In Most School Districts, the Doctor Is in Charge, but Some Question Degree

By Nelson Hernandez and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Most top school officials in the Washington area -- and a growing number across the country -- hold doctorates, even though some experts contend the advanced degrees are often too easy to obtain and of questionable value for education leadership.

Questions about the academic credentials of superintendents arose anew after the University of Louisville began an investigation of a PhD in education it granted four years ago to John E. Deasy, now superintendent in Prince George's County.

Nationally, the percentage of superintendents who hold an education-related PhD or the education doctorate known as an EdD rose from 36 percent in 1992 to about 51 percent in 2006, according to the American Association of School Administrators. An exception to this trend in the Washington area is D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who holds a master's degree in public policy.

Superintendents and many academics say the doctoral programs teach vital management and statistical skills while providing an intellectual challenge. But critics say the programs mostly provide financial rewards -- for the universities that collect tuition and for educators who pick up a credential that helps them earn a higher salary and a "doctor" title.

"It's a very wise investment. I calculated that I'd almost have to find an oil well in my back yard to have any equivalent return," said James W. Guthrie, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. "In many places, there's an implied deal: 'You get in, you pay your tuition and we don't work you very hard.' "

On Sept. 10, the University of Louisville announced an investigation of a PhD it awarded Deasy in 2004, two years before he was named head of Maryland's second-largest school system. To get the degree, Deasy wrote a 184-page dissertation on school reform under four Rhode Island superintendents and completed nine credit hours of coursework at the university, in addition to 77 credit hours he transferred from other schools. At issue is whether a waiver to the university's one-year residency requirement was properly granted.

Deasy, who this week announced that he will leave Prince George's early next year for a senior position with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has said that if the university "made errors in the awarding of the degree, I do hope they rescind it. My responsibility is to do everything I was advised and told to do."

Other superintendents' transcripts have come under scrutiny. On Sept. 3, the board of the Emery Unified School District in California accepted the resignation of a superintendent who reportedly lied about having a doctorate and other degrees. On Sept. 8, a superintendent in New Jersey, H. James Wasser, said he would stop using the "doctor" title and give up a $2,500 annual pay raise for a doctorate awarded from a suspected diploma mill.

But Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale, head of the region's largest school system, said the EdD he received from the University of Washington in 1988 opened career opportunities and gave him "greater wisdom and understanding" of educational challenges. He wrote a 221-page dissertation on "Critical Dimensions of Principals' Performance."

"It was worthwhile in the intellectual development and pushing you to study different areas," Dale said. "At the time I was doing mine, I thought it was darn rigorous."

The value of doctoral programs in education has long been debated. The difference between the EdD and the more research-oriented PhD is often murky. James G. Cibulka, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, said administrators and researchers pursue EdDs and PhDs in education, resulting in unfocused programs and what Cibulka called "utter confusion."

He said efforts are underway to sharpen the distinction between the degrees, but the mixture of scholarly and professional students contributed to "uneven" quality in student work.

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