Feature

Interdisciplinary Doctorates

New degree programs combine financial, entrepreneurial and innovation skills fostered in M.B.A. programs with instructional leadership preparation by BILL GRAVES

Ash Solar had just wrapped up his first two years of classroom teaching when he found himself standing on the campus of Stanford University one fall day six years ago. By then, he knew he wanted to carve out a career in school leadership and was contemplating graduate school. So a friend whom he was visiting in San Francisco took him to check out the beautiful Stanford grounds.

The next day, Solar jumped on the Internet and came across a joint degree program at Stanford that allows students to simultaneously pursue a master’s in business administration at the Graduate School of Business and a master of arts in education at the School of Education.

Ash SolarAsh Solar, an administrator in Oakland, Calif., completed a master's degree at Stanford that combines the study of business management and education.



“I was stunned there was such a thing,” he says.

Solar, a Dartmouth graduate with a history degree, had taken the Teach for America path to a 4th-grade classroom in his hometown of Houston. As he taught, he became struck by how little district administrators knew about the quality of their teachers. “We have no idea who our highest-performing teachers are and who our lowest-performing teachers are,” he says.

Solar wanted to change that, and he knew he would need more skills to do so. But he had never thought he’d go after an M.B.A. Yet as he read about Stanford’s joint degree program, he came to believe it offered him the perfect fit.

“The more I read, the more I realized the M.B.A. was less about making money and more about organizational leadership,” he says. “The goal was to change lives, change organizations and change the world.”

Solar got into the program on his second try and today, at age 29, he is doing exactly what he set out to do, serving in the Oakland Unified School District as manager of talent management initiatives, responsible for defining and identifying teacher effectiveness.

A Faster Track
Solar exemplifies the new brand of school leader who is emerging from a growing number of interdisciplinary graduate and professional leadership programs in American colleges and universities. The programs combine the financial, entrepreneurial and innovation skills fostered in M.B.A. programs with the instructional leadership preparation of traditional school administrator studies.

Higher education leaders say these programs are a response to the increasing complexity and diversity of public education and a growing body of research that shows the effectiveness of administrators and teachers is the single most critical force in raising student achievement. Many new graduate programs are geared toward reform and linked with foundations and nonprofit education organizations working to transform American education.

The new interdisciplinary programs reflect impatience with incremental school reform, says Kent Seidel, one of the leaders of the University of Denver’s new M.B.A. in school leadership.

“We’re still wrestling with how to help the kids who have been traditionally underserved by schools to actually do well,” he says. “This whole direction is a kind of mutual ‘let’s try something different that is going to get different results.’”

Education leaders need a broad range of leadership and management skills to foster change, says Elizabeth City, who is heading Harvard University’s launch of a new interdisciplinary doctor of education leadership program this fall. Students in the three-year program will study under professors from the Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government.

The program drew more than 1,000 applicants for its first cohort of 25 students, indicating aspiring school leaders know they need to have a broad combination of practical skills and political savvy, City says. “They need to deeply understand teaching and learning, and they need to know how to work strategically, to mobilize various stakeholders, to lead an effective team, and to have conversations around race and other identity issues.”

Most of the interdisciplinary school leadership programs have emerged in the last decade. The University of Denver this spring launched its M.B.A. in school leadership, developed by the colleges of business and education. Other integrated programs, all combining M.B.A. programs with education leadership, include Texas Christian University, Rice University and the University of Michigan.

Stanford’s Blooms
The Stanford joint program that caught Solar’s eye was founded in the early 1970s, making it one of the oldest of its kind. The program remained small, drawing only a handful of students each year until the mid-1990s, when it started attracting a larger and more consistent cohort of students, according to Nereyda Salinas, the program’s director. The venture blossomed 10 years ago, and 70 percent of its 250 alumni have graduated since then, she says.

Interest has grown with the recognition that school leadership requires not only content and field knowledge but also skills in organizational management and program implementation, the hallmark of M.B.A. studies. Students examine the economic forces driving school reform and how to distinguish strong research from weak, Salinas says. They also learn the nuts and bolts of accounting, marketing and branding, developing strategic plans, organizing and managing teams, dealing with unions, creating a work culture of continuous improvement, and how to apply all of those skills in an educational enterprise.

