The Wall Street Journal editorial page provoked a thunderous denunciation from a host of media outlets and interest groups last weekend by publishing a piece questioning whether to call our incoming first lady Dr. Jill Biden.
In his now-infamous piece of snarky commentary, Joseph Epstein criticized the proliferation of doctorates over the past half-century, reserving special derision for honorary doctors such as entertainers, and for doctors in education such as Jill Biden.
Perhaps more important than how we or the media may choose to refer to Dr./Mrs. Biden, the outsized focus on whether to use the honorific for a doctor of education helps explain why the past 30 years of public-education reform have underperformed. It is not teacher unions, but educational administrators with doctorates in education (the Notorious Ed.D.) like Jill Biden who run American public schools. That means we cannot substantially reform schools while leaving the Ed.D. program as it is intact. And so, to question the inherent value of that degree is to tease at this dilemma — and will invite the kind of backlash we have seen over the last several days.
Incidentally, I am a party to this fight by association, just not on the side with which I agree. My own American Educational Research Association (AERA), like all professional associations, is essentially an interest group. We are education professors in the business of producing degrees in education — so an attack on the Ed.D. is an attack on our jobs. Within 48 hours, AERA’s executive director issued a statement calling Epstein “misogynistic,” while advising other newspapers to have “second thoughts” about publishing such ideas.
I find it concerning when organizations representing professors advocate censorship. Indeed, the fact that the AERA seeks to silence Epstein rather than debate him is telling. What’s more, within days of the Wall Street Journal commentary, Northwestern University erased lecturer emeritus Joseph Epstein from their website, in order to support “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
While Epstein is acerbic like H.L. Mencken, incoming first lady Jill Biden does seem to truly care about her students and profession. (Back in 2012 we each wrote essays for Academic Questions about how to improve colleges; Biden’s addressed mentoring.) Yet in a free country, impolite gadflies play important roles in improving society. And on this matter regarding doctorates in education, Epstein is quite right. Other professors consider the Ed.D. a marginal degree, whose very mediocrity and ubiquity block school improvement.
As Stanford Education professor David Labaree wrote, other college professors “see ed school teachers not as peers in the world of higher education but as an embarrassment. . . . To them the ed school looks less like a school of medicine than a school of cosmetology.”
Universities treat their schools of education as cash cows milking tuition dollars from students who lack the time, motivation, or other assets for serious academic work. To see how higher education views education professors, consider that as of 2019, none of the eight Ivy League universities or eight “Public Ivies” were led by an Ed.D. In practice, low status in the academy drives Ed.D. insecurity. You can call a Ph.D. in physics by their first name, but an Ed.D. often goes by “doctor.” With this in mind, the sensitivity over Dr. Biden is unsurprising. Indeed, while Biden herself lacks arrogance by insisting on the honorific, many bearing the degree resemble tiny Lord Farquaad in Shrek: They seem to be compensating for something.
All this matters because as marginal as education doctorates are in academia, where few become chancellors, they dominate public schools. Most school superintendents hold doctorates, nearly always in education and typically in educational leadership. This makes improving academic achievement and equity via reform exceedingly difficult.
Since its early 20th-century beginnings, the field of education and its professors have distinguished themselves from other scholars by deemphasizing academic content, instead stressing practical traits such as the compliance needed in the industrial workplace. Schools of education embraced the best of 1910 business-management thinking. Over time, with allies on business-dominated school boards, schools of education converted small, academically oriented schools often led by female principals into large, hierarchical educational factories where male administrators with easily obtained graduate-degree credentials bossed around female teachers, who in turn batch-processed children through the system.
Schools are less sexist today, yet we remain stuck with a bureaucratic model of schooling that deemphasizes both teacher autonomy and subject-matter mastery. I learned this, firsthand, through 20 years of fieldwork capped by five years on a school board where I, a libertarian Republican, generally allied with the teachers union. The local NEA leadership agreed with me that teachers needed subject-matter knowledge, rather than just deference to superiors.
All this explains why three decades of school reform by well-meaning governors and presidents of each party have by and large failed to make schools more academic and more individualized. Those who really run schools are not teachers, but the administrators whom those teachers must call doctors (i.e., the doctors of education who do hiring, scheduling, and budgeting).
Like Jill Biden, these educational administrators are usually decent and hard-working people. But they are also people who like schools as they are, not as the more academic versions that education reformers would prefer. I can recall numerous episodes from fieldwork illustrating this tendency, such as when a well-regarded principal with a doctorate in educational leadership declared that the most exciting thing about his school was not students learning math, science, great literature, or the U.S. Constitution, but rather “developing their own brand on social media.” In my own school district, a respected Ed.D. lamented that my own children were not really part of the public-school system because they took too many Advanced Placement courses and attended too few athletic events.
Epstein seems grouchy, and Jill Biden herself may have been an ill-chosen target for his scorn. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the Ed.D. is an academically weak degree whose holders limit school improvement. If we want to make schools more academic, the Ed.D. must reform or die.