Posted in Ed schools, Educational goals, History of education

An Unlovely Legacy: The Disabling Impact of the Market on American Teacher Education

What with huge problems hanging in the balance right now, like the future of American democracy and the world order, this might be a good time to focus on a little problem, one mostly of academic interest.  The issue for today is — wait for it — the trouble with American ed schools.  Sounds a bit less consequential and a bit more manageable than the election, doesn’t it?

So I’m posting a piece I published in Kappan way back in 1994.  Here’s a link to the original.  It’s the story about how market forces shaped the development of education schools in the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving them in a relatively weakened state, characterized by both low status and mediocre performance.  

As I re-read this paper, I realized it’s also a period piece.  Published in the early years of the Clinton administration, it depicts a time with ed schools were trying to pull themselves out of the doldrums through a reform movement called the Holmes Group.  This was a collection of elite ed school deans who proposed to upgrade the stature and scholarship of the field and in the process professionalize the American teaching force.  In one stroke it would elevate both teachers and teacher educators.  One proposal was for ed schools to ally with K-12 colleagues to develop what they called “professional development schools,” which were places where student teachers could learn their profession at a high level, in a setting akin to the teaching hospitals that train physicians.

For me, this was a particularly interesting time because the president of the Holmes Group was my dean at Michigan State, Judy Lanier, and the Group’s  reports were being written by my colleagues in Erickson Hall.  It was an exciting moment — even if it eventually went nowhere.

In the paper, I tell a story of two kinds of market forces that undermined the mission of the emergent ed schools.  One was a push for social efficiency, which put a premium on producing quantity over quality in the preparation of teachers.  Another was social mobility, as a lot of students used the normal schools and teachers colleges less as a way to become teachers than as a way to open up access to a wide array of white collar jobs.  Here’s the money quote.

In addition, both approaches to teacher preparation tended to undercut the creation of a strong educational content in teacher education programs. Social efficiency undercut content in the rush by policymakers to mass-produce teachers of minimum competence. Social mobility undercut content in the rush by ambitious individuals to use teachers’ colleges as a means of climbing the social ladder. There is nothing in either goal that would press teacher education to provide an intensive and extensive educational experience for prospective teachers, nothing in either to promote academic rigor or prolonged application. In fact, everything urges toward superficiality (providing thin coverage of both subject matter and pedagogy), brevity (keeping the program short and unintrusive), accessibility (allowing entry to nearly anyone), low level of difficulty (making the process easy and graduation certain), and parsimony (doing all of this on the cheap). This, I submit, is the market-based legacy of limited vision and ineffectual process that afflicted teacher education in the past and continues to do so today.

I later developed pieces of this argument in my 2004 book, The Trouble With Ed Schools.  Hope you enjoy reading this moldy oldie.  

Ed Schools Cover

An Unlovely Legacy: The Disabling Impact of the Market on American Teacher Education

David F. Labaree

American teacher education is back in the news, but unfortunately the news is not good. This, however, is far from being a novel situation. From my reading of the history of American education, it seems that it has always been open season on teacher education. Now, as in the past, everyone seems to have something bad to say about the way we prepare our teachers. If you believe what you read and what you hear, a lot of what is wrong with American education these days can be traced to the failings of teachers and to shortcomings in the processes by which we train them for their tasks. We are told that students are not learning, that productivity is not growing, that economic competitiveness is declining – all to some extent because teachers don’t know how to teach.

As a result, politicians and policy makers at all levels have been talking about a number of possible remedies: testing students as they enter and leave teacher education programs, extending and upgrading the content of these programs, and even bypassing the programs altogether through alternative certification. The latter option means pushing people with subject-matter expertise or practical occupational experience directly into the classroom, thus protecting them from the corrupting influence of schools of education. Meanwhile, academics in the more prestigious colleges within American universities ridicule the curriculum of the school of education for what they consider its mindlessness and uselessness. Ordinary citizens also get into the act. For example, there is a recent book written by a journalist, Rita Kramer, who spent some time sitting in teacher education classrooms and interviewing education professors. Her title quite nicely captures the general lack of restraint with which critics have tended to approach teacher education: Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers.

As I said, none of this criticism of teacher education is particularly new. The training of teachers has never been revered by the academy or terribly popular with the public. If one could sum up the usual complaints about teacher education in one sentence, it would be something like this: “Schools of education have failed to provide an education for teachers that is either academically elevated or pedagogically effective.” Instead of rallying to the defense of the teacher education establishment, of which I am a part, I would like to explore why this enterprise has earned such a bad reputation.

Yes, teacher education in the U.S. has been and in many ways continues to be an intellectually undemanding and frequently ineffectual form of professional training. Where I disagree with the current pattern of criticism, however, is in the diagnosis of the roots of the problem. The most popular current diagnosis of what ails American teacher education follows directly from the reigning view of what the problem is with schooling in general. In the conservative climate of the past decade, that understanding is simple to state. The problem with schools, we are told, is that they have been ruined by too much politics; the solution, we hear, is to inject a little discipline from the marketplace. This interpretation has become part of the fabric of contemporary thought about schools, but the most prominent ideological weavers currently working in this tradition are John Chubb and Terry Moe, authors of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.2

My own interpretation is precisely the opposite of theirs. I argue that both K-12 education and teacher education have been ruined by too much market influence and not enough democratic politics. A generous democratic rhetoric has surrounded teacher education from the days of the first normal schools, but the fact of the matter is that the dominant influence on the form and content of teacher education has come not from politics but from the market.

