The Adjunct Experience

Superintendents bring reality to graduate instruction amidst questions of the role they should play by Kate Beem

It was one of those win-win situations that educators are so fond of.

The school of education at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., needed someone to teach a graduate-level educational administration course one semester a few years back. Gary Harms, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the 4,000-student Aberdeen School District, was missing the classroom where he’d spent his earlier career.

What happened next made everyone happy: Harms agreed to become an adjunct faculty member at Northern where he would teach the course on the psychology of learning, while Northern was able to offer its educational administration students a course they otherwise might not have had the chance to take.

“We’re very firm that we must have someone with a doctorate to teach a graduate-level course,” says Sherry Tebben, dean of Northern State’s school of education. “It’s sometimes difficult in South Dakota to find someone with a doctorate. But if we couldn’t find a person, then we couldn’t offer the course.”

And Harms was happy to help and for the chance to teach again.

“They allowed me to fulfill one of my loves,” he says.

Growing Numbers
What transpired between Harms and Northern occurs each semester in educational administration programs at colleges and universities across the country. But it’s a scenario fraught with questions as institutions of higher education and accrediting bodies struggle with how to use part-time faculty members while maintaining quality programs that turn out students who’ve learned what they need to know to become effective school system leaders.

The situation is complex, mired in questions of cost savings, manpower and practicality. As soon as a solution rises to the surface, it’s quickly pulled under by the harsh realities that colleges and universities struggle with as they pay long-time tenured faculty in a climate of budget cutbacks. This year alone, 45 states and the District of Columbia are facing budget shortfalls, according to a January study released by the National Conference of State Legislatures. And higher education usually is one of the first allocations lawmakers reduce.

Add to that the growth of graduate education programs, and the problem becomes clear. The programs are filled with graduate students, some with a desire to eventually become school district leaders, others pursuing the mandatory graduate degree they must attain to keep moving up their districts’ salary schedules. The colleges must offer classes but can’t overload their full-time faculty with courses, especially when many of the classes must be offered at night or during the summer to accommodate the bulk of students who are fully employed.

That can explain why the numbers of adjunct or part-time faculty members have grown in recent years. In 1970, 22 percent of college professors in all disciplines were adjunct or part-time, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. By 2000, that percentage had increased to 42.5 percent.

A Cheap Answer
At universities from Northern State University in South Dakota to the University of Kansas to the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, adjuncts sometimes are used to fill critical needs. That’s a valid use of non-full-time faculty, most involved agree.

It’s the other, shadowy use of adjuncts that’s creating the uproar—a use not easily documented but one that everyone involved alleges exists.

Paid on average between $1,500 and $2,500 per three-hour course, adjunct professors can save colleges and universities lots of money. They don’t receive benefits, and even teaching one course each semester and in the summer, their pay doesn’t come close to that of a full-time tenured faculty member. During the 1998-99 academic year, the most recent for which data are available, full-time faculty at the country’s roughly 4,000 degree-granting institutions averaged salaries of $54,097, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The math is pretty simple, says Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which accredits schools and colleges of education. “It can be a money-saving strategy,” he says. “It is a way to cut costs and turn educational leadership programs into a cash cow, which, unfortunately, some programs have become.”

A National Survey
That complaint isn’t a new one, according to Joseph Schneider, AASA’s deputy director. For years, critics have charged that master’s programs in educational administration, which generally prepare students to become school principals, are an easy path to an advanced degree, he says. Most courses are taught in the evenings or on weekends, so they’re attractive to people who want relatively easy classes that are comfortable and convenient.

“Educational administration is particularly attractive to teachers who just simply want a boost on the salary schedule,” Schneider adds. “It was the easiest degree they could get. Why would the hardest job be the easiest (degree) to get?”

His assertion is backed up by data reviewed by AASA showing that fewer than 50 percent of those who have master’s degrees in educational administration are applying for jobs in that field.

Earlier this year, Schneider and his colleagues at AASA surveyed the 14,000 public school superintendents who belong to AASA, asking how many teach or have taught as adjunct instructors in educational administration programs. He received 294 responses from those who have been adjuncts, all but 29 of them superintendents.

