How to Succeed in Education Without Really Studying

Superintendent Roger Cuevas and a few dozen of his top administrators received graduate degrees from diploma mills. No wonder Dade's schools are in such great shape.

Florida law sets precisely three hiring standards for public school principals and their bosses: They must complete three years as classroom teachers, hold a master's degree from an accredited college, and study a specified core curriculum.

Though the core curriculum requirement has been in effect only since 1986, the others date back much further. And the state's Bureau of Teacher Certification, the Tallahassee agency responsible for reviewing educators' bona fides, has been remarkably accommodating in its evaluation of the master's degree, happily accepting diplomas from nonaccredited schools -- a loophole that has allowed more than two dozen local educators to take shortcuts to more prestigious, higher-paying administrative jobs.

One such beneficiary: Dade County Schools Supt. Roger C. Cuevas, the district's top dog, whose master's degree was conferred by a nonaccredited and now-defunct weekend-study program widely regarded as a diploma mill. (There are no academic requirements for superintendents, but Cuevas was appointed to that post last year after working as a high-ranking administrator in the school district for nine years.) Fellow Dade school officials who received master's degrees from the same program include Cuevas's long-time friend and colleague Joseph Mathos, a deputy superintendent; Northwestern High principal William E. Clarke; Norland High principal Carroll Williams; former MAST Academy principal Linda Eads; and James Monroe, an executive director of the school district's Office of Professional Standards, which enforces school district rules and disciplines employees who violate them.

"Regardless of whether a course is eight days or one day, if the content meets the Florida Department of Education rules, we accept it," concedes the Bureau of Teacher Certification's Kathy Hebda, who says the method of evaluating content consists of reviewing the potential administrator's school transcript. "We can't possibly go to every university and sit in on their classes," she explains.

Arthur Wise, executive director of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, says officials from Florida and many other states are too quick to sanction degrees from nonaccredited programs and condemn themselves to school districts run by administrators who may not be well-versed in relevant management, finance, and legal issues. "It's very tempting for people to want to pursue easy degrees to obtain jobs that are desirable if the system allows them to do that," observes Wise, whose Washington, D.C.-based organization accredits teacher-education programs nationwide. "The effect is that we have no way of knowing whether folks have the knowledge and skills requisite for the job. If you compare the system that operates for administrators to the system that operates for doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers, you see that states run a very tight system in all these other fields: A person must attend an accredited school and demonstrate through apprenticeships or comprehensive exams or another meaningful way that he or she has the required knowledge or skill."

Roger Cuevas's most notable achievement at Miami-Dade Junior College (now known as MDCC), which he attended on and off for five years beginning in 1962, was being placed on academic probation for two semesters. In the fall of 1967 he was admitted to Florida Atlantic University, also on a probationary status. The probation was lifted the following spring, but although some of his grades improved markedly, Cuevas graduated in 1967 with a grade point average of 2.6 (equivalent to a B-) and a cumulative GPA from Miami-Dade and FAU of 1.9 ( C-).

That might seem hardly the stuff for graduate school -- Florida International University, for instance, admits to its administrative programs only students who maintain at least a 3.0 GPA as undergraduates. But in 1973 Cuevas found the Center for Special and Advanced Programs (CSAP) in Colorado, which had a somewhat more liberal admissions policy.

CSAP was a nonaccredited program run by the University of Northern Colorado, an accredited public institution located in the town of Greeley, north of Denver. Not only was Cuevas invited to join the program, but he was given a head start: 20 credits toward the 48 required for his master's degree, in consideration of six graduate education courses he'd taken at FAU. Better still, he wouldn't have to be bothered with actually going to Greeley to work toward his degree. CSAP allowed students to earn degrees without ever leaving their hometowns or their jobs. And while many schools require four or more full semesters of course work in order to earn a master's, Cuevas's graduate program consisted of eight four-day courses at Biscayne College (now St. Thomas University), taught by faculty members flown in from Greeley.

When he'd completed the classes, Cuevas was given a two-day comprehensive exam, and in August 1974 he received his degree in curriculum and instruction. Though other graduates of the same program say extensive reading assignments and projects were also required, there were no courses dealing with management, finance, or leadership skills -- the core curriculum that since 1986 has been mandated by Florida law. Cuevas, who oversees a $3.2 billion budget and supervises 42,800 full- and part-time employees, did take a class in school finance, but none in any other management or legal subject. And while he did go on to complete six more graduate-level education courses over the next ten years, none involved the areas now required by the state.

The superintendent failed to respond to numerous requests for comment for this story.

CSAP was born in the late Sixties, after officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) suggested that UNC provide college and postgraduate courses to HUD employees. The school began operating CSAP out-of-state in 1970 and expanded it to military bases, and not long afterward, at the request of Dade school district employees who had learned about the program at Homestead Air Force Base, opened what was to become its largest postgrad course for civilians.

The program took pride in its relaxed standards. "CSAP ... geared its admission requirements to late starters, who would benefit most by the program," Robert W. Larson writes in Shaping Educational Change, UNC's official institutional history. "Such criteria as previous grade point average or national test scores, consequently, were underplayed."

