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*Burke [transitive verb]: 1) to murder, as by suffocation, so as to leave no or few marks of violence. 2) to suppress or get rid of by some indirect maneuver. From William Burke and William Hare, two serial killers active in Edinburgh between 1827 and 1828 who famously sold their victims’ bodies to Dr. Robert Knox, an influential lecturer in the Anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh.

How American Schools of Education Burked* Education in America’s Schools

Institutionalized experiments take a while to fail so fully as to be discredited. The 1917 Russian Revolution put its people “seventy years on the road to nowhere,” three generations of poverty, fear, and violence (as the news media, quoting protesters, declared in the regime’s last year).1 Poles who survived communism dismissed it as something that “looks good on paper.”

The situation with schools or colleges of education—a division within a university devoted to teaching its students to be teachers and school leaders, commonly called, “ed schools”—is not nearly so bad. While elite ed schools have been and often are steeped in the political/cultural ideology of the day, whatever that might be, non-elite ed schools are less radical. Most education professors at state universities bearing directional names, such as Southern Mississippi, North Texas, and Central Michigan—who train the bulk of teachers and principals—actually have worked in schools, an experience that tends to instill more pragmatism than ideology. Most educational leadership professors are former principals with backgrounds as athletic coaches, and accordingly less fans of Critical Theory than of the Friday Night Lights. Those with real-world experience have taught me the most about our schools.

Yet a skeptical examination of ed schools reveals a century-plus experiment that failed, harming millions of students, particularly the disadvantaged. The best education professors should go back to leading or teaching in schools rather than keeping afloat insular, often arrogant institutions. Especially as regards the teaching of reading, the failings of ed schools are painfully obvious and, unfortunately (and ironically), it is illiterate students who pay the price for their failure.

As the Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Alabama, it is my contention that American ed schools were bad from the beginning, spreading academic mediocrity and compliance mindsets that left K-12 educators ill-suited to resist the various deeply flawed fads and fallacies that came their way. Worse, long before the rest of higher education, ed schools succumbed to the lure of the big bottom line, focusing on raising revenue rather than mentoring young minds.

Yet you can’t replace something with nothing, so I will end my analysis with ideas about how we could have different and far better ed schools, in part by creating education markets, coupling school choice with varied alternatives for educator training and certification.

Bad From the Beginning

You can’t understand an institution without knowing its history. Reporting for my school newspaper in 1976, I asked retiring Baltimore County school superintendent Dr. Joshua Wheeler, known for his progressive policies, why our 110,000-student system did not require proficiency tests since, as everyone knew, some students graduated even though they were illiterate. Dr. Wheeler explained that, “the purpose of public education is not to educate students. The purpose of public education is to provide an education for those few who want it.” In that case, I suggested, everyone including taxpayers might be happier if we let students drop out. Dr. Wheeler retorted, “we can’t do that. Crime would go up. Unemployment would go up. Parents would be angry…and whenever we do require more homework and start failing kids, parents complain that their kids are working too hard.”2

From the beginning, such anti-learning mindsets have dominated ed schools. As scholars such as David F. Labaree3 and Raymond E. Callahan4 detail, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, what were termed “normal schools,”5 which had trained teachers, were repackaged as teachers colleges and, eventually, middling universities. Elite institutions such as Columbia University developed their own ed schools (which Columbia segregated from the rest of campus), in response to political demands to produce greater numbers of teachers and school leaders to meet expanding demand.6 From 1900 to 1940 the percentage of high school-aged children actually in high schools grew from 11 percent to 73 percent, fundamentally changing the institutions. Local businesses wanted these new high schools to produce compliant factory workers and to improve their community’s reputation. Further, as Dr. Wheeler suggested, keeping children in school and out of the workforce looked like a good idea, since a teen sleeping on a school desk is a student, while the same teen sleeping on a park bench is an unemployment statistic.

Two ed school ideologies exploded in popularity, even while eroding standards. As E.D. Hirsch chronicles in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them,7 idealistic progressives (Hirsch terms them “romantics”) such as John Dewey, argued that emphasizing content meant deemphasizing children, so he viewed memorization and book learning as dehumanizing and interfering with children’s natural curiosity. Such misguided idealism has done enormous damage to schooling, enabling the adoption of failed techniques, such as whole language to teach reading (more on that below).