This market influence has resulted in the widespread belief that education has two purposes: one I call “social efficiency”; the other, “social mobility.” These two objectives have had some contradictory effects on teacher education. But they have a great deal in common, since both represent ways that teacher education has been required to respond to demands from the market – the job market in the case of social efficiency and the credentials market in the case of social mobility. The net result has been to undermine efforts to enrich the quality, duration, rigor, and political aims of teacher education. The history of teacher education has not been very elevated, either academically or politically – thanks directly, I suggest, to market influence.

In pursuing this theme, I will explore the following issues. First, I will say a little about the nature of these market-oriented purposes and their impact on American education in general. Then I will examine the historical role that each has played in shaping teacher education. This in turn will lead to a discussion of the kinds of problems that these objectives have brought about for the form and content of teacher education. And finally, I will explore one current reform initiative, known as the teacher professionalization movement, which represents an effort to buffer teacher education from the influence of the market. Will this effort move teacher education in a desirable direction or just replace one undesirable influence with another?


Both social efficiency and social mobility are purposes that have shaped American schooling in significant ways over the last 150 years. Let me say a little about the nature of each purpose and the character of its impact on schools.3

From the perspective of social efficiency, the purpose of schooling is to train students as future workers. This means providing them with the particular skills and attitudes required to fill the full range of positions in a stratified occupational structure. In short, according to this view, schools should give the job market what it wants. Social efficiency is an expression of the educational visions of employers, government officials, and taxpayers. These constituencies share a concern about filling job slots with skilled workers so that society will function efficiently, and they want schools to provide this service in a cost-effective manner.

From the perspective of social mobility, the purpose of schooling is to provide individuals with an equal opportunity to attain the more desirable social positions. This goal expresses the educational visions of the parent of a school-age child. Such a parent is concerned less with meeting society’s needs and keeping down costs than with using schools to help his or her child to get ahead. From this angle, the essence of schooling is to provide not vocational skills but educational credentials, which can be used as currency in the zero-sum competition for social status.

Note that both social efficiency and social mobility are purposes that link education directly to the job market. The key difference is that a person promoting the first goal views this link from the top down, taking the perspective of the educational provider, while a person promoting the second goal views the link from the bottom up, taking the perspective of the educational consumer.

In addition to these two market goals, however, there is also a third type of goal – arising from democratic politics – that has offered a more generous vision for American education. This is the goal that primarily motivated the founders of the common schools. The leaders of the common school movement saw universal public education as a mechanism for protecting the democratic polity from the growing class divisions and possessive individualism of an emerging market society. The common schools, they felt, could help establish a republican community on the basis of a shared educational experience cutting across class and ethnic differences. These schools could also help prepare people to function independently as citizens in a democratic society. This vision is at heart an inclusive one, grounded in political rather than economic concerns.

In spite of the power of the market, this democratic goal has found expression in American education in a number of ways over the years. There was the common school itself – which drew students from the whole community, presented them with a common curriculum, and generally chose to ignore the problem of articulating schooling with the structure of the job market. Then at the turn of the century came the comprehensive high school, which brought a heterogeneous array of students and programs together under one roof, even though students experienced quite different forms of education under that roof. More recently we have seen expressions of this goal in efforts at inclusive education, as reformers have sought to reduce inequalities as sociated with the race, class, gender, and handicapping conditions of students.

These three goals have frequently collided in the history of American education, resulting in an institution driven by contradictory impulses coexisting in a state of uneasy balance. However, the history of American teacher education has demonstrated a narrower range of purposes than this. There has been very little sign within teacher education of the effects of the democratic purposes that helped to shape schooling more generally – except, perhaps, a thin strand of democratic rhetoric running through the teacher education literature. In practice, teacher education has shown primarily the politically and socially narrowing effects of the market. Let’s consider what effect each of these market purposes has had on American teacher education over the years.4


While social efficiency goals for the teaching of students arose around 1900 (with the emergence of the high school and the advent of vocationalism), this emphasis came much earlier for the teaching of teachers. From the perspective of social efficiency, the central problem for teacher education was the chronic under-supply of teachers that developed in the mid-19th century and continued on into the early 20th century. The initial source of this problem was the development of universal public education, which produced a powerful demand for a large number of certified elementary teachers. In answer to this demand, the larger urban school systems opened their own normal schools, parallel to or incorporated within city high schools, for the purpose of staffing their elementary classrooms. At the same time, state governments around the country created state normal schools to meet the needs of those districts that could not support normal schools of their own.

Then, after elementary education had filled up, there came the rapid expansion of high school enrollments at the turn of the century. (High school attendance doubled every decade from 1890 to 1940.) This in turn created a strong demand for high school teachers, and the answer to that demand was found in the creation of state teachers’ colleges.

