak democrats because, like market liberals, they favor limited citizen participation in politics. Market and managerial liberals both want limited democracy, the former to protect the market from government interference, the latter to protect public bureaucracies and their technocrats from lay citizen interference (Furner, 2005; Hanson, 1985). Prominent among early 20th century managerial liberals were the "administrative progressives" (Tyack, 1990, p. 17), the first generation of university-trained school superintendents and their education professors who, supported by like-minded state education officials and foundation officers, extended bureaucracy and institutionalized technocratic administration and professionalism in public education. Far from the civic progressives' developmental vision of schools as public institutions in the service of democratic equality, these technocratic progressives, informed by the political ideology of managerial liberalism and in the service of social mobility and social efficiency, created the system of public education that was called into question in the 1950s by Brown and in the 1960s and 1970s by the civil rights movement and the various "new social movements" (Habermas, 1981, p. 33) that it spawned, including the disability rights movement (Katz, 1987; Tyack & Hansot, 1982).

Ultimately, market liberalism is the ideology behind the school reforms of the 1950s and 1960s that Sleeter describes, and thus the reason why the purposes of social efficiency and social mobility were so prominent in the recommendations of the reformers. The structural and cultural inequalities of schools as social institutions derive from this largely singular emphasis on these educational purposes which, by their very nature, require schools to replicate the stratified and unequal structure of the market economy. The value of Sleeter's analysis in this regard is that it allows us to see in great detail how, in the name of educational reform, ideological discourses in society, government, and the professions helped establish and sustain, sometimes tacitly, existing relations of power and domination and hegemonic definitions of reality. As such, her analysis is an important resource for envisioning more desirable forms of educational reform that advance the purpose of democratic equality. In addition to market liberal ideology, however, advocates for such a developmental liberal vision must also confront managerial liberalism, the ideological grounding of our technocratic social institutions and professions. Although the ideology of market liberalism was behind the school reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, as its more virulent strain, neoliberalism, is behind the reforms of today, we will see in the discussion of differentiated education below that the classification and tracking structures and practices created to enact such market liberal reforms historically are grounded in the political ideology of managerial liberalism. Before considering that history, however, it will be helpful to theorize the social institutions in which the inequalities that result from such structures and practices are inscribed.


A key question in the conflict approach is what groups are advantaged over others by the structural inequalities grounded in and concealed by ideology in and around social institutions. Sleeter argues that those who benefited politically from the creation of the learning disabilities category were white middle class parents, white middle class business and military leaders, and, indirectly, schools. The advantage for white middle class parents was that their children, who were failing under the higher academic standards demanded by business and military leaders in the wake of Sputnik, were differentiated and protected from poor and minority children and the stigma of the existing categories of "mentally retarded," "slow learner," "emotionally disturbed," and "culturally deprived," which were the "syndromes [schools] used to explain why many lower class and minority children could not keep up" (p. 220). These parents also benefited from the idea of organic damage as the cause of learning disabilities, in that, it explained their children's reading problems "without raising questions about the cultural integrity of middle class homes" (p. 226).

The political advantage for white middle class business and military leaders, according to Sleeter, was that the learning disabilities category allowed them to avoid questions about their demand for ever higher achievement standards and, moreover, about "a culture that required economic expansion and economic imperialism, and social institutions that would shape the young for a stratified labor market" (1987, p. 227). Finally, the political advantage of creating the learning disabilities category for schools was that "it helped [them] to continue to serve best those whom schools have always served best: the white middle and upper-middle class" (p. 212). That is, for Sleeter, the principal advantage of the learning disabilities category for schools was that it allowed them to solve the problem of what to do about "more and more white middle class children . . . threatened with school failure" (p. 224) in a way that sustained the historical advantage of their parents' race and class.