Though the idealists (whom Labaree terms “pedagogical progressives”) get more attention, “administrative progressives” had more impact. Administrative progressives agreed with pedagogical progressives that traditional book learning (“to educate students” as Dr. Wheeler put it) should be marginal in school. Yet in contrast to the idealists, administrative progressives wanted schools to serve the purpose of social utility rather than individual fulfillment, so they created schools that were bureaucratic, not organic. All too many administrative progressives believed that few students (and fewer still among minorities) had the capacity to learn much, thus making academic achievement inherently elitist.

One sees this in the 1918 Cardinal Principals of Secondary Education issued by the National Education Association, then an administrator organization rather than a teachers’ union. The Cardinal Principals lists seven goals for schooling, with a single goal—Command of Fundamental Processes—covering nearly all scholarly disciplines. (The other goals were health, worthy use of leisure, citizenship, worthy home membership, vocation, and ethical character.) As Labaree notes:

If school subjects have to be adjusted to the capacities of the students and to the requirements of the job market, and if most students have modest capacities and most jobs have modest skill requirements, then only a few classes need provide a rigorous academic content for the college bound elite, while most students need classes that are less academic, less demanding, and better suited to their modest future roles in society. This is a straightforward prescription for diluting academic content.8

While few educators have ever heard of the Cardinal Principals, the document’s ideas defined education for generations of educators and remain dominant today. As critics Hirsch and Diane Ravitch9 detail, contempt for knowledge meant freedom: both in ed schools and real schools, teachers can do what they want in a way that engineers cannot. After all, it is tougher to cover up a fallen bridge than an illiterate graduate.

Institutions define themselves by what they are not. From the beginning, ed schools distinguished themselves from the rest of academia by their indifference to academic content: after all, the teacher’s job was not to educate children. Other professors noticed. The doctorate in education, the EdD, has never carried much respect in academic circles. Labaree, who taught in Stanford’s ed school concludes:

Those teaching in the university think of those in ed schools as being academically weak and narrowly vocational. They see ed school teachers not as peers in the world of higher education but as an embarrassment, who should not be part of the university at all. To them the ed school looks less like a school of medicine than a school of cosmetology.10

As Jonathan Wai (another contributor to this issue) and I have detailed, ed schools have low standards and give out high grades. Both undergraduate and graduate ed students average lower intelligence test scores than other students, and elite universities do not pick EdDs to be their chancellors.11

Further, as American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess and former Columbia ed school (Teachers College) dean Art Levine demonstrate,12, 13 there is little evidence that earning graduate degrees makes either teachers or their leaders better at their jobs; indeed, when surveyed, they say as much. The same holds for teacher certification.14

Yet graduate degrees in education serve important economic and symbolic purposes. K–12 educators get pay raises for obtaining graduate degrees, and their tuition (usually paid by their employers) produces a cash stream for colleges. Symbolically, many administrators claim authority over parents and teachers by invoking their first name, “Dr.” I have never met a physics PhD who insisted on being called “Doctor,” and seldom met an EdD who didn’t. In this sense, education graduate degrees recall Lord Farquaad’s giant, somewhat phallic castle, which led Shrek to ask, “do you think maybe he’s compensating for something?”

There are (at least) two other unfortunate legacies of administrative progressives, sexism and compliance cultures, each reinforcing the other.15 Administrative progressives bureaucratized, consolidating small schools where many principals still taught (and which were often led by women) into large, differentiated bureaucracies. Encouraged by school boards, emulating the business best practices of 1918 scientific management methods, administrative progressives transformed schools into factories where the workers (teachers) batch-process students under the direction of professional managers (principals and superintendents) who prize compliance and uniformity.

At a time when “professional” meant male, administrative progressives hit upon athletic coaching as a career path to attract men into teaching, with the prospect of fast promotion into administration. By the middle of the 20th century, it seemed only natural that in schools male administrators would boss around female teachers, who were expected to be compliant, not self-directed. Even today, while most teachers are women, most principals and superintendents are still men. Most male principals are former coaches who stress teamwork and compliance over integrity, covering up rather than exposing scandals to protect schools’ reputations, and showing loyalty to colleagues who have strayed.16 For women, the plurality fast track into administration is to become a curriculum specialist. As in education generally, this subfield possesses no specific scientific knowledge, so its “experts” stress compliance to rules and regulations, while showing loyalty to higher-ups. Generally, neither male nor female school leaders focus very much on academic learning beyond basic minimum requirements.

