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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The Future of Ed. Schools

By Robert Maranto, Gary W. Ritter & Arthur E. Levine — January 05, 2010 6 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently urged the nation’s schools of education to pursue reforms, and particularly to strengthen their teacher-preparation programs. Could the recent history of business schools offer a future for schools of education?

As the management scholar William G. Ouchi pointed out in his 1985 essay “Reflections on Management Education,” from 1961 to 1981 the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded in business administration nearly doubled (from 13 percent to 22 percent). M.B.A.s more than tripled their market share, from 6 percent to 22 percent. By the 1980s, business schools had become “the largest single component of the modern academy.”

Less noticed was a quantum leap in the quality of the degree, particularly remarkable since the easiest way to grow in quantity is to shrink in quality. In the 1950s, business schools were seen as places for marginal students to skate by, and for privileged students to network into future careers. Yet by the 1980s, business schools were training many of the best and the brightest, and became more prominent within universities. What changed?

Ouchi makes a powerful case that a 1959 Ford Foundation report authored by economists Robert A. Gordon and James E. Howell led the way for reform. Like the Flexner report on medical schools a half-century before, Gordon and Howell’s report said that, in business schools, “the students were second-rate and the faculty third-rate and graduate education … was a fraud.”

But that is only half the story. The report recommended that business schools reorganize their academic structures around three rigorous academic disciplines external to traditional business programs: applied mathematics, economics, and behavioral science. These assured intellectual rigor, and also offered a framework for the applied skills that modern corporations, the employers of M.B.A.s, needed. The Gordon-Howell approach had already been pioneered in the 1950s by G. Leland Bach and Herbert A. Simon at Carnegie Mellon University (then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology), and was soon adopted by the graduate school of business at the University of Chicago, with others to follow.

If schools of education are to be remade, it will be the ambitious near-great schools, rather than the field's leaders, that do the remaking."

Business schools changed because their poor reputation made them open to change. In addition to this, the Ford Foundation sank substantial resources—some $30 million in 1958 dollars—into enticing prominent business programs to reform. Ford invested its resources in near-great schools anxious to compete with the likes of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Columbia. Leaders at such schools realized that they could best overtake the giants by embracing a new approach.

Of course, as recent corporate scandals remind us, all is not well with business schools today. Various commentators have continued to call for reforms. By 2005, prominent (but not quite leading) business schools at places like Villanova began to emphasize business ethics, for reasons that now seem all too obvious. But this is merely to say that reform is an ongoing journey, not that it is not worth the trip. In fact, this may well be a trip that leaders of schools of education should consider taking.

Despite business schools’ imperfections, their experiences in successfully reinventing themselves hold five lessons for those who wish to improve public education by reforming schools of education.

First, history matters. As David F. Labaree writes in The Trouble With Ed Schools, American schools of education were designed, in an era of rapid school expansion, to quickly increase the supply of teachers, no matter their quality. This was consistent with the notion that teaching was a craft rather than a science. As “women’s work” quite unlike law or medicine, teaching and teacher preparation were not deemed worthy of large investments. We are still paying for these long-ago policies.

Second, as numerous reports have argued for years, American schools of education lack sufficient academic rigor and applied acuity. Consequently, those they train—teachers and administrators at traditional public schools—often do not have the knowledge and skill for their very difficult work.

Yet, as was true for 1950s schools of business, today’s schools of education have significant assets. In particular, they train school teachers and administrators, include many faculty members with real-world experience in schooling, and offer considerable leadership within state education policy circles. Ed. school networks have significant influence over K-12 education in each of the 50 states, thus their effective reform could have enormous ripple effects. Accordingly, we, unlike some, think it worthwhile to reform schools of education, rather than discard them.

Moreover, education schools have several advantages that their burgeoning numbers of competitors lack. They have capacity: While many of the competitors in the certification business are small in size, education schools continue to prepare over 90 percent of teachers and school administrators.

Change at education schools is also self-sustaining, as enrollees pay tuition after reforms are adopted, in contrast to many competitors that require continuing philanthropic support. They are unique in being located at universities, the homes of the disciplines, as noted in the Gordon-Howell report on business schools. And the research on the effectiveness of teacher education offered by most of the various providers shows little evidence that education school programs are less effective. So they seem an appealing target for investment.

Third, like business schools of the 1950s, schools of education occupy relatively marginal places within the academy. This means they can be influenced by outsiders with big ideas and relatively smaller amounts of money, such as the Gates, Wallace, Broad, and Walton foundations, or the U.S. Department of Education. (Secretary Duncan seems to want to reorient schooling around measurement, and also seems interested in institution-building over the long term.) Any of these sources could well have the money, vision, and patience to dramatically reform schools of education.

Fourth, if schools of education are to be remade, it will be the ambitious near-great schools, rather than the field’s leaders, that do the remaking. Unlike Harvard, Stanford, or Teachers College, institutions such as the University of Arkansas, the University of Rhode Island, and the California State University system have relatively little to lose and much to gain by reform.

Finally, unlike those promoting inchoate “21st-century skills” and the like, we propose that contemporary schools of education, like the business schools of the 1950s, be reorganized around highly rigorous academic disciplines with well-established academic quality, and which seem likely to offer the skills and content teachers and administrators need. Psychology, biology, statistics, and content knowledge in the disciplines taught in K-12 schooling make the most likely candidates.

With these five lessons in mind, we believe that a well-funded nonprofit or government agency could remake American schools of education, and ultimately American public education. Business schools have been there and done that. As learning organizations, schools of education should learn from their experience.

At the very least, we are hopeful that some academic leaders will view this time as a golden opportunity to position their institutions as the ed. school versions of the University of Chicago or Carnegie Mellon. Any takers?

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A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Future of Ed. Schools

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