American schools of education get little respect. They are portrayed as intellectual wastelands, as impractical and irrelevant, as the root cause of bad teaching and inadequate learning. In this book a sociologist and historian of education examines the historical developments and contemporary factors that have resulted in the unenviable status of ed schools, offering valuable insights into the problems of these beleaguered institutions.
David F. Labaree explains how the poor reputation of the ed school has had important repercussions, shaping the quality of its programs, its recruitment, and the public response to the knowledge it offers. He notes the special problems faced by ed schools as they prepare teachers and produce research and researchers. And he looks at the consequences of the ed school’s attachment to educational progressivism. Throughout these discussions, Labaree maintains an ambivalent position about education schoolsadmiring their dedication and critiquing their mediocrity, their romantic rhetoric, and their compliant attitudes.
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About the Author
David F. Labaree is professor in the School of Education at Stanford University. He is the author of How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education and The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939, both published by Yale University Press.
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The Trouble with Ed Schools
By David F. Labaree
Yale University PressCopyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction: The The Lowly Status of the Ed School
On Sunday, February 16, 2003, the Detroit News printed a long story in the first section with the title "He Has $300 Million for Detroit: Bob Thompson Challenges the Establishment by Exhausting Fortune to Build Schools." It tells about a man who made a fortune building his own asphalt paving company, sold the business, and retired. "Now Thompson plans to spend almost all of his remaining $300 million on a blunt challenge to educators. Open a Detroit charter high school, graduate 90 percent of the students, send them to college or other training, and he'll give you a new building for $1 a year."
The article explains how Thompson sympathizes with kids who have trouble doing well in school-as so many students in the Detroit school system do these days-because of his own experiences in education:
A lousy high school student, Thompson figured on a life on the family farm in Hillsdale County until his mother insisted on college. He hitch-hiked to Bowling Green State University south of Toledo. The world opened up. He joined the ROTC, roomed with guys from New York City and met a girl from Cleveland named Ellen who would become his wife.
But the class work was overwhelming. The man who later would devour Michener, Out of Africa, and thick biographies failed freshman English three times. He fell back on his farming instincts, rose at four in the morning to study, and took the easiest route to graduation: a major in education.
"It's the only thing I could do," says the man who would one day sell a business for $422 million. "I wasn't smart enough for business school."
He soon learned how tough it is to teach.
Bob and Ellen married after graduation and took classroom jobs in Detroit. Thompson quit after six weeks in a tough junior high. Boys urinated on the radiators. Mounted police shooed kids away after class.
"It was like being on Mars," he remembers. "I was an absolute failure."
Many aspects of this story are familiar to anyone attuned to American culture. It's an inspirational tale of success in the face of adversity: farm boy becomes multimillionaire businessman, overcoming failure in school to achieve great things in business. It's also a heartwarming tale of a good man, grateful for his good fortune, who is trying to give something back in the community.
But nestled in the middle of the story is another familiar piece of Americana: a casual swipe at university schools of education. After initially failing at his studies, and figuring out that he "wasn't smart enough for business school," Thompson decided to take "the easiest route to graduation: a major in education." Note that neither he nor the reporter felt the need to explain this reference, since everyone understands that schools of education are as low as you can go in the hierarchy of academic challenges. But note also that, although education schools are easy, education itself is very difficult: he "was an absolute failure" as a teacher. Apparently, then, there is a serious mismatch between the weak resources of the education school and the powerful needs in the public schools. Which is why Thompson, the businessman outsider, felt it necessary to issue "a blunt challenge to educators" through his offer to build charter schools. Education, it seems, is just too important and too troubled to be left in the hands of educators, who have been ineptly trained by teacher educators in schools of education, and whose efforts to deal with school problems have been inaccurately informed by the ed schools' researchers.
This book is an interpretive essay about the curious nature of the American education school. Institutionally, the ed school is the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education: it don't get no respect. The ed school is the butt of jokes in the university, where professors portray it as an intellectual wasteland; it is the object of scorn in schools, where teachers decry its programs as impractical and its research as irrelevant; and it is a convenient scapegoat in the world of educational policy, where policymakers portray it as a root cause of bad teaching and inadequate learning. Even ed school professors and students express embarrassment about their association with it. For academics and the general public alike, ed school bashing has long been a pleasant pastime. It is so much a part of ordinary conversation that, like talking about the weather, you can bring it up anywhere without fear that you will offend anyone.
