How to Succeed in Education Without Really Studying

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.

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