The History of the Doctorate in Education (Ed.D.) - Past, Present & Future

During the 2020 United States election, there was a spate of controversy around the fact that presidential candidate Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, holds a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership from the University of Delaware. Opinion pieces such as that written for the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein urged Dr. Biden to discard the honorific before her name, calling it “fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.”

Advocates of gender equality responded to such critiques as Epstein’s with criticisms of their own, mainly regarding the misogyny of discounting and even deriding a woman’s professional and academic accomplishments. However, many overlooked the problematic and prejudiced assumption that an Ed.D. is not a “real” doctorate. As Jonathan Zimmerman commented in the New York Daily News, “Although almost nobody is willing to say this out loud right now, doctorates in education too often lack the intellectual rigor, difficulty and originality of advanced degrees in other fields. And that, in turn, reflects how education was typecast as a ‘female profession’ from the dawn of our history.” While Zimmerman sought to call out the sexism that limits the education profession, in doing so he also revealed and reinforced a bias against the Ed.D.

These misconceptions about the Ed.D. as being somehow lacking in “intellectual rigor” date back to the Ed.D.’s inception, but in recent years, the Ed.D. has risen in prestige and prominence as education leaders see the value of a scholar-practitioner model to prepare teachers and administrators. This article explores the origins of the Ed.D. and its struggles to differentiate itself from the Ph.D. in Education. Furthermore, it discusses the pioneering efforts of Dr. Jill Perry and her colleagues at the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) to support the Ed.D. in becoming the de-facto doctoral degree for education practitioners and leaders in the education space.

Dr. Perry is the Executive Director of CPED, and she sat with for an exclusive and in-depth interview about how her research, advocacy, and collaboration with Ed.D. faculty have helped schools of education nationwide to innovate and improve. We share several of her insights throughout this article.

The History of the Doctorate in Education

The Ed.D.’s history spans over 100 years, but only in recent decades has it truly begun to step into a clearer identity and vision as a degree. To fully understand how far the Ed.D. has come and the barriers to legitimacy and recognition that it faced, it is important to look to the degree’s origins, and how it has evolved over the last century.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the education profession was seen as one of three professional disciplines that needed formalized academic training. The disciplines of law, medicine, and education all had, traditionally, prepared practitioners through the apprenticeship model (Perry). In an effort to increase their legitimacy through pedagogical rigor, leaders in each of these areas sought partnerships with institutions of higher education to achieve this goal. While Harvard College took on the challenge of law pedagogy and Johns Hopkins University did the same for medicine, Columbia University was the first university to partner with education leaders to try and figure out what education for educators and education leaders should look like.

Columbia University’s Efforts to Formalize Teaching as a Professional Craft

James Earl Russell, Dean of Columbia University’s Teachers College from 1898 to 1926, sought to develop a paradigm for educator preparation, one that was founded upon the idea that educators were artists of their craft who cultivated the minds and characters of their students. Russell developed four components key to educator preparation: general culture, special scholarship, professional knowledge, and technical skill (Perry). In establishing these four elements, Russell sought to connect the ideals and goals of institutions of higher education and professional teachers’ associations. His four-element model is still relevant today, as educators and education leaders seek to combine scholarship, practice, technical skill in their discipline, and cultivation of a culture of interdisciplinary, evidence-based learning.

However, despite his innovative and highly progressive model for educator education, Russell did not quite see his vision come to fruition. “Looking back at these components, I think he was onto something,” Dr. Perry said, “He had outlined somewhat of the basics of what you wanted in order to build a profession. He just either didn’t have the ability to bring on others into that vision, or he didn’t know what the application of these components looked like in practice.” Both in spite of and as a result of these roadblocks, Russell developed a Ph.D. in Education that was modeled after his four-component criteria, but which implemented pedagogical structures and requirements that were not quite suited to the academic and professional needs of teachers in the field.