The Decline and Fall of Schools, But Not Ed Schools

Despite ed school deficiencies, public schools held together until 1970 or so, chiefly because of discrimination in the workplace. The fact that college-educated Blacks and women had few career paths other than teaching, ironically enabled schools to hire high talent for low wages. Smart teachers often kept schools from straying too far into intellectual vacuity. And ironically, civil rights laws (and social norms) changed all that. From 1970 to 2005, among female high school graduates in the top tenth of cognitive ability, the proportion entering teaching fell from roughly a quarter to a tenth, with similar changes among African Americans.17 The daughters of teachers went into more prestigious, more lucrative fields; in the case of two of my relatives, college teaching and investment banking.

This did not seem to trouble ed schools, nor the school leaders they trained. Both my experiences as a school board member (when I once had to explain to an award-winning principal why he should hire math teachers who know math) and the empirical evidence indicate that in hiring teachers, the leaders trained by ed schools prefer compliance over intelligence.18 Political leaders are only now realizing that we cannot get better schools without raising pay for new teachers in order to get more of the most talented people to give teaching a try; some will like it and stay.19

Contempt for academic knowledge likely explains an interesting conundrum exposed by the rise of homeschooling. Parents untrained in medicine could not remove their children’s tonsils. Parents untrained in law could not capably represent their children in court. Yet currently, the bulk of the empirical evidence indicates that on both student achievement and socio-emotional skills, students homeschooled by parents do as well as or slightly better than those taught by certified teachers (even in calculus!).20 Granted, homeschooling families tend to have relatively high motivation and are thus a self-selected sample, but mere enthusiasm would not close the gap that separates amateurs from professionally trained doctors or lawyers. The fact that it does for education undermines the claim that ed schools produce education professionals.

The compliance-oriented, intellectually mediocre school bureaucracies developed by schools of education have cost trillions of dollars, while simultaneously damaging equity, higher education, and democracy.

Compliance-oriented, intellectually mediocre school bureaucracies developed by schools of education have cost trillions of dollars, while simultaneously damaging equity, higher education, and democracy.

Regarding equity, the flight of the bright from teaching came at a time when schools needed them most. Schooling began bureaucratizing in the early 20th century, at a time of stable two-parent and extended families, unlike today. From 1960 to 2010, the percentage of children spending substantial periods either without parents or in single-parent homes skyrocketed from under a tenth to about half, and far more in disadvantaged communities. Statistically, this likely explains the academic achievement and wealth gaps separating Asian Americans from White Americans, and in turn, White Americans from African Americans.21 Family fragility requires smarter, more innovative teachers than ed schools produce, ones attuned to the needs of these children.

The success of certain charter schools that have closed achievement gaps, staffed by teachers trained outside schools of education, demonstrates that most disadvantaged children can master the material when educators keep order, build relationships with parents and students, and set measurable, achievable goals to get kids reading at grade level before leaving elementary school. The successful methods used by such poverty-high achievement schools were consistently resisted by ed schools, even before Critical Race Theory could be invoked to cast teaching disadvantaged children math and standard English as culturally insensitive, despite parental objections.22

Even mainstream journalists, who normally defend ed schools, are starting to agree. For over a half-century, armies of education professors, paid consultants, and for-profit publishers dissuaded teachers from using phonics to teach reading, as journalist Emily Hanford details in her six-part podcast, “Sold a Story: How teaching kids to read went so wrong.”23 They dismissed decades of empirical research that demonstrated that phonics works far better for the vast majority of students as being “reactionary,” instead requiring the use of progressive methods such as “three cueing,” in which students guess what a word is without understanding how its letters sound. (There are superb professional musicians who play only “by ear,” or even teach students to start out by imitating what the teacher plays before learning to read sheet music. But no one teaches music by having their student first begin by guessing at what a song or passage of written music sounds like, even though music notation is much more intuitively obvious than writing).

Steeped in compliance to authority, many teachers assumed that the education professors knew best because they were professors, and then blamed themselves for not doing it right. When the George W. Bush administration and some state governments legally mandated phonics-based reading instruction, certain education professors and their allies sabotaged implementation. This harmed everyone, but particularly disadvantaged students, whose families were less likely to teach phonics at home (as my dad did) or employ tutors.