We agree with the advantages that Sleeter claims for white middle class parents and especially for business and military interests. We also agree that the ability to solve the problem of increasing numbers of failing white middle class children in a way that was consistent with the interests of a dominant social group was an important advantage for schools. However, we believe that this explanation overestimates the power of parents, even white middle class parents, to get what they want in schools, while underestimating the motivation, capacity, and history of schools as social institutions to protect their legitimacy by deflecting criticism and, when pressured to change, instituting merely symbolic reforms. In the discussion below we use institutional theory to show that, for their very survival, schools needed something like the learning disability category to solve the problem of failing white middle class children, and they would have had to invent it even if parents didn't want it, as was the case with other disability categories like "mentally retarded" and "emotionally disturbed" and other "syndromes" of failure like "culturally deprived." The fact that schools could create the learning disabilities category, while appearing to serve the interest of a dominant social group, was gravy, so to speak.

Institutional Advantage of the Learning Disabilities Category

Institutional theory is concerned with processes of institutionalization in organizations and their effects on the ways organizations respond to their environments. With regard to institutionalization processes, they emphasize the social construction of reality in organizations — in the form of taken-for-granted institutional rules, myths, and beliefs — and the processes by which organizations become infused with value and meaning (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Selznick, 1949, 1957). With regard to the way institutionalized organizations respond to their environments, theorists are concerned with the effects of these institutional processes on the structural characteristics of organizations (e.g., DiMaggio & Powel, 1983; Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Scott & Meyer, 1987) and the nature of organizational change (e.g., M. W. Meyer, 1979; Rowan, 1980; Zucker, 1981, 1988).

According to institutional theory, organizations like schools must be responsive to the demands of their institutional environment in order to maintain their legitimacy and thus survive, but in doing so they must accommodate a variety of conflicting demands and constraints (Rowan, 1982). Their institutional environment, which shapes and enforces the institutional rules, beliefs, and norms they must live by, is composed of other institutions, including the social state (and its governmental agencies, regulatory structures, laws, and courts) and the professions (Scott, 1987a), as well as interest groups and public opinion (DiMaggio & Powel, 1983). Institutional theorists emphasize structural and procedural reproduction and isomorphism with these institutional rules, beliefs, and norms as the way to organizational survival (DiMaggio & Powel, 1983; Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Given that the primary motives of institutionalized organizations like schools are stability and legitimacy (DiMaggio, 1988; Meyer & Rowan, 1983), they seek to secure them by reproducing or imitating organizational structures, activities, and routines in response to legal and regulatory requirements of the state, expectations of the profession, or social norms of the institutional environment (DiMaggio & Powel, 1983; Zucker, 1977).

One problem with conformity to institutional rules and expectations is that over time the resulting institutionalized structures and practices become resistant to change (Tolbert, 1985; Tolbert & Zucker, 1983). This happens because the process of reproduction and isomorphism involves conformity, habit, and ritualized activity rather than reflective strategic choice, leading to an unquestioned, preconscious acceptance of institutionalized structures, classifications, and practices (DiMaggio, 1988). In this way, institutionalized organizations like schools define and structure their activities around functions — for example, general education, special education, compensatory education, bilingual education, gifted education — that reflect institutionalized or ritual classifications of students, personnel, and programs rather than considered judgments based on technical considerations of effectiveness and efficiency (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Zucker, 1977). This tendency of schools to retain institutionalized ways of structuring and conducting organizational activities makes it difficult for them to respond to ongoing pressure for conformity from their institutional environment and especially to more dramatic change demands that require substantially different structures and activities. Schools deal with this potential threat to their perceived legitimacy by using two forms of "decoupling" (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, p. 357) to signal the environment that they are conforming or changing when, in fact, they are not (M. W. Meyer, 1979; Rowan, 1980; Zucker, 1981).