The essence of the social efficiency impulse was to create a form of teacher education that was organized around three basic principles – quantity, quality, and efficiency. The issue of quantity was the most obvious. The large number of slots to be filed created a need for a form of teacher education that could effectively mass-produce teachers. The issue of quality was a bit more complicated. The problem here was the need for a publicly credible system for certifying that the new teachers met some minimum standard of quality – a form of assurance that was necessary in order to maintain public support for the investment in schooling. This meant that teacher education needed to be established under public administration and around state certification requirements. The concern for quality, however, was undermined substantially by the concerns for quantity and efficiency.

By efficiency I mean simply that teacher education was under great pressure to prepare teachers at both low cost and high speed. The fiscal burden of expanding enrollments at the elementary level was enormous, and it only increased with the expansion of the high school. One answer to the efficiency problem was to feminize teaching, which school systems did in great haste starting in the mid-19th century. By paying women one-half of what they paid men, school systems found an effective way of getting two teachers for the price of one. The side effect, however, was to create a profession characterized by very high turnover, since, as a general rule, women tended to teach only during the half dozen or so years between the completion of their own education and marriage. As a result, teacher education found itself forced to turn out teachers even faster and more cheaply in order to compensate for the brief duration of teachers’ service.

The consequence of the goal of social efficiency was that it put emphasis on the creation of a form of teacher education that could produce the most teachers, in the shortest time, at the lowest cost, and at the minimum level of ability that the public would allow. All in all, this hardly constituted an elevating influence.


Much to the chagrin of the founders and funders of the various teacher education enterprises, these institutions quickly became subverted by another powerful market force: the demand by individuals for access to high school and college degrees and, through them, to social mobility. Teacher education was designed to be accessible and easy in the name of social efficiency. But ironically, it found itself the most accessible and easiest route to middle-class status for a large number of ambitious students and their parents. Jurgen Herbst has described this problem quite nicely in his book on the history of teacher education.5 There quickly emerged a strong form of consumer pressure on teacher education institutions to provide general liberal arts education for students who, in fact, had little or no intention of teaching.

The result was that normal schools underwent a gradual transition into general purpose high schools. A case in point is the history of Philadelphia’s Girls High School. Created in 1848, this school went through a series of name changes over the rest of the century – from Girls High School to Girls Normal School to Girls High and Normal School and finally back to Girls High School again. The problem in Philadelphia as elsewhere was that the purpose of the institution, though initially to train elementary teachers, was in fact up for grabs. Policy makers and fiscal authorities wanted these schools to retain their social efficiency aims and train teachers, but the parents of the school age girls wanted them to provide a broad secondary education for their daughters.

We discover the same sorts of tensions playing out in the history of state teachers’ colleges after the turn of century. These institutions were under considerable pressure from students to transform themselves into liberal arts colleges. And, given the extreme sensitivity of American higher education to consumer pressures, they eventually did just that in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1960s and 1970s they moved one more step in that direction by becoming general-purpose universities. What was once the Michigan State Normal School in Ypsilanti is now Eastern Michigan University.

Consider the implications for teacher education of this pressure to provide social mobility. The fact that many teacher education students did not want to become teachers put the emphasis on a form of teacher education that was unobtrusive in character and minimal in scope for the convenience of students seeking a general education. These students were focused more on credentials and status than on learning and content, which meant that teacher education was expected to make only the most modest of demands so as not to block a student’s access to the desired degree.

Now let’s examine some problems with teacher education that can be traced to this pressure from the job market and the credentials market.


Some of the problems that markets created for teacher education derived from the conflict between the goals of social efficiency and social mobility. One such difficulty was simple inefficiency. The consumer pressure for mobility through teacher education promoted considerable inefficiency, since it led to the expansion of a system of teacher education that was producing a large number of nonteaching graduates. In effect, this amounted to a collective subsidy of individual ambition. As a result of this situation, teacher education grew accustomed to functioning as a system of mass production with a low net yield. It was under constant pressure to produce ever more graduates and to keep ever more rigid control of the unit costs of this production, simply because the ultimate number of teachers produced was so small relative to the number of students processed.

In addition, teacher education developed a serious identity crisis because of the confusion over which market it was supposed to serve. Trying to run a teacher education program is quite difficult when you can’t agree on its purpose. Is the primary focus on general or vocational education? Should the program concentrate on liberal arts or on teaching methods? Is the aim to provide an individual benefit for the consumer of higher education or a collective benefit for citizens needing qualified teachers? This uncertainty about purpose has afflicted teacher education from the very beginning and has continued right up to the recent past.

Some of the problems that teacher education has experienced derive from market-based commonalities between the goals of social efficiency and social mobility. After all, both of these tendencies arose from the perceived need to adapt teacher education to market demand. In the case of social efficiency, this was expressed as a need for more bodies in the classroom; in the case of social mobility, it was expressed as a need for credentials to equip students to compete for social position. Neither of these, I suggest, was a terribly noble goal for an educational institution. Neither provided any political vision for teacher education – no vision of exactly what education and teacher education should be, what kind of teachers we needed, what kind of learning we wanted them to foster, or what political/moral/social outcomes we wanted to produce.