The Birth of the First Ed.D. at Harvard College

In 1920, Harvard College established the first Ed.D. degree under the leadership of Henry Holmes, who then served as the head of the Department of Education. In creating this degree, Holmes wanted to give experienced teachers a means of advancing into higher leadership positions (Perry). He also wanted to develop a graduate school of education that was independent from Harvard’s School of Arts and Sciences, and therefore he created Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Holmes believed that by giving educators and education leaders their own school that was distinct from other humanities schools and departments, it could set a precedent that would increase the prestige and legitimacy of the teaching profession (Perry).

Due to the newness of the Graduate School of Education, Holmes still needed to rely upon faculty from the School of Arts and Sciences to teach courses for the Ed.D. The result was a program that still strongly resembled a Ph.D. in Education except, as Dr. Perry notes, “it didn’t have as many research courses, it didn’t have a second language requirement, and [students] could write their dissertations on practical problems, which back then was seen as ‘lesser,’ relative to the Ph.D.”

While the Ed.D. was revolutionary in that it was the first doctoral degree specifically for educators, offered through a school that was independent from the School of Arts and Sciences, its limitations only served to reinforce the confusion between Ed.D. and Ph.D. “[Holmes’] intentions for the degree were to have everything we now think of as a professional practice doctorate, except that [similarly to James Earl Russell] he didn’t know what that looked like either,” Dr. Perry noted.

The Creation of Columbia University’s Ed.D.

Building upon his father James Earl Russell’s work at Columbia University, President William Fletcher Russell developed a new Ed.D. program for the Teachers College. This program was built upon the four central components James Earl Russell developed, and required three years of courses on education leadership, curriculum and instruction, and issues and challenges faced by educators in the field (Perry). The program culminated in a dissertation that was designed to investigate practical problems within the education system.

While this degree represented a strong understanding of what future educators needed in terms of academic training and practical research skills to facilitate school improvement and reform, it was nevertheless muddled by the presence of Teachers College’s Ph.D. in Education, which perpetuated confusion amongst faculty, university leadership, and prospective students regarding which degree was better for individuals seeking advancement in the education field (Perry).

The Ed.D. Expands (and So Does Confusion About the Ed.D. vs. the Ph.D.)

Several more prominent institutions of higher education, including the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley created their own colleges and schools of education that offered an Ed.D. program. But as Ed.D. programs began to spread nationwide, arguments about the Ed.D. versus the Ph.D. continued, with scholars and practitioners often seeing the Ph.D. as being more theoretical (and therefore more traditional and prestigious), while the Ed.D. was more practical, less understood, and less prestigious (Perry).

These preconceptions undermined the Ed.D.’s legitimacy amongst practitioners and scholars of education, as well as the public at large, and have persisted to this day. Exacerbating this bias against the Ed.D. was the fact that the Ph.D. in Education was typically offered through a school or college of arts and sciences, an older and more established university body, next to relatively new graduate schools of education.

In our interview, Dr. Perry pointed out that the distinction between the Ed.D. and Ph.D. was “confused from the beginning, and historically there has been a lot of academic debate about what the purpose of each degree was, right up to the point where Art Levine said in the early 2000s that we should just get rid of both of them and come up with some kind of MBA for practitioners.” In this environment of intense debate over the blurred lines between the Ph.D. and Ed.D., the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) was born.

The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate

In 2007, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching funded 25 schools of education to come together and discuss the ideal goals, structure, and content for the Ed.D., as well as brainstorm how to address the confusion between the Ed.D. and Ph.D. These discussions resulted in a nascent model for the redesign of the Ed.D. “Our mission at CPED was to really distinguish the Ed.D. from the Ph.D. in Education, to illustrate how the Ed.D. is on the same level as a professional doctorate in law or medicine,” Dr. Perry explained. Through this mission, CPED returned to the very objective education leaders such as James Earl Russell and Henry Holmes sought to achieve–to increase the power, impact, and prestige of the Ed.D. and therefore education practitioners nationwide.

In 2010, CPED was granted funding from the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) in order to research the best way to redesign the Ed.D. Dr. Jill Perry was one of the leaders of this FIPSE-funded research to determine how schools of education enact change within their doctoral programs. She employed Diffusion of Innovation Theory, a social science theory that explains how ideas gain traction within a social system through word of mouth and gradual community buy-in.

