The Ed School Disease, Part Two

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006; 11:24 AM

I read Stanford University educational historian David F. Labaree's new book, "The Trouble With Ed Schools," shortly after last week's column scorching those same education schools. You would think his wonderfully insightful book, which is even harder on ed schools than I was, would make me feel good. Here is a distinguished education school professor who knows that world so well, and he is validating my opinions.

Instead, the book made me ashamed of myself. It was similar to the feeling of loathsome guilt I had when I was eight years old and beat up a five-year-old with a lisp next door who had annoyed me for reasons I no longer recall. Labaree succeeds in making American education schools such objects of pity, suffering from decades of low status and professional abuse, that you want to give the next ed school professor you meet a big hug and promise to bake her a plate of cookies.

"Institutionally," Labaree says in the book, "the ed school is the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education; it don't get no respect. The ed school is the butt of jokes in the university, where professors portray it as an intellectual wasteland; it is the object of scorn in schools, where teachers decry its programs as impractical and its research as irrelevant; and it is a convenient scapegoat in the world of educational policy, where policymakers portray it as a root cause of bad teaching and inadequate learning."

That is not the worst part. In last week's online column, and in a column in The Washington Post Magazine Aug. 6, I fussed over the failure of education schools to pass on tips from the real world of expert teachers working in inner city schools. I cited several methods used by famous teachers who have raised student achievement significantly. I decried the response from many ed school people: We can't teach that until we subject it to thorough research.

Like many ed school critics, I was quivering with righteous disgust over what I called their nose-in-the-air attitude. Waiting for the research to come back was defeatism at its worst, because the research was usually too narrow or irrelevant to be much good. Ed schools were ruining these new teachers, I suggested, and hurting our schools.

But Labaree has gone a long way toward convincing me that ed schools are doing no such thing. He concludes, after an exhaustive examination of the birth and evolution of teacher training in the United States, that education schools have about as much impact on what happens in U.S. classrooms as my beloved but woeful Washington Nationals are having this season on the pennant race.

Teachers in training, he shows, are far more influenced by their memories of how their own school teachers behaved, and by orders and advice they get from supervisors and colleagues in the schools that eventually employ them. Rookie teachers are happy for the credential they get from ed schools that allow them to start earning a paycheck, but they don't use very much of what they learn there, Labaree says.

Ed schools aren't a menace, Labaree says. They are a cipher. They have little more impact on an ed school graduate's life than the traffic school he had to attend for running a red light.

At the heart of the book is a Frankie and Johnnie romance between two losers, ed schools and child-centered progressive education. Labaree notes several books that have decried the effect on public schools of progressive education, including the thoughts of theorist John Dewey. Then he asks a simple question: What evidence is there that many classroom teachers are actually doing anything that Dewey would want them to do? As the faculty lounge saying goes, Dewey advocates are supposed to act like a guide on the side, letting each student follow his or her natural instincts and curiosity, rather than a sage on the stage, dispensing wisdom which everyone must write down and memorize.

At this point in the book I vaguely recalled once upon a time having a similar thought myself. Too bad, I thought, that I am at that age where memory is only a sometime thing. But Labaree cited my December 2002 column, making me feel appreciated, quite unlike the feeling ed school people will have when they read this book.

What I said in that column was that I had been in a lot of classrooms and had rarely seen much of this guide on the side stuff. I wasn't saying I was happy about it. We have never given the Deweyites a fair test of their theories, and I know of a few schools that have used child-centered learning to good effect. Labaree's insight is powerful and useful all the same: why worry about ed schools if they don't do any harm, or any good?

I am exaggerating a bit. Labaree does explain, in a way that buttresses what I have learned from the work of educational historian Diane Ravitch, that the reluctance of many educators to challenge low-income students with rigorous courses like Advanced Placement stems in part from Dewey's emphasis on individualizing instruction. Generations of educators have been sending the bright children of day laborers and domestics off to vocational classes because they thought that was the kind of learning that would best fit their individual needs and talents.

Labaree, however, asserts that this is mostly the fault of administrators, not teachers, and probably would have happened even if ed schools had not existed.

He does not end the book on a hopeful note, although the fact that it is being written by an ed school professor suggests there are lots of people at such places as smart as Labaree, able to think through these issues and maybe come up with a solution. There must be some way ed schools could add significant value to teaching, rather than, as Labaree describes it, mostly satisfy the need of young education consumers to get the pieces of paper that will get them teaching jobs.

He discusses the difficult job of meshing theory and practice, and the daunting job of a teacher who, unlike a doctor or a lawyer, needs the energetic cooperation of her clients to be a success. That teacher is, he points out, giving away her expertise to every student and thus sharply diminishing its perceived value.

Just as I said last week, I still think ed schools would do better to teach the experiences of the great teachers in our poorest neighborhoods, but obviously that is one of the least of their problems. Maybe we need an entirely different way of preparing young people to be effective in the classroom. Sadly I am not smart enough, and not even Labaree is smart enough, to figure out what that might be.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company