As institutionalized organizations, schools maintain two decoupled structures to deal with the problem of conflicting demands and constraints, a formal structure that reflects the rules and expectations of their institutional environment, and an informal structure that conforms to the technical demands of their work and the expectations of the profession (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, 1978). As such, schools' formal structure are largely myths, assortments of symbols and ceremonies that have little to do with the way their work is actually done. This decoupled, two-structure arrangement permits schools to do their work according to the localized judgments of their professionals, while protecting their legitimacy by giving the institutional environment the appearance of the organizational arrangement that it expects. That is, on a day to day basis, "decoupling enables organizations to maintain standardized, legitimating, formal structures while their activities vary in response to practical considerations" (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, p. 357). Schools also use this form of decoupling when they are confronted with more punctuated change demands that require substantially different structures and activities. Here, they signal compliance by building symbols and ceremonies of change into their formal isomorphic structure, which have little effect on practice because they are decoupled from it (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). One can think of Individualized Educational Plans (IEP) and the IEP planning process required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), respectively, as symbols and ceremonies of compliance with the law; IEPs exist and IEP planning meetings occur, but in most respects neither conforms to the spirit of the law (see Skrtic, 1991b), which is especially true with regard to participation of poor, working class, and racial, ethnic and linguistic minority parents in the planning process (see Kalyanpur & Harry, 2004).

An important way that schools have signaled change historically is the addition of ritual subunits, that is, separate classrooms and programs which, because they are decoupled from the rest of the programs and professionals in the organization, can be created with little substantive reorganization of activity (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Zucker, 1981). This type of decoupling is possible in schools because they divide and coordinate their work using specialization and professionalization, which together create a cellular or "loosely coupled" interdependence among professionals and programs (Mintzberg, 1979; Weick, 1976). From the perspective of institutional theory, decoupled subunits are legitimating devices; they relieve pressure for change by signaling the institutional environment that a desired change has occurred when it hasn't, thus helping to maintain both the stability and legitimacy of institutionalized organizations.

The segregated special education classroom is a key example of this form of decoupling in public education. As we will see in the discussion of differentiated education below, the administrative progressives created special classrooms to segregate and contain student diversity in schools following enactment of compulsory education legislation at the turn of the 20th century (also see Sarason & Doris, 1979). From an institutional perspective, special classrooms served as a legitimating device, a means of signaling compliance with a mandate for change from the institutional environment while permitting schools to retain their institutionalized practices (Skrtic, 1991, 1995b). Moreover, the other special needs programs — compensatory, gifted, bilingual, migrant — have served the same legitimating function in schools, signaling one thing to the environment (we are serving all students equitably, as required law, regulatory agencies, and public opinion) while largely doing another (acting in taken-for-granted ways that maintain institutionalized discursive practices and their associated inequities). As such, special education and the other special needs programs are institutional artifacts, discursive practices that emerged to contain the failures of a largely non-adaptable social institution faced with the changing value demands of a dynamic institutional environment. Institutional theory helps explain why, historically, "[r]eform in public education has largely come about by accretion, by adding new rooms to the structure, thereby enabling educators to absorb demands for change without much damage to vested educational interests"(Tyack & Hansot, 1981, p. 21).

The overrepresentation of poor and minority students in special education programs, including those described by Sleeter that predate the category of learning disabilities, and especially those for students labeled as "educable mentally retarded" in the 1960s following Brown, can be understood as another form of decoupling. Here, schools use an existing decoupling device — selected categorical programs within the special education system — to maintain legitimacy while failing to meet the needs of disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students in general education classrooms (Skrtic, 1991b, 2003). Both the decoupled and racially and culturally discriminatory nature of these programs in the 1960s is undeniable (see Chandler & Plakos, 1969; Dunn, 1968; Johnson, 1962; Jones, 1962; Mercer, 1973; Wright, 1967), and the problem has continued to the present for these and minority students (Artiles et al., 2002; Donovan & Cross, 2002; Ferri & Connor, 2005; Harry & Klingner, 2006; Heller et al., 1982; Skiba, et al., 2008). This is so even though the IDEA requires disability determinations to be based on "racially and culturally nondiscriminatory testing and evaluation" (Turnbull, 1993, p. 85), compliance with which is symbolized and ceremonialized within student evaluation and identification processes.

