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A Crossroads for the Education Doctorate

March 26, 2013 by Hanover Research


A Confused History

Almost uniquely among academic fields, education hosts two kinds of doctorates: the Ph.D., and the Doctor of Education, or Ed.D. Although the Ed.D. has a distinguished lineage, originating at Harvard University in the early 20th century, angst over the legitimacy or necessity of the degree has an equally venerable history, dating from a study published in 1931, just ten years after the granting of the first Ed.D. The conventional explanation for the maintenance of two doctorates in the field of education has been that the Ed.D. is for practitioners, the Ph.D. for researchers. Thus, those attempting to tease out the difference between the two doctorates look to distinctions such as whether candidates aim to work in administrative leadership (Ed.D.) or to conduct research or teach at the university level (Ph.D.).

The actual history of the Ed.D., however, suggests that Harvard only created the degree because its Arts & Sciences faculty at the time resisted granting a Ph.D. in a professional field; although the Ed.D. appeared to be a distinct degree, it was “developed within the format of the Ph.D.,” essentially replicating many of the features of the research degree, including the three key components of graduate coursework, a qualifying exam, and a dissertation. In another telling, the Ed.D.’s founders wanted a more distinctly practice-oriented terminal degree, but were forced to include research elements, such as the dissertation, to “placate” the university’s research-focused president.

Regardless of what actually happened at Harvard 90 years ago, the Ed.D.’s role has remained confused throughout its history, as some institutions have used it to train researchers and others to prepare practitioners. And when Harvard itself recently announced that it would finally begin offering a Ph.D. in education, while phasing out its esteemed Ed.D. program, a familiar question arose anew: is the Ed.D. necessary?

Reform or Obsolescence?

At least one expert has answered this question in the negative. In the wake of Harvard’s decision, Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, expressed a desire to see the Ed.D. “fade away” altogether, possibly to be replaced by a terminal degree for educational administrators modeled on the M.B.A. Levine originally floated this idea in his extensively researched 2005 report on educational leadership for the Education Schools Project, which proposed the complete elimination of the Ed.D. for school leaders, calling the degree a “back door for weak education schools to gain doctoral granting authority” and a “meaningless and burdensome obstacle” for educators seeking to take on school leadership roles. The proposal was complemented by recommendations to introduce an M.B.A.-style Master’s of Educational Administration (or, M.E.A.) for practitioners and to reserve the Ph.D. for those intending careers in education research.

The suggestion that the Ed.D. be eliminated, however, proved to be the “most controversial element” of the Levine report, meeting resistance from education schools, school superintendents (many of whom hold the Ed.D.), and current students in Ed.D. programs. And other researchers, including Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation, have responded to Levine’s proposal by reaffirming that the “highest professional degree in education deserves to be a doctorate,” while granting that such a degree needs to be more clearly distinguished from the Ph.D. Towards that end, a group of researchers and education schools has been working since 2007 under the aegis of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) to develop a more distinct and effective education doctorate for practitioners.

The CPED’s principal aim is “to reclaim the education doctorate and to transform it into the degree of choice for the next generation of school and college leaders.” The initiative first brought together faculty from over 20 participating education schools, including Penn State University, the University of Southern California, and others, to discuss key concepts for the reform of the Ed.D., such as the use of capstone projects in place of the dissertation. The faculty then returned to their campuses to experiment with reform measures, before reconvening to share insights. Some of the key outcomes of the project have included the development of concepts such as the capstone course or “laboratories of practice” that allow doctoral students to develop the applied skills they need to become what the CPED calls “Scholarly Practitioners.” In 2010, the consortium won grant funding to study the effects on member institutions of the CPED’s work, an assessment that remains ongoing.

Whether the CPED’s work will be able to qualm the concerns about the Ed.D., however, remains to be seen. For one, the decision by Harvard, as a top-tier university, to eliminate its own Ed.D. has raised the question of whether other institutions might not follow suit, and either abandon the Ed.D. or convert it outright to a Ph.D. Regardless of whether the Ed.D. takes the direction of reform or obsolescence, however, one thing seems sure: the education doctorate of this century will look very different from that of the last.