The Trouble with Ed Schools
David Labaree’s The Trouble with Ed Schools explores the low status of education schools in the United States. While Labaree still indulges in a few colorful attacks — such as calling the ed school “the sad sack of American higher education” — he writes as an insider who has spent his career working at these institutions. Labaree therefore seeks to provide “a more sympathetic if not much more flattering portrait of the education school.” Adopting a tone of “principled ambivalence,” The Trouble with Ed Schools explores both the weaknesses and potential of these institutions.
After an introductory chapter highlighting the troubled status of the ed school, chapters two and three examine the teacher-preparation role these institutions play. Labaree describes how the normal school, the historical precursor to the ed school, earned little academic or social respect as a result of the low prestige of the teaching profession and prejudice against student bodies comprised largely of working-class women. Pressured by school systems to provide large numbers of credentialed teachers, normal schools also tended to maintain low standards of admissions and coursework throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Labaree argues that normal schools suffered because they did exactly what they were asked to do — train teachers quickly and cheaply. As normal schools evolved into state colleges and universities, teacher education occupied an increasingly marginalized position within these institutions. Labaree argues that this “long history of status deprivation” helps to explain some of the current challenges faced by ed schools. Further complicating the teacher-training function of ed schools is the fact that teaching is an extraordinarily difficult task that can look quite easy to outsiders. This peculiar combination, Labaree argues, renders ed schools especially vulnerable to public criticism.
Labaree’s subsequent chapters examine obstacles facing the field of education research, such as the task of training researchers and education professors’ aspirations toward higher status. First, Labaree documents educational researchers’ lack of consensus in key arenas of methodology and aims. In particular, the complex variables affecting classroom performance pose challenges for scholars trained in either quantitative or qualitative methods. Labaree also predicts that recent pressure to transform education into a “hard” discipline may prove counterproductive, given the complicated nature of schooling. Referring to the cyclical nature of trends in education scholarship, Labaree quips that “if Sisyphus were a scholar, his field would be education.” Labaree also describes a catch-22 facing education researchers. If they focus explicitly on educational practice, they are vulnerable to disdain from an academic establishment, which prioritizes “pure” research. If they focus on theory rather than practice, they become vulnerable to criticism for being too detached from the everyday realities of schooling.
Focusing on the ed schools’ relationship with educational progressivism, chapters seven and eight may be the most controversial portions of The Trouble with Ed Schools. Labaree acknowledges that the dominance of progressive educational ideology within schools of education has been overstated, and that cognitive psychology and traditional pedagogy have remained strong within ed schools. Nevertheless, he argues that the popular association of ed schools with progressivism has eroded their social standing and political influence. Labaree suggests, somewhat subversively, that reform-minded professors of education may embrace progressivism precisely because these theories provide a pure realm of academic expertise, which allows them to feel relevant despite their exclusion from powerful positions in school systems nationwide.
Despite his criticism of many aspects of the ed school, Labaree does not believe that these marginalized institutions should be blamed for the weaknesses in the American education system. Instead, Labaree argues that administrators and consumers of education have exerted far more influence on the shape of American schools. According to The Trouble with Ed Schools, these schools have been convenient scapegoats rather than the source of the shortcomings in American education.
The Trouble with Ed Schools sets itself apart from the standard critiques of the field of education by devoting some attention to ed schools’ potential strengths. Labaree observes that the interdisciplinary nature of the field can be an asset as well as a liability. In addition, relative to other disciplines, new scholars in education find it easier to make their voices heard. Labaree also lauds the clear public purpose of education scholarship, which gives researchers the “satisfaction of knowing that they are working on issues that matter.” He states, similarly, that teacher preparation has a “multiplier effect” that gives ed schools “a degree of social impact that higher-status academic departments can only dream about.” More broadly, Labaree believes that ed schools might serve as constructive models for universities seeking to focus on the dissemination of usable knowledge as an antidote to the “raw credentialism” that pervades American higher education.
Those who work and study in schools of education will find The Trouble with Ed Schools an extremely readable and concise source for understanding the history and current discourse around these institutions. While specialists in this field will find that the book is primarily a synthesis of existing literature, many will still be stimulated by Labaree’s engaging tone and bold conclusions.