Harvard Launches a Practice-Based Doctorate


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.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Education’s education leadership doctorate — the school’s first new degree in 74 years — seeks to teach through doing, to give future superintendents the wherewithal to close achievement gaps in an ever-changing global economy.

The program’s incoming class is as diverse as the program’s influences. Of the program’s nine men and 16 women, 14 people of color, and 14 states are represented. Four of five have a prior graduate degree, and the students in the first cohort have worked an average of 11 years. Two currently work as teachers, with others coming equally from public school systems, nonprofits and government.

Harvard’s interdisciplinary approach is built from scratch. In the first year, the program’s students take a common core curriculum, which examines pedagogy, entrepreneurial leadership and transformational practices in education through discussions, case studies, online instruction and fieldwork. During the program’s second year, faculty from the Graduate School of Education, Harvard Business School and Kennedy School of Government will collaborate to offer a series of electives on teachers’ unions, scaling up classroom innovations, human capital, entrepreneurship and strategic management. In their final year, students will participate in a one-year residency with an education organization pursuing transformational change.

Each curricular element plays a role in the program’s vision of a new system-level leader, someone who Harry Spence, co-director of the program, argues must have “deep respect for the craft of teaching combined with powerful political and organizational skills.” Harvard’s partners include some of the biggest names in K-12 education — Teach For America, the KIPP charter school network and Achievement First, as well as think tanks including Education Trust and the National Center on Education and the Economy. These organizations, as well as the school districts in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver are likely to host the students in residency.

By building a program all its own, Harvard is attempting to define the behaviors of a good school system leader and to use the power of its brand to influence other institutions. “Once Harvard does something,” Elizabeth City, the new doctoral program’s executive director, “it makes it easier for other higher education organizations to think differently.”

Traditional doctoral programs in educational administration, she says, tend to emphasize one or two elements of leadership at the expense of others. A new kind of education leader, City argues, is recognized by how they work — they effectively manage teams, apply political management skills and can implement policies from a strong pedagogical knowledge base. Harvard hopes its cross-disciplinary approach will influence similar programs at universities nationwide.

Case Studies
The Harvard program will emphasize practice-based techniques in the classroom, over theory, as the optimal way for any professional school to instill the values of effective and self-critical leadership.

Monica Higgins, a former business school professor specializing in organizational behavior theory, has played a key part in the development of the program’s practice-based pedagogy. Higgins, who will teach a course on leadership, entrepreneurship and learning, uses the case method, a custom of most business schools. Each case begins with a real-life leadership dilemma and asks students to learn models of leadership instinctively by solving the problems.

Her cases come from a variety of nonprofit sectors, including public health, business and space exploration, in addition to education. Through the cases, Higgins looks to teach students not only entrepreneurship, the building of an effective organization from scratch, but also “interpreneurship.” The latter, she explains, means replacing broken, out-of-date processes with best practices and adjusting the organization to use those practices on a consistent basis. This form of inductive learning, Higgins says, respects and applies the talents of students. “You don’t want to throw [their experiences] out the door,” she adds.

Confronting Race
Doctoral students will address issues of race, gender and identity on an academic level as part of a unit taught by business school professors Karen Mapp and Robin Ely and address them on a practical level as part of a workplace lab during the first year. The latter, co-taught by Spence, who is white, and senior lecturer Deborah Jewell-Sherman, an African American and former superintendent in Richmond, Va., helps students become more comfortable dealing with racial issues by starting frank conversations in the classroom at Harvard.

Students will address their own belief systems through readings and in-class discussions. “We know what we think we believe,” Jewell-Sherman says, “not necessarily what undergirds our actions.”

Groups of students will explore real cases to understand various perspectives, positive and negative, about the achievement gap. The goal, Spence says, is not to preach an ideology students should parrot, but instead to prepare them to analyze situations through the lens of race and identity and address stakeholder concerns. Through their own diversity, Spence and Jewell-Sherman hope to model the behaviors they teach.

Harvard’s program also looks to provide students the political tools to spark significant organizational change. A former community organizer turned public policy lecturer at the Kennedy School, Marshall Ganz has played a key role in developing the program’s vision of leadership. He says leadership is “rooted in motivating others to act together for a common purpose.” Good leaders act in uncertain times and situations to enable those around them to work well.

“Too many professional schools confuse consulting with leadership,” adds Ganz, whose courses will emphasize team-based projects, designed to sharpen strategic skills. In particular, Ganz hopes students will leave the program prepared to argue passionately for the importance of accountability for teachers and administrators.

A Wider Pipeline
With its partner organizations, Harvard hopes to motivate the transformation of two kinds of institutions — school districts and other K-12 organizations, and the universities responsible for educating those who will lead schools in the coming decades. The goal, Academic Dean Robert Schwartz said, is to “provide a pipeline of people who are trained differently.”

He and other organizers make no qualms about the aggressive agenda for building “leadership capacity to profoundly transform the education sector.” Those attaining Harvard’s Ed.L.D. are expected to occupy key berths in school districts, think tanks, nonprofits, mission-based for-profit groups, charter schools and government, planting a reform mindset across all kinds of institutions.

Chase Nordengren is a freelance writer at Big Ideas in Education . E-mail: