By LINDA SEEBACH
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, describes graduate programs for school leaders -- principals and superintendents -- as being in "a race to the bottom."
Competing for students who primarily want a credential so they can qualify for bigger salaries but want it to cost as little as possible in money or effort, universities lower their admission standards, weaken their degree requirements and course standards, and rely more and more on low-cost adjuncts to teach courses that have little or nothing to do with what school leaders need to know.
Little in Levine's scathing report will come as news to people familiar with schools of education -- though his anecdotal reports on just how bad things are, and the candid assessments of the unidentified professors and deans he interviewed, are illuminating -- but that someone of Levine's stature in the profession is the one saying these things ought to get people's attention.
Maybe that will happen. But I doubt it will change anything.
The report, "Educating School Leaders," is from the Education Schools Project, which is in the middle of a four-year effort to study more than 1,200 departments and schools of education across the country. It was released in March, to little attention, and is available at www.edschools.org online.
"The majority of programs range from inadequate to appalling," Levine says, "even at some of the country's leading universities." He mentions a couple of "strong" programs, but none that meet nine criteria relevant to program quality in higher education -- clear purpose, curricular coherence, balance between theory and practice, faculty quality, admission standards, degree requirements, research quality, financial resources and continuing self-assessment.
These are not diploma mills, mind you, where you can buy a degree for a few weeks' work; they're real universities, just offering programs of very poor quality.
Why would universities do that? Sometimes, it's to earn the prestige of granting doctoral degrees. Educational administration is often the easiest field in which to gain approval.
"Too often these new programs have turned out to be little more than graduate credit dispensers," Levine says. "They award the equivalent of green stamps, which can be traded in for raises and promotions, to teachers who have no intention of becoming administrators."
Sometimes it's just for the money. Levine quotes a university administrator who told him, "We get $4,300 per undergraduate from the state and tuition is close to $4,000. So we have around $8,000 to work with and our programs cost a little under $6,000. You can admit a lot of education majors and make money. Nursing students cost $12,000 per student. So you have to admit a lot of education majors to have some money left over so you can admit a few nursing students."
It would, of course, be nice to know who these people are, but if we did, we wouldn't know what they really think. They'd be too embarrassed to say.
If a university did want to offer a rigorous exemplary program, who would apply for it? Students intending to enroll in a graduate program in educational administration have an average score on the Graduate Record Examination 46 points below the national average on the verbal part, and 81 points below the average on the math part. And that may be optimistic, since only the relatively strong schools even ask applicants to take the GRE. In practice, many accept everybody who applies.
Just show up
Sometimes they don't even need to apply. One dean told Levine, "Students would show up and we would let them stay."
Another administrator, from a respected university, said about the students who enroll in its off-campus programs, "We have admitted some people with GRE scores just above what you get for filling out the form."
It's not just the students who sometimes fall short of academic excellence.
At one state university that awards doctoral degrees, Levine says, the faculty members' "lack of scholarly interest and productivity is remarkable."
One professor told him, about doing research, "The hardest part is finding places where you can publish where everything doesn't have to be original research."
Yes, that is supposed to be hard.
The quality of research in educational administration is so poor, Levine says, that it "cannot answer questions as basic as whether school leadership programs have any impact on student achievement in the schools that graduates of these programs lead."
If they don't, the entire enterprise is meaningless. But school districts pay more to people with advanced degrees, even if the degrees are worthless, so people go and earn them. They don't want to spend a lot of time jumping through pointless hoops, so they choose the easiest and cheapest programs they can find and universities accommodate them.
You can't blame people for responding to incentives, but when the incentives are perverse, they ought to be changed.