Education Opinion

Graduate Study and the ‘Culture of the Profession’

By Patricia Albjerg Graham — March 04, 1992 6 min read

The central message of a new book by Patricia Albjerg Graham, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and now head of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago, is that school reform can succeed only if it is a collective effort of society’s component parts. Families, universities, governments, and businesses must all realize their stake in change and work together to achieve it, argues S.O.S.: Sustain Our Schools. For higher education, Ms. Graham notes in the following excerpt, this may mean reassessing the way it views the continuum of education:

To improve training for both teachers and administrators, schools of education need financial support so that a higher proportion of their students can study full time. Too much instruction in schools of education, especially at the graduate level, is provided one evening per week, either at the campus or at a distant site, to overworked and overtired school people who need the credit for certification or salary increments or both. Such settings are not conducive to serious learning or effective teaching, and much of the criticism of the inadequacies of education school courses is based on experience with models such as these.

No highly regarded professional programs in medicine or law are part time, and for good reason: The university cannot immerse the students in the culture of the profession unless they are present on a full-time basis. Students who are working full time at a job inevitably must give their major attention to that obligation, and the occasional university course in education cannot command their full attention. Few graduate schools of education enroll predominantly full-time students, largely because most cannot provide the financial aid that would be necessary to support such experienced practitioners. Hence, the model of the Harvard Business School with its intensive, focused two-year program to train general managers is not available to schools of education, and the preparation of school people suffers.

Since graduate study in education is almost always part time, it is fitted into the crevices of a life already overloaded with professional obligations that cannot all be fulfilled adequately. Under such circumstances, professors limit their requirements, and the graduate-student educators rarely visit the library, attend lectures by distinguished scholars or educators, or join informal discussions with other students and faculty about educational issues. Professional bonds are not formed through university study but rather with colleagues in the schools, thus vitiating significantly the influence of the university upon educators. No self-respecting professional school should let such a pattern develop in which its influence is inevitably minimized.

Schools of education must adapt their programs so that they can attract and support for full-time study able persons seeking to be practitioners: teachers, superintendents, and other types of administrators. Such programs will be expensive if they are done well and hence they will need financial help not only from the university but also from government, philanthropy, and business. The current lack of financial support for the education of all but a tiny fraction of our school administrators and teachers is an example of society’s unwillingness to invest in the preparation of those who educate our young. It is, thus, another expression of America’s ambivalence about the importance of education for everybody.

In the interim before full funding of all graduate students during the academic year can be achieved, a less expensive alternative that should be pursued is a series of residential summer programs in which university faculty and experienced practitioners can devote their full attention to the problems at hand, where library and other resources are available, and where the practitioners can benefit from prolonged discussions with one another and with university faculty away from their regular jobs. Such programs are routine for promising business executives, and companies support them because they believe that the corporation will benefit. Education should do the same.

Finally, leaders of schools of education and of universities need to continue their efforts to strike the proper balance in their faculties between issues of school improvement and broader educational issues. Both foci are vital for a first-class professional school. Today some schools of education concern themselves solely with preparation of school teachers and school administrators in their locale, while others concentrate entirely on other more expansive educational questions to the exclusion of schooling. Some are too narrow, and some are too broad. Finding and maintaining the proper balance between research and practice is the key.

The difficulties schools of education have faced in their universities-low prestige and often low funds-mirror many of the problems that elementary and secondary schools face in American society. Like the schools they serve, schools of education are much better than they were in the early years of this century, but again like the schools, they have plenty of room for improvement. Faculties of schools of education are no longer largely populated by former school superintendents who regale their classes with the educational equivalent of war stories. Nor are there as many ex-teachers who bask in the greater professional respectability of university faculties and professional organizations. Most schools of education have not made smooth transitions from faculties of ex-schoolpeople to researchers who eschew the schools to professors who combine skill in research and in practice. Like their colleagues in the arts and sciences, most ed-school professors today would rather explain a problem than solve it. Partly this is because the university culture in which they live and work places a higher value on explanation than on solution, and partly it is because the educational problems presented in America today are so daunting and are only partially rooted in issues of improved schooling and research.

The vineyard in which professors of education labor is one in which knowledge is important, but knowledge alone will not solve the educational problems of America. It can help, though, and faculties of education can make a limited but crucial contribution to improving the lot of American children and schools. Schools of education do not have it in their power to eliminate poverty, or to make American society place a higher value on its children or its schools. Graduate study in education should increase teachers’ and administrators’ understanding both of how children learn and of how institutions function, as well as improve their skills at enhancing both the learning and the functioning. These are no small accomplishments, and at a time when higher education’s utility to society is being questioned, universities ignore them at their peril.

Graduate students in education at Clark University in Atlanta will not solve all the problems of the residents of the public-housing project where they are working and living [as part of their training], just as even the most effective public school in Atlanta or any other city will not solve all the problems of the students there. Nonetheless, the task for schools of education and their universities is first to recognize the educational dilemmas faced by children and schools and then to work as best they can to resolve them. This is a goal neither recognized nor acted upon by most universities in the United States today.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 1992 edition of Education Week as Graduate Study and the ‘Culture of the Profession’