In addition, both approaches to teacher preparation tended to undercut the creation of a strong educational content in teacher education programs. Social efficiency undercut content in the rush by policymakers to mass-produce teachers of minimum competence. Social mobility undercut content in the rush by ambitious individuals to use teachers’ colleges as a means of climbing the social ladder. There is nothing in either goal that would press teacher education to provide an intensive and extensive educational experience for prospective teachers, nothing in either to promote academic rigor or prolonged application. In fact, everything urges toward superficiality (providing thin coverage of both subject matter and pedagogy), brevity (keeping the program short and unintrusive), accessibility (allowing entry to nearly anyone), low level of difficulty (making the process easy and graduation certain), and parsimony (doing all of this on the cheap). This, I submit, is the market-based legacy of limited vision and ineffectual process that afflicted teacher education in the past and continues to do so today.


One recent effort to remedy some of these historical problems that are embedded in teacher education has come from within the community of teacher educators via the Holmes Group. This group is made up of approximately 100 deans from colleges of education at research-oriented universities. Their answer is a reform proposal that focuses on the goal of teacher professionalization.6

The Holmes Group argues that teachers need to receive an extensive and intensive professional education much like that accorded doctors and lawyers. Such an education, they assert, would help to free teachers from subordination within schools and, more important, would enable them to provide students with the kind of empowered learning that would allow them full participation in a democratic society. This approach tries to buffer teacher education from the corrupting influence of the marketplace by wrapping it in the armor of professionalism (and the rhetoric of democracy). However, as I have argued elsewhere, this movement is likely in practice to submit teachers and students to another kind of power – the intellectual and social power of the university within which teacher education has become imprisoned.7

The problem, I suggest, is that the movement to professionalize teaching has arisen from the status needs of teacher educators within the university. When it comes to academic prestige, teacher educators have always been at the bottom of the ladder. Arriving in the university relatively late and bearing the stigma of the normal school, they found themselves ill-equipped to compete for professional standing within the university. Yet the rules of academic status are well-defined. To gain prestige within the university, professors need to pursue a vigorous agenda of research activities, especially those framed in the methodology of science. Starting in the 1960s, teacher educators drew on the behavioral scientific model pioneered by educational psychologists and set off a landslide of research publications. The quantity of output since then has been so great that it has taken three large handbooks just to summarize the recent research on teaching and another to summarize the research on teacher education.8

The result for teacher education has been to push it to adopt a curriculum for training teachers that is based on its own scientific research. While this move may represent a partial reduction in the extent to which teacher education is a simple expression of the market, it serves to transform teacher education, at least in part, into an expression of the power and knowledge of the university – particularly reflecting the status concerns and scientific world view of the education professoriate. Like its market-based predecessors, driven by the goals of social efficiency and social mobility, this approach to teacher preparation undermines the kind of emphases that would support democratic schooling. What it promises to do is to add the rationalized authority of the university researcher to social efficiency and social mobility as driving forces behind teacher training.

Sadly, a truly democratic politics remains one goal that has never been implemented within the mainstream practice of teacher education. This more generous vision, which has intermittently influenced thinking about schools, also needs to become a factor in the way we think about the teachers within those schools and in the way they are prepared. Instead of structuring teacher education around the base concerns of efficient production and personal ambition, I suggest that we need to think about organizing it in a way that reflects what I hope are our more elevated concerns about the quality of education our teachers and students will receive and the political and social consequences that will emerge from that education.

  1. Rita Kramer, Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers (New York: Free Press, 1991).
  2. John Chubb and Terry Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990).
  3. I have developed this analysis of the impact of the market on American schools at greater length in the following works: The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988); and “From Comprehensive High School to Community College: Politics, Markets, and the Evolution of Educational Opportunity,” in Ronald G. Corwin, ed., Research in Sociology of Education and Socialization, vol. 9 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1990), pp. 203-40.
  4. The best general history of American teacher education is Jurgen Herbst, And Sadly Teach: Teacher Education and Professionalization in American Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). See also John I. Goodlad, Roger Soder, and Kenneth A. Sirotnik, eds., Places Where Teachers Are Taught (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990).
  5. Herbst, op. cit.
  6. Tomorrow’s Teachers (East Lansing, Mich.: Holmes Group, 1986); and Tomorrow’s Schools: Principles for the Design of Professional Development Schools (East Lansing, Mich.: Holmes Group, 1990).
  7. David F. Labaree, “Power, Knowledge, and the Rationalization of Teaching: A Genealogy of the Movement to Professionalize Teachers,” Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1992, pp. 123-54; and idem, “Doing Good, Doing Science: The Holmes Group Reports and the Rhetorics of Educational Reform,” Teachers College Record, Summer 1992, pp. 628-40.
  8. Nathaniel L. Gage, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963); R. M. W. Travers, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1973); Merlin C. Wittrock, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1986); and W. Robert Houston, ed., Handbook of Research on Teacher Education (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
Posted in Ed schools, Higher Education, History

Too Easy a Target: The Trouble with Ed Schools and the Implications for the University

This post is a piece I published in Academe (the journal of AAUP) in 1999.  It provides an overview of the argument in my 2004 book, The Trouble with Ed Schools. I reproduce it here as a public service:  if you read this, you won’t need to read my book much less buy it.  You’re welcome.  Also, looking through it 20 years later, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was kind of a fun read.  Here’s a link to the original.