Sleeter's analysis is a significant contribution to institutional theory because it describes the social origins of an institutionalized educational classification. Although there is a good deal of institutional research on the social construction of classifications related to students generally and to school and administrative practices, there is a significant need for more and better research on the "institutional origins" of educational classifications (Rowan, 2006, p. 212). The value of Sleeter's analysis in this regard is that it provides a rich description of the institutional environment of schools in the 1950s and 1960s, including the conflicting political pressures that confronted them and how the construction of the learning disabilities category, when read from the perspective of institutional theory, helped relieve those pressures in ways that protected the legitimacy of public education. Schools had previously buffered themselves from criticism about failing poor and minority children by constructing the four "syndromes" of school failure that Sleeter describes. At this point in their history, however, they needed a more nuanced, socially tolerable legitimating device, and the converging interests of the emerging field of learning disabilities and white middle class parents provided it, in the form of a new organically-based special education category. As such, the learning disabilities category not only deflected blame for failure from the school to the child, it was culturally acceptable to the white middle class and consistent with the professional image that Sleeter describes schools as cultivating — the image of an "historic pattern of progress" in which scientific research leads to programs for children whose needs are finally recognized and met [by the schools]" (1987, p. 212).

Politically, of course, differentiating the learning disabilities category from the existing "syndromes" of failure in schools helped sustain existing relations of power and domination, including a hegemonic definition of social reality that maintained the superiority of white culture. Although parents who pushed for the learning disabilities category undoubtedly had a political interest in protecting their failing children and their cultural reputation, as Sleeter claims, using institutional theory to help understand this historical episode reminds us of the complexity of the phenomenon of power, and that conflicts are rarely resolved by one dominant group coercing weaker ones (Lukes, 1979). In the case of the social origins of the learning disabilities category, schools and their technocratic managers and professionals, as well as the social and applied scientists who created the field of learning disabilities, had at least as much to gain as white middle class parents and ultimately more power, in terms of the authority to interpret the needs of these children and define the services they would receive in ways that served their vested professional interests (see Skrtic, 2000). As Fraser (1989) noted in this regard, members of groups who win political struggles to have their needs recognized and addressed by the social state tend to be recast by expert discourses in social institution as individual "cases" and thereby "rendered passive, positioned as potential recipients of predefined services rather than as agents involved in interpreting their needs and shaping their life conditions" (1989, p. 174).6

We concluded the previous section by claiming that, although the political ideology of market liberalism was behind the school reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, the classification and tracking practices and structures of 20th century schooling are institutional products of managerial liberalism, the ideological grounding of technocratic administration and professionalism in public education. Now that we have a sense of the function of such practices and structures in institutionalized organizations, we can consider the institutional history of public education to see how the administrative progressives introduced and institutionalized them in schools. In this regard we want to show how these early 20th century school administrators, grounded in the ideology of managerial liberalism, made the aims of social efficiency and social mobility the primary purposes of education, and through their classification and tracking practices and structures, brought schools into isomorphism with the stratified and unequal structure of the market economy, thereby undercutting the purpose of democratic equality in schools and the possibility of strong democracy in America. Whereas above we were concerned with the existence and relationship of political and institutional ideologies, in the section to follow we are concerned with the discursive practices that flow from their intersection.

Differentiated Education

According to Sleeter, segregated schools and white privilege ensured that white middle- and upper-class parents could assume that education reformers would enable their children to receive "the better teachers, beefed-up programs, and more lucrative opportunities" (1987, p. 219). When schools finally began to respond to the desegregation requirements of the Brown decision, "minority children were seen as 'behind' and resegregated within the schools in special programs, which helped retain white privilege" (p. 219). She cites Kirp's (1982) research on the desegregation process in which he found that schools districts, whether they had desegregated or not, "held a shared and quite conventional understanding of the mission of public education . . . The task of the schools, it was felt, was to provide a differentiated education that matched the varied abilities of a heterogeneous population" (quoted in Sleeter, p. 220). To carry out the task of differentiated education, Sleeter adds, "schools at all levels were tracked . . . with minority children placed in compensatory and remedial classes" (p. 220), using one of the four "syndromes" noted above "to explain why many lower class and minority children could not keep up" (p. 220).

