Th The Long Walk 01

The Long Walk to the Schoolhouse

Sept. 1, 2008
My father walked to school in snow up to his waist. An uncle walked over a mile each way to school and it was all uphill.

By Lory Laughter, RDH, BS

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My father walked to school in snow up to his waist. An uncle walked over a mile each way to school and it was all uphill. I walked to school when pestering my parents for a ride didn’t work. My son drives to school and complains about the parking lot traffic. From the tales we hear, each generation has it easier than the last. Finding an easier, faster, or less stressful way to accomplish tasks must be part of human nature. But should this goal of coasting to the top instead of climbing extend to our educational pursuits?

The Internet has offerings for almost any degree and the requirements are often contrary to common sense — bachelor’s degrees with up to three years of credit issued for “life experience,” and master’s degrees granted for nothing more than a signed check or credit card payment. Even after some high profile individuals were put in the spotlight for obtaining their degrees by these questionable institutions, the offerings remain and people continue to frame their “proof” of educational achievement.

While these educational opportunities may appear to be an easy way to reach a goal, their very existence devalues higher education. A four-year-old has life experience, but I bet nobody thinks that experience equals a college degree. Early childhood education is more than just living the event. Money can buy almost anything today, but that should not include knowledge, a college diploma, or the personal satisfaction that comes from earning that piece of paper on your own merit.

The idea of easy education begins early with elementary school children who are graded on potential rather than results, and other students who are passed to the next level based simply on governmental mandate. Homework is no longer a required part of the grading process. Instead, standardized tests are used to evaluate both pupils and teachers. There are even dental hygiene programs where instructors are encouraged to never “fail” a student because of the high price being paid to become a dental hygienist, which again downgrades the value from an achievement to a purchase.

Recently, the trend of easy degree completion has taken on a less obvious face. There are now master’s programs that do not require a thesis or project for graduation. As someone who left my master’s program to avoid the thesis, this new path should work well for me. However, any sense of accomplishment will be lessened by obtaining an advanced degree in this manner. Doctorate studies that no longer hold the challenge of defending a dissertation also make me question whether we really value higher education.

Part of my goal for the profession of dental hygiene is to be recognized as the authorities in our field. In order to reach that goal, those using an RDH or LDH after their name must conduct and publish research. One learns to do this required research during the thesis, project, and dissertation process. Conducting studies and publishing the results are also usually required for tenure at universities. Dental hygiene needs professors, department chairs, and college deans among our ranks. It is not enough to submit systemic reviews of the literature; we must lead first generation clinical research studies and create opportunities for others to further scrutinize our results.

On the opposite side of this trend to simpler educational paths is the mind-boggling reality that many of us never receive the degree we’ve earned. Too many hygienists put in four years of educational studies, only to be handed an associate’s degree. In most professions four years equals a bachelor’s degree. Why do we settle for less? It is no coincidence that organized dentistry overwhelmingly controls our educational standards and encourages recognition far below what is earned.

Even more distressing is the current trend of certificate programs that require at least three years of studies (pre-requisites plus clinical courses) and offer no degree at all. This trend does a lot to devalue the dental hygiene education. Put yourself in the seat of a legislator, governor, or other public official and decide whether to base a decision on the recommendation of those holding doctorate degrees or those with educational certificates. The reality is that dental hygienists are the most qualified to make recommendations and decisions about our profession, but the perception is that we have less education and we need the guidance of the dentist at all times.

Before anyone starts sending me burning e-mails, let me state for the record that I do not think a bachelor’s degree makes anyone a better clinician. It does not take English, history, or other prerequisite courses to teach scaling. My best friend spent four years earning an associate’s degree and is one of the best clinicians I know. At the same time, we cannot expect the public to value dental hygiene as a separate and essential health care profession when we are held to earning certificates instead of degrees.

We cannot insist on being regarded as the authority on preventive oral health care when most of the research being published on the subject is by dentists or other health-care providers. It is difficult enough to fight for autonomy and self-regulation without adding the baggage of devalued educational achievements. Those who set and monitor standards for dental hygiene education should be held accountable for allowing associate’s degrees to be delivered when a bacheor’s degree was actually earned. Private schools should be encouraged to offer degrees equal to the credits earned and nobody should be guaranteed graduation, regardless of the price paid for tuition.

As health-care professionals, we are held to a higher standard and cannot shirk that responsibility. Seeking the best education possible and continuing our learning beyond graduation is a requirement we should meet before studying for any dental hygiene degree. Equally as important, we are entitled to receive recognition equal to the educational level achieved.

The average dental hygienist is not a dentist wannabe. Dental hygienists are educated, skilled, and capable preventive health-care providers who are able to deliver treatment for oral conditions, diseases, and injuries. It is my sincere hope for our profession that educational requirements remain high, with the thesis, project, and dissertation intact where appropriate, and that future students will demand a degree that represents the level of education achieved. The dental hygienist is a health-care professional, and we need to take hold of that title before chairside training replaces all educational programs.

About the Author

Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, divides her full-time clinical practice between general and periodontics practice in Napa and Sonoma, Calif. She is co-owner of Dental IQ, a continuing education provider responsible for bringing quality courses and speakers to the entire dental team. In her spare time, Lory enjoys writing, speaking, volunteering, and providing shelter to homeless pets. You may contact her at [email protected] or through