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In recent years, many in education have debated the value of the Ed.D. and considered plans to improve it, and to raise its stature to that of the Ph.D.

Harvard University this week announced its reform: eliminating the Ed.D. and replacing it with a Ph.D. program. The university's decision will close the first American Ed.D., a program Harvard has offered for 90 years.

The Harvard Ed.D. has enjoyed more respect than most Ed.D. programs, so the decision to end the program is sure to rekindle an ongoing academic debate about the need for and relevance of the Ed.D degree.

At Harvard, administrators said the change will strengthen the education school's ties to other parts of the university. “This will produce what we think is the first truly universitywide Ph.D. in education, with the primary purpose being to better link the intellectual resources in the university to produce leaders in the field of education,” said Hiro Yoshikawa, the academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He stressed that the Ed.D. program at Harvard was already research-based. "Increasingly, the Ed.D is seen as a practice degree, but at Harvard it has always been a research degree," he said. (The Graduate School of Education will continue to offer the doctor of education leadership program that it started a few years ago.  The three-year program prepares students for leadership positions in school systems and other organizations.)

The Ed.D. typically has traditionally been designed like a research degree, said Jill Perry, co-director of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, “but was delivered to teachers seeking to advance into administration positions as practitioners. This is where the confusion began,” she said. Many studies indicate that differences between Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs centered around differences in the number of credits and dissertation topics. “As a result, the Ed.D. was viewed as less rigorous than a Ph.D., and was labeled a ‘Ph.D. Lite.’ ”

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Perry said that Harvard’s move was a validation of the need to differentiate between the two kinds of doctoral degrees and re-emphasize the role and purpose of each. She said the Carnegie project was doing just that, and had worked with more than 50 schools of education to create frameworks for Ed.D. programs, or professional practice doctorates. The goal, she said, was to equate such a degree with other professional degree programs rather than with a Ph.D. “It is an effort to restructure and rethink what has been the status quo as a means to end the debate,” she said.

A simple analogy might come from the field of law, experts said, where a J.D. trains someone for a career as a lawyer, but many who want to do scholarly legal research may work for a Ph.D.

Catherine Emihovich, professor and former dean of the University of Florida’s College of Education, said that her department – which offers both a Ph.D. and Ed.D. – made some changes to clearly distinguish between the two degrees after it joined the Carnegie initiative.  “Before we did not have a clear distinction, and students complained about that,” she said.

She said if one degree (the Ed.D.) was perceived as less rigorous, it defeated the point of getting a degree in the first place. “The answer is clear and separate tracks with those wanting to have professional expertise opting for the Ed.D. while those who want to do research can opt for the Ph.D.,” she said.

At Harvard, one education faculty member said that the new Ph.D. program would leverage the assets of the university to improve and strengthen the program. “I think Harvard schools operate relatively separately, more than people realize,” said Thomas Hehir, a professor at the education school. “This change is not an implied statement on the quality of the Ed.D. we currently have. Our research has always been of the highest quality.”

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, said that one solution to controversies around the Ed.D. issue might be to start offering a degree akin to an M.B.A. “It would be a terminal degree for leadership in the field. I think it would be a superb thing to do,” Levine said. "Part of the problem surrounding the Ed.D is its history. It has been seen as a lesser alternative to the Ph.D."

He said Harvard’s program was known for its strong research foundations, but his research for a 2005 paper found that many Ed.D. programs around the country lacked rigor and many of the students were “poorly trained for research rather than well-trained for practice."

“It is a good thing that Carnegie is looking at it … but I would rather see the degree fade away," he said.

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