Degrees Designed for the Reform Minded by Bill Graves


Most of the small but growing number of universities offering interdisciplinary degree programs in school leadership combine graduate education studies with a master’s in business administration program. With many emerging in the past decade, these programs focus on producing school leaders to carry out education reform in schools and other organizations.

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Stanford looks for aspiring leaders with intellectual vitality, a commitment to education, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a desire to change schools and students’ lives, says Lisa Giannangeli, an associate director of M.B.A. admissions. She is a graduate of the joint program herself as is the dean of admissions. Other graduates have gone on to lead public schools, charter schools, school districts and other organizations. One graduate now directs the education arm of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Another is managing director for Teach for America. A third is opening a leadership academy in Africa, and a fourth is the chief operating officer for Aspire Public Schools, a California not-for-profit charter school management organization that operates across much of the state.

Solar, now two years into his administrative post in Oakland, says he uses daily what he learned in the program, especially the interpersonal skills. “High-perform-ance leadership is about how to build a team and be a team member,” he says. “Those are skills that were at the core of my experience.”

In a real sense, he feels bilingual — able to communicate about instruction/curriculum and operations/finance, which seem to operate in public education as separate houses speaking different languages.

Additional Heft
The emerging interdisciplinary education leadership programs reflect the increasing complexity and diversity of American education and a persistent, festering dissatisfaction with the status quo. At their root, the programs express a social justice mission to address the large groups of students failing to receive an adequate education, a problem brought into sharper focus by the No Child Left Behind initiative, says City, who also leads Harvard education school’s yearlong practicum on leadership in nontraditional settings.

“Demography is destiny in the United States,” she says. “We believe every child in America should have the opportunity to live up to his or her full potential.”
Universities need to prepare school leaders for a broader array of possible leadership roles, not only in the public sector but also in education foundations and nonprofits focused on reform, innovation and adequate financing for prekindergarten and public education.

The new interdisciplinary school leader programs also may represent an effort to add heft to education doctoral programs in response to critics. Before retiring as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching two years ago, Lee S. Shulman said the Ed.D. “is perceived as ‘Ph.D.-lite.’”

The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, based at the University of Maryland, is in its fourth year working with 25 universities to design sharper distinctions between the Ed.D and the Ph.D in education. The aim is to tailor the Ed.D for practitioners in the field and the Ph.D for scholars and researchers, says David Imig, director of the project.

“The Ph.D. has become encompassing of everything, and it has lost its purpose and direction,” he says.

The need for broader technical, business and political education in school leadership programs is implied in the 2008 revised Educational Leadership Policy Standards adopted by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. The standards call for preparing education leaders who can carry out a shared vision, who have skills in organization, data analysis, finances and team building, and who have a grasp of the cultural, social and political forces affecting schools and districts.

Higher education is moving toward more interdisciplinary graduate work across the fields, not just education and business, says Chris M. Golde, associate vice provost for graduate education at Stanford University and co-author of The Formation of Scholars, a book that resulted from the Carnegie Foundation’s Initiative on the Doctorate.

“Both institutions and disciplines are trying to respond to a very complex world,” says Golde. “We are in a time where disciplines are trying to think about who are their disciplinary neighbors, and they might not be the obvious one.”

Harvard’s new Doctor of Education Leadership Program grew out of the recognition that its well-known Urban Superintendents Doctoral Program, entering its 21st year with its final cohort, is too narrowly focused. It fails to address the need for leaders in the growing variety of other reform-oriented educational enterprises, says Thomas Payzant, a Harvard education professor and former superintendent in Boston and San Diego, Calif., who helped design the new doctoral program.

The three-year program has been designed from scratch with a practical focus. After two years of full-time study, the students will go to work for a year with a partner organization, such as a charter school, nonprofit, foundation, state department of education or other education group. Rather than conduct a research project as the urban superintendent’s program requires, the students will be expected to write an in-depth paper on “a significant problem of practice” in the organization they are placed in for their third year, Payzant says.

As in many other interdisciplinary programs, the Harvard leadership curriculum aims to turn out leaders who are prepared to use innovation and change to reshape American education. “They will be doing interesting and powerful things,” City says.