Jim Stauffler, a retired UNC professor who used to run the Florida program, says that from 1970 until 1976 CSAP conferred master's degrees to between 400 and 500 South Florida school district employees and civil servants. "Each student wrote a professional biography," Stauffler says of the admissions criteria. "My experience as an educator was that the better students were people who had been able to do things in their lifetime, who accomplished big things -- like maybe they had written a novel -- or had developed a skill outside their own field, were active in community services, and things like that."

Though CSAP had its supporters among education-reform leaders who sought ways to expand educational access for minorities, women, and the poor, the program was controversial from the start. Robert Larson writes of a 1975 decision by the Colorado attorney general that UNC could not legally offer courses outside the state because the school was a public institution supported by state tax dollars. In response the university transferred CSAP's ownership to a private, nonprofit organization and continued to offer courses out-of-state. According to Larson, the controversy prompted Maurice Mitchell, chancellor of the University of Denver, to "[rechristen] UNC as 'the University of No Credit,'" and to assert that the out-of-state programs were "making Colorado known as an example of lower standards in higher education." A 1977 article in the education journal Change lambasted CSAP's military programs -- much the same as those run for civilians -- as "diploma mills," and after a lengthy review the following year, Harvard educator Stephen K. Bailey condemned them as "the used-car lots of higher education."

Back in 1975, members of UNC's board of trustees had begun calling for the program's closure. Twice a bare majority voted to keep it open, but finally, in June 1982, after the state's attorney general again opined that a tax-supported institution could not operate outside Colorado, the trustees voted to shut down CSAP.

Still, the local CSAP alumni who were willing to discuss the program for this story are quick to praise it. "The model was extremely conducive to people who were working," recalls Linda Eads, the former MAST principal who received her master's in 1975 and now works in a joint curriculum-improvement project with county schools and Nova University in Davie. "It was very effective for the adult learner -- you had projects, you had readings. From what I can remember, I wrote a number of papers for classes, and we did projects."

Adds 1974 grad William "Bud" Bevan, who designed the school district's computerized job-applicant tracking system and now works as director of personnel records: "I would compare my degree to anyone's."

Of course, the basis of comparison in Dade's public school system would have to include degrees conferred by schools such as Pacific Western University.

Deputy superintendent Henry Fraind, a Dade County Schools employee since 1969, runs the district's media relations department and oversees the central administration buildings downtown. Among those he supervises, he is known for insisting that he be addressed as "Dr. Fraind."

Though a Ph.D. is not required by the state and therefore is not subject to official approval, Fraind, who earned a master's from Barry University in 1962, got a doctorate in 1982 from Pacific Western, a nonaccredited private university in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino. He characterizes his doctoral education in curriculum and instruction as "an external program" that permitted him to earn his degree while continuing to work full-time. Like the UNC master's candidates, he was never required to visit the campus. "You didn't physically have to go through the typical routine of classes," he explains. "You would go to seminars."

Oddly, though, the copy of Fraind's transcript on file at the Bureau of Teacher Certification shows no evidence that he took any Pacific Western classes or seminars. Rather, he was awarded twelve credits for health education courses he completed at Nova University, twenty credits for his job, four credits each for his real estate license and his teaching certificate, five credits for "functional awareness in a career" (which the transcript doesn't define), and twenty credits for his dissertation, entitled Spelling and the Improvement of Spelling. Those 65 credits earned him his doctorate.

In 1989, alarmed that publicity about nonaccredited California institutions might damage the reputations of accredited schools, that state's Postsecondary Education Commission proposed that schools be more stringently regulated with regard to course content and graduation requirements. "We had concerns about institutions like Pacific Western," recalls Bruce Hamlett, who spearheaded the commission's review of such schools. "There was a lot of evidence that people could get credits for a range of things not related to the degree that they were to be the recipient of. There was a considerable amount of credit for life experience."

The state legislature passed the proposed restrictions and also began requiring that all schools apply to an agency called the Council of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education for approval to operate. Pacific Western's application was denied. The school appealed the decision but was shut down for several months last year before being allowed to reopen and offer bachelor's and master's degrees in business, public administration, and management, as well as Ph.D.'s in business administration. No graduate programs in education, however, were approved.

Like Fraind, James Monroe has a doctorate from a nonaccredited California institution: Columbia Pacific University. Like Fraind, Monroe attended no classes, according to his 1979 transcript, which is on file in Tallahassee. The school required 35 credits for a doctorate and awarded Monroe the following: 10 credits each for two independent study projects performed at Dade County Schools, 5 for a year of work experience as a Dade administrator, and 10 for a graduate course in public administration he took at Nova. The transcript does not indicate whether Monroe wrote a dissertation. But it does list his extensive military experience, including his tour as a medical administrator and field operations assistant in Vietnam, as well as his authorship of eight papers about educational planning and resource-organization issues, though he was not issued credits for any of those.

This past summer, California's education council denied Columbia Pacific's application to operate, citing 25 findings that the school failed to meet standards. "Particularly disturbing is CPU's granting of Ph.D. degrees to students who have not done the kind of scholarly research and analysis expected at that level of study," council officials noted.

The school has remained open while it appeals the council's decision. "Our status is a question mark at this point," admits Mariam Baker, the school's director of project development. "We are working with the State of California -- there are some serious differences of opinion.

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