The death of graduate schools of education
I started this post with the intention of discussing MOOCs. My experience is limited, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen and taken part in, but there are some fundamental questions about the purpose and value of education that need to be answered before MOOCs find their place. I decided to focus instead on why there is discontent with the current system, especially as it applies to my current field of study. The idea of graduate schools of education needs a serious rethink. If we go along with the way that things currently work, we’ll lose the chance to make the system better and soon have nothing but for-profit chains and ideologically suspect charter type organizations running the show. Schools of education should be taking proactive measures to make sure that they are a big part of the process of improving education, and not just a toll booth collecting fees from teachers.
My experience with graduate schools of education started in Montana. As I switched careers, I believed that teachers should be content masters, so I was enrolled as a full time graduate student in Montana’s history program. I took the education classes required to get licensure as extra filler. I scored a gig as a history department TA, so I received all tuition at no cost; I could take as many classes as I could pass. The undergraduate education classes required such little effort that it annoyed me to have to spend time on them when I had so much better learning in front of me. I started taking graduate versions of the courses in the hope that it would be be more worthwhile. It wasn’t. As a rough example, every graduate history class took a multiple of about 4-5 times the amount of work and effort as courses offered through the graduate school of education. This was pretty much common knowledge for professors and students across campus.
In those years, I took graduate courses in philosophy, political science, history, and education. While not all of the courses were great, they all at least felt like a step above my undergraduate work–except for the education courses. In all of the other disciplines, we read, debated, discussed, and generally did a lot of good thinking. My graduate education classes felt like I’d been planted back in high school as a punishment for my effort the first time around. Virtually every course that I took turned out to be a complete waste in preparing me for my first classroom and the ideological battles that I’d continually face as a teacher. This became my first systemic view of what was on offer in the world of education: Low expectations, low standards, blind acceptance of questionable theory and research, a love of jargon and doublespeak, a low correlation between what is taught and what is needed, a love of conformity, and a strong disconnect between theory and reality. All of this is still true today.
Today I’m in another graduate program in Denver. Before I start this section, I need to point out that several of my professors and many of my classmates have helped me immensely. Just like in K12 education, it isn’t about the educators because they don’t have a say in almost anything that happens to them. It’s not about lower tier administrators either, although many more of them should be held culpable for the nonsense that they’ve imposed on their staffs and students simply because standing up for what is right has become a blood sport without job protections.
There are two reasons that I’m completing a graduate degree in education, specifically in Information and Learning Technologies. First, even though many should know better, the degree implies expertise within the field, even though it is a poor match for real expertise. I’m too old to fight the system about this issue on principle, and it won’t change between now and the end of my career, so I’ll play the game. Second, even though Denver Public Schools is under a performance based compensation model, getting the degree still means an increase in my base salary for the rest of my time with DPS. I need money, so I’ll go along. All of the altruistic reasons for learning, I’m handling on my own, outside of mainstream education, and getting much better results for far less money, burden, and anxiety. The downside to do-it-myself education is that it my employer doesn’t see the value in it if it isn’t a narrowly defined, standardized form of professional development. Unfortunately, this is true across too many institutions and employers.
I’m almost done with the program, so I’ll make it, but I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned. First, many of my courses spend far too much time on learning new technologies and then making creations with those new technologies for class projects. I have a hard time considering this a good use of my money. I’d prefer to learn technology the way that I’ve always learned it, on my own and as I need it. I’ve created enough videos in the program that the time spent has probably filled two courses worth of work. I’m never going to make a living by creating this kind of audio/video PowerPoint, so developing a portfolio of work that isn’t relevant to what I do, or want to do, doesn’t seem helpful. I have no intention of representing myself to a potential employer with a video, obviously made by a beginner, when it isn’t even my thing.
Too many projects are graded by rubrics that include adhering to certain design guidelines without a clear option for arguing why you ignored a certain theory about best practice. While several instructors did explicitly allow for this, it should have been the case across the board, without exception. The boundaries sometimes seem too rigid for a field that values innovation. As for the all-valuable ‘rigor,’ I’m as lazy as the next overworked drone, and I take full advantage of the situation, but the work is also too undemanding, easy and mechanical. It does take up a fair amount of time though, but that’s not the goal.
I had too many courses taught by instructors without a terminal degree and not much experience. I have no problem with that being the case in some undergraduate courses or in a certificate program. But I don’t think the university should be offering graduate classes taught by people with the same level of education and experience as the people taking the course. This is completely inexplicable given how many people with doctorate degrees and loads of experience are struggling to find good positions. Well, maybe it isn’t inexplicable, but it is inexcusable.
The program is completely online, which has many advantages. When I think back on how hard it was to trudge to a campus after work a day or two a week, I’m very thankful to have the online option. But there are aspects of online course design that don’t work for me. Often I feel (and am) compelled to make X number of comments and X number of posts when there is just not much of value to say. The discussions often feel too forced and not as frank or engaged as they could be. There is not much room for debate, disagreement, and defense of ideas. Sometimes bad reasoning and misinformation gets let go because it almost seems like bad form to point it out. This shouldn’t be the case in any kind of graduate work.
All is not lost. Here is my simple solution to the problem:
1. Careers are so different and individual that it’s pointless to make everyone take most of the same courses. Instead, professors are assigned a group of graduate students who choose independent study topics and work out the requirements with the professor. The professor can guide and direct students toward respected readings, research and theory, but there should be much more independence in choosing overall direction. It needn’t be a free for all, students would defend their course choices and produce and defend graduate level work, however student and professor define that work. Professors could offer pre-packaged ideas for people who needed more guidance, but the expectation for academic efficacy would have to rise. You’d be responsible for the courses and direction that you took, even though I can’t imagine many employers spending more than the nearly non-existent time that they spend now looking at transcripts.
2. Put far more stringent regulation on who can offer degrees, but open the market for certificates. There is a value to both, but it isn’t the same value.
3. Raise the expectation for background knowledge or skill of incoming students, or start offering certificates in addition to degrees. There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning new skills, but we can’t keep defining everything that you do after receiving an undergraduate degree as graduate level work. It isn’t, and ultimately it just depresses the value of the degree and devalues the time spent earning it.
4. Non-terminal degree faculty are fine for certificate and undergraduate courses, but not for graduate degree level courses. If we give this one away, we give away the whole idea that education is a serious academic subject–and I believe that it is.
Only number 2 is out of the control of the university. It will probably be much easier to argue for the changes needed for number 2 if universities better define the value that degree programs add to society beyond certificate/certification programs.
What do you think? What should it mean to have a graduate degree in education? Can we improve K12 education through our schools of education? What can we do differently?