Chartering a Career
Another student aspiring to do powerful things is James Cryan, one of the first two students enrolled in the University of Denver’s new M.B.A. in school leadership program, which launched its pilot phase in the spring. After graduating with degrees in political science and international studies from Colby College in Maine, Cryan entered Teach for America and took a job teaching English to 6th graders in a low-performing Denver middle school.

Fond of the outdoors, he started a hiking club and took inner-city students on climbs into the Rocky Mountain front range, which stretches grandly west of Denver. He was astonished to learn that for many of his students, these two-hour hikes marked their first venture into the wilderness and a highlight of their school year. That sparked an idea.

After two years of teaching and seeing the possibilities in some specialized, high-performing Denver schools, he began thinking he would like to start his own charter middle school that would blend a college-bound curriculum with an Outward-Bound-type education program. He could take students into the wilderness “to build teamwork, to build emotional intelligence and to build leadership skills,” he says. “In my mind, it is a huge social justice issue where students not born into a certain socioeconomic level don’t get to spend time in the outdoors.”

Harvard Launches a Practice-Based Doctorate by CHASE R. NORDENGREN


More than 1,000 educators, policymakers and others sought 25 highly coveted seats in a new doctoral program this fall at Harvard University that aspires to generate a cadre of school system leaders capable of addressing the most profound practical and moral challenges of the day.

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Cryan decided to pursue an M.B.A. because “starting a school, like any organization, takes tremendous business knowledge.”

The University of Denver’s fledgling M.B.A. in school leadership seemed to offer just what he was seeking. The university’s Daniels College of Business and Morgridge College of Education joined forces with Get Smart Schools, a nonprofit promoting charter schools for low-income students in the Denver area.

As part of his studies over the next two years, Cryan will design his charter school, with plans of opening the doors by fall 2012. His graduate school tuition will be reimbursed if he succeeds in creating a successful school.

The University of Denver program is in many ways an expansion of its Ritchie Program for School Leaders, a certificate program for school administrators that relies heavily on using internships to weave practical experience with a series of inquiry projects, says Susan Korach, professor for the education college’s preK-20 education programs. Many Ritchie students also earned M.B.A.s. at the university and have gone on to be exemplary principals in the Denver schools. In fact, three of the four principals at Denver schools honored last year for dramatic gains in student achievements are graduates of the program, as are three principals at the four schools granted “innovative schools” status by the district, which gives them more autonomy, says Kent Seidel, chair of the preK-20 education programs. Like the Ritchie program, the new M.B.A. program emphasizes innovation and reform with a focus on transformation at the school level. Some courses include team teaching by professors from the education and business schools and involve role playing and practical simulations. Everything is based on improving student learning, says Seidel.

“The school leader needs to have a rich, ongoing understanding of the needs of the kids and the families and community supports those kids have so that the school is always making decisions about supporting student growth,” says Seidel, an arts educator for much of his career.

Traditional programs have put leadership training into “disconnected boxes,” he adds, separating areas such as standards, finance, community dynamics and the school vision. The University of Denver program integrates all of those factors so future leaders can see their complex interrelation. “We’re trying to prepare principals to be evidenced-based, reflective practitioners who can take good information from a variety of sources and make critical decisions,” Seidel says.

Business Flair
Sherelle Hessell-Gordon, 34, the other student in the debut M.B.A. program, plans to design and operate a community-oriented Denver high school something like the rural schools that served as community centers for activists, including her parents, in rural Alabama during the civil rights movement.

“There were opportunities for community members to come in to teach,” says Gordon, a social activist who already has a master’s degree in family and child studies. “And the schoolhouse was not only for learning but also for organizing and gathering and for the community as well. … I’m looking to bring a new-age version of that back.”

The University of Denver program will add eight students to this year’s cohort in the fall and plans to build the program to 15 to 25 students per cohort, according to David Cox, director of graduate programs. Some graduates are likely to launch new charter schools; others will work to turn around struggling schools.

The directors of interdisciplinary doctoral programs in educational administration say they expect to see more universities tap their business and management schools for help in training the next generation of school leaders. The business school imbues education leadership training with an entrepreneurial flavor, Cox says.

“As you look at ‘Where can we find some change? Where can we see the greatest innovation?’ it is with business,” he says. “In the business setting, you innovate or you die.”

Increasingly, the same is true for public schools.

Bill Graves is an education writer with The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. E-mail: billgraves1@verizon.net