The Pursuit of an Online Doctorate

Three Experiences

Editor’s Note: With the growing availability of online courses and degree programs in educational leadership, The School Administrator sought out superintendents to share their firsthand experiences pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership in fully online or hybrid programs.

In the accounts that follow, three superintendents discuss what motivated them to pursue their terminal degree through one of these programs. The contributors are Kevin Miller, superintendent in Croswell, Mich. (Capella University); Louise Bennicoff-Nan, superintendent in Ripon, Calif. (Willard Howard Taft University); and Gary Maestas, superintendent in Plymouth, Mass. (Regent University).

To identify these individuals, we asked each of the major university programs offering online doctoral degrees (see page 12 for full directory) for the names of current superintendents holding doctorates earned at least partly through virtual courses. This generated a few leads to superintendents; national data on school leaders with online degrees do not exist.

Carving a Career Path at Capella

Without disparaging the traditional master’s degree in education I earned from Wayne State University in Detroit, the courses I took online while earning my Ph.D. from Capella University were the most rigorous, relevant and rewarding of my career. 

At the outset, I was intrigued by the chance to tailor the leadership in educational administration degree to my future goals. While I hadn’t really considered the superintendency in my future career plans, it was during my first Capella course, Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, that I realized what a difference a superintendent could make simply by using a more effective evaluation process.

Kevin MillerKevin Miller completed a Ph.D. through Capella University just before his appointment as superintendent in Croswell, Mich.

To begin the course, each student in my online class posted a copy of his or her school district’s evaluation template for analysis by the rest of the class. To conclude the course, each of us developed a new template to present to our district superintendent. Just three months later, I found myself as a member of my district’s administrative team that was negotiating with the teachers’ union to collaboratively develop a new evaluation tool. Talk about an immediate impact!

Applied Learning
Through the next two years, this learning experience was replicated several times. While studying each state’s educational funding mechanism for my Funding of Educational Institutions course, I analyzed a controversial change in Michigan’s tax structure. Approved by taxpayers in 1994, Michigan’s Proposal A altered our state’s educational finance system, relying more on state sales tax.

What I learned while studying the 150-year history of school funding is that most states predominantly use property taxes to support education due to the stability offered even in the worst economic times. The onset of Michigan’s recession in 2001 that continues to this day has provided us with firsthand knowledge of our educational funding mistake.

While writing a 25-page case study at the conclusion of my Education and the Law course, I researched landmark cases regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Freedom of Information Act and students’ rights. I have relied on what I learned in the course on numerous occasions since becoming a superintendent in 2007.

Arguably the most valuable learning experiences occurred during online discussions with professors and students. Education-related topics, sometimes controversial, were posted on our classroom discussion board and monitored by professors. We were graded on the appropriateness and professionalism of our responses. We were expected to research the topic, using both the required course text and online resources, prior to posting to a discussion thread. While it was acceptable to post an opinion on the topic, it was mandatory that the opinion be supported by research.

In addition to the online coursework, each student attended a three-week doctoral colloquium. At these sessions, I was mentored by my online teachers and attended courses on the expectations for the doctoral dissertation.

Dissertation Clarity
Throughout my online classroom learning experiences, I was serving as a principal in the East China School District in St. Clair, Mich. Further enhancing my learning were two internships with my superintendent, Rodney Green, who became my mentor. While studying with him, my future as a potential superintendent took focus. In fact, following the internship, it was Rodney who recommended me to a search firm that was conducting a superintendent search in a district 30 miles north.

While studying with the superintendent, my dissertation topic came into focus. Integrating the research I had done during my course work, I wrote my dissertation about a case study related to Michigan’s recession and our school district’s response to reduced state funding. My study examined other states’ educational funding and the relationship between the passage of Proposal A in 1994 and Michigan’s educational funding crisis during the 13 ensuing years.

I also researched examples of how administrators lead during times of duress and focused on the leadership example set by our superintendent and the specifics of his financial planning over a four-year period.

Concurrent to completing my dissertation in January 2007 was my application to the Croswell-Lexington School District for the superintendent position. Throughout the first- and second-round interview process, I was asked about my experience in educational leadership and specifically about the course work related to my Ph.D.

One experience particularly intrigued the school board and members of the audience. They had become disheartened by numerous periods of traditional collective bargaining and were interested in what I knew of alternative strategies. I had been trained in interest-based (collaborative) bargaining while negotiating as part of the management team in the East China School District, and I had participated in traditional bargaining during my years as a member of the teachers’ union. I also referenced lessons about collective bargaining from my online courses on Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Educational Process and Education and the Law. I was able to give specific causes of breakdowns in negotiations and the importance of communication and trust prior to and during negotiations.

In one course, I had read case studies about the legality of specific negotiation strategies, mediation and arbitration. The value of that research continues. As a superintendent, I subscribe to a monthly school law newsletter, and I pass it along to each of our district administrative team members.

My online learning experience not only opened my eyes to educational leadership opportunities, but it prepared me well for the interview process and for what I’ve encountered on the job as superintendent.

