The University of Chicago's Department of Education Will Not Be Missed
|Schools of education at elite universities have attempted to increase their status on campus by abandoning what should be their principal mission: training teachers.|
Very few of my colleagues at the public high school where I teach noticed that the University of Chicago has decided to close its venerable department of education, once home to John Dewey. And those of us who did notice don't much care. Our apathy is indicative of the immense intellectual distance between classroom teachers and schools and departments of education at elite universities--a distance that has been widening since those entities were created in the early part of this century. Since their inception, schools of education at elite universities have attempted to increase their status on campus by abandoning what should be their principal mission: training teachers. By choosing to focus on research, they have lost their purpose and become expensive redundancies.
It seems axiomatic that schools of education should exist first and foremost to train teachers. After all, medical schools train doctors, law schools train lawyers, and business schools train business people. These institutions often support research faculty as well, but training practitioners for the field remains central to their purpose. Chicago's department of education has not graduated a teacher in nearly 20 years. Instead, Chicago, like some other schools and departments of education, attempted to increase its prestige and status by focusing on theory and distancing its faculty from real classrooms. This proved to be a fatal mistake.
When it is cut off from the real world of schools and teachers, educational research becomes arcane, irrelevant, and sometimes downright silly. Teachers don't like it or read it because it too often shows minimal comprehension of their daily experiences, and directly contradicts the knowledge they have gained from practice. And even as it alienates teachers, much educational research fails to gain respect from university professors outside schools of education because it is of poor quality. This shoddy work is indicative of a certain intellectual confusion about the academic discipline of "education": If the researchers employed in a school of education are not distinguished from their colleagues in regular academic departments by their close involvement with real schools and the training of teachers for them, then why should they have their own separate division of the university? Quality research on issues relevant to education, such as a recent study of the results of a school vouchers program in Milwaukee by Harvard University political scientist Paul Peterson, can be and often is produced by scholars in traditional academic departments. Chicago's department of education will be closed because it is redundant.
|When it is cut off from the real world of schools and teachers, educational research becomes arcane, irrelevant, and sometimes downright silly.|
Institutions that train teachers well are vital to America. Unfortunately, most teacher training programs in this country are not especially good. Part of the reason for this is that too many schools of education have attempted to emulate the University of Chicago by rewarding and promoting faculty members on the basis of research and journal publications, while also requiring them to train teachers as a secondary task. By contrast, good teacher training programs acknowledge the importance of clinical faculty. They recognize that teaching is a craft, not a science, and that excellent craftsmanship is akin to high art. They respect and rely on the knowledge, judgment, and experience of practicing master teachers. Examples include master's programs at Simmons College in Boston and Brown University in Providence, R.I. Aspiring teachers at Simmons serve full-year internships in public schools under the guidance of cooperating teachers, and at Brown students spend a summer working with master teachers who are full-time practitioners in public schools, in addition to a semester-long internship during the school year. Scholars at such institutions are constantly interacting with the world of practice, and the discourse that results helps to improve the work of both teachers and researchers.
The "baby boomlet" and increased immigration mean that the country will need more public school teachers in the next decade than it has at any time since the 1950s. The University of Chicago's department of education would have done very little to help us meet that need, and will be little missed. Let's hope that other schools and departments of education will heed the lessons of its demise.
Jonathan Bassett is a high school history teacher in Newton, Mass., and is pursuing a doctoral degree part time at the Boston University school of education.