Ideological and Institutional Context of Differentiated Education

Given its relevance to Sleeter's argument and to the history of special education as an institutional practice, here we want to consider the emergence of differentiated education in public schools in terms of the political ideologies and institutional processes discussed above. In doing so, we locate it as a discursive practice within the broader institutional history of the bureaucratization of public education, which begins in the mid 19th century when the crusaders of the Common School movement won public support for the idea of a common school experience to advance the purpose of democratic equality.7

During the first phase of this history, roughly 1850-1900, bureaucratization was neither a conscious policy choice nor the result of a grand plan. Rather, it emerged gradually in the largest cities as lay reformers wrestled with practical problems of size, complexity, and coordination by introducing measures like centralized control and supervision (under a superintendent), differentiation of function (specialization), and qualifications for office (professionalization) (Hogan, 1990; Katz, 1987). In the latter decades of the period, the new urban superintendents extended differentiation somewhat with measures such as age-grading, subject-area specialists, and specialized schools like kindergartens and normal schools (Tyack & Hansot, 1982). The second phase of bureaucratization, roughly 1900-1950, was a purposeful undertaking planned and carried out by a new group of crusaders, the administrative progressives, who convinced the public to accept their vision of school organization, administration, and governance as the "correct institutional grammar of the modern school" (Tyack, 1990, p.179). Their reform plan, referred to simply as "reorganization," was premised on a common faith in "educational science" and business efficiency, and aimed at bringing efficiency, expertise, and their own brand of equity and accountability to public education (Tyack, 1990, p.177).

By educational science the administrative progressives meant use of quantitative measures to guide decision making, which included achievement tests to assess student learning and, more ominously, intelligence tests to sort students into separate school tracks in the interest of social, organizational, and moral efficiency.8 They did this by extending the earlier age and subject-area differentiation of teachers to differentiation by type of student and curriculum, thereby creating the separate curricular tracks of special education and vocational education (Lazerson, 1983; Tyack & Hansot, 1982; Tropea, 1987a, 1987b). Given their faith in science and efficiency, and their belief that children of different abilities had different destinies in life, equity for the administrative progressives in their reorganized schools meant "a place for every child and every child in his or her place" (Tyack, 1990, p. 178). As such, equity in the modern, reorganized school was achieved through the discursive practice of differentiated education, with separate special education and vocational education tracks as the key mechanism of differentiation.

Accountability for the administrative progressives simply meant the degree to which a school was organized and managed according to the business efficiency principles of their reorganization template. True to their managerial liberal ideology, the template sought to bring the school into isomorphism with the early 20th century capitalist firm, including its highly prescriptive principles of scientific management (Callahan, 1962). Finally, to address the often contentious nature of urban school governance, the administrative progressives' reorganization plan also promised to "take the schools out of politics" (Tyack, 1990, p. 174). They kept this promise by shifting the locus of decision making from lay citizens to business and professional elites who supported the superintendents and their reorganization plan because its model of differentiated education, based on students' presumed ability and destiny, served their interest in social efficiency and social mobility (Tyack & Hansot, 1982).9 By taking politics out of schools, however, the administrative progressives, in effect, took democracy out of education, which resulted in a "closed system" characterized by "the increasing ability of school officials to ignore parents, reformers, and others outside the system" (Katz, 1987, p. 109).

Accountability, Equity, and Democratic Renewal

The system that Katz (1987) described was the closed, tracked system that was called it into question by Brown in 1954. It is the system that was able to maintain its institutional legitimacy while resisting the Brown mandate, in part by using the kinds of signaling and decoupling devices noted above and documented historically by critical race theorist Derrick A. Bell (1980) to include various forms of "resegregation within desegregated schools" (p. 531). Although Bell didn't implicate special education categorical programs in resegregation, others (e.g., Ferri & Connor, 2005; Skrtic, 2003) have shown that they were instrumental in resegregation and, moreover, that they continue to disproportionately represent poor and racial, ethnic, and linguistic minority students (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2005; Harry & Klingner, 2006; Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azziz, & Chung, 2005; Skiba et al., 2008).