“We created a study where I had 38 faculty going to 21 (only 21 of the original 25 wanted to participate in the study) schools to learn from each other,” Dr. Perry recalled, “38 faculty flying around the country, spending two days at 21 different institutions and gathering data using Diffusion of Innovation to understand how program change happened. Then they had to write case reports, and then we took those case reports, and three of us glued them to a wall all the way around a room, and went through with highlighters and did data analysis.”

Knowledge-sharing convenings such as the one described above became instrumental in CPED’s approach for enacting doctoral program change across schools of education. A similar convening established the CPED Framework and Guiding Principles, which informed further changes to Ed.D. programs within the CPED consortium. “The unique thing about our Framework is that it has all been developed by faculty,” Dr. Perry said, “It wasn’t given to us by anybody. We all went through this vetting process early on, and even more recently as we’ve created more design concepts. It happens together in a big room with a bunch of people, and then once we get a definition down, we send it out to the whole consortium.”

CPED’s approach to changing the Ed.D. was rooted in the grassroots work of faculty sharing insights and input to move the Ed.D. as a degree forward. From 2007 to now, CPED has grown from a consortium of 25 to nearly 140 institutions, and through annual convenings and collaborations between CPED leadership and Ed.D. program faculty, it has served as a hub of innovation and change for the Ed.D.

The Evolution of the Ed.D.

Through the support of CPED, the Ed.D. as a degree has more clearly established itself as a practitioner’s degree, distinguishing itself from the Ph.D. in Education and gaining both prominence and legitimacy amongst educators and education leaders interested in obtaining doctoral-level training. While each member institution adapts CPED’s Framework and Guiding Principles to its own program, in general, one of the core changes to the Ed.D. has been the reinforcement of the scholarly practitioner model.

CPED emphasizes the importance of training scholarly practitioners that are adept at using research evidence in practice. “[W]e want to prepare Ed.D. students to become scholarly practitioners. They are the boundary spanners between the two areas–scholarship/research and practice,” Dr. Perry explained. As a result of CPED’s advocacy, many Ed.D. programs are preparing students to use more applied research methodologies such as improvement science and action research.

Improvement science is defined as the design and implementation of experimental programs or initiatives, followed by observation, data collection, and analysis of the result/outcomes of the experiment. Action research is the conducting of a study within a specific environment, with the goal of arriving at actionable, problem-solving insights. Both of these methodologies are professional practice-oriented, and are quite distinct from the more theoretical and typically larger-scale studies that are typical in Ph.D. programs.

Connected to this central idea of the scholarly practitioner is CPED’s reframing of the Ed.D. dissertation as a scholarly project that investigates a Problem of Practice (PoP) within a specific education context. The Ed.D. dissertation, according to the CPED model, is a way for students to investigate an education challenge within their place of work in order to gather and analyze data that can help them directly improve education outcomes within their sphere of influence.

In an interview with, Dr. Nancy Hastings of the University of West Florida (UWF), which is a member of the CPED consortium, explained how this focus on a PoP plays out in UWF’s Online Ed.D. in Instructional Design and Technology: “Most students come in and start with a broad topic, and as faculty members our job is to ask them, ‘Ok, what’s the problem though? What is the specific problem related to this topic of interest?’ These questions help students narrow down to something that is a true problem that is worthy of being researched.” In embracing this approach, CPED members such as UWF reinforce the idea that the Ed.D. is for the practitioner who wants to conduct action research in their place of work, and who sees the research process as key to improving professionally.

Similarly, Dr. Mary Alice Varga, Director of the Online Ed.D. in School Improvement at the University of West Georgia (UWG), also explained how membership with CPED guided UWG’s program to emphasize preparing scholarly practitioners. “The Carnegie Project talks about a lot of different ways that we can work with students who are practitioners, and developing them as practitioner-scholars who do research in their place of work in order to make an impact on educational outcomes,” she said.