Of course, education in general is a source of chronic concern and an object of continuous criticism for most Americans. As the annual Gallup poll of attitudes toward education regularly shows, however, citizens give good grades to their local schools at the same time that they express strong fears about the quality of public education in general. The vision is one of general threats to education that may not have reached the neighborhood school quite yet but may do so in the near future. These threats include everything from multicultural curricula to the decline in the family, the influence of television, and the consequences of chronic poverty.
One such threat is the hapless and baleful education school, whose incompetence and misguided ideas are seen as both producing poorly prepared teachers and promoting wrong-headed curricula. For the public at large, this institution is remote enough to be suspect (unlike the local school) and accessible enough to be scorned (unlike the more arcane realms of the university). For the university faculty, it is the ideal scapegoat, which allows blame for problems with schools to fall upon teacher education in particular rather than higher education in general. And for critics of public education, the ed school's low status and its addiction to progressive educational rhetoric make it a convenient target for blame.
There is a vigorous and expanding literature that fortifies the already robust consensus about the negative influence of education schools. One example is Rita Kramer's 1991 diatribe Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers, which draws its spirit and its subtitle from James Koerner's 1963 classic in this genre, The Miseducation of American Teachers. Others include Thomas Sowell's 1993 book Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas, whose chapter on ed schools has the title "Impaired Faculties," and the 1996 book by E. D. Hirsch Jr., The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, whose chapter on the progressive ideology of ed schools is called "Critique of a Thoughtworld." Let's consider some of the images of the ed school that come out of this vast critical literature.
THE LOWLY STATUS OF THE ED SCHOOL
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the critical literature on ed schools is its scornful tone. There is a quality about some of this writing which suggests that teacher education is-almost, but not quite-beneath contempt. In his exposé The Miseducation of American Teachers, James Koerner describes his subject in a language that underscores the lowly position of teacher education in the educational hierarchy. Faculty, students, curriculum-all come under his verbal lash. In the middle of a list of grievances, he issues the following indictments:
(5) It is an indecorous thing to say and obviously offensive to most educationists, but it is the truth and it should be said: the inferior quality of the Education faculty is the fundamental limitation of the field, and will remain so, in my judgment for some time to come.... Until the question of the preparation and the intellectual qualifications of faculty members is faced head-on in Education, the prospects of basic reform are not bright.
(6) Likewise, the academic caliber of students in Education remains a problem, as it always has.... Education students still show up poorly on standardized tests and still impress members of the academic faculty as being among their less able students....
(7) Course work in Education deserves its ill-repute. It is most often puerile, repetitious, dull, and ambiguous-incontestably. Two factors make it that way: the limitations of the instructor, and the limitations of the subject-matter that has been remorselessly fragmented, sub-divided, and inflated, and that in may cases was not adequate to its uninflated state.... The intellectual impoverishment of the course work remains a major characteristic of the field.
People frequently complain about professional education in a wide range of fields other than teaching, but they don't generally adopt this same tone of scorn when they discuss the preparation of doctors and lawyers. Something about the status of the ed school makes it an easy target, a free-fire zone in the realm of higher education. Sterling McMurrin, a former U.S. commissioner of education, notes this in his introduction to Koerner's book: "As is well known, for the past several years criticism of the professional education schools has been a favorite sport among the faculties of other professional schools and of the sciences and arts." Yet, though he adopts a more judicious approach to the subject than Koerner, McMurrin still agrees with the latter's central judgment: "While recognizing the outstanding work of both individuals and institutions in pointing new directions in teacher education, I must agree with Mr. Koerner that when one views the national scene as a whole the quality of our teacher education schools and colleges is a weak element in our educational complex, a weakness at the point where the most damage can be done-and where all too often it is done."
Historian Donald Warren lists a whole series of colorful slanders on teacher education issued during the 1980s:
One report announces that "never before in the nation's history has the caliber of those entering the teaching profession been as low as it is today" (Feistritzer, 1983, p. 112). Colorado Governor Richard Lamm comments, "List the ten most somnolent courses in a university, and nine of them will be teacher courses." That remark pales in quotability next to Gary Sykes' characterization of teacher preparation as "higher education's dirty little secret." H. Ross Perot, the Texas industrialist credited with the recent passage of that state's school reform bill, likens teacher education to a fire drill.... The hyperbole borders on silliness, but it gives historians something to chew on.
