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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The Ed.D. Dilemma

By Ted Purinton — May 15, 2012 6 min read
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In the world of traditional American universities, it is often assumed that radical reform is not possible—or at least not acceptable to faculty members—unless the top-tier universities do it first. Too often, professors say they can pursue such reforms if, and only if, the Harvards of the world are the originators. If lower-tier institutions move first, those who follow their lead may look less rigorous, they say. But once an Ivy League university does it, then an innovative practice can be validated. Perhaps online instruction did not look so hot to many professors until MITx, the university’s new online learning program, came along.

Within the field of education, Ed.D. programs had for a long time been assumed to be inferior to Ph.D. programs, and only marginally useful to the improvement of educational practice, policy, and administration. That is, until Vanderbilt University, the University of Southern California, Harvard University, and a few other institutions revamped their doctor in education, or Ed.D., programs within the past decade (with Harvard creating an Ed.L.D. in educational leadership), emphasizing practice over scholarship and school-based improvement over university-level teaching.

Suddenly, Ed.D. programs looked pretty good. Invigorated by the innovations of the top-tier universities, as well as the potential tuition boost (as practitioners are more plentiful and better paid than scholars), colleges of education across the United States quickly revamped their Ed.D. programs, focusing on data-driven decisionmaking more than empirical research methods, best practices more than theoretical debates, and so forth. Dissertations were transformed into practice-based capstone assessments that better evaluated the extent to which Ed.D. candidates had what it took to be transformative educators and school leaders. And many began to require intensive internships under the supervision of notable leaders and teachers.

And at the same time, education scholars were producing more and more research that directly influenced educational practice. Within the past decade, coincidentally or not, as Ed.D. programs were transformed, so, too, was the nature of educational research.

Multiple studies on the influence of pedagogical content knowledge came out, as did handfuls of papers on specific successful school leadership behaviors. All of this together, despite some policy and rhetoric to the contrary, has increased the potential of education as a genuine profession in the United States. With more research to guide practice, and commensurate practice-based doctoral programs (similar to the M.D., the J.D., and so on) to ensure fidelity to the research within practice, teachers and school leaders were finally starting to see their prospects for attaining the status and professional development they long desired. And ultimately, this has been good for the entire system: While there is still far to go, teaching and leadership practice is undergoing a transformation.

Just recently, however, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, home to one of the most influential Doctor of Education programs in the nation, was granted permission by the university to offer its first Ph.D.; further, its Ed.D. will eventually be eliminated. For many decades, the university did not see the field of education as worthy of the Doctor of Philosophy degree. Times have changed, of course; the Ph.D. appears to look better to Harvard applicants, and the university has recognized the need for and the interdisciplinary nature of educational research.

What impact does the elimination of a practice-related doctoral degree have on the prospects of educational professionalism?"

To be fair, as the school states, its particular Ed.D. has always been more of a scholarly degree, and so this change mirrors that reality. Yet, the implications of this are far-reaching. Most universities have felt fairly confident in continuing the Ed.D., particularly after this decade of reform, as Harvard, Teachers College, Vanderbilt, and the University of Southern California have demonstrated what genuine reform of the degree could accomplish. Will other schools be so confident now that Harvard is eliminating its Ed.D.? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, as we wait to find out, it is important to ask a simple question: What impact does the elimination of a practice-related doctoral degree have on the prospects of educational professionalism? After all, the fields of medicine, law, divinity, and others have coalesced around core, evidence-based practices, adding to the reliability in outcomes. To be sure, a practitioner doctoral degree has not made all practice perfect within these fields, but it has increased the output of research meant for practice, provided core standards for expert-based performance, and proved a distinguishing marker of field-acknowledged expertise.

Harvard’s decision, within the field of education, will undoubtedly sway the offerings of other universities. Even though Harvard has always produced researchers even within its Ed.D. program, such a decision will further highlight, symbolically, the perceived superiority of conducting research within education (or tackling policy, entrepreneurship, etc.) over practice. As most people within the field know, moving out of the classroom into other positions is far too tempting, and the classroom-turnover trend is a genuine impediment in building a profession with teaching as the core task. Other fields have noted this by increasing opportunities for practitioner doctoral work, rather than undermining it.

While many universities still offer the Ed.D., how long will the degree last if Harvard sends the message that practice is less important in the field than research? Undoubtedly, in medicine, research is critical, but it is intended primarily to inform practice, and thus it is conducted alongside practitioners, who themselves have been “certified” with a degree announcing their expertise. In medicine, the message is clear: Medical research is one method of contributing to the field, while medical practice is another—and both are equally recognized.

Certainly, Ed.D. programs—even highly ranked ones—have a long way to go in establishing their indispensable value; by far, such degrees have still not lived up to the standards set by other professional doctoral programs.

But the field is at a pivotal point, creating and disseminating significant amounts of new knowledge that will soon provide a core of practice competency and ultimately be expected of all teachers. We are on the edge of a unique time in the research history of education; the worst possible thing that could happen to the movement of teacher professionalization would be the dismantling of structures that foster attainment of professional knowledge.

Harvard has made its decision, and really, it’s an appropriate one for what its graduate school aims to accomplish. But the fallout from this decision should be seen as an invitation to bolster the reputation of educational practice—through Ed.D. programs, as well as through many other measures—rather than to shy away from it in fear that educational practice (and a degree that seeks to signify such expertise) continues to maintain its low status, not only among other professions, but within the field of education itself.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as The Ed.D. Dilemma

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