By asserting that Ed.D. program scholarship is necessarily different from, but just as legitimate as the more theoretical research that defines the traditional Ph.D., CPED and its member institutions have achieved a turning point in the history of the Ed.D.

The Future of the Ed.D.

In speaking with Dr. Perry, we asked what she and the CPED hope and expect to see for the future of the Ed.D. in the coming years. In her answer, Dr. Perry identified several key areas that she wants CPED to focus on in order to continue to improve the Ed.D.

One of these areas is empowering Ed.D. graduates to build a culture of evidence use in their place of work, long after they leave their doctoral program. Dr. Perry explained how it starts with educators seeing research as an argumentative tool for action, “We want to teach educators how to decipher and dissect literature, starting with finding it, and then how to turn that literature into a tool for supporting their own arguments for change. Using literature as evidence for change.”

However, in order to cultivate such a culture outside of the support of their Ed.D. program, Dr. Perry conceded, systemic change in the higher education sphere needs to happen. “[The] majority of institutions do not give their graduates access to the library,” she pointed out, “We want Ed.D. graduates to be scholarly practitioners and we’re saying, ‘Go out there, read the literature, get your journals,’ and then they all tell us, ‘I can’t. There’s a paywall.’”

Another challenge that Dr. Perry sees Ed.D. programs facing in the future are the systemic barriers in higher education to efficient approval of the kinds of research that Ed.D. students need to conduct for their dissertations. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviews and approves research that involves human subjects, but in its processes Dr. Perry still sees biases against small-scale, action-oriented research, which ends up hindering the work of Ed.D. students.

“It’s important to get the Institutional Review Board to understand that the kind of research that is being done in Ed.D. programs, action research conducted in a very localized setting, is not equivalent to generalizable, big, randomized research studies,” she said, “They are improvement projects, and there’s language in the national Common Rule that explains this clearly, but faculty that run IRB committees in universities don’t necessarily understand this. Faculty need to talk to and educate them.”

Common to both of the aforementioned challenges is the continued need to advocate for scholarly practitioners in education, and the necessity of carving out a space for their unique needs both during and after their enrollment in an Ed.D. program. Understanding the importance of empowering teachers and education leaders with practical research, and removing barriers to their conducting improvement science in their specific education context, will only further improve Ed.D. program outcomes and build upon the growing legitimacy of the Ed.D.

In the short time since CPED was established in 2007, its consortium has enacted changes to the Ed.D. that will alter the future of this degree for the better. However, Dr. Perry still acknowledges that change happens incrementally, and that there is still much more to be done. “[E]ven though we’ve been around 15 years, every year feels like we still have such a long way to go and so many things that we can do, but in a good way,” she said, “It doesn’t mean we haven’t changed the Ed.D. for the better already, but it means that every time a new group of members come on and they ask questions, I’m always thinking, ‘Gosh, wow, I hadn’t thought about that yet, okay. Let’s figure out what we need to do to think about that and move that forward.’ […] The work that needs to be done is continuous, and it is always in service of creating a strong professional practice doctorate.”

While the CPED’s work is far from over, its positive impact in inspiring and empowering, not only Ed.D. program faculty, but also scholarly practitioners in diverse education settings, is growing. Dr. Perry and her colleagues recently implemented new rubrics and surveys to gather quantitative data on the changes its Framework, Guiding Principles, and annual convenings have enacted in schools of education nationwide. However, qualitative data and anecdotal evidence of the CPED’s influence on education leadership pedagogy, and therefore students’ education outcomes, are abundant and profound.

To illustrate this widespread impact, has conducted interviews with program faculty of Ed.D. programs that are members of the CPED consortium. Additionally, our flagship Dissertation Interview series delves into the action-oriented research that Ed.D. students are conducting in their place of work, research that will not only directly benefit their practice, but also add to the literature that supports other education leaders in enacting change. To check out these exciting interviews, please refer to our Educational Leadership interviews and Ed.D. Dissertation interviews.

Works Cited

About the Author: Kaitlin Louie is the Managing Editor of She specializes in writing in-depth content that helps students navigate important graduate school decisions. She earned her BA & MA in English from Stanford University.