Even when the tone of the critical voice softens and the gaze turns more sympathetic, many of the same themes continue to emerge. The underlying charge remains that teacher education as an enterprise suffers from a basic condition of inferiority. Judith Lanier, who co-wrote an influential review of "Research on Teacher Education," is certainly a sympathetic voice. As the dean of an education school and the president of the Holmes Group, she constructed this review as a platform from which to launch the Holmes Group's effort to reform both teaching and teacher education. Yet her list of ailments requiring a remedy sounds similar in substance if not in tone to the list spelled out by Koerner. Like him, she finds teacher education cursed with an inferior status and finds the roots of this status in part in characteristics of its faculty, students, and curriculum.
On faculty: "There is an inverse relationship," she notes, "between professorial prestige and the intensity of involvement with the formal education of teachers." When one examines the characteristics of the professors themselves, the "research, in general, suggests that education professors differ from their academic counterparts in that they have less scholarly production and lower social class origins." Such faculty members demonstrate "conformist orientations and utilitarian views of knowledge," which helps "explain why teacher educators, as some researchers have observed, 'have difficulty in adjusting to and accepting the norms and expectations of academe.'" On students: "Here the research seems unequivocal. Those who teach teachers encounter a substantial number of learners with average and high scores on standardized measures of academic ability. But the overall group norm for teacher education students falls below the average for all college students due to the larger numbers of learners scoring in the lowest ranks on such measures." And on curriculum: "The research is unequivocal about the general, overall course work provided for teachers. It remains casual at best and affords a poorly conceived collage of courses across the spectrum of initial preparation and an assembly of disparate content fragments throughout continuing education. The formal offerings lack curricular articulation within and between initial and continuing teacher education, and depth of study is noticeably and consistently absent." This kind of complaining about ed schools is as commonplace as griping about the cold in the middle of winter. But there is something new in the defamatory discourse about these beleaguered institutions, and that is the fact that the attacks are now also coming from their own leaders. The deans of many of the leading education schools in the country issued a report in 1995 that indicted their own colleges for crimes against education, prescribed a radical regime of rehabilitation, and called for the death penalty for any institutions that resisted.
This report was the culmination of a process that began ten years earlier, when the deans from approximately one hundred research-oriented colleges of education in major universities formed themselves into an organization known as the Holmes Group for purposes of promoting educational reform. During its brief existence (in 1996 it reconstituted itself as a network of schools, universities, and other organizations called the Holmes Partnership), the Group issued reports calling for change in three major areas of American education. It argued for the professionalization of teaching in Tomorrow's Teachers (1986), for the development of school-university partnerships (known as professional development schools) in Tomorrow's Schools (1990), and for the transformation of ed schools in Tomorrow's Schools of Education (1995). The last report presented a harsh attack on the Holmes Group's own member institutions, those university-based education schools that produce the bulk of the nation's educational research and educational doctorates.
In the report, the deans donned what they called "the hair shirt of self-criticism" (p. 5), accusing education schools of "dwell[ing] in a bygone era" (p. 7) and being engaged in practices that "cannot be tolerated and will only exacerbate the problems of public education" (p. 6). The faculty-afflicted with a "negative attitude," "lack of will," and "considerable inertia" (p. 88)-were portrayed as frequently "ill-equipped to help without professional development" or as "diehards who hold the potential to undermine the entire [reform] effort" (p. 92).
Not a pretty picture, certainly, but it gets worse. For the problem seems to go beyond issues of competence and will, extending into the very ethos of the institution. According to the report, these education schools are so caught up in the futile pursuit of academic credibility within the university that they have chosen to turn their backs on the needs of the students and teachers in America's schools.
Many [education school] professors go about their teaching and research with hardly a nod toward the public schools, seldom if ever deigning to cross the thresholds of those "lowly" places. Such attitudes transmit an unmistakable message. The people most intimately responsible for children's learning in elementary and secondary schools are not sufficiently valued by the education school. Schoolteachers and young learners, who should be the focus of the education school's concern, are kept at arm's length. They are a sideshow to the performance in the center ring, where professors carry out their work insulated from the messiness and hurly-burly of elementary and secondary education. (p. 17)
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the report called for education schools to change their ways "or surrender their franchise" (p. 6).
Excerpted from The Trouble with Ed Schools by David F. Labaree Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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