Schools of education in the United States are a modern sociocultural product following on the heels of colonial expansion and competition, American and European revolutions, and the rise of nationalism and industrialization. They grew rapidly from humble beginnings. This entry explores their historical precedents, current problems, and possible solutions.
The history of American public education, including its growing staffing needs, begins with the advent of the common school (and continues with the comprehensive high school). Under the leadership of Horace Mann, it flourished for at least three reasons: the expanding republic’s need for well-trained, professional teachers; the industry’s need for educated workers; and families’ widening visions of better lives for their children. In the South, education was largely a private affair, but elsewhere, there were three imbricate forms of professional education available to meet this demand: teachers’ institutes, local academies, and state-supported normal schools.
The first two could not compete and disappeared. Only normal schools remained and survived until the 1930s, after which time they evolved into teachers’ colleges; by the 1950s, most of them had become departments or schools of education inside universities. Their curricular needs were met by professors in research-oriented universities who produced and disseminated educational knowledge for normal school instructors to develop future common school administrators and teachers. This hierarchical structure and hybrid method produced a tenuous relationship between theoretical disciplines and practical pedagogical problems that persists to this day.
Several scholars have written about what they understand are the major problems facing schools of education today. David Labaree points to low status. He claims the main reason for this lies in the ways in which two market forces have shaped their development: social efficiency and social mobility. Schools of education, he argues, had to become “teacher factories” to produce a cheap supply of labor to meet the needs of industry, common schools, and comprehensive high schools. Unable to combine quantity with quality, schools settled on producing sundry ill prepared teachers. Simultaneously, growing consumer demand for social mobility became an incentive for schools to recruit more students with expanded liberal arts curricula (thanks to university membership) and the promise of a bachelor’s degree, which had the effect of further depressing the need to raise the quality of teacher training programs.
The effect, Labaree argues, has been expanded social mobility at the cost of declining social efficiency and teacher quality. The growth of graduate programs of education has only worsened this condition. Contemporary trends in alternative certification and school choice continue to reinforce the need for education schools to produce teachers quickly and cheaply, which Labaree sees as evidence of an unabating trend.
Similar difficulties plague education researchers, claims Labaree. Schools of education prepare researchers to occupy the unenviable position of generating scholarship generally undervalued because it tends to be descriptive, variegated, and ephemeral; this phenomenon arises from the paradox of expecting education researchers to do pure research, on one hand, and recruiting them from the ranks of practitioners on the other. Another paradox is that two camps of researchers exist within schools of education—those who pursue research agendas and prepare future researchers, and those who prepare teachers and curricula; the pursuit of excellence in one tends to compromise the other.
In like fashion, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann has also written about the historically low status of education schools. Although Labaree considers the historic relationship between their status and women in brief, Lagemann’s treatment of gender (and class) is more comprehensive. Although Lagemann agrees with Labaree that the influx of women into an expanding education enterprise has lowered the status of the teaching profession, Rita Kramer offers an analysis of why the profession still so suffers. She concludes that schools of education focus their efforts on preparing individuals to mend students’ broken self-esteems while scorning measurable learning outcomes. Their methods sacrifice accomplishment, understanding, and excellence to equity. “Excellence” she understands as denoting both academic achievement and promotion of a common nationality and culture.
Low status, however, is not the only challenge for schools of education. According to scholars like Robert McClintock, their problems are structural. He argues that the reason why schools of education are crippled in attempting to produce both researchers and practitioners is that professional schools are usually buttressed by independent academic departments (e.g., business by economics, medicine by the sciences). In the former, the two are conflated and thus weakened. In short, although he does not state it explicitly, we may infer that he would consider Labaree’s paradoxes irresolvable and criticize Lagemann’s intraeducation school proposal (see below) as limited in its capacity to generate success.
Despite their criticisms, many of these scholars offer some solutions. Labaree suggests improving scholars’ opinions regarding the quality of teachers that schools of education produce by encouraging them to acknowledge the unique difficulty of the teaching profession, which, unlike others built on willing clients who are served one at a time with minimal emotional attachment, often depends on appealing to students’ emotions in order to teach them predetermined subject matter in a school they are compelled to attend. Labaree also proposes that scholars acknowledge the difficulty of isolating and measuring the impact of a single teacher on a single student when the latter exists in a broader social context where interaction with other teachers is common. Moreover, the acknowledgment that Labaree seeks from scholars Lagemann wants from public attitudes unwilling to accept the intricacies, challenges, and costs of doing education research well enough to inform policy and practice.
Within the schools themselves, Lagemann suggests that the relationship between research and practice should be fortified for the sake of creating knowledge relevant to institutional decision makers and advancing new knowledge, although she does not consider the economic forces that Labaree sees in such a proposal. For within the university, she recommends that education and noneducation faculty form interdisciplinary bonds so that cross-disciplinary scholarship may flourish.
In agreement with Labaree, the Holmes Group proposes professionalizing teaching and strengthening education school ties to the university (akin to Lagemann’s suggestion), given the former’s intellectually weak curricula and the latter’s purview of research-based knowledge. However, Labaree thinks that this proposal may help teacher educators gain at the expense of practitioners and may not improve their status relative to their university colleagues (indeed, the forebears of professors of education are normal school teachers).
Suggesting the very opposite course, although agreeing that schools of education and their faculty indeed have a low status relative to their university counterparts, Geraldine Jonçich Clifford and James W. Guthrie agree with the Holmes Group that teaching should be professionalized. However, they argue that this should be done by strengthening ties to the teaching profession instead because teacher education will never equal the arts and sciences. Any attempt to raise its status as the Holmes Group suggests runs the risk of further alienating the very people it should serve: practitioners. However, Labaree points out that this suggestion amounts to education professors abandoning their (uneasy) place among the high-status academic professoriate and running into the arms of a low-status occupation.
The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), although not entirely adopting these scholars’ suggestions, does so in part. This national organization accredits schools of education. Authorized by the U.S. Department of Education, NCATE determines compliance with its teacher and professional preparation standards. In effect, NCATE seeks to achieve quality control and reform teacher preparation programs. It provides national accreditation in an effort to lift education to a level of professionalism on par with other professions, such as medicine. In this way, NCATE seeks to assure the general public that graduates from its accredited institutions have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to help all students learn. In an expanding standards-driven environment, NCATE expects its role to grow: NCATE currently accredits more than 620 schools of education, with nearly 100 more seeking its seal. Despite its involvement in teacher education, however, NCATE is silent about the troubled relationship between university and school of education faculty.
The exact nature and role of schools of education in society have generally been nebulous. Debate of these issues is lively and will likely persist into the foreseeable future.
- Clifford, G. J., & Guthrie, J. W. (1988). Ed school: A brief for professional education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Kramer, R. (2000). Ed school follies: The miseducation of America’s teachers. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com.
- Labaree, D. F. (1997). How to succeed in school without really learning: The credentials race in American education. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Lagemann, E. C. (2000). An elusive science: The troubling history of education research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- McClintock, R. (2005). Homeless in the house of intellect: Formative justice and education as an academic study. Retrieved September 15, 2006, from http://studyplace.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/folder02/homeless/view
- Holmes Group: http://www.holmespartnership.org
- National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education: http://www.ncate.org
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