Degrees and professionalism

If Ted Purinton is to be believed, there’s some uncertainty about the future of and role of the Ed.D. degree, primarily due to the fact that whither go the Ivies and other preeminent universities, so follow the other colleges. Once upon a time, the Ed.D. degree had an image problem. But then…

Within the field of education, Ed.D. programs had for a long time been assumed to be inferior to Ph.D. programs, and only marginally useful to the improvement of educational practice, policy, and administration. That is, until Vanderbilt University, the University of Southern California, Harvard University, and a few other institutions revamped their doctor in education, or Ed.D., programs within the past decade (with Harvard creating an Ed.L.D. in educational leadership), emphasizing practice over scholarship and school-based improvement over university-level teaching.

And all was well with the world. Until…

Just recently, however, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, home to one of the most influential Doctor of Education programs in the nation, was granted permission by the university to offer its first Ph.D.; further, its Ed.D. will eventually be eliminated. For many decades, the university did not see the field of education as worthy of the Doctor of Philosophy degree. Times have changed, of course; the Ph.D. appears to look better to Harvard applicants, and the university has recognized the need for and the interdisciplinary nature of educational research.


The question to be asked, then, is supposedly this:

What impact does the elimination of a practice-related doctoral degree have on the prospects of educational professionalism?

Purinton seems worried that education’s professionalism will suffer as its primary doctoral-level degree becomes more removed from applied practice, that the more practical sorts of degrees (such as the Ed.D.) are part of a structure that generates a sort of working professional knowledge. I suspect that this worry might be misplaced, in part because of the structure of education in this country, and in part because of more philosophic considerations.

Purinton is aware that the Ed.D. is of somewhat questionable utility, at least compared to something like the M.D. and the J.D. The difference, of course, is that the J.D. and the M.D. are, in addition to being practical doctorates, baselines for the professions. There are para-professionals, of course — nurses, paralegals, legal secretaries — whose work and expertise help create the totality of valuable professional service; but the basic degree which all professionals have is the doctorate-level degree, backed up by a (usually) rigorous examination process.

That model simply does not exist for teachers — at all. Nor is there any chance of it existing any time soon. The basic teaching degree is the bachelor’s, with a one-year credential tacked on that usually requires very little in the way of either academic achievement or practical expertise. The examinations that teachers in, say, California have to take are either entirely optional (e.g., the subject-specific CSETs which are often bypassed with much, much easier coursework) or a bit of a joke (e.g. the CBEST, which is essentially an 8th grade skills exam).

Let’s assume that the Ed.D. could be improved to the level of something approaching the M.D. or the J.D. — that it can be structured to reflect a sort of applicable, valuable professional expertise. In such a model, teachers are, essentially, the paraprofessionals of the education world, not the professionals.

In a professional model, when you go to get professional services, you are serviced by the professional. The nurse might draw your blood, perform tests, and perform other vital task in the delivery of services, but the diagnosis and prescription for cure is in the hands of the professional. Your will might be physically drafted by a paralegal, but (assuming you’re not scammed) it will be reviewed and approved by your attorney.

There aren’t enough Ed.D.’s right now to make this a viable model.

The disjunction between the education model and the professional model probably won’t be fixed by simply requiring all full-time teachers to get Ed.D.s. That would likely result in one of two problems: either (1) the degree would be devalued even further to ensure a viable workforce (and its status is already precarious as it is); or (2) the number of actually qualified teachers would be reduced so greatly as to make operating the nation’s schools impossible. We don’t get our institutions by accident: as we try to educate the whole of our populace (something that’s never been tried before in human history) we need a LOT of teachers. The institutions we have exist because they are fitting that need.

Even if these two unfortunate horns of the structural dilemma could be avoided — by increasing resources, changing conditions, or some other means — it’s not really clear, though, that education is the sort of field that is amenable to the same sort of professionalization as law and medicine. (Let me caveat: I’m not arguing that education isn’t that sort of field — I happen to think it is when approached properly; I’m just pointing out that it’s not clear.)

Medicine and Law are fields that lend themselves to obviously right and wrong practice. The goal in medicine is the health of a very specific sort of biological system with its own laws, rules, and regular structuers. And the law is a very specific, more or less settled body of knowledge. There is a science to medicine, and — although it’s a little more fluid — a science to law as well.

Education generally, and teaching specifically, may not have that sort of objective foundation, not because education’s ends are harder to know (though they are that) but because education’s ends may not be stable the way the ends of medicine and law are.

Perhaps if we artificially limited the goals of education to the mere transmission of a body of knowledge (let’s call it the “Core Curriculum” for now), measured by performance on a test, we might be able to construct a model where there is a firm, certain “best practice” for ensuring transmission and retention of that knowledge.

