Steve Perry’s Dissertation: Heavy on Lit Review, Slight on Scholarship
As a classroom teacher, a real teacher– real in the sense of both my credentials and my experience– I am tired of those outside of the classroom catapulting themselves into positions of quick fame in order to comment on the state of the classroom– a place either completely unfamiliar to them firsthand or of only token familiarity. Such is the motivation for my writing many of my posts, and it is my motivation here as I write about Steve Perry.
Steve Perry is not a teacher. Yet he is one of many would-be reformers who has stepped up to claim his moment in the spotlight as an education expert– and one whose contempt for teachers is obvious.
Though not a teacher, Perry was a CNN education commentator, and he opened and leads his own school in Connecticut, Capitol Preparatory Magnet School, a year-round school that advertises sending “100% of its graduates to 4 year colleges.” The big question is one of student attrition prior to that senior year.
Perry quotes the rapper JZ* and says that “Men lie and women lie but numbers don’t.”
(*I have been reprimanded by an insulted reader that I did not correctly transcribe to “Jay-Z.” There is also a rapper JZ and a rapper JC. She accused me of lacking “scholarship.” I am sorry that someone could read this post and come away with only such a comment.)
I’m not a rapper. I’m a classroom teacher who is also a statistician and researcher, and I know full well that Perry has positioned his numbers to lie.
Of course, hiding the full story behind that sparkling “100%” is Perry’s lie. And it is Perry’s number. So perhaps JZ and I have tied on this one.
Beware of those Wonder Schools.
Beware of Wonder
Perry says “The achievement gap is really an educational gap in terms of the performance of our educators themselves.” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qglQ2CxKhWs]
Notice his words are not “educators ourselves.” He sees himself as the solution, and in reading about and listening to Perry, both his arrogance and foolishness are unmistakable.
When it suits him, Perry does refer to himself as an “educator,” not uncommon in this current environment where the reformer set hides their lack of teaching credentials and experience behind the word.
Like many reformers, Perry’s “bio” includes sketchy information regarding his credentials. He notes graduating “on a scholarship” from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work, but there is no mention of a degree level or a year. At the bottom of his self-promoting bio, Perry signs his name as “Dr. Steve Perry, MSW,” as if to showcase as many degrees in as unorthodox a manner as he can.
And how about that doctorate? What is it in? And why not feature such information in a bio about oneself?
In preparing for this post, I have been reading a number of articles written about Perry. One interesting piece is on Diane Ravitch’s blog. The comments section is particularly revealing concerning Perry’s reputation. However, it is the final comment (final as of the time I read) that held my attention:
What is Perry’s PhD in? Honorary degree from somewhere? Cannot find trail of his education, degrees or dissertation credentials. Any info?
Yesterday, it just so happened that I read Steve Perry’s dissertation, an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the University of Hartford:
It ought to embarrass the sole faculty member who signed off on it and the school that issued it.
The dissertation file document does include details of Perry’s education, including a BA in political science from the University of Rhode Island in 1992; a MSW focused upon social and economic development from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work in 1995, and this Ed.D. in educational leadership from the University of Hartford in 2008.
Political science. Social and economic development.
Not a teacher.
And after reading his dissertation:
Not a scholar.
A dissertation is meant to be a scholarly contribution to one’s field of study. It is meant to be a unique contribution, one that adds substantially to research in the selected field as determined by a faculty committee chiefly comprised of those who possess the expertise to critically appraise the candidate’s work. And it is meant to demonstrate the author’s suitability to be recognized as an expert scholar in a clear and defined academic specialty.
Steve Perry’s so-called “dissertation” accomplishes none of these goals and makes a mockery of academic rigor.
Perry has earned a “cereal box doctorate”: Buy the cereal; pull out the prize. That’s it.
Why am I being so hard on this former CNN “expert education commenter”? This “education expert” who on one hand says the problem is that professional educators “are not connecting” with students, but on the other, says, “If you don’t want to go to college, don’t go to Capitol Prep (Perry’s school). Go somewhere else”? This arrogant self-promoter who introduces himself on his website as “America’s Most Trusted Educator”?
His dissertation “contribution” amounts to nothing more than a self-reported six hours on the phone asking Upward Bound staff what they believe works; transcribing these interviews, and organizing responses into sets. Period.
So much for “manning up” academically.
(Upward Bound is a federal program aimed at promoting college attendance among students from families with either low incomes or no previous members who have attended college.)
Here is what he chatted about with six people for one hour:
1. What are the staff’s reports of how they implemented the project components and services designed to prepare eligible high school students for attendance at four-year colleges?
2. What are the staff’s reports of the project practices that are most effective in preparing eligible high school students for attendance at four-year colleges?
3. What are the staff’s reports of the project practices that they perceive to be the most easily implemented in an urban high school in their service area?
I am hard pressed to believe that discussion of these three questions required more than 15 minutes per staff member.
Far from sufficient for a rigorous dissertation.
For Perry– well– I think it has served its purpose.
Congratulations, “Doctor” Perry. Like a woman who agrees to get married for the diamond ring, you now get to refer to yourself as “doctor” for completing your University of Hartford program. Based upon perusal of your website, I know that the title is very important to you.
Even your Twitter handle has that “Dr.”
Yes, his dissertation is a flimsy, rice-paper version of the real deal. But don’t believe that a self-important man like Perry is short on words. In his pseudo-diss, he wrote 176 pages. Perry thinks he has a lot to say– only most of it pertains to the work others have accomplished. He is long-worded on a literature review of studies that clearly overwhelms his sad, slight, research “contribution.”
