I’ve spent most of the years of my professional life studying why students don’t succeed in school. Like many of you, I’ve earned a doctorate of education from a respected graduate school. And, like many of you, I enjoy being called “Dr.” Harper. I worked hard for that title; I earned it. But, unlike many of you, I made a conscious decision to stay in the classroom instead of climbing the administrative ladder or transitioning into university teaching full time.
Many of my cohort colleagues couldn’t wait to bounce out of teaching and become school administrators or central-office directors. Not me. I love the classroom, and I find bureaucratese boring. Pardon the cliché, but for me, the classroom is where it all happens. Earning a terminal degree and being able to take sophisticated knowledge back to my students was not just an eye-opening professional pleasure; the process gave me a honed skill set of teaching tools to improve my students’ cognitive literacy.
While I was earning my doctorate, I taught reading to struggling high schoolers full time. I know I am preaching to the choir when I tell you that earning my doctorate was not an easy journey. The rigors of the program and my constant conscientious preoccupation with my high school readers—those who couldn’t get past 5th and 6th grade skill levels—was exhilarating, but exhausting. I read, reread, and reread again. And then I wrote and wrote some more. I was up at midnight and before dawn; I stayed late after school for almost three years. I observed my fellow reading teachers, hassled with administrators and central-office coordinators, and meticulously adhered to standards-review requests in the pursuit of usable data. For two years, I dropped out of social life. I skipped Friday-night wine soirées, gave up Saturday jaunts with my college-age kids, ignored football games, tennis matches, and friends’ parties and graduations.
Because of my doctoral studies, I became intimately familiar with the adolescent-literacy reading-research tomes of Jeanne Chall and Gail Kearns, Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington. I studied William Cunningham and other psychologists, including Carl Rogers and Albert Bandura. I obtained cite permissions from the biggest names in professional development, including Thomas Guskey. My dissertation adviser’s priority was that I would know not just the past, but also the most salient names of those working on developing contemporary reading theories and practices, including Joseph Torgesen, Vicky Zygouris-Coe, Richard Lyons, and Barbara Foorman. And no matter where the research took me, I never went anywhere without John Dewey. I caught myself quoting Dewey, contradictorily in the most inane, but also the most intellectual, of ways. I wrote so many reviews of literature that I couldn’t speak without popping off a name or two, even in a social conversation. I was on fire for myself and my students. I was, as I like to tell my students when the light bulb goes on, “gettin’ smart!”
The guillotine of teacher quality and merit pay is now swinging over my head."
I became not just a good teacher, but also a much more astute, intuitive, creative, experimental, and meta-cognitively-aware teacher. Earning a doctorate opened my mind’s eye to my students. I loved my students and my classes even more. My learning gains, already good as indicated by Florida’s standardized-test passing scores, became even better. But the better the gains, the more my state education department demanded. “More and more!” and “Higher, higher!” have become mantras of Florida’s incessant testing, ideological teacher-bashing, and disrespect of all things in public education, including its teacher colleges.
The guillotine of teacher quality and merit pay is now swinging over my head. My governor just signed a teacher reform bill that will take away the value of my degree and denigrate proven research that a smarter teacher creates a smarter classroom learner. And, with the passage of this “teacher quality” law, my doctorate, ironically, is devalued to no more than a bachelor’s degree. Sure, I might be grandfathered in on an old contract, but no matter what, the message from my legislature is clear to me: My doctorate doesn’t count in my classroom, and I don’t need to be smarter. My passion for learning amounts to naught, not just for me but for my students as well.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Denigrating the Degree in Florida