Are Public School Administrators Worth the Taxpayers' Money ?

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Linda Seebach, a Rocky Mountain News editorial writer, brought this one to my attention. Her article is titled Report: Grad programs for school leaders appalling.

She refers to Arthur Levine's report, "Educating School Leaders," from the Education Schools Project (

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.

I decided to read the report for myself. It is quite eye-opening what the educational "establishment"–the very people who want to ensure that homeschoolers are "credentialed"–require of themselves.

Among the findings in Levine's report:

  • "The nation’s 1,206 schools, colleges, and departments of education [may be found in] 57 percent of all four-year colleges and universities, . . . award one out of every 12 bachelor’s diplomas; a quarter of all master’s degrees; and 16 percent of all doctorates." (5) Yet
  • Few programs provide a coherent and rigorous curriculum specifically designed to give principals and superintendents the preparation they need. Rather, most seem intent on helping students meet the minimum certification requirements with the least amount of effort, using the fewest university resources. Indeed,
  • "Collectively, educational administration programs are the weakest of all the programs at the nation’s education schools" (13).
  • "The majority of programs range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the country’s leading universities. . . . Their curricula are disconnected from the needs of leaders and their schools. Their admission standards are among the lowest in American graduate schools. Their professoriate is ill equipped to educate school leaders. Their programs pay insufficient attention to clinical education and mentorship by successful practitioners. The degrees they award are inappropriate to the needs of today’s schools and school leaders. Their research is detached from practice. And their programs receive insufficient resources." (23)

How bad is the situation, really?

Levine is ruthless:

Masters I and weaker research-intensive universities are pushing to award doctoral degrees in educational administration. The goal is to increase institutional stature by joining the doctoral granting university club. The field of educational administration was chosen because, as we were told repeatedly, it is the easiest area in which to win state approval. Too often these new programs have turned out to be little more than graduate credit dispensers. 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. These programs have also been responsible for conferring master’s degrees on students who demonstrate anything but mastery. They have awarded doctorates that are doctoral in name only. And they have enrolled principals and superintendents in courses of study that are not relevant to their jobs. (24)

Uh, yes!

But it gets worse.

Levine continues:

To attract a student body less interested in obtaining an education than in accumulating credits, a growing number of education schools are lowering admission standards, watering down programs, and offering quickie degrees. This can only be described as “a race to the bottom,” a competition among school leadership programs to produce more degrees faster, easier, and more cheaply. . . .

[S]tates and school districts as well as universities are fueling this race downward. Today, all 50 states and 96 percent of public school districts award salary increases for teachers who earn advanced degrees and credits beyond the master’s. The effect of this incentive system is to create an army of unmotivated students seeking to acquire credits in the easiest ways possible. They are more interested in finding speedy and undemanding programs than in pursuing relevant and challenging courses of study.

As for universities, they push school leadership programs downward either by underfunding them or treating them as “cash cows”—diverting revenues they generate to other parts of the campus. A cash cow program is pressured to keep enrollments high and reduce costs in order to bolster these transfer payments. This encourages programs to set low admission standards in order to hit enrollment targets; admit more students than the faculty can reasonably educate; hire lower cost part-time faculty rather than an adequate complement of full-time professors; and mount low cost, high volume, off-campus programs.

In the end, the combination of school system incentives and university funding practices serves as a barrier to improvement. In fact, it spurs the race to the bottom. (24-25)

Levine illustrates his charges by telling the stories of "two competing education schools, one highly respected nationally, the other well regarded regionally. The names of the schools and some insignificant details of their stories have been changed to mask the schools’ identities."

Some of the nuggets from these stories:

At the nationally recognized university . . .

  • One administrator is quoted as saying, “We have admitted some people with GRE [Graduate Records Exam] scores just above what you get for filling out the form.”
  • A faculty member says, “I almost never share journal articles with master’s students. They don’t know how to read them because they don’t take research methods courses. It is not built into the expectations of the state.”

Meanwhile, the regional school, with an off-campus program housed across the street from a similar off-campus program directed by the nationally-recognized university, has reduced its standards in almost every imaginable fashion in order to compete for the dollars that come from students who are motivated by salary aggrandizement rather than the desire to learn.

When the regional university came to believe that it was losing students to the nationally-recognized university, "[i]ts 36-credit on-campus master’s program was pared to 30 hours. Faculty claim that this was done to trim fat from the curriculum, but the university provost acknowledges increasing pressure from students to 'speed up programs.' " (26-27)

More findings:

  • Applicants for educational administration programs have some of the lowest standardized test score in the entire range of education fields, let alone in academia as a whole. Elementary and secondary level teaching applicants to graduate schools outscore the educational administration applicants in all sections of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
  • Ed admin applicants score 46 points below average in the verbal and 81 points below average in the quantitative (math) portion of the GRE! (Levine is quick to qualify this, however: "Since only the stronger and more selective educational administration programs require the GRE, the data may, in fact, overstate the academic profile of educational administration students." (31)) –For your information, the GRE math and verbal scores range from 200, at absolute bottom, to 800, tops. According to a chart Levine provides (p. 32 in his report), the national average verbal score on the GRE from July 1, 2000 to June 30, 2003 was 475; educational admin applicants average 429. Only social work applicants fared worse on average: their score was 428. In math, the national average was 602. Educational admin applicants averaged 521. Social work, public administration and nursing candidates where the only other groups with lower average scores: 464, 510 and 519, respectively.
  • Levine made a comment about "selective" programs. Just how "selective" are these schools?

    A dean from the Midwest proudly stated that her leadership program was becoming more selective. While the overall admit rate was still about 95 percent, she said, the program had recently decided that 20 to 30 percent of students should be admitted conditionally, pending the students’ first year performance. In other words, the decision to acknowledge that many students are underqualified is an indicator of rising quality. (32-33)

I could go on. The entire report is both fascinating and disturbing.

The key point I want to make, however, is this: When the education establishment can't (or won't) police its own, they should not be permitted to lord it over others of us–the homeschooling community–who believe we have found a better way.

The second point, as a taxpayer: As Linda Seebach says in her article,

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.

–John Holzmann

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