Lasting improvements to the K-12 school system may well end up starting in the classrooms – and so colleges of education are logical starting places for education reform. Yet, while teacher education gets plenty of scrutiny, a new, nationwide initiative  goes straight to the top of the food chain in an attempt to catalyze change in the education of education’s leaders.
A new project to re-envision the education doctorate, or the Ed.D., at 21 universities nationwide grows out of the basic premise that there’s no clear distinction between the Ed.D., in theory the professional practice degree, and the more research-oriented Ph.D. in education -- and, as a result, that the quality of the Ed.D. and of the education Ph.D. is not what it should or could be.
In theory, the two degrees are expected to have completely different focuses, with one often designed for working educators hoping to climb the administrative chain and master the skill sets (including data analysis skills) needed for effective educational leadership, while the other, more research-oriented degree is meant to fit the traditional social science Ph.D. model. But in practice, the Ed.D., in the words of Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (a sponsor of the project), has come to be seen as little more than "Ph.D.-lite." And the education Ph.D. has likewise suffered from the lack of distinction.
“You’re trying to make the degree fit for both audiences, so we’ve wound up watering down the expectations for our Ph.D. students of what they need to know,” says Catherine Emihovich, professor and dean of the University of Florida’s College of Education, a participating university in the initiative. At Florida, Emihovich says, professional educators seeking administrative jobs in the K-12 sector have traditionally pursued the Ph.D. track because the Ph.D. was perceived, essentially, as equivalent to the Ed.D. but with more prestige.
Without a clear academic distinction between the two paths, the Ph.D. students traditionally enjoy relatively lax requirements when it comes to research while, on the other hand, the Ed.D. students in many cases spend too much time on “academic” as opposed to “applied” research, and too little time learning the skills they’ll actually need to run their school or district effectively. And, then, of course there's that pesky problem of respect....
"An Ed.D is not, or at least, should not, be viewed as a sub-standard degree; it is a practitioners degree," says (via e-mail) Larry L. Dlugosh, professor and chair of the educational administration department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, also a participating university. "All that being said, the Ed.D. has been maligned enough that it may be the appropriate time to construct a vibrant doctoral degree designed with professional educators (in practice) as the target audience."
Simply put, both the Ph.D. and the Ed.D. need to be better, says David G. Imig, a professor of practice at the University of Maryland at College Park and coordinator of the three-year project to “reclaim” the educational doctorate , launched last month by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching  and the Council of Academic Deans from Research Education Institutions . “And one way to make them better," he says, "is to invest the time to really look seriously at the distinction between them.”
The initiative will focus on re-evaluating capstone experiences, re-imagining the Ed.D. dissertation, crafting coherent and distinct admissions policies for both degree paths and rethinking everything from the basic course requirements to the oral examinations. “In other words, we’re going to solve every problem in the next three years,” Imig, the former long-time leader of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education , says with a laugh.
In all seriousness, he adds: “What do we want out of this? What we really want is 22, 25 places that have done this, [so] at the end of this, they’ll be able to say, ‘We’ve got a better Ed.D. than we had before. We’ve got some real differences from our Ph.D.'”
Within three to five years, hopefully, he says, "What we've got is a lot of conversation on campus; you've got some very serious engagement of faculty on these issues."
At Florida, for example, where Emihovich says in five years she hopes to offer two clearly distinct and well-articulated degrees, the new Ed.D. will likely incorporate courses tailored to fit the practical needs expressed by local community colleges and K-12 districts, as well as an increased focus on distance education. Meanwhile, the Ph.D. would be more heavily based in theory.
On the Ed.D. dissertation side, Imig describes the possibility of more collaborative work involving the analysis of data collected by others. Rather than generating their own data and hypothesis-testing, as Ph.D. students would, a group of Ed.D. students would analyze a specific pool of data from a number of different angles, each writing an individual dissertation on a specific aspect of the data which, when pooled together with the other dissertations, would combine to offer a comprehensive solution to a real-world problem. For example, in an analysis of achievement gaps in a particular county, one Ed.D. student could focus on race, another on math and science, another on parental engagement. “What they’re trying to do is provide original solutions, original answers that would provide direction for the school system, the superintendent, whatever," says Imig.
The University of Southern California is now in its fourth year of taking this type of approach toward the dissertation, in which a group of Ed.D. students signs onto a faculty research project, each individual to analyze a particular slice. “It’s helping them understand, not to break new ground and to put something in a refereed journal, but to understand how as an administrator you would get information about a problem that confronts a school,” says Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education, where work to re-design the Ed.D. program began back in 2001 when, she says, hardly anyone else was thinking along these lines. “We’re not trying to prepare them for individual research, but when they become a principal or a superintendent, they’re going to be asking questions, and they want to get answers that are based on authentic methodology."
Furthermore, says Gallagher, USC’s newly revamped three-year Ed.D. program, designed for working educators, requires four core courses, in learning, leadership, accountability and diversity, and two courses in inquiry designed to help students be “consumers of research” and design studies around "problems of practice." Meanwhile, five to seven Ph.D. students are accepted for full-time study at USC each year, with full funding and a $25,000 stipend, to pursue much higher standards of research and, ultimately, careers in academe or policy.
“We’re clear on what we are preparing our students to do,” says Gallagher, who hopes to further strengthen the distinctions over the next three years as a participating university in the Carnegie initiative.
“We also know who we’re looking for. Just because you say you want a Ph.D., if you want to do something in practice, we will not accept you. We want people who are clear going into this where they are going to end up.”
Many administrators also stress that currently there's a relative lack of common expectations across education graduate schools. “One of the problems with education is that we really don’t have a real clear knowledge base that everyone is expected to know,” says Jeffrey A. Miller, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the School of Education at Duquesne University, another participating institution. “We believe one of the things we need to do is clarify: ‘What are the knowledge bases for a practitioner; what are the knowledge bases for a Ph.D. program?'”
Imig, the project coordinator, concedes that there will be resistance to the Carnegie initiative, both from those who prefer the status quo (faculty, after all, are typically trained in the types of academic inquiry this new model of the Ed.D. would move away from), and from those who want a more radical solution. Arthur Levine, for instance, the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, recently called for an end to the Ed.D. altogether. He advocates for the creation of a M.B.A.-equivalent, a rigorous, two-year master’s of educational administration program. "It's not obvious why practitioners need a doctorate," he says.
Yet, he adds, “given the fact that my recommendation is unlikely to be picked up, it would be just a wonderful thing to give integrity to the Ed.D.”
“I wish the Carnegie Foundation good luck in doing that, but it’s hard, it’s a real challenge,” Levine says.
Administrators say that the change won’t come overnight. Still, many have real hope for this initiative, given the number of institutions on board. (The other participants are the Universities of Connecticut, Houston, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, Missouri-Columbia, Oklahoma, South Florida and Vermont, as well as Northern Illinois, Pennsylvania State, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia Tech and Washington State Universities. Imig says he’s in conversation with several others who also want in, but is unsure of how much he can grow the project).
The Carnegie Foundation and the Council of Academic Deans from Research Education Institutions (CADREI) both have “considerable prestige and influence in the academic community,” says Carol Smith, vice president for professional issues and partnerships at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “For CADREI and the Carnegie Foundation to join forces is really something that one would expect to have a lot of impact.”