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Studied Indifference

While education remains the most popular field for African American doctorate recipients, some analysts worry that jobs with better pay and less stress are luring these grads away from education research.

Urbana-Champaign — Dr. Eboni Zamini is a newly minted Ph.D. in education. These days, the University of Illinois graduate’s mind is filled with thoughts about her syllabus, what books to assign and her move to West Virginia University, where she will begin her career as an assistant professor of education this fall.
“I never really thought about doing anything else,” says Zamini, who just graduated from the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. “I don’t regret it for one moment. If you touch just one person, you’ve made a contribution.”
Zamini is one of several hundred African Americans who will receive doctorates in education this year. While those numbers should be something to celebrate, higher education experts are worried that there are not enough among them who, like Zamini, will dedicate their careers toward education research, where the need is perhaps greater than ever.
Because it used to be one of only a few professional opportunities open to Blacks, African Americans historically have received more doctorates in education than any other discipline. That trend continues unabated. In 1998, 1,995 African Americans earned doctoral degrees. Of them, 619 — more than 30 percent — were in education.
Yet analysts say the relatively large numbers of Black graduates in the discipline do not dispel concerns over whether there will be enough African Americans to conduct research on education issues. With more lucrative opportunities in other fields — including the public school system, strangely enough — experts say higher education isn’t snagging enough would-be researchers of color.
In fact, experts lament that the academy itself isn’t making things more attractive for new minority doctorate holders, who often graduate with job offers that barely cover their student loan payments, or who find that colleges and universities aren’t relying on as many full-time professors because adjuncts are cheaper.
This comes at a time when urban school systems face numerous challenges, and educational gains are in danger of erosion by the current affirmative action backlash. Many say researchers of color are needed more than ever because of their sensitivity to education issues affecting students of color.
“I’m just worried and nervous about the trends,” says Dr. Walter Allen, professor of sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles, who has conducted numerous studies on Black students in higher education throughout his career. “Who will be asking the questions that need to be asked? We need a diverse number of people conducting the research.”

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Opting for Alternative Career Paths
Those who get frustrated while searching for a job in the academy sometimes opt for nonprofessorial appointments with better pay and less pressure. Ironically, analysts are finding that the public school system is one of the fields pulling away some of the much-needed researchers.
According to a National Education Association survey of almost 2,200 teachers in 1996, 1.7 percent held doctorates, up from 0.5 percent in 1991. The number of principals who hold advanced degrees is also increasing. According to the National Center on Education Statistics, 9.3 percent of the almost 80,000 principals had doctorates in 1993-94. And almost 12 percent of the nation’s 8,000 African American principals had doctorate degrees.
Graduates are “going to think tanks and they are going to school districts,” says Dr. Vivian Gadsden, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.  “A lot of students are making the decisions to take jobs outside the academy that blend the research piece without the pressure of tenure.”
The average salary of an elementary-school principal is $69,407 according to the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The average salary of a Black male professor at a research institution was $63,333, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.
“If you have the opportunity to be a professor or a principal, then it pays more to be a principal,” Harvey says. Harvey himself is leaving the University of Milwaukee in July to become the American Council on Education’s vice president and director of the Office of Minorities in Higher Education.
 
Getting Signed On
People who go on to get a Ph.D. in education, “can’t find starting salaries equal to our own debt,” Zamini says. “We were frantically sending out resumes for faculty positions and our friends with MBAs were getting signing bonuses. Signing bonuses? We just want to get signed on.”
And pay isn’t the only frustration that may be turning Blacks from academe. As colleges have become more reliant on adjunct faculty, competition for tenured and tenure-track positions has become stiff, says Dr. William Harvey, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Education.
“The experience of getting tenure is bleak,” he says. “For the price of a tenured faculty member, a college can hire two part-time adjuncts and pay them no benefits. It’s not an attractive thing to do.”
Indeed, even getting into the academy can be difficult, says Dr. Mary Dilworth, research director for the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.  She says she’s found that Black students report more frustration with finding jobs at research institutions.
Experts say having solid publication credits is critical to securing a job in the academy. 
“If you haven’t published or presented, it can be more difficult for you to find a job,” says Dr. Jackie Jordan Irvine, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Urban Education at Emory University. Irvine adds that many African Americans students miss out on the mentoring and networks that are vital to landing a job in the academy.
“Here at Emory, we emphasize publishing, going to conferences and presenting papers so our students are ready for the job market. Mentoring is vital, especially for African American students, because otherwise they end up going back to their old jobs.”

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Who Will Do the Work?
 “If we don’t train more African American researchers, we become more and more dependent on the research of people who don’t have the experience with our communities and don’t live in the neighborhoods,” says Dr. Jacqueline Woods, public liaison for community colleges with the U.S. Department of Education. “Then we’ll be put in the position of criticizing the work, but we’ll have to accept the responsibility for the fact that we didn’t do any of the research.”
The research does make a difference in practice, Dilworth says. Her association just conducted an institute for elementary and secondary teachers on culturally responsive practices last month. The participants — who attend seminars at Langston and Hofstra and Georgia State universities, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and the University of Texas-Pan American — use research conducted by professors to make a difference in the classrooms.
“We need good research by scholars of color that is available and accessible so real teachers can use it in their classrooms,” Dilworth says. “Unless we can get that research, we are not going to be able to do a better job in terms of achievement with our kids.
“I look around and don’t know who will do the work,” she continues. “Somebody has to interrupt the canon.  I tell my students unless they are willing to do the research, then whatever anybody writes should be OK with them.  We need them to create another generation of people.  If they don’t do it, who will?”
Zamini is one of only a few in her class who has chosen a career in postsecondary education. She says many of her colleagues did not even consider jobs in higher education.
“One of my friends got her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction and went to work for the Chicago public school system. She has a 9-5 job and she doesn’t have to worry about publishing and doing research,” she says.
But Zamini is on a mission. “Whenever I get discouraged, I think about the Black professors that I had.  We drained the life out of the few Black professors we have. Their presence was an affirmation that we could do this.”    

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