Ed schools, asserts Labaree, an education professor at Stanford University, are the Rodney Dangerfields of academic life: They get no respect, not even from the students who attend them. At best, many say, education school is a relatively inexpensive and painless path to teaching; at worst, it’s anti-intellectual and hardly relevant to the profession.
This low regard, Labaree and others have argued, has its roots in ed schools’ institutional inability to be selective and rigorous. Public schools need tens of thousands of new recruits every year, and hence the education school, like a widget-producing factory, often sacrifices quality control to get product out the door.
The numbers game is only one of the challenges ed schools face. Another, adeptly scrutinized by Labaree, is that teaching “is an enormously difficult job that looks easy.” Everyone’s gone to school, sat through classes of every conceivable type, and hence pretty much thinks that learning to teach is no big deal. But only educators truly understand the demands of what Labaree terms the job’s “irreducible complexity.” Teachers not only must coerce and cajole students to learn; they also must be mature and empathetic enough to deal with the emotional messiness implicit in working so closely with young people.
Labaree writes that these kinds of skills, while vital, are what’s known in academic circles as “soft.” Generally speaking, teaching lacks a well-defined methodology, a solid knowledge base, and the ability to replicate findings—all things that make more-respected fields, like medicine, “hard.” So softness not only further lowers the status of ed schools but also makes their mission somewhat amorphous. Education students, after all, acquire their subject-matter knowledge in other departments; the job of the ed school is to train teachers how to educate.
But what does it mean to do so without meaningful content? This question, Labaree suggests, has never been satisfactorily answered and has led to a conundrum that continues to haunt teacher education today. Most of us have heard, for example, education professors speak of teaching “process” as opposed to “content,” but this seems like an artificial and hollow distinction—an exercise in trying to give form to formlessness.
In response, ed schools have turned toward a kind of hyped-up, child-centered progressivism that features, above all, a “dissatisfaction with, and active hostility toward, the traditional academic curriculum,” Labaree asserts. Stuck with the softest kind of soft knowledge, professors “concentrate their energies on the domain that is left to them, instructional process.” They talk to their students, for instance, about using projects and themes to build on children’s innate interests. This is certainly a good thing—if, that is, it’s melded to subject-matter knowledge, which is too often not the case.
Child-centered progressivism, as Labaree notes, has tended to run counter to what the public and most policymakers want: a highly structured curriculum that builds on a basic core of knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that ed schools have been attacked repeatedly for ineffectiveness. Some critics, like public school historian Diane Ravitch, have held them culpable for many educational failings.
Such blame, Labaree concludes, is absurd. The education school, for all its flaws, is “simply too weak to perpetuate such a crime” as undermining public education, he writes. It’s the larger system, spinning out its mandates, that’s responsible. What Labaree is suggesting, unfortunately, is that the ed school has become an irrelevant institution.