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Monday, May 17, 2010

On Foxes Guarding Henhouses- Part 2

School district superintendents might be the most insidious foxes of all. Now, I know that you can’t prove a point with an anecdote, but sometimes a story is all you really need to get the point. This one has haunted me for a long time, so please bear with me. In the 1970s, I was a tenure-track assistant professor in the School (now College) of Education at Lehigh University which hosted only graduate programs- we had no undergraduate courses or students. Please understand that I don’t have a background in the field of education as my field is actually counseling psychology. My main responsibilities included teaching a variety of graduate counseling and psychology courses, coordinating the master’s program in Community Counseling, and serving on doctoral dissertation committees.

I don’t know if there were rankings of university graduate programs in education back then, but in 2010, U.S. News & World Report ranked Lehigh’s College of Education 41st out of 278 graduate schools of education. I mention this ranking to suggest that while it may not be one of the most elite graduate schools of education, Lehigh is considered pretty good among its peers today, and I think this was also true back in the 1970s. So, if the story I’m about to relate occurred at Lehigh, I’m quite sure that similar stories have occurred in many other graduate schools of education.

On a few occasions, I was asked to serve on the oral defense of dissertation committee for education administration students who were about to complete the requirements for their Ed.D., the doctoral degree often earned in the field of education. Those grad students who sought the Ed.D. in ed admin were often already working as principals or superintendents or aspiring to such positions. In case you are not familiar with how these doctoral dissertation committees work, we usually had a committee of three professors who approved the doctoral student's proposed research and then supervised its progress. After the student’s work was completed and written, two more faculty were added to the committee, and this larger group of old and new members conducted the student’s oral examination in defense of his or her dissertation. I was one of the two professors who were added to each of the few ed admin dissertation committees on which I served. In each case, the original three committee members were tenured professors in education, two of them from education administration. I anticipated that in a few years I would be considered for tenure, and these professors would be in a position to speak and vote for or against me. So you can see that there were some serious personal ramifications to my performance on these oral examination committees.

What I am about to describe occurred, more or less, with each of the few ed admin oral exam examination committees on which I served, but I'm describing one experience in particular. Even though the doctoral candidate was supposed to deliver his final dissertation draft to me at least one week in advance of the oral exam, I actually received it the night before. The student came to my home and handed over his final dissertation draft at 9:00 PM. This left me practically no time to read the 300-page document and formulate my questions prior to the oral exam scheduled for the next morning at 9:00 AM. Not wanting to disturb the scheduled exam time, and not wanting to upset the senior faculty members on the exam committee, I pulled an all-nighter to prepare.

The dissertation was of the lowest quality. The writing was unprofessional and there were numerous typos and spelling errors. These problems could be easily remedied, but the most serious problem was irreparable. The dissertation research involved a comparison of educational methods to determine which was most effective. This type of research is usually done as a scientific experiment comparing the treatments to each other and to a no-treatment or placebo control group. Proper definition of treatments, measurements of variables, and statistical analyses are essential. This would be true whether the research were medical, psychological, pharmaceutical, or educational. In this particular dissertation, there were so many methodological, procedural, sampling, and statistical mistakes that the research was just plain bad. If I were to give it a grade, it would be an “F”. In fact, each member of the examining committee was required to sign his name under one of two headings: PASS or FAIL.

In the oral exam, I questioned the doctoral candidate about his research design. Please understand that when I challenged him, I was, de facto, challenging his committee members, especially his advisor, who approved the proposal and ostensibly worked with the student every step of the way. If I were an original committee member I would have been embarrassed by the shabby work produced under my supervision. In the oral exam, I wanted to sign under FAIL, but the other committee members all were unequivocally signing under PASS. Let me say, there was no doubt that this dissertation study was a real stinker- absolutely no doubt! It was the rule that the doctoral candidate had to receive unanimous passes to be awarded his Ed.D., and if just one of us signed under FAIL, he would not be awarded his degree- and that was final. The committee chairman, realizing that I was about to fail his candidate, asked for a one week hiatus to give the student an opportunity to make corrections. It was obvious to me that the spelling, typos, and the weak writing could be corrected, but the research was rotten to the core and could not be salvaged without starting from scratch and investing another year or two on the project. Under the pressure of the group, I agreed to the hiatus, giving me one week to contemplate the matter.

So what was really going on in that conference room where that oral exam was held? The process and group dynamics were complex and intense, and four things weighed heavily on me. First, there was the group pressure. Four other men, all older, more experienced, and higher ranking than me all voted to pass the candidate. I had to question myself about the possibly that I was being too harsh in my evaluation of the dissertation and the candidate’s oral defense. Second, three of the others on the committee were tenured professors in the School of Education, and if I earned their disapproval in the intimate confines of that conference room, I might later receive their disapproval when the time would come for them to vote on my tenure. Third, a doctoral candidate and human being who had invested several years, many dollars (although probably paid by the school district that employed him as its superintendent), and much effort (although not enough effort in my opinion), would have his reward snatched away from him at the very last instant. And fourth, this was a real test of my courage of conviction. If the work were substandard, would I stick to my position despite all of the pressures?

One week later, the doctoral candidate appeared before the committee, having made only minimal changes, none substantive. Yet, in the blink of an eye and the stroke of my pen, I changed from guardian to fox. I also became a grade inflater when I molded FAIL into PASS. My motive for violating my own moral and ethical standards was simply career ambition. I now realize that whenever I have lowered standards and inflated grades since that fateful day, my motive has always been pretty much the same.

Why were the full professors of education, who already had tenure, so ready to sign under PASS, even though the dissertation was so poor? Stay tuned.

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