This closed system also is the one that was called into question by the civil and disability rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, in which activists attacked IQ testing and tracking and demanded democratic equality, including a role for parents and community stakeholders in educational decision making. Although they appeared finally to have defeated the closed system with passage of the ESEA and EHA, the activists' victory proved to be a hollow one, in part, because of the closed system's ability to resist meaningful change, including the parent and citizen participation requirements of both laws. Resistance took the form of new and recycled legitimating devices that symbolized and ceremonialized compliance with their most fundamental requirements (see Skrtic, 1991b, 1995b, 2003). Moreover, given the historical pattern of reform by accretion, what the activists got was more tracking, an array of new ritualized programs that were merely added to and decoupled within largely unchanged institutionalized bureaucracies (Tyack & Hansot, 1982; Skrtic, 1991b; Wise, 1979).

More ominously, the activists' victory has been hollowed out further by the ideological hijacking of both laws by standards-based reform, which occurred gradually over the 1990s then decisively in the 2001 reauthorization of the ESEA as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the 2004 reauthorization of the EHA as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). Under standards-based reform, both laws are now premised on neoliberalism, the more extreme form of market liberal ideology that was diffused globally by the Thatcher and Reagan administrations beginning in the 1980s (Harvey, 2005). Through the use of test scores as a type of "bottom line" for schools, these interlocking laws have created a market-like rationality in public education, including competition among schools, performance bonuses and (mainly) penalties, and privatizing and outsourcing (Skrtic, 2006). As a result, under neoliberalism's guiding "public choice theory" and associated "rational choice" models, which recast government as a relationship between market and customers, and make efficiency and productivity the sole value of public administration, the broader strong democratic values of responsiveness and participation have been eclipsed (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2003; Engel, 2000), the very values upon which the original ESEA and EHA were premised. Beyond threatening the well-being of their intended beneficiaries, the new neoliberal orientation of NCLB and IDEA further elevates the educational purposes of social mobility and social efficiency over that of democratic equality, thus extending the stratified and unequal structure of schools and society and further ensconcing weak democracy (Skrtic, 2005; also see Apple, 2001; Lange & Riddell, 2000; Loxley & Thomas, 2001).

The ideological take over began with publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), the Reagan administration's Sputnik, which dramatically reasserted the market liberal purposes of social efficiency and social mobility by characterizing public education as being in crisis, due largely to the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, and casting this as a threat to the nation's economic and political future (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Henig, 1994). This gave rise to 25 years of standards-based reform, which began with the "effective schools" movement in the mid-1980s, was codified in NCLB in 2001, and interlocked with the IDEA in 2004. Effective schools reforms tried to realize educational excellence by raising academic standards and increasing standardized testing and teaching (Wise, 1988), but this intensified the problem of poor academic performance, especially for poor and minority students (Cuban, 1989; Stedman, 1987) and students labeled with disabilities (Skrtic, 1991a, 1991b). Criticism of this approach gave rise to the "school restructuring" movement (see Elmore, 1987; Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988), which generally was concerned with moving away from the centralized, bureaucratic administration of the closed system, but took two different forms. The first and more democratic or developmentally liberal form emerged in the mid 1980s but receded in the mid 1990s with the advance of standards-based reform legislation (see below). The second and more corporate or market liberal form of restructuring is being pursued to one degree or another in most school districts today, and is epitomized in high performance school experiments like James Comer's School Development Program, Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools, and Theodore Sizer's Essential Schools (Engel, 2000). Like the first form of restructuring, this one is premised on decentralization and collaboration, but it promotes market liberal rather than democratic purposes by imitating corporate restructuring models that redesign organizations "along decentralized and participatory lines," but do so "to maximize efficiency, productivity, and customer satisfaction" (2000, p. 124). Although democratic in its rhetoric and perhaps in its belief and intent, "a closer examination . . . reveals the reverse, because the programs are based on the undemocratic theory and practice of the market economy" (p. 125). Moreover, whereas the administrative progressives repressed opposition to their emphasis on social efficiency and social mobility by stacking school boards with business and professional elites, "the new models are more subtle — and more effective. Restructuring [of this corporate form] closes off debate about educational values and goals by ignoring or avoiding the social context of conflict that surrounds them — in short, it depoliticizes education" (Engel, p.132).10

