Education Letter to the Editor

An End to the Ed.D.?

May 03, 2005 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Arthur E. Levine’s proposal to replace the Ed.D. degree (and the practitioner-oriented Ph.D.) with a Master of Education in Administration degree highlights the unfortunate state of the practitioner’s doctorate, particularly in relation to the superintendency (“Study Blasts Leadership Preparation,” March 16, 2005.)

The absence of a credible knowledge base vitiates the meaning of the degree. If state departments of education are lax in giving credentials, as Ted Sanders notes (“Preparing School Leaders—Shared Responsibilites,” Commentary, April 6, 2005), the blame may rest not on the lack of diligence by the departments, but on the lack of any real knowledge beyond the purely technical on which to base certification. At least no state departments require the doctorate for the superintendency.

Over the past two decades, the search for a knowledge base in educational administration has consumed many academics’ time. Reams of material have been published on the subject, usually with interminable lists of items needing study. Most of the items would barely merit lower-division status in other university departments, and empirical evidence of their relation to administrative success is invisible.

It is understandable that these reports have almost invariably ended with calls for more searches for that elusive holy grail of administrative knowledge. The doctorate is basically an empty degree for administrative practitioners.

This fact should in no way detract from the importance of superintendents or other educational leaders. Many perform quite well under very difficult circumstances. But these individuals do not necessarily hold doctorates. It is virtually certain that intrinsic abilities and personality characteristics, not doctoral training for the superintendency, contribute to the success of those former school administrators. It is significant that a doctorate in administration in general is rare among highly competent individuals who guide complex and often politically explosive business enterprises, governmental bodies, and universities.

Of course, the doctorate for educational administrators is not functionless. It provides status. The German sociologist Max Weber noted more than 80 years ago how occupational groups sought “diplomas and certificates quite apart from useful work done,” and various occupational groups continue the battle for “prestigious” degrees.

Yet the field of educational administration remains the best contemporary example of the phenomenon. As one educator of school administrators stated, an important function of the degree has been to polish the image of the administrator. The degree sets administrators apart from most teachers, and it clearly impresses some school boards, many of which call for a doctorate (although a large number are realistic enough not to care what field the doctorate is in).

The doctorate also brings money into universities. It gives employment to academics. Perhaps this is the reason so many groups in administration that express deep concerns over underlying knowledge have not carried that concern to the logical conclusion of calling for an end of the practitioner’s doctorate.

The social and economic benefits of the degree will preclude its immediate elimination, despite the absence of any relationship to the effective education of children. Moreover, the way institutions have held on to the current programs provides little confidence that they can exert leadership in experimenting objectively with any new approach.

Maybe the best way to explore improvements in administration is to encourage professional associations to provide nondegree training sessions and internships for future superintendents. And states should continue to allow boards to choose people from outside the profession to be superintendents.

Although the possibility exists that the educational enterprise defies effective governance under current organizational schemes, there is no evidence that outsiders have done any worse in leadership positions than the doctorate-holding administrators they have replaced. They may not fit the ideological image of an educational leader, but time may show that they will do a better job than many superintendents who came through educational administration doctoral programs.

Roy Nasstrom

Professor Emeritus

Department of Educational Leadership

Winona State University

Winona, Minn.


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