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.