The book and the article tell the story of the poor beleauguered ed school, maligned by one and all.  It’s a story of irony, in which an institution does what everyone asked of it and is thoroughly punished for the effort.  And it’s also a reverse Horatio Alger story, in which the beggar boy never makes it.  Here’s a glimpse of the argument, which starts with the ed school’s terrible reputation:

So how did things get this bad? No occupational group or subculture acquires a label as negative as this one without a long history of status deprivation. Critics complain about the weakness and irrelevance of teacher ed, but they rarely look at the reasons for its chronic status problems. If they did, they might find an interesting story, one that presents a more sympathetic, if not more flattering, portrait of the education school. They would also find, however, a story that portrays the rest of academe in a manner that is less self-serving than in the standard account. The historical part of this story focuses on the way that American policy makers, taxpayers, students, and universities collectively produced exactly the kind of education school they wanted. The structural part focuses on the nature of teaching as a form of social practice and the problems involved in trying to prepare people to pursue this practice.


Ed Schools Cover

Too Easy a Target:

The Trouble with Ed Schools and the Implications for the University

By David F. Labaree

This is supposed to be the era of political correctness on American university campuses, a time when speaking ill of oppressed minorities is taboo. But while academics have to tiptoe around most topics, there is still one subordinate group that can be shelled with impunity — the sad sacks who inhabit the university’s education school. There is no need to take aim at this target because it is too big to miss, and there is no need to worry about hitting innocent bystanders because everyone associated with the ed school is understood to be guilty as charged.

Of course, education in general is a source of chronic concern and an object of continuous criticism for most Americans. Yet, as the annual Gallup Poll of attitudes toward education shows, citizens give good grades to their local schools at the same time that they express strong fears about the quality of public education elsewhere in the country. The vision is one of general threats to education that have not yet reached the neighborhood school but may do so in the near future. These threats include everything from the multicultural curriculum to the decline in the family, the influence of television, and the consequences of chronic poverty.

One such threat is the hapless education school, whose alleged incompetence and supposedly misguided ideas are seen as producing poorly prepared teachers and inadequate curricula. For the public, this institution is remote enough to be suspect (unlike the local school) and accessible enough to be scorned (unlike the more arcane university). For the university faculty, it is the ideal scapegoat, allowing blame for problems with schools to fall upon teacher education in particular rather than higher education in general.

For years, writers from right to left have been making the same basic complaints about the inferior quality of education faculties, the inadequacy of education students, and, to quote James Koerner’s 1963 classic, The Miseducation of American Teachers, their “puerile, repetitious, dull, and ambiguous” curriculum. This kind of complaining about ed schools is as commonplace as griping about the cold in the middle of winter. But something new has arisen in the defamatory discourse about these beleaguered institutions: the attacks are now coming from their own leaders. The victims are joining the victimizers.

So how did things get this bad? No occupational group or subculture acquires a label as negative as this one without a long history of status deprivation. Critics complain about the weakness and irrelevance of teacher ed, but they rarely look at the reasons for its chronic status problems. If they did, they might find an interesting story, one that presents a more sympathetic, if not more flattering, portrait of the education school. They would also find, however, a story that portrays the rest of academe in a manner that is less self-serving than in the standard account. The historical part of this story focuses on the way that American policy makers, taxpayers, students, and universities collectively produced exactly the kind of education school they wanted. The structural part focuses on the nature of teaching as a form of social practice and the problems involved in trying to prepare people to pursue this practice.

Decline of Normal Schools

Most education schools grew out of the normal schools that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. Their founders initially had heady dreams that these schools could become model institutions that would establish high-quality professional preparation for teachers along with a strong professional identity. For a time, some of the normal schools came close to realizing these dreams.

Soon, however, burgeoning enrollments in the expanding common schools produced an intense demand for new teachers to fill a growing number of classrooms, and the normal schools turned into teacher factories. They had to produce many teachers quickly and cheaply, or else school districts around the country would hire teachers without this training — or perhaps any form of professional preparation. So normal schools adapted by stressing quantity over quality, establishing a disturbing but durable pattern of weak professional preparation and low academic standards.

At the same time, normal schools had to confront a strong consumer demand from their own students, many of whom saw the schools as an accessible form of higher education rather than as a site for teacher preparation. Located close to home, unlike the more centrally located state universities and land grant colleges, the normal schools were also easier to get into and less costly. As a result, many students enrolled who had little or no interest in teaching; instead, they wanted an advanced educational credential that would gain them admission to attractive white-collar positions. They resisted being trapped within a single vocational track — the teacher preparation program — and demanded a wide array of college-level liberal arts classes and programs. Since normal schools depended heavily on tuition for their survival, they had little choice but to comply with the demands of their “customers.”

