School & District Management

Some Ed.D. Programs Adopting Practical Approach

By Jeff Archer — December 13, 2005 7 min read
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Two years ago, Michele Condon had completed all the coursework for a doctorate in education, but couldn’t settle on a dissertation topic. Nothing seemed important enough to the principal to spend a year or two on research and writing.

“I didn’t have time to do something that didn’t tie in to what I did every day,” said Ms. Condon, the top administrator at Bernard Middle School in Mehlville, Mo., just south of St. Louis. “I didn’t want to do something that was just an add-on to get the title.”

Then came a new possibility: Rather than write a dissertation, she could work on a group project focused on a problem she encounters in her job. Last week, she passed her oral defense of the project, which involved crafting new criteria for evaluating teacher-tenure policies.

St. Louis University, where Ms. Condon earned her doctorate, is one of a growing number of higher education institutions that are retooling their Doctor of Education, or Ed.D., programs to concentrate more on the practical skills required of district leaders.

For too long, the thinking goes, such programs have emulated the structure of Ph.D. programs, despite the fact that they generally serve a different purpose. Typically, at schools of education that offer both degrees, the Ed.D. is for aspiring superintendents and other practitioners, while the Doctor of Philosophy program is for budding academics.

In a widely read report issued this past March, Arthur E. Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, suggested eliminating the Ed.D. degree, which he said often amounts to a watered-down Ph.D. that does little to prepare people for the contemporary demands of educational administration. (“Study Blasts Leadership Preparation,” March 16, 2005.)

Instead, some universities have sought to differentiate their Ed.D. programs more clearly from their Ph.D. programs. Along with St. Louis University, they include: the University of Missouri-Columbia; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California; and Vanderbilt University.

Common strategies involve emphasizing the application of theory to practice and forming more cohesive cohorts of candidates who go through the programs together. Some of the biggest changes are with the dissertation requirement, which some education schools are dropping in favor of team-based projects like Ms. Condon’s.

Too Convenient?

The trend worries some education school leaders, however. Their concern is that market pressures are leading some universities to sacrifice rigor to create programs that are more convenient for their candidates. Group projects, some argue, don’t involve the kind of disciplined inquiry that constitutes doctoral-level work.

Others counter that it’s possible to maintain high standards while making Ed.D. programs more relevant to the work they’re preparing their students to do. In fact, proponents of distinguishing Ed.D.s from Ph.D.s at education schools say the status quo is a greater threat to quality.

Michele Condon, the principal at Bernard Middle School in Mehlville, Mo., takes part in a group oral defense of the project she completed with two other candidates to earn an Ed.D. degree at St. Louis University. The graduate program is one of a growing number to replace the traditional dissertation with a team assignment.

“I think there are a set of legitimate questions and concerns about this that need to be on the table,” said Joseph F. Murphy, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody college of education. “But, at the end of the day, it’s very difficult for me to imagine that it could be any worse than it is now.”

Although often not required, a doctorate is close to a rite of passage for aspirants to the superintendency, particularly in medium-size and large districts. About three-quarters of those leading school systems with 3,000 students or more have one, according to data from the American Association of School Administrators.

Some education schools offer just one doctoral degree. At Harvard University, the school gives only Ed.Ds; at Ohio State University, only Ph.D.s. What matters is whether an institution has different courses of study depending on the candidate’s career goals, said Lee S. Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Stanford, Calif.

In practice, he said, many education schools put all doctoral candidates through very similar programs. Whether hoping to be superintendents or scholars, they take a series of courses that culminates in a work of independent research, yielding the kind of study that could be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“We have come to a situation where we have neither a first-rate model for the professional doctorate, which you can call the Ed.D., nor do we have a really good model for the research doctorate, because we’re basically using the same model to educate both,” Mr. Shulman said.

When the department of educational leadership and higher education at St. Louis University asked itself what aspiring superintendents needed to learn, the answer wasn’t how to produce scholarly research. So the school phased out the dissertation for its Ed.D. program and replaced it with a long-term assignment in which three or four candidates work together to examine an applied problem.

Ms. Condon, the middle school principal, jumped at the chance to do such a project, which initially was offered as an option in 2003 and now is required. She and two other St. Louis-area principals looked at teacher-tenure polices because they’d seen their effects firsthand.

“We all agreed that teacher tenure wasn’t necessarily a good thing,” Ms. Condon said. “It was not motivating teachers to stay on top of their game.”

Each team member took charge of one part of the project. Ms. Condon compared job-protection rules in Missouri with those in other states. Another principal surveyed the history of teacher tenure, and the third examined how institutions in various sectors assessed their policies.

Together, they honed a set of standards to determine whether tenure rules adequately balanced students’ interests with teachers’ rights.

Teams and Individuals

The result, after more than a year of weekend meetings at coffee shops or one of their schools, was a 2-inch-thick report that went through several revisions based on input from faculty advisers. Ms. Condon said the group exercise more closely mirrors the kind of work that district leaders do than would writing a dissertation.

“At least in our district, we don’t have one superintendent working in isolation,” she said. “It’s a central-office team, and everyone comes with their area of expertise.”

Architects of the program say one challenge was to come up with a format for team-based projects that still allowed for determining whether each candidate had mastered enough to earn a doctorate. Along with the combined report, each team member submits a paper analyzing the work and reflecting on his or her own contribution. In addition to a group oral defense, candidates undergo individual ones.

Susan Everson, who led the effort to redesign the Ed.D., said the educational leadership department has proof that the system works: Some teams have reached the end of the process and not all of the members have graduated.

“The students will tell you that it’s as rigorous as a dissertation,” said Ms. Everson, an assistant professor. “And as an adviser, I would say it’s no less demanding. You have to learn some new advisory skills, so that you can assess their abilities as collaborative team members.”

Not everyone thinks such changes are a good idea. Betty Malen, an education professor at the University of Maryland College Park, advocates keeping the dissertation requirement for Ed.D. candidates, as her university has done.

“I think we adopt a very narrow definition of what is relevant if we confine our programs to a one-on-one match between what we do in graduate study and what we do on the job,” said Ms. Malen, noting that she spent 13 years as a school administrator. “What I could not do on the job is think deeply about the nature of the problems that were confronting the school.”

She and some others charge that part of the motivation for differentiating Ed.D. programs from Ph.D. programs is simply to accommodate the busy lives of school administrators, many of whom begin a doctoral program but never manage to complete the dissertation.

Ms. Condon believes she would have completed a dissertation were that still the requirement. She has her own reasons: Her father, a St. Louis police officer killed in the line of duty when she was 5, had stressed that he wanted his children to succeed academically.

But the option of doing a project with colleagues who shared similar concerns about their work made it easier to invest the time to do it well. “I think a dissertation can be very interesting,” she said. But, she added, “I think we got something useful out of this.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.

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