He calls his “dissertation” an “exploratory, qualitative case study of a single Upward Bound project” in which he “used a single, semi-structured telephone interview” of “six Upward Bound project staff.”
When I was working toward my doctorate (a bit more rigorous in its completion), doctoral students in the University of Northern Colorado College of Education had to defend choosing a qualitative dissertation against the idea that qualitative is “easier” than quantitative. I have heard fellow students comment, “I don’t like numbers, so I’ll ‘just’ do a qualitative dissertation.”
I do not advocate the view that a well-done qualitative dissertation is “easier” than a well-done quantitative one.
Whether qualitative or quantitative, a rigorous dissertation proposal adequately answers the question, “So what?” In other words, why bother conducting this study? What of substance or significance might this study contribute to the body of research in a given field? (Even though qualitative research involves emergent themes, the researcher should still be able to defend the value of the study.)
A well-done qualitative dissertation is often twice as long as a quantitative dissertation since the qualitative medium of research is the word. Thus, a rigorous qualitative dissertation can easily be 300 pages or longer. And there is much to “qualitative’; the general term encompasses numerous study designs, including but not limited to ethnography, grounded theory, phenomenology, narrative research, and case study.
In his “dissertation,” Perry notes that he has chosen the case study. But the question remains, ‘So what?” It is not as though there has not been a wealth of research conducted on Upward Bound. And with the modern reformer push for quantitative results, why would Perry not decide to at least conduct a mixed methods study, one that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative components? Perry even discusses the education reform movement as part of his literature review. In addition, Perry cites Yin, and Yin advises use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in case study research. And though he cites Creswell, Perry does not even follow advised case study methodology of collecting information from multiple sources, such as interview and observation. (Yin [as reported in Creswell] suggests collecting six types of information in conducting a case study: documents, archival records, interviews, direct observations, participant observations, and physical artifacts.) In rushing though data collection, Perry doesn’t even conduct multiple interviews of his six individuals.
Frankly, his research questions are too watery to warrant multiple interviews.
As for the other five types of information collected in a case study, Perry is without excuse.
In truth, the “case” in Perry’s “study” is neither unique enough nor substantial enough in its own right to stand alone as a study befitting the rigor due a doctoral dissertation. If there were only a single, six-staff Upward Bound program in the entire United States, that would be arguably unique. If research on Upward Bound did not readily lend itself to quantitative questions, that too would warrant a qualitative study in order to discern potential emergent themes associated with Upward Bound. But such is not the case. And Perry’s attempt at a “qualitative study” amounts to little more than “How can I do this thing as quickly as possible?”
No wonder Perry, who likes to feature himself, chooses not to include his dissertation (or even his exact doctoral credentials) as a part of his “Look at me! I’m Steve Perry” website.
Perry’s entire “dissertation” is more of what rigorous researchers would consider a qualitative follow-up component to an absent quantitative study. In other words, what Perry presents as the entire train of his dissertation is sadly only the caboose to a research locomotive and associated cargo that never appear.
For the reasons I have written in the several paragraphs above, I would never have approved of Perry’s dissertation even in its proposal stage. But someone did approve: Diana LaRocco, an assistant professor who also holds an Ed.D. from the same University of Hartford. No other signature was required on Perry’s dissertation.
This is not rigor, folks. But it is $650 per credit hour to the University of Hartford.
As for Perry’s doctoral program: The University of Hartford offers a doctorate in educational leadership that it advertises as a 63-semester-credit-hour program for “mid-career adult learners,” though the numbers don’t quite add up. Anywhere from 21 to 24 hours are associated with the dissertation. A student could complete this program in two years, including summers.
For the sake of comparison, let me add that my doctoral program of 120 transcripted semester-credit hours at the University of Northern Colorado took four full years for me to complete, including summers. My dissertation, a quantitative dissertation, is 180 pages and is signed as approved by five university faculty, including the dean of the graduate school.
As for Perry’s recommendations based upon his conversations with six Upward Bound staff (I have abbreviated them for the sake of space):
1. Implement group and one-on-one activities to foster supportive relationships.
2. Restructure high schools to be smaller to offer opportunities for students to establish caring relationships.
3. Other researchers should replicate this study using additional methods and a larger sample.
4. Staff need to focus on deliberate, sustained efforts to support student college-bound mindset.
5. Organize school so that daily schedule mandates that teachers have time to meet with students and communicate with families.
6. Future research should be conducted using additional methods and a larger sample.
7. Provide students with yearlong academic supports.
8. Increase the length of the high school year to include a summer component.
9. Conduct cost benefit analysis on extending the school year.
Notice that twice Perry advocates redoing the study with additional methods and a larger sample. HE could have done the study with additional methods and a larger sample. With a larger Upward Bound staff sample (which exists had he pursued it), Perry could have incorporated both qualitative and quantitative components to his study. But he also would have had to be sure that his study provided a unique and substantial contribution above and beyond that of the existing Upward Bound research.
Perry cut corners and chose not to conduct the study that he advocates “other” researchers conduct.
Perry also advocates positions popular in educational reform, including the small schools” effort that Gates both championed and abandoned, and the extension of the school year (which he follows with a cost benefit analysis– which should be done prior to implementation).
Perry does not consider the cost– financial and otherwise– of his other ideas, including the cost of the “yearlong academic supports”; the “mandated staff-student meeting time,” and even the “group and one-on-one activities.”
I am left wondering what it is about Perry’s dissertation that makes it worthwhile.
I can think of nothing.
But it did get him that “doctor” title….