This compliance reinforced the already-established tendency toward minimizing the extent and rigor of teacher education. It also led the normal schools to transform themselves into the model of higher education that their customers wanted, first by changing into teachers’ colleges (with baccalaureate programs for nonteachers), then into state liberal-arts colleges, and finally into the general-purpose regional state universities they are today.

As the evolving colleges moved away from being normal schools, teacher education programs became increasingly marginal within their own institutions, which were coming to imitate the multipurpose university by giving pride of place to academic departments, graduate study, and preparation for the more prestigious professions. Teacher education came to be perceived as every student’s second choice, and the ed school professors came to be seen as second-class citizens in the academy.

Market Pressures in the Present

Market pressures on education schools have changed over the years, but they have not declined. Teaching is a very large occupation in the United States, with about 3 million practitioners in total. To fill all the available vacancies, approximately one in every five college graduates must enter teaching each year. If education schools do not prepare enough candidates, state legislators will authorize alternative routes into the profession (requiring little or no professional education), and school boards will hire such prospects to place warm bodies in empty classrooms.

Education schools that try to increase the duration and rigor of teacher preparation by focusing more intensively on smaller cohorts of students risk leaving the bulk of teaching in the hands of practitioners who are prepared at less demanding institutions or who have not been prepared at all. In addition, such efforts run into strong opposition from within the university, which needs ed students to provide the numbers that bring legislative appropriations and tuition payments. Subsidies from the traditionally cost-effective teacher-education factories support the university’s more prestigious, but less lucrative, endeavors. As a result, universities do not want their ed schools to turn into boutique programs for the preparation of a few highly professionalized teachers.

Another related source of institutional resistance arises whenever education schools try to promote quality over quantity. This resistance comes from academic departments, which have traditionally relied on the ability of their universities to provide teaching credentials as a way to induce students to major in “impractical” subjects. Departments such as English, history, and music have sold themselves to undergraduates for years with the argument that “you can always teach” these subjects. As a result, these same departments become upset when the education school starts to talk about upgrading, downsizing, or limiting access.

Stigmatized Populations and Soft Knowledge

The fact that education schools serve stigmatized populations aggravates the market pressures that have seriously undercut the status and the role of these schools. One such population is women, who currently account for about 70 percent of American teachers. Another is the working class, whose members have sought out the respectable knowledge-based white-collar work of teaching as a way to attain middle-class standing. Children make up a third stigmatized population. In a society that rewards contact with adults more than contact with children, and in a university setting that is more concerned with serious adult matters than with kid stuff, education schools lose out, because they are indelibly associated with children.

Teachers also suffer from an American bias in favor of doing over thinking. Teachers are the largest and most visible single group of intellectual workers in the United States — that is, people who make their living through the production and transmission of ideas. More accessible than the others in this category, teachers constitute the street-level intellectuals of our society. As the only intellectuals with whom most people will ever have close contact, teachers take the brunt of the national prejudice against book learning and those pursuits that are scornfully labeled as “academic.”

Another problem facing education schools is the low status of the knowledge they deal with: it is soft rather than hard, applied rather than pure. Hard disciplines (which claim to produce findings that are verifiable, definitive, and cumulative) outrank soft disciplines (whose central problem is interpretation and whose findings are always subject to debate and reinterpretation by others). Likewise, pure intellectual pursuits (which are oriented toward theory and abstracted from particular contexts) outrank those that are applied (which concentrate on practical work and concrete needs).

Knowledge about education is necessarily soft. Education is an extraordinarily complex social activity carried out by quirky and willful actors, and it steadfastly resists any efforts to reduce it to causal laws or predictive theories. Researchers cannot even count on being able to build on the foundation of other people’s work, since the validity of this work is always only partially established. Instead, they must make the best of a difficult situation. They try to interpret what is going on in education, but the claims they make based on these interpretations are highly contingent. Education professors can rarely speak with unclouded authority about their area of expertise or respond definitively when others challenge their authority. Outsiders find it child’s play to demonstrate the weaknesses of educational research and hold it up for ridicule for being inexact, contradictory, and impotent.

Knowledge about education is also necessarily applied. Education is not a discipline, defined by a theoretical apparatus and a research methodology, but an institutional area. As a result, education schools must focus their energies on the issues that arise from this area and respond to the practical concerns confronting educational practitioners in the field — even if doing so leads them into areas in which their constructs are less effective and their chances for success less promising. This situation unavoidably undermines the effectiveness and the intellectual coherence of educational research and thus also calls into question the academic stature of the faculty members who produce that research.

No Prestige for Practical Knowledge

Another related knowledge-based problem faces the education school. A good case can be made for the proposition that American education — particularly higher education — has long placed a greater emphasis on the exchange value of the educational experience (providing usable credentials that can be cashed in for a good job) than on its use value (providing usable knowledge). That is, what consumers have sought and universities have sold in the educational marketplace is not the content of the education received at the university (what the student actually learns there) but the form of this education (what the student can buy with a university degree).

One result of this commodification process is that universities have a strong incentive to promote research over teaching, for publications raise the visibility and prestige of the institution much more effectively than does instruction (which is less visible and more difficult to measure). And a prestigious faculty raises the exchange value of the university’s diploma, independently of whatever is learned in the process of acquiring this diploma. By relying heavily on its faculty’s high-status work in fields of hard knowledge, the university’s marketing effort does not leave an honored role for an education school that produces soft knowledge about practical problems.