Regarding higher education, ed schools have been part of a broader movement to make universities more bureaucratic and less intellectual, in effect, more like K-12 schools. Since 1990, administrative staff (who often make more than teachers), frequently with doctorates in education, have outnumbered college professors and usurped faculty governance, as Benjamin Ginsberg details in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters.24 A large literature suggests that the habits of schools of education—batch-processing students and boosting their bottom line while shorting academic standards—have in recent years become the norm in most non-STEM departments throughout higher education. Empirical studies by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa25 find little measured academic learning in college, with unfortunate later-life outcomes.26 In short, in terms of their academic rigor, higher education institutions have increasingly become like ed schools, emphasizing social utility in ways that undermine it.

There is a second huge cost to higher education, with implications for free speech, critical thinking, and democratic governance. Increasingly, administrators impose compliance to “best practices,” even when, in the case of sexual matters27 and race relations, empirical evidence indicates the new orthodoxies are unscientific and ineffective, failing to lessen conflict, diversify leadership, or fit scientific evidence.28 In Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America,29 the African American Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter makes a compelling case that Anti-Racist higher education and corporate bureaucrats have imposed ineffective practices, while terminating their critics and blocking practices (including teaching phonics) that would reduce real inequities.

What is to be done?

Ed schools operate in a monopolistic manner and under the direction of bureaucratic experts. But what if the bureaucratic experts are wrong about the techniques of schooling? Or what if many parents want their children to get more out of school than mere social utility? As the history of ed schools, and of large and powerful organizations in general demonstrates, one shouldn’t rely on the “experts” to self-correct.30 Even with the of best intentions, what if what the experts dictate works for some students but not others? Montessori schooling—a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning, and collaborative play—might be best for some students, especially those from socially and economically advantaged homes who receive content knowledge at home and become bored or frustrated with normal classroom routines. A more disciplined school experience might work better for those from less fortunate circumstances. And every student works best at the speed appropriate to their development.

So should we simply defund ed schools and pension off their professors? As noted, teacher and leader certification from ed schools does not seem to produce more effective educators. Yet policymakers, parents, and prospective educators are used to ed schools; and for the latter, they do enable valuable networking. The bottom line is that you can’t replace something with nothing. If we defunded ed schools, they would likely reappear, just under a new name or in a different form.

One alternative, advanced by my collaborators and myself, would be to restructure ed schools around actual academic disciplines that have demonstrated rigor and scientifically established bodies of knowledge. And there’s an instructive precedent. Long marginal members of academia, in the 1960s business schools reformed with a focus on applied mathematics, economics, and behavioral science, gaining more respect and more students. Today, an MBA often helps get a well-paying job. Ed schools could likewise reform by offering their students content that teachers and school leaders really need. Psychology (especially learning theory), biology, statistics, and content knowledge in the disciplines taught in K–12 schooling would make good candidates.31 Unfortunately, ed school professors, even if informed and well-intentioned, are not incentivized to do this; indeed, existing certification and accreditation organizations (whose approval is required for federal funding) would likely derail such efforts.

A broader answer would be to replace the existing bureaucratic mindset with pluralistic ones.32 The prevailing systems of teacher certification and school accreditation encourage uniformity precisely where variety is needed. If there’s one thing true about students it is that they vary: one size never fits all. The current system is hamstrung by the way it empowers a small number of nontransparent state bureaucrats and accreditors whose “best practices” fail to reflect either public goals or scientific knowledge about how to achieve those goals.33 And there are better ways.

Mehta and Teles34 have shown that successful professions build, select, and train for knowledge and independent judgment rather than mere compliance to rules and deference to superiors. Only a professional– rather than a compliance-based human capital model (along with higher pay) seems likely to build respect for teachers as professionals. Further, education models that work well for certain students and teachers fail for others, leading Mehta and Teles to question the wisdom of a single uniform certification system as opposed to multiple systems (such as for Montessori schooling, the high performance-oriented No Excuses schooling, and Classical schooling), each with their own training and distinct certification pathways, as is the case in more rigorous fields such as architecture and psychotherapy, where the clients legitimately want and need different things.

