The Decline of Ed Schools: Ten Questions and Answers

By 09/30/2009

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1. Does America need education schools?  Should steps be taken to defund or eliminate them?

America does not now need education schools.  They add little and cost a great deal. They are unable to attract talented entrants and fail to add value to their graduates (either by boosting teacher performance or teacher’s lifetime incomes).  Graduate students who attend them have to forego significant amounts of income. Today, ed schools face an increasing number of attractive, lower-priced, online competitors.

2. How many U.S. ed schools are currently operating?

U.S. News and World Reports estimates that in 2009 there are 278 education schools, 187 public and 91 private. (This may be a conservative number, as it omits those that failed to respond to questionnaires related to the rankings developed by U.S. News.)

3. How many degrees do ed schools issue per year?

A great many.  In 2007, almost 200,000 education degrees were awarded:105,641 bachelors degrees, 76,572 masters degrees, and 8, 261 doctoral degrees.  Masters and doctoral degrees in education meet or exceed all other categories of graduate degrees. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education)


4. How high are the academic skills of ed school students relative to those of other professionals?

Low.  The College Entrance Examination Board reports that students pursuing graduate degrees in education had a GRE Verbal score mean of 449 and a mean GRE Quantitative score of 533, for a combined total of 982. This puts ed school students at the 40th percentile of test takers, lower than students intending graduate study in all other professional fields (including business, engineering, and health).



5. What is the direct cost of ed school degrees to enrollees? What is the foregone income of enrollees? How much does it cost to operate education schools?

A conservative estimate of ed school tuition payments made annually is $1.283 billion. [This estimate assumes that three quarters of our nation’s 100,000 undergraduate ed school enrollees are paying in-state public college and university tuition and related fees of $10,260, and the other one quarter of undergraduates in ed schools are paying out-of-state or private school tuition and fees  ($18,303). It also assumes that similar proportions of graduate students in ed schools are paying in-state ($507) and out- of state/private ($703) tuition for 6 credit hours each.]

The income foregone by students attending ed schools amounts to approximately $1.2 billion.  [This assumes that only graduate students forego income to attend ed schools, that only half of ed school students at the graduate level attend full time, and that these students would otherwise earn an average salary of $30,000.]

If tuition is taken to be fifty percent of college operating costs, then ed schools can conservatively be estimated to spend $2.5 billion annually in direct operational expenditures.

6. What does it cost a student to obtain an education degree online?

Education degrees online range from $300 to $800 per credit.  Assuming thirty credits are required to obtain a degree, the cost would be $9,000 to $24,000 for a masters degree, and twice that for a doctoral degree.  The major cost advantage, however, for students pursuing education degrees online (when compared to students pursuing a conventional, on-campus education degree), comes because online students don’t have to give up their incomes and don’t have to absorb expenses like room and board and transportation.

7. Are online ed schools any good?

No one knows.  The performance of their graduates has not been systematically compared to those completing conventional ed school programs.

8. Don’t ed schools add value to graduates’ instructional capacity? Don’t ed schools contribute by undertaking valuable research?

No on both counts. Researchers (e.g., Hanushek and Rivkin) cannot discern a positive association between students’ academic achievement and their teachers’ post-BA course credits, degrees, or certificates.

Most education school faculty do not undertake research. Those who do are often ideologically, not scientifically, oriented. The few scholarly education schools, e.g., Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin, that do conduct serious and useful research do not train many teachers.  Other highly visible education schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and University of Washington have forfeited much of their research agenda to other parts of their universities, e.g., econ departments, public policy schools, or university-based think tanks.  Finally, worthwhile education research is increasingly undertaken outside of universities altogether, in think tanks and shops such as RAND, AIR, AEI, and Mathematica, and in regional educational laboratories.

9. What is the long-term future of ed schools? Have any education schools disappeared already? What forces currently prop up ed schools? What political constituencies will defend education schools?

A few major institutions (i.e., Yale and Duke) have dropped their ed schools. Several other visible institutions (e.g., the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley) have marginalized education through budget deprivation. However, these examples are idiosyncratic.

Newly emerging conditions will more likely shape the future.  It is likely that the inability of ed schools to boost the economic well-being of graduates, their ineffectiveness in engendering professional competence, public low regard, the prospect of accountability, and the growth of online programs will gradually begin to erode ed schools’ market share.

Ed schools presently benefit from a lack of public accountability, low political visibility, public policy inertia, and iron triangle protectionism provided by self-interested coalitions of executive branch credentialing managers, teacher union officials attempting to restrain labor market entry, and a few aligned legislators.  If ever subjected to performance accountability, intense high politics, or partisan scrutiny, this protective shield would likely fade quickly.  Ed school alumnae are notorious for their disaffection from and disregard for their training institutions.

10. What possibly could change this scenario?

The development of a science of pedagogy would positively alter the above described scenario, and possibly preserve ed schools, but this development seems improbably.  Conversely, the demise of ed schools would be accelerated by any visible steps toward demanding public accountability of those schools, by evidence that online programs were equally or more effective, or by decreased state insistence upon formal credentials for entry into teaching.