A Losing Status, but a Winning Role?

What all of this suggests is that education schools are poorly positioned to play the university status game. They serve the wrong clientele and produce the wrong knowledge; they bear the mark of their modest origins and their traditionally weak programs. And yet they are pressured by everyone from their graduates’ employers to their university colleagues to stay the way they are, since they fulfill so many needs for so many constituencies.

But consider for a moment what would happen if we abandoned the status perspective in establishing the value of higher education. What if we focus instead on the social role of the education school rather than its social position in the academic firmament? What if we consider the possibility that education schools — toiling away in the dark basement of academic ignominy — in an odd way have actually been liberated by this condition from the constraints of academic status attainment? Is it possible that ed schools may have stumbled on a form of academic practice that could serve as a useful model for the rest of the university? What if the university followed this model and stopped selling its degrees on the basis of institutional prestige grounded in the production of abstract research and turned its focus on instruction in usable knowledge?

Though the university status game, with its reliance on raw credentialism — the pursuit of university degrees as a form of cultural currency that can be exchanged for social position — is not likely to go away soon, it is now under attack. Legislators, governors, business executives, and educational reformers are beginning to declare that indeed the emperor is wearing no clothes: that there is no necessary connection between university degrees and student knowledge or between professorial production and public benefit; that students need to learn something when they are in the university; that the content of what they learn should have some intrinsic value; that professors need to develop ideas that have a degree of practical significance; and that the whole university enterprise will have to justify the huge public and private investment it currently requires.

The market-based pattern of academic life has always had an element of the confidence game, since the whole structure depends on a network of interlocking beliefs that are tenuous at best: the belief that graduates of prestigious universities know more and can do more than other graduates; the belief that prestigious faculty make for a good university; and the belief that prestigious research makes for a good faculty. The problem is, of course, that when confidence in any of these beliefs is shaken, the whole structure can come tumbling down. And when it does, the only recourse is to rebuild on the basis of substance rather than reputation, demonstrations of competence rather than symbols of merit.

This dreaded moment is at hand. The fiscal crisis of the state, the growing political demand for accountability and utility, and the intensification of competition in higher education are all undermining the credibility of the current pattern of university life. Today’s relentless demand for lower taxes and reduced public services makes it hard for the university to justify a high level of public funding on the grounds of prestige alone. State governments are demanding that universities produce measurable beneficial outcomes for students, businesses, and other taxpaying sectors of the community. And, by withholding higher subsidies, states are throwing universities into a highly competitive situation in which they vie with one another to see who can attract the most tuition dollars and the most outside research grants, and who can keep the tightest control over internal costs.

In this kind of environment, education schools have a certain advantage over many other colleges and departments in the university. Unlike their competitors across campus, they offer traditionally low-cost programs designed explicitly to be useful, both to students and to the community. They give students practical preparation for and access to a large sector of employment opportunities. Their research focuses on an area about which Americans worry a great deal, and they offer consulting services and policy advice. In short, their teaching, research, and service activities are all potentially useful to students and community alike. How many colleges of arts and letters can say the same?

But before we get carried away with the counterintuitive notion that ed schools might serve as a model for a university under fire, we need to understand that these brow-beaten institutions will continue to gain little credit for their efforts to serve useful social purposes, in spite of the current political saliency of such efforts. One reason for that is the peculiar nature of the occupation – teaching — for which ed schools are obliged to prepare candidates. Another is the difficulty that faces any academic unit that tries to walk the border between theory and practice.

A Peculiar Kind of Professional

Teaching is an extraordinarily complex job. Researchers have estimated that the average teacher makes upward of 150 conscious instructional decisions during the course of the day, each of which has potentially significant consequences for the students involved. From the standpoint of public relations, however, the key difficulty is that, for the outsider, teaching looks all too easy. Its work is so visible, the skills required to do it seem so ordinary, and the knowledge it seeks to transmit is so generic. Students spend a long time observing teachers at work. If you figure that the average student spends 6 hours a day in school for 180 days a year over the course of 12 years, that means that a high school graduate will have logged about 13,000 hours watching teachers do their thing. No other social role (with the possible exception of parent) is so well known to the general public. And certainly no other form of paid employment is so well understood by prospective practitioners before they take their first day of formal professional education.

By comparison, consider other occupations that require professional preparation in the university. Before entering medical, law, or business school, students are lucky if they have spent a dozen hours in close observation of a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson at work. For these students, professional school provides an introduction to the mysteries of an arcane and remote field. But for prospective teachers, the education school seems to offer at best a gloss on a familiar topic and at worst an unnecessary hurdle for twelve-year apprentices who already know their stuff.

Not only have teacher candidates put in what one scholar calls a long “apprenticeship of observation,” but they have also noted during this apprenticeship that the skills a teacher requires are no big deal. For one thing, ordinary adult citizens already know the subject matter that elementary and secondary school teachers seek to pass along to their students — reading, writing, and math; basic information about history, science, and literature; and so on. Because there is nothing obscure about these materials, teaching seems to have nothing about it that can match the mystery and opaqueness of legal contracts, medical diagnoses, or business accounting.