The survey questioned school system leaders about their experiences as adjuncts, seeking information on how their teaching was evaluated, how they were assigned courses to teach, how they found appropriate textbooks and how often they met with full-time faculty. The responses overwhelmingly pointed to what Schneider and other observers assume: Adjuncts often function as add-ons, rarely interacting with college faculty or receiving much constructive feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching.

“These people are completely isolated,” Schneider says.

But it’s not that simple, responds Ted Creighton, an education professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and executive director of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration. The judicious use of adjuncts to enhance students’ learning experiences can provide a rich education. The experiences of those working outside the academy shouldn’t be discounted, he says, adding that adjuncts can address another common complaint aimed toward colleges of education: They don’t prepare students for the realities of the schoolhouse.

“If we could get this adjunct professor thing straightened out, we could diminish that disconnect,” Creighton says.

The question of how best to use adjuncts isn’t limited to schools and colleges of education. Other disciplines face the same dilemma. The Chronicle of Higher Education has followed closely the debate over the use of adjuncts as a cheap labor pool in liberal arts disciplines such as philosophy, history and English. There it’s not uncommon for an instructor with a Ph.D. to work two or three adjunct jobs at more than one school just to make ends meet. With college professors staving off retirement, open tenure-track positions are a hot commodity.

But that’s not exactly the case in schools and colleges of education. Most adjuncts there have day jobs. They’re school district superintendents, human resource directors and principals. They’re typically highly compensated in their primary careers, often paid more than full-time faculty members at colleges and universities. By and large, it seems, educational administration adjuncts aren’t in it for the money. According to AASA’s recent survey, the No. 1 motivation superintendents gave for becoming an adjunct was to pursue full-time employment at the university level.

Troubling Conditions

Schools of education have wrestled with whether to use practitioners to teach their students pretty much since the beginning, says Doug Toma, associate chairman of the executive doctorate of higher education management program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Toma’s studies have included the history of higher education.


Education emerged as a discipline within research universities relatively recently, during the 1920s and 1930s, Toma says. Traditionally, state normal schools had turned out graduates whose purpose was to go forth and teach. But once education penetrated the hallowed halls of academia’s upper echelon, it had to prove its worth. That meant focusing on research and publication in much the same way faculties of philosophy, English and history did. And that meant frowning on the use of instructors who were more focused on the practicalities within the field than the theory, Toma says.

“But it’s an applied field,” he adds. “People don’t come to schools of education to be professors. There’s only so much theory you can inject into an applied field.”

Bruce Baker, an assistant professor of teaching and leadership at the University of Kansas, takes a different perspective. He values the knowledge and experiences that practitioners can share with his graduate students, particularly in the ever-changing areas of school finance or school law. So Baker often invites local school administrators into his classroom to speak to students. He also frequently convenes focus groups of school administrators to determine what he needs to teach his students about long-range facility planning or the business side of running a school district.

But Baker doesn’t embrace employing part-time faculty, no matter how experienced, to teach graduate-level courses. While a superintendent might be well-versed on a particular state’s school-finance law and how it affects his or her school district, the superintendent probably isn’t an expert on school finance in general. Baker’s students, however, might end up anywhere and need a wide-ranging understanding of such issues, he says.

“It’s difficult to find a practicing administrator who has the breadth of experience to deliver a whole course,” Baker says.

Yet universities seem to have little trouble finding school district administrators willing to teach semester-length courses. Evidence for that appears in AASA’s survey. While half of the respondents said they would only teach a course on a subject they knew much about, a third were willing to teach courses about areas in which they had little knowledge.

The survey of practicing administrators who are working as part-time professors raises other issues that trouble accrediting bodies. About a third of respondents said they developed their own syllabi without guidance from anyone at the college or university. More than 40 percent were left to select their own textbook for the course. Eighty-five percent said they do not meet regularly with others in the department.

In addition, few sought out meaningful professional development relevant to their adjunct jobs. None of the respondents, for example, had attended professional conferences for professors of educational administration, Schneider says, pointing to a possible opportunity for AASA to serve this unmet need of members.