The more developmental form of restructuring proposed to pursue educational excellence and equity simultaneously, which in terms of our analysis means balancing the market liberal purposes of education with that of democratic equality. Its proponents criticized tracking as an indication of deep structural flaws in schools, and proposed to eliminate it by personalizing instruction for all students through decentralizing decision making to teachers and increasing collaboration among them and community stakeholders (e.g., McNeil, 1986; Oakes, 1985). Progressive proponents of inclusive education in special education embraced this form of restructuring as consistent with their idea of a "unitary system" of collaborative problem solving and shared responsibility for all students (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987; Sailor, 1991; Skrtic, 1991a), as well as for its potential to advance democratic equality (Lipsky & Gartner, 1996; Skrtic, 1991b; Skrtic, Sailor & Gee, 1996).11

In her most recent book, Facing Accountability in Education: Democracy and Equity at Risk, Sleeter (2007) and her colleagues in multicultural education raise similar concerns about excellence and equity in public education, including critical questions about the intersection of democracy, equity, and accountability under NCLB and standards based reform. In her introduction to this edited volume, she identifies the questions that she and her fellow chapter authors pursue in the book: "To what extent does the current accountability movement support equity? Or, can it better be understood as a mechanism through which historic inequities are reconstituted and solidified?" (p. 4). Like us, Sleeter and most of her colleagues are concerned that we are at risk of the latter proposition being true. This is so for Sleeter because, although the "current accountability movement purports to benefit all students and particularly those who have been left behind historically. . . . [it] was constructed on a logic that rolls back democracy, racial equity, and the public sphere; as a result, it appears to benefit primarily those who are White and native English speakers and a larger movement toward privatization and meritocracy" (p. 12).

This is the logic of market or neoliberalism, the ideological source of institutional pressure on schools to pursue social efficiency and social mobility at the expense of democratic equality, thereby sustaining the historical structural and cultural inequalities of schools and society. Given the institutionalized nature of schools, any real progress in emancipating powerless groups from their social position requires that this ideology be exposed for what it is, who it serves, and what it costs socially, and this is what Sleeter's 1987 conflict analysis does. It creates what Tomlinson (1995) called the "condition for radical change" by demonstrating to social participants "'what is really going on'" (p. 131). We would add that really knowing what is going on in schools as institutionalized organizations requires understanding them theoretically and historically in terms of how they maintain legitimacy by conforming to and resisting their institutionalized environment, and the effects of these institutional processes on their structural characteristics and the meaning of organizational change

Moreover, in addition to exposing the ideology of market liberalism, we must also expose managerial liberalism for what it is, who it serves, and the social costs of its devotion to bureaucratic efficiency and aversion to democratic participation. Although early managerial liberals were opposed to unchecked market liberalism, they were also weak democrats, favoring limited citizen participation in education to protect their organizations and discursive practices from lay citizen interrogation and interference. Dewey was more sympathetic to the managerial strain of liberalism than market liberalism because its proponents believed, as he did, that industrialization, urbanization, and immigration had made market liberalism irrelevant. But in regard to their respective thin theories of democracy, he was no less critical of managerial liberalism than he was of the market strain. He warned managerial liberals about "benevolent despots" who in the course of history "wished to bestow blessings on others. . . . [without] changing the conditions under which those [who were disadvantaged] lived" (Dewey & Tufts, 1989 [1932], p. 347). Cautioning managerial liberals in positions to "confer good upon others," he said:

The same principle holds of reformers . . . when they try to do good to others in ways that leave passive those to be benefited. There is a moral tragedy inherent in efforts to further the common good which prevent the result from being either good or common — not good, because it is at the expense of the active growth of those to be helped, and not common because these have no share in bringing the result about. The social welfare can be advanced only by means which enlist the positive interest and active energy of those to be benefited or "improved." (1932, p. 347)

It is in this sense that the more developmental or democratic form of school restructuring stands out as perhaps our best hope for breaking the historical pattern of shifting between excellence and equity in educational reform. Moreover, it is perhaps our only hope for linking school reform to democratic social renewal, especially if we keep in mind that those to be benefited or "improved" in developmental liberal reform include citizens and professionals (see Skrtic, 2005).