Of course, this perception by the prospective teacher and the public about the skills involved in teaching leaves out the crucial problem of how a teacher goes about teaching ordinary subjects to particular students. Reading is one thing, but knowing how to teach reading is another matter altogether. Ed schools seek to fill this gap in knowledge by focusing on the pedagogy of teaching particular subjects to particular students, but they do so over the resistance of teacher candidates who believe they already know how to teach and a public that fails to see pedagogy as a meaningful skill.

Compounding this resistance to the notion that teachers have special pedagogical skills is the student’s general experience (at least in retrospect) that learning is not that hard — and, therefore, by the skills a teacher extension, that teaching is not hard either. Unlike doctors and lawyers, who use their arcane expertise for the benefit of the client without passing along the expertise itself, teachers are in the business of giving away their expertise. Their goal is to empower the student to the point at which the teacher is no longer needed and the student can function effectively without outside help. The best teachers make learning seem easy and make their own role in the learning process seem marginal. As a result, it is easy to underestimate the difficulty of being a good teacher — and of preparing people to become good teachers.

Finally, the education school does not have exclusive rights to the subject matter that teachers teach. The only part of the teacher’s knowledge over which the ed school has some control is the knowledge about how to teach. Teachers learn about English, history, math, biology, music, and other subjects from the academic departments at the university in charge of these areas of knowledge. Yet, despite the university’s shared responsibility for preparing teachers, ed schools are held accountable for the quality of the teachers and other educators they produce, often taking the blame for the deficiencies of an inadequate university education.

The Border Between Theory and Practice

The intellectual problem facing American education schools is as daunting as the instructional problem, for the territory in which ed schools do research is the mine-strewn border between theory and practice. Traditionally, the university’s peculiar area of expertise has been theory, while the public school is a realm of practice.  In reality, the situation is more complicated, since neither institution can function without relying on both forms of knowledge. Education schools exist, in part, to provide a border crossing between these two countries, each with its own distinctive language and culture and its own peculiar social structure. When an ed school is working well, it presents a model of fluid interaction between university and school and encourages others on both sides of the divide to follow suit. The ideal is to encourage the development of teachers and other educators who can draw on theory to inform their instructional practice, while encouraging university professors to become practice-oriented theoreticians, able to draw on issues from practice in their theory building and to produce theories with potential use value.

In reality, no education school (or any other institution, for that matter) can come close to meeting this ideal. The tendency is to fall on one side of the border or the other — where life is more comfortable and the responsibilities more clear cut — rather than to hold the middle ground and retain the ability to work well in both domains.

But because of their location in the university and their identification with elementary and secondary schools, ed schools have had to keep working along the border. In the process, they draw unrelenting fire from both sides. The university views colleges of education as nothing but trade schools, which supply vocational training but no academic curriculum. Students, complaining that ed-school courses are too abstract and academic, demand more field experience and fewer course requirements. From one perspective, ed-school research is too soft, too applied, and totally lacking in academic rigor, while from another, it is impractical and irrelevant, serving a university agenda while being largely useless to the schools.

Of course, both sides may be right. After years of making and attending presentations at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, I am willing to concede that much of the work produced by educational researchers is lacking in both intellectual merit and practical application. But I would also argue that there is something noble and necessary about the way that the denizens of ed schools continue their quest for a workable balance between theory and practice. If only others in the academy would try to accomplish a marriage of academic elegance and social impact.

A Model for Academe

So where does this leave us in thinking about the poor beleaguered ed school? And what lessons, if any, can be learned from its checkered history?

The genuine instructional and intellectual weakness of ed schools results from the way the schools did what was demanded of them, which, though understandable, was not exactly honorable. Even so, much of the scorn that has come down on the ed school stems from its lowly status rather than from any demonstrable deficiencies in the educational role it has played. But then institutional status has circular quality about it, which means that predictions of high or low institutional quality become self-fulfilling.

In some ways, ed schools have been doing things right. They have wrestled vigorously (if not always to good effect) with the problems of public education, an area that is of deep concern to most citizens. This has meant tackling social problems of great complexity and practical importance, even though the university does not place much value on the production of this kind of messy, indeterminate, and applied knowledge.

Oddly enough, the rest of the university could learn a lot from the example of the ed school. The question, however, is whether others in the university will see the example of the ed school as positive or negative. If academics consider this story in light of the current political and fiscal climate, then the ed school could serve as a model for a way to meet growing public expectations for universities to teach things that students need to know and to generate knowledge that benefits the community.

But it seems more likely that academics will consider this story a cautionary tale about how risky and unrewarding such a strategy can be. After all, education schools have demonstrated that they are neither very successful at accomplishing the marriage of theory and practice nor well rewarded for trying. In fact, the odor of failure and disrespect continues to linger in the air around these institutions. In light of such considerations, academics are likely to feel more comfortable placing their chips in the university’s traditional confidence game, continuing to pursue academic status and to market educational credentials. And from this perspective, the example of the ed school is one they should avoid like the plague.