Gauging Adjuncts

The extensive use of adjuncts is not something that appeals to NCATE, Wise says, because of serious concerns that programs turning out educators be coherent and that graduates have the knowledge and skills to be effective educational leaders. The accrediting body has no guidelines for figuring how many adjuncts is too many. Wise concedes that adjuncts can bring a lot to students’ education, but he believes that can’t happen if they are so disconnected from the university’s program.


Kathleen Sullivan Brown works closely with the adjunct professors at University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies. She is responsible for involving adjuncts in course planning and other activities that give them a sense of ownership. Brown believes NCATE could come up with a litmus test to gauge whether programs were using too many adjuncts, such as devising specific qualifications adjuncts must meet to be able to teach in accredited programs.

“There must be some accountability,” Brown says. “If you take a course and don’t get the pieces of knowledge you need, you won’t be successful. I think the key word is ‘balance’.”

No one disputes that, least of all Michelle Young, executive director of the University Council of Educational Administration, headquartered at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Combining real-world experiences with the educational theories presented by the full-time professoriate is the ideal and something UCEA highly encourages. But bringing in warm bodies merely to teach without support won’t cut it, Young says.

“Their experience is just the experience of one person,” she adds.

The UCEA recommends that when universities bring in adjunct faculty members they should provide opportunities to teach them strategies to enhance adult learning and to keep them abreast of current research. Once that’s in place, the benefits of using adjuncts can be a two-way street, Young says. Colleges and universities can use adjuncts as a way to keep the channels open between academia and the real world of school districts.

Those are channels that close easily but must remain open if both universities and public schools are to remain successful, says Paul M. Terry, an associate professor at the University of Memphis and immediate past president of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration. The goal of any school or college of education is to teach students to transfer theory into practice, he says, noting that ideally expertise between colleges and school districts would be a steady flow of information.

“It’s not a money issue,” Terry says. “It’s a connection issue. Adjuncts give us a reality check.”

That is so important, Arthur Levine, dean of the Teachers College at Columbia University, says. Schools and colleges of education need people engaged in the practice of education sharing their experiences in the college classroom, he says. And the cautious use of qualified adjuncts can allow colleges and universities to expand their course offerings, which should benefit students.

Adjuncts are used sparingly at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, usually only as a stop-gap measure until a qualified full-time faculty member can be found, says John Willett, the school’s Charles William Eliot Professor of Education and the interim dean in 2001-2002.

Still Harvard does make it a practice to hire former administrators as full-time faculty because of the experiences they bring to the job. Robert Peterkin, former superintendent of the Milwaukee School District, joined the Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty as director of the Urban Superintendents Program.

Proper Fits
Ultimately, what it comes down to is the value-added quality of a practitioner-led course, says Timothy C. Schell, assistant director of instruction in the 3,000-student Waunakee, Wis., Community School District.

Schell, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has nothing but praise for an adjunct professor who taught a course on the superintendency. The adjunct professor, who was a superintendent in a district east of Madison, Wis., knew firsthand the perils and peculiarities of running public schools. Not only did she share her own experiences with students, but she also brought in guest speakers who gave the lowdown on such challenges as dealing with the news media in the aftermath of a tragedy. She put her background to good use in the classroom, Schell says.

“It’s not a matter of too many or too few professors who are adjuncts,” he says. “It’s having the right professor for the right course.”

That’s why Tebben, the education school dean at Northern State University in South Dakota, isn’t afraid to say she can’t offer a particular course if she doesn’t have the right person to teach it. Although that’s never happened in her eight years there, she wouldn’t hesitate to pull a course rather than staff it with an unqualified instructor, she says.

Harms knows that and appreciates Tebben’s vigilance. Frankly he doesn’t want to be a full-time university instructor.

“For me, it’s OK once a year or every two years,” Harms says, “but it does feed my need to teach.”

With the economy continuing to squeeze public universities and colleges, students are likely to see more and more adjuncts in coming years, says Levine of Teachers College. On top of budget woes, colleges are finding that more and more tenured professors aren’t retiring after logging their 30 years in the academy. People are living longer and retiring later, and with values of investment savings slipping sharply during the past two years, retirement doesn’t look so great for those professors longing to hang up their hoods, Levine says.

“If I can’t hire more full-time faculty or have to make cuts, I’m likely to hire more adjuncts,” he says.

Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@comcast.net