Coupled with school choice that provides a range of options, as is the case in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands (which have better schools than the United States), such systems could incentivize schools of education to reform and so produce the educators parents really want for their children…or else lose market share to those institutions that do. Despite having been trained by certified teachers, most parents, regardless of socioeconomic or demographic particulars, actually want math teachers who actually know math. Therein lies hope and a pathway to the future. END

About the Author

Robert Maranto holds the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He has written widely on civil service reform, higher education reform, and K–12 school reform, particularly on charter schools. He has served on his local school board, and a board governing a charter school in another state. With others, he has produced sixteen scholarly books so boring his own mother refused to read them, including President Obama and Education Reform, Beyond a Government of Strangers, School Choice in the Real World: Lessons From Arizona Charter Schools, and Radical Reform of the Civil Service. In 2009 he co-edited both the conservative-leaning The Politically Correct University, and the liberal-leaning Judging Bush.

  3. Labaree, D.F. (1995). The Trouble with Ed Schools. Yale University Press.
  4. Callahan, R.E. (1962). Education and the Cult of Efficiency. University of Chicago Press.
  5. The name derives from the French “école normale,” meaning a “model school,” with no reflection on the students or their abilities.
  6. Pawlewicz, D.D. (2020). Blaming Teachers: Professionalization Policies and the Failure of Reform in American History. Rutgers University Press.
  7. Hirsch, E.D. (1996). The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. Doubleday.
  8. Labaree, D.F., Hirsch, E.D., & Beatty, B. (2004). The Ed School’s Romance with Progressivism. Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 7, 89–130.
  9. Ravitch, D. (2000). Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. Simon & Schuster.
  10. Ibid., p. 91.
  12. Hess, F.M. (2013). Cage-Busting Leadership. Harvard Education Press.
  13. Levine, A. (2006). Educating School Teachers. The Education Schools Project.
  14. Stotsky, S. (2015). An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing. Rowman and Littlefield.
  15. This paragraph and the next two summarize
  16. Maranto, R. (2020). Why American School Corruption Remains Hidden: Diagnoses and Prescriptions for Reform. International Journal of Education Law and Policy. Vol. 15 (2019, but publication in 2020), 55–66.
  17. Gastic, B. (2014). Closing the opportunity gap: Preparing the next generation of effective teachers. Teacher Quality, 2, 91–108.
  20. Maranto, R., & Bell, D.A. (Eds.). (2018). Homeschooling in the 21st Century: Research and Prospects. Routledge.
  21. This has been widely documented empirically, and almost completely ignored by the American Educational Research Association, which is to say, research oriented ed school professors. See For nuanced, updated treatments with ideas for serving children with unstable family structures, see Rowe, I.V. (2022). Agency. Templeton Press; Cheng, A.A., & Maranto, R. (2023). Parent Involvement, Family Structure, and Children’s Economic Outcomes. In G. Brown & C.A. Makridis (Eds.), The Economics of Equity in K–12 Education: A Post-Pandemic Policy Handbook for Closing the Opportunity Gap and Using Education to Improve the American Economy. Rowman & Littlefield.
  22. Maranto, R. & Ritter, G. (2014). Why KIPP Is Not Corporate: KIPP and Social Justice. Journal of School Choice. 8: 2(April–June), 237–57; Maranto, R. and Shuls, J.V. (2011). Lessons from KIPP Delta. Phi Delta Kappan 93: (November) 52–56. I speak from personal experience as one who tried to create a partnership between a successful high poverty charter school and an ed school.
  24. Ginsberg, B. (2011). The Fall of the Faculty. Oxford University Press.
  25. Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. University of Chicago Press.
  26. Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2014). Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. University of Chicago Press.
  27. Melnick, R.S. (2018). The Transformation of Title IX. Brookings Institution Press.
  28. For details, see works within Frisby, C.L. & Maranto, R. (Eds.) (Forthcoming, 2023). Social Justice Verses Social Science: White Fragility, Implicit Bias, and Diversity Training. National Association of Scholars.
  29. McWhorter, J. (2021). Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Penguin.
  32. Ostrom, V. (1974). The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration. University of Alabama Press.
  34. Mehta, J., & Teles, S. (2014). Professionalization 2.0: The Case for Plural Professionalism in Education. In McShane, M., & Hess, F. (Eds.), Teacher Quality 2.0: Will Today’s Reforms Hold Back Tomorrow’s Schools? Harvard Education Press.

This article was published on January 11, 2024.

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