Comment on this article
  • George Mitchell says:

    This withering post makes me wonder where one can go for some good news about actual progress vis a vis systematic K-12 reform. While we all can cite anecdotal illustrations of academic excellence and innovation, the far more common story involves the absence of accountability and the protectionism cited by Mr. Guthrie. I am completing three decades as an observer of urban K-12 issues and failures. The absence of systematic change is the dominant trend that comes to mind. Am I too jaded? What am I missing?

  • Sherman Dorn says:

    Jim Guthrie’s answers mix the sensible (the tenuous link between degrees and income in education, the large proportion of total degrees awarded in education) with the silly (the average GRE scores of those saying that they intend to go to graduate school in education, which is not necessarily connected to who applies and is admitted to graduate school, let alone who finishes). As Jim knows from the book he wrote with Geraldine Clifford, status games within universities contribute to the problems. I suspect many of the same criticisms could be lobbed at other professional schools, yet despite the economic disaster of the last year, no one is calling for the closure of business schools, and no one calls for the replacement of law, medicine, or nursing degrees with “alt cert” programs in law or health care.

    Yes, teacher education programs need a better foundation in research. I am not convinced that the elimination of those programs from higher education would move things in the right direction.

  • James W. Guthrie says:

    I am flattered that someone as knowledgeable and thoughtful as Sherman Dorn would comment on my blog regarding the forthcoming demise of education schools. Permit me a few clarifying responses.

    Low SAT scores among those who assert they are going into education are different from SAT scores of those actually enroll in ed schools. Aspirant scores are lower than actual enrollees, but not a whole lot lower. More importantly, however, the low scores of ed school or teacher training aspirants evidence the low regard in which ed schools are held. If top tier SAT scorers wanted to enter conventional teacher training, would we not have a different view of ed schools? We certainly would.

    Now, as to why no one clamors for alternative routes for instructing and certifying nurses, engineers, lawyers, physicians, and business leaders. Sherman is right here. There are few such calls. There is a good reason why. These other professions operate from a solid base in scientific principle or, in the case of law, long standing craft knowledge. Ed Schools can make no such claim. This is precisely why they cannot legitimately proclaim hegemony over the preparation of teachers. They have no scientific base upon which to operate and no legitimacy as a consequence, Alternative routes to being a teacher hold equal legitimacy, are attracting more and more able individuals, and offer a less expensive path to teaching. Ed schools are suffering as a result.

    Jim Guthrie

  • Paul Hoss says:

    As a graduate of two of these prominent ed schools I am very disappointed these schools have done little or nothing to improve contemporary pedagogy.

    Many twenty first century educators employ the same strategies used by their predecessors from decades past. The teacher standing in front of the class giving the same lesson to everyone suggests that all students have the same strengths and weaknesses as well as the same levels of readiness as every other student in the class. They don’t.

    If medical doctors or attorneys attempted to operate in this manner they’d be out of business by the end of the week.

  • James W. Guthrie says:

    I greatly appreciate Mr. Hoss’ additions

  • John Magoun says:

    I don’t follow Mr. Hoss’s argument. Is he suggesting that doctors and lawyers have been trained by their professional schools to deal with the same 30 patients or clients a day, all day, every day, with chronic complaints or suits that need continual attention? So that there is no time or facility for dealing with each suit or complaint individually?

    I don’t know about lawyers, but I imagine doctors do encounter this situation occasionally. Say, during a catastrophic natural disaster, or on the battlefield. In which cases a very large percentage of their patients die – yet they typically remain “in business” afterwards because everyone understands that such a workload is simply unsupportable. Lawyers, of course, just remain generally unpopular because they have rigged the entire legal structure of society on their behalf to provide them with permanent low-intensity, high-remuneration employment.

    I’m sure most teachers would love to have the equivalent of an attorney’s or a doctor’s practice, where students would come into an office, one by one, receive instruction for an hour, and then go away for a year or so. I bet each student would receive an education entirely geared to their own strengths, weaknesses, and readiness, just as Mr. Hoss expects they should.

    Clearly, education is not a profession like the others cited in this article, either in terms of practitioner-client relations, or in terms of fees earned. Why not start by admitting that, before comparing the universities’ education programs to law schools or criticizing the quality of training or recruitment that takes place in the so-called profession of education?

    For some reason society chooses not to hire teachers at the same ratio to clients (students) that other professionals take for granted: about 1:1 per hour or even less. If society did so, and if they paid the teachers at the same rates as these other practitioners charge, the ed schools would probably develop wonderful pedagogies and research-based solutions for every type of student’s education. On the other hand, I doubt the national population can provide a recruitment base for that many very highly qualified and highly educated teachers.

    Not that Ed Schools are so wonderful – I agree that they are terribly weak academically, compared to other graduate schools. But is that the fault of the schools somehow, so that the “online” replacements are going to be so much more wonderful? (As you say, no one has even begun to show that online training is superior, as education, to in-class training. All anyone knows and likes is that it’s much cheaper, because the teachers don’t have to meet or get to know their students at all – a feature that Mr. Hoss seems to think makes for a rather poor education.) Or is the problem that we as a society have always wanted our public education to be cheap, fast, and excellent? I, and anyone who has ever worked for a living, knows that you can’t have all three of those at once.

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