Christine Sleeter's 1987 analysis of the social construction of a special education category and her body of work in multicultural education up to and including her 2007 book, are critically important resources for utopian discourses whose purpose is to envision and defend more desirable alternatives for educational reform, alternatives like developmental liberal restructuring that elevate the educational purpose of democratic equality and promote democratic participation in schools and society, thereby advancing strong democracy. The fact that her work focuses on the social construction of special and multicultural education categories makes it even more broadly significant and useful because, as Foucault (1983) noted and his body of work showed, the best way to understand a social institution like education is to consider it from the perspective of the institutional practices that emerge to contain its failures.

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  1. Kavale and Forness were commenting on Sleeter's parallel 1986 article, "Learning Disabilities: The Social Construction of a Special Education Category."

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  2. The intersection of race, class, and disability is recognized as a complex phenomenon that involves multiple, interconnected factors (Ferri & Connor, 2005; Skiba et al., 2008), including "historical, ideological, and cultural forces" (Artiles, 2004, p. 552). Although aspects of Sleeter's analysis and our treatment of it here can be productively considered using intersectionality frameworks (e.g., Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1991) and critical race theory (Bell, 1979, 1980; Tate, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1998), space limitations precluded doing so here. For such a treatment of the overrepresentation or disproportionality problem in special education, see Skrtic (2009) and McCall and Skrtic (forthcoming).

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  3. This paragraph oversimplifies Labaree's comprehensive treatment of the contradictory relationship among educational purposes and, moreover, does not address the more radical position of Katznelson and Weir (1985) that democratic equality and social mobility have been and increasingly are mere ideological covers for the overriding purpose of social efficiency.

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  4. Our characterization of the three strains of American liberalism are ideal-typical depictions, in Weber's (1949) sense of exaggerated mental constructions which, as expository devices, have conceptual utility for analyzing the meaning and practical consequences of social and institutional practices ( see Dallmayr & McCarthy, 1977; Mommsen, 1974).

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  5. The contrasts between the civic and technocratic strains of progressivism are sharpest in the famous encounters between Dewey and Walter Lippmann. See Dewey (1980 [1916], 1988a [1929-1930], 1988b [1927]) and Lippmann (1914, 1922, 1925).

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  6. The degree to which individual students labeled with disabilities and their parents are reduced to passive cases in public schools depends on their economic and cultural capital, "both of which are unequally available to different groups of parents and both of which affect the ways parents can act as advocates [for their children in schools]" (Ong-Dean, 2009, p. 5), with those "who are some combination of white, middle- to high-income, English-speaking, professional, and college educated" (p. 5) being in the best position to act as agents in interpreting their children's needs and shaping their life conditions. Also see, Lareau (2003) and Lareau and Shumar (1996).

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  7. On the dominance of the purpose of democratic equality during this period, Labaree (1997) notes that the purposes of social efficiency and social mobility were present but muted.

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  8. On use of the special education track for moral efficiency or protection of "normal" students and society from the so-called "feebleminded," see Lazerson (1983).

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  9. Scholars differ on the degree and timing of elite influence (see Rury & Mirel, 1997).

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  10. Both the depoliticization of public education and the adoption of market-oriented reforms under corporate or market liberal restructuring reflect a dangerous hybridization of managerial liberalism in public education. Although early 20th century managerial liberals emulated the corporate structure of the industrial firm, they opposed market liberalism as a means of social coordination. Under the market-rational accountability model of NCLB/IDEA, however, today's managerial liberals are expressly restructuring and re-culturing schools in terms of the antidemocratic market model.

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  11. What we are calling developmentally liberal school restructuring turns on transforming the bureaucratic structure of schools into the non-bureaucratic or adhocratic structure of a problem-solving or learning organization, and a corresponding transformation of the culture of the school from technocratic professionalism to civic model of professionalism advanced by Dewey and other early 20th century pragmatists and civic progressives (Dewey, 1988b). For more on the structure and culture of developmentally liberal restructured schools, see Skrtic (1991b, 1995a, 2005). For parallel ideas about learning, teaching, curriculum, assessment, classroom management, administration and research in such schools, see, for example, Oakes and Lipton (1999), Stanley (1992), Cherryholmes (1988), Parker (2003), and Maxcy (1991).

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