What should be the vehicle for improving U.S. public schools?

Posted by Ronald | April 30, 2012  |  No Comment

Just as the general public relies on the medical research of doctors to address the illnesses in society such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer, the general public should consistently rely on the empirical research of educators with advanced doctoral degrees to address the issues in education such as student achievement and graduation rates. In fact, the product of a quality, education-related doctoral dissertation approved by an accredited university can provide solutions to the many problems plaguing public K-20 education.

On Friday, April 27, The Holmes Education Post Talk Show on WTAL 1450AM Tallahassee, Fla., began a segment of interviewing individuals who have successfully fulfilled all the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) regarding their dissertation work. Our first guest was Dr. Linda Turner Fortenberry who earned a Ph.D. from Iowa State University and did a comparative dissertation study entitled “An Examination of School Climate as It Relates to Classified Staff.” An excerpt of the interview with Fortenberry follows:

Q: Graduate students write dissertations for different reasons but only 50 percent successfully complete the process. What motivated you to complete a doctoral degree?

A: I had reached a point in my professional career where I had an unquenchable thirst for merging my practical administrative experiences with sound, theoretical knowledge. As an elementary school principal, I was intrigued with the relationship of teacher expectations and student achievement. I was ready to accelerate to the next level of understanding related to student achievement and the role of the principal as instructional leader, particularly in large, urban settings. Additionally, my school board and the superintendent identified me for potential upper level management and recommended me as a fellow to Iowa State University’s doctoral program in Educational Leadership.

Q: Many students have problems in selecting a researchable topic. How did you select your dissertation topic?

A: The pathway to the selecting of my topic was circuitous. A topic on school climate was not my first preference, but as a graduate assistant, you quickly learn that your personal preferences are not the priority of the day. The topic selected was directly linked with a project Iowa State was implementing in the Warsaw, Indiana school district. As a part of my data gathering for the project, I became immersed and fascinated by the relationship of the school board with the classified staff and the subsequent impact on school climate. Additionally, there had been no significant data analysis on the impact of school board relations with the classified staff and ultimately, the overall school climate.

Q: While graduate students quite often experience challenges forming a dissertation committee, how did you select your dissertation committee?

A: My major professor and department chair, Dr. Jim Sweeney, chaired my committee. Together, we selected the remaining five members of my committee. Actually, he selected the committee members. I agreed with his selections. Two of the committee members were leaders of the Educational Leadership Department and renowned researchers; another member was from the Statistics Department; another from the College of Engineering; and another from Higher Education. I had a very strong, but supportive committee. Due to the nature of the university structure at that time, my committee was all male and predominantly white. As an African-American woman, there was an added measure of focus and scrutiny on the progress and quality of my study and the committee’s subsequent decision.

Q: While best practices are essential for improving public education, what was the significance of your dissertation study?

A: School support staff (e.g. guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists, paraprofessionals, bus drivers and other building support staff) can play an important role in ensuring students are learning in an environment that is both physically and emotionally safe. The findings of this study provided school boards, district and school site administrators with definitive data to help them understand how their behavior can contribute to a supportive school climate among the support staff. As a result, my dissertation was nominated and ultimately selected for the Jordan Larson Dissertation Award at Iowa State University in 1991.

Q: In the U.S., there are only three percent of people who hold a Ph.D. What challenges did you encounter in completing your dissertation?

A: There were many challenges. For example, time management was my biggest challenge. The doctoral candidate must make a commitment to complete the study. If possible, try to devote full time to your research without working. I was blessed to receive a year’s paid sabbatical leave. However, I had to take another year’s leave without pay to complete my residency requirements. A second challenge was finances. Even though I received a full doctoral fellowship for my studies, there were other costs that had to be factored into the budget (i.e. travel expenses, technical support, clerical work, car rentals, winter clothing, consultant fees, additional lodging, etc.).

A third challenge was understanding advanced statistics and measurement. Many students, particularly education majors, allow the statistics courses to stop them from reaching their goal. You can do this! Get a tutor early and schedule meetings with your tutor two to three times a week. If possible, retake or review the basic tenets from high school Algebra I, II, Geometry, Calculus and Trigonometry before you take your first statistics class. Get a teacher’s manual and workbook from the textbook companies. Work through these. Use your measurement text to help you understand the mathematical concepts. These are your fundamentals. It is assumed that you have this foundation. You must grasp these essentials if you are to move forward. You can do this!

Q: What tips can you offer to students for completing a dissertation?

I advise you to do it! There is no better time than the present. Believe in yourself. No one can defeat you, but you. Surround yourself with positive people at school, on the job and in your family. You don’t need any naysayers or discouragers. Know the players. Be a team player. Support your colleagues. You are a cohort group. There is no quota for the number of doctorates that will be awarded from your department or university. There is no need to fight each other. Support each other. Celebrate each other’s successes. Give support to colleagues needing reasonable assistance. Beware of “users” and “deadweights.” Remove yourself from these people. They are not there to help. They may even bring you down with them. Pray for discernment to know the difference. Begin with the end in mind. This is one of Stephen Covey’s principles. You need a timeline for completing your degree. Otherwise, you will be there forever, or worse, be an ABD (All But Dissertation). It may not be wise to broadcast or dictate your completion date to your committee, but you should have an ending date in mind. I set a June date for my defense. I didn’t make June, but I did finish in August. Close enough. Know where you are going and how long it should take you to get there. Stay focused!

As U.S. public schools seek ways to improve their organizational climate, they should look to the valuable research found in dissertations. We sincerely thank Dr. Linda Fortenberry for sharing her dissertation experience, knowledge and expertise as an avenue to improve public education. If you would like to be considered a guest on the talk show, please submit your name, email address, telephone number and a copy of your doctoral dissertation to [email protected]

Dr. Ronald Holmes is the author of two books, Education Questions to be Answered and Current Issues and Answers in Education. He is the President of The Holmes Education Post, an education focused internet newspaper. Holmes is the National Superintendent of Education for the National Save the Family Now Movement, Inc., a former teacher, school administrator, and district superintendent and can be reached at the following email address: [email protected]

Leave a Comment