A Better Path Than ‘Blowing Up’ Schools of Education

For two decades, I’ve attended conclaves where impassioned reformers have declared that “We’ve got to blow up the ed schools.” Now, given that I graduated from a school of education (and have taught at a few of them), I understand the frustration. Hell, I’ve had more than my share of bruises from ed schools–involving everything from being boycotted to being labeled an “enemy of public education.” But I also think the “blow ’em up” response has been misguided and counterproductive. I was musing on all this over the weekend, having had a chance on Thursday to spend a couple hours with a few dozen of the nation’s leading ed school deans. While most come at questions of schooling and policy very differently than I do, I inevitably find these folks to be smart people and willing to engage with dissenting voices.

All this brought to mind a piece I recently wrote with Taryn Hochleitner for Philanthropy magazine on the question of “what to do about ed schools?”  Today, I think I’ll wade into a distilled discussion of that piece. As a rule, education school faculty display strong biases on questions like accountability, use of monetary incentives, and school choice. Those who see things differently have responded by starting nonprofits and small businesses to train principals and superintendents, relying on think tanks and advocacy groups to spread their ideas. But, importantly, I think the absence of competing voices in ed schools is less a matter of any grand conspiracy than convenience, routine, and groupthink. And that means there’s a lot of opportunity to do something about it.

In simple numerical terms, the competing voices at think tanks and in academic departments are dwarfed by the tens of thousands of faculty in teacher-preparation programs at state colleges of education. Not coincidentally, the voices most inclined to challenge the received wisdom of the ed school professoriate are all found in economics departments, policy schools, or think tanks.

This isn’t sufficient. Economics departments and policy schools can only offer perches for a handful of education specialists. And because these thinkers are not instructing education students, they are isolated from the rising generation of teachers and school leaders. Their remove from education networks on and off campus also makes it tough for them to alter professional norms, build new communities of thought, or connect with young talent.

Teacher preparation programs make lots of money for the colleges that run them. They enjoy strong back-scratching relationships with the local school systems that surround them. Schools of education are closely connected with the national associations of superintendents and principals (many of whom are alumni), and they have the ear of school boards and state legislators. Even if a reform-minded dean should sweep into such a school, the rank-and-file faculty members who embody the field’s conventional wisdom will routinely outnumber and outlast them.

Given their steady revenues, credentialing authority, political relationships, and millions of alumni not much interested in major change, “blowing up” the existing schools of education is just not a viable option. It’s not even a desirable one.

For one thing, university faculty at major universities have an outsized influence in setting the nation’s research agenda, steering professional academic associations, directing federal research funding, and training the next generation of education thinkers. For another, the presence of pedigreed scholars who dare to challenge ed school verities can make it more comfortable for graduate students, young faculty, and aspiring educators to question received dogma. The range of “legitimate” thinking can and should be expanded.

It’s a huge mistake to regard ed schools as implacably hostile. Ed schools are shifting assemblages of individuals, with views that are not preordained. Instead of writing off all the institutional heft that ed schools’ control, it’s time for reformers to get in the ring and work to ensure that some top colleges of education become places that can produce and host a healthy quotient of reform-minded thinkers. With the right strategy, this can be done.

Forty years ago, would-be reformers in the legal community faced a similar predicament: entrenched, dominant opponents in the academy and the profession. The battle lines were different–the legal divide was much more of a liberal-conservative split, whereas school reform today attracts supporters across the political spectrum–but the dynamics were familiar.

As Johns Hopkins political scientist Steve Teles explains in The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, “conservatives began investing in a broad range of activities designed to reverse” this situation. In 1980, Michael Horowitz penned a seminal report for the Scaife Foundation, urging a substantial investment to get conservatives a place at the table and a fair hearing in university programs.

Three efforts are particularly relevant.

One was the Federalist Society. Launched by law students at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Chicago in 1982, the Federalist Society built networks and created forums to air conservative arguments, emphasizing discussion and debate rather than decreeing set positions. Growing quickly, it became a magnet for noted law faculty, conveying to students that conservative thought was worthy of consideration and creating a safe space to question law school orthodoxies. Today, the Federalist Society has 40,000 members, including a raft of influential law school faculty, attorneys, advocates, and judges, and has markedly reduced the ideological homogeneity of law schools nationwide.

Legal reformers also pushed to create “law and economics” programs at top law schools. The Olin Foundation spearheaded an effort to fund faculty, curricula, and guest lectures that introduced the logic of competitive markets and a tempered view of government regulation into legal decision-making. Olin started with the University of Chicago, where it funded faculty research, visiting lecturers, and student fellowships. It rapidly extended its efforts to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and other campuses.

As a third precedent for ed-school reform, consider the rise of the George Mason University School of Law.  In 1985, Henry Manne, a recognized authority in law and economics, was recruited to build a law school from scratch. Whereas law and economics programs at elite institutions had to adapt to institutional norms, Manne was free to launch an Austrian-flavored program free from such constraints. While lacking a significant endowment, alumni network, or institutional brand, the new school soon enjoyed enormous success as a place of refuge for conservative scholars, some of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes and other honors.

There are at least three broad strategies to consider for education schools. One is the Federalist Society model, which entails launching an organization to help ensure that junior faculty and graduate students in schools of education encounter different thinking and have the opportunity to take its tenets seriously. There’s a ready array of relatively inexpensive complementary investments in campus chapters, including scholarships, post-doctoral fellowships, and conferences.

A second strategy is the “law and economics” model: endow new faculty chairs, create lecture series, and fund new instructional programs. Education schools may prove more open than many observers expect to building new programs that will extend their influence. Ed faculty may tend to share some casual biases, but they’re also professionals interested in the things that make universities successful. Indeed, recent ventures like Harvard’s Strategic Data Project and Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis show that it’s possible to launch initiatives that remain admirably free from convention and committed to empirical rigor.

The George Mason model entails founding new institutions. One tack involves building start-ups like the Relay Graduate School of Education or the High Tech High Graduate School of Education from tightly focused teacher prep programs into something much more akin to a full-service education school. Another would be to create new, free-standing departments within existing schools of education (or at universities without schools of education).

Twenty years ago, it was tough to identify a half-dozen education professors at elite institutions who were sympathetic to the tenets of contemporary reform. Today, there are dozens of such faculty, at places like Stanford, Harvard, the University of Virginia, Michigan, the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania, and Vanderbilt, who are fair-mindedly studying teacher pay, accountability, charter schooling, and much else that was once verboten. So things are getting better. Even faculty are more open than they once were. Pollsters Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett reported in 2010 that 86 percent of teacher preparation professors say it should be “easier to terminate unmotivated or incompetent teachers–even if they are tenured.”

In truth, this kind of strategy has already been tried in education, to excellent effect. A decade ago, major gifts from the Windgate Charitable Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation established a Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas’s education reform department has put a decidedly non-elite education school on the national map. The faculty, funding, and culture attract graduate students interested in questions like school choice and teacher pay. Graduates meet a glaring need for young, smart, well-trained scholars who are up for tackling these questions.

“Blow up the ed schools” is the disgruntled cry of the defeated. The goal shouldn’t be to silence other voices, but to break the monopoly and insist on a fair competition of ideas.

-Frederick M. Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up

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