But a LOT of people — myself included — think that this is too limited a view of the role of education. I’m not saying that we should go the whole Plato, but there is a role in defining the ends of education for things like human flourishing, social communitarianism, practical excellence, and so forth, which do not lend themselves to certainty and perfection. There are many ways to flourish, many ways to exercise one’s vital powers, and many ways to function in a society.

There are not many ways to remove a spleen. (Well, there probably are many methods, but the end is still the removal of the spleen.)

So I worry that the Ed.D. may be a practical doctorate in search of a mythical subject matter, and that it might not matter whether or not it’s kept around as a marker of or tool for developing professionalism.

So maybe — just maybe — it doesn’t matter whether colleges scrap it or not.


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Let me see…am I reading this right? Teachers are para-professionals? Could the EdD, which from everything I hear is a light-weight degree compared to the PhD become a stronger masters? If that happens is a PhD for education truly needed? What value does it really add? Seems to me a business degree for school leaders would be more beneficial for an advance degree. Just thinking out loud…thoughts? Thanks!

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Thinking out loud is almost always a good idea!

      I wasn’t saying that teachers are paraprofessionals, just that if you thought that the Ed.D. was the professional-equivalent of an MD or a JD, that the teachers were in the “paraprofessional” slot of those occupational models.

      I think your skepticism is warranted, though. To the extent one is inclined to think there’s a “problem” with either teacher quality or teacher professionalism, the idea that degrees are the answer seems somewhat questionable.

  2. A recently-retired relative was paid as if she had an EdD for over 25 years, because she had 60 graduate ed credits – and she taught ES (grades 3-5, at different times).

    Also, an EdD is often showed no respect, because it often deserves none – and neither does its holder. I was working my way up the county ed bureaucracy, trying to get permission for my incoming freshman to take keyboarding in summer school, instead of in September and was told it was impossible, because he was not yet in HS. My last encounter in the process was with some EdD deputy assistant something-or-other for curriculum, who did offer another option. Since my son had taken algebra in 8th grade (honors-only, at that time), he could take (non-honors) geometry in summer school – which was offered for and taken by only those kids who had failed it the previous year. He assured me that this was good (not just adequate) preparation for honors algebra II/trig at a HS with a math/science program so good that almost no kids ever applied for the county math magnet HS.

  3. Harvard can do whatever it does, and that will have ramifications at top adminstrative and policy levels. But the vast majority of EdD’s are granted by very different institutions, and are in play mainly for credentialling reasons. I’m not saying that the holders of these degrees haven’t learned anything — just that the function of the degree is different.

  4. Christina Lordeman says:

    I think it’s long been clear that the Ed.D is largely a joke, as ist virtually any teaching degree offered in this country. The comparison to other professional doctorate degrees is very illuminating. I’m not sure we should discount the possibility of reinventing the Ed.D and making it a new baseline for the sake of professionalizing the field. It would be quite an overhaul indeed, but we wouldn’t have to make an overnight transition from our abysmal entry standards for the teaching profession to requiring every single educator to go through the education version of medical school.

    As you pointed out, not every medical professional has to go through med school – only doctors do. There are also nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, and a variety of others who take over a large percentage of the work of treating a patient. So what if we did the same for education? Kids don’t need to be with a full-fledged, Ed.D professional the entire school day; they only really need that for the most essential and most intellectually demanding tasks. In the primary levels, that could mean they receive literacy and math instruction from an Ed.D – not because the other subjects are less important, but because teaching these skills requires a specific level of practical expertise that is less essential in, say, social studies – and take the remainder of their courses from teachers with a BA or BS in a specific subject and a more basic level of practical training. At the secondary level, you could move toward a baseline requirement of a more specialized Ed.D (to incorporate very rigorous academic standards in the subjects to be taught in addition to the practical knowledge and training) in the core subjects, but with a specific number of positions reserved for highly qualified “pre-ed” candidates and Ed.D student teachers. This would give teachers working on the Ed.D a source of income and practical experience (instead of today’s slave-labor model of student teaching), and it would prevent schools from having to fill every spot with a teacher of such high credentials, while students would get the benefits of a more professionalized faculty; the Ed.D teachers would set the bar.

    It would still be a huge overall, but I think it could work if done gradually through a series of phases. The biggest problem, however, is the American attachment to teaching as a “warm fuzzy” profession for people who are “good with kids,” regardless of intellectual competence. It’s past time for the American public to accept the fact that not everyone who loves kids and wants to help them can be an excellent teacher. “Loving kids” doesn’t qualify a person to be a teacher any more than it qualifies him to be a pediatrician.

  5. Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD’s in Education are three of the most worthless degrees out there, period. There should be a Bachelor’s in Education for Elementary School teachers – and nothing more. Everyone else should get a Bachelor’s degree or higher in the subject they’re going to teach, and then get a minor in Education. Only a few actual Education classes are needed to actually get ready to be in the classroom – all the rest of them are garbage.