Kevin Miller is superintendent of the Croswell-Lexington Community Schools in Croswell, Mich. E-mail: kmiller@croslex.org

Surviving Parenting a Teen Through Taft

I chose distance education for my doctoral program because at the time I was a single parent of a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old. Some of my friends in school administration were enrolled in a program meeting Friday nights and Saturdays every other weekend at a university in San Francisco, and they encouraged me to join them, but I could not see myself allowing two teenagers to be home alone and left to their own devices overnight. 

I made the right choice, because during my participation in an alternative graduate program, they grew into successful young adults. I set the expectation for college-level work in my home, which they successfully followed. Now 26 and 28, both are well-educated professionals, and I am grateful that distance learning gave me the opportunity to meet my academic goals while continuing to be a good parent.

Louise Bennicoff-NanTaft University's distance learning options enabled Superintendent Louise Bennicoff-Nan (right, with a former student member of her school board) to finish Ed.D. Photo by Glen Kahl/The Manteca Bulletin

At the time, in 1997, the Boyer Graduate School of Education at Willard Howard Taft University in Santa Ana, Calif., was just getting started with its new Ed.D. program and offering scholarships to attract interest. Taft University already had an established history of success in distance programs in business administration, certified public accounting and law. With the scholarship aid, the doctoral program in educational leadership cost only about $5,000 — another big plus for a single parent.

Always Accessible
When I started, the software for online course work that is common today had not yet been developed, so I received my assignments and materials for each course in the mail and returned my completed work through the mail.

My professors always were accessible via e-mail. They were so responsive, answering questions with clarifications and encouraging me as I continued through the course work and prepared for my comprehensive examinations before advancing to candidacy. The professors, many of them central-office administrators and regular faculty of more traditional schools of education, challenged my thinking and promoted my growth as a school leader. I particularly remember Roger Duthoy, then assistant superintendent for educational services for the Orange County Office of Education, for his encouragement, and Lou Joseph, a retired superintendent, for continually pushing me outside of my comfort zone into higher levels of problem solving. I ended up choosing both to sit on my dissertation committee.

I found all the faculty members I encountered to be of high quality. Many had published significant works in the practical areas of school district administration.

Rich Experience
While I missed the interaction of classmates during my graduate courses, the advantage of having so much reading, independent research and writing in each course was apparent when it was time to do my dissertation, which I opted to do on computer-adaptive testing. I was well-prepared. In a computer-adaptive testing situation, the software responds to the student, adjusting the difficulty level of the test. When the student answers a question correctly, the computer makes the next question more difficult. When the student misses a question, the computer makes the next question easier. Consequently, the time needed to identify the student’s level of achievement is significantly less than in a standard paper-and-pencil test.

My dissertation served as an independent evaluation of the STAR Reading assessment from Renaissance Learning. In my study, I found significant correlation between the norm-referenced SAT 9 achievement test and the criterion-referenced California Standards Test. Using the STAR Reading assessment, teachers could predict performance on the California high-stakes test and adjust instruction well before the state test, better preparing their students.

I found my preparation to stand in stark contrast to the experiences of numerous colleagues, who went through traditional doctoral programs and then were unprepared or unmotivated to do a dissertation and thus never completed their degrees. Through the program at Taft, I had the opportunity for rigorous course work involving significant reading and writing, along with excellent teachers and advisers.

I also had support from a retired superintendent in the district where I was working at the time, and I joined an online support group called The Dead Thesis Society that regularly sent e-mails motivating its members to keep going on their dissertations. My support system would not let me be an ABD (all but dissertation)!

I had a chance to participate in a full doctoral experience, including the comprehensive exam, a traditional dissertation and the defense in front of a committee. While my program was academically strong, my instructors’ practical experience left me well-suited to be successful in the superintendency, which I attained in just over a year after completing my degree.

Louise Bennicoff-Nan is superintendent of the Ripon Unified School District in Ripon, Calif. E-mail: lnan@sjcoe.net

A Cohort’s Appeal at Regent

The thought of getting an advanced degree while working full time as an assistant superintendent, or in any other demanding job for that matter, can be daunting. Many doctoral programs are out there — all claiming their program will meet your needs and get you to graduation in record time.

Gary MaestasGary Maestas, superintendent in Plymouth, Mass., finished his doctorate at Regent University in 5 1/2 years.

As I started my pursuit of finding a doctoral program, I noticed an emergence of online programs that were being marketed around the country. The notion of online education seemed a viable option for me, especially with long days and the limited ability I had to arrange my calendar with anything other than work-related events. I had heard of degree mills operating out of strip malls or leased offices in some unrecognizable location, so I wanted to ensure the university I was going to invest my time and hard-earned money in would be reputably accredited and provide a rigorous program leading to a doctorate. I wanted a leadership program that would challenge me, one that included professors experienced in preK-12 education and well-versed in providing the curriculum through this emerging model of content delivery.

In my own school district in Plymouth, Mass., we had implemented an online education model several years before. I was certain that I would choose a doctoral program that had similar components to those integrated in our own program of studies, perhaps witnessing firsthand how a university used this emerging technology to educate doctoral-level students in the age of the Internet.

Like-Minded Students
After scouring the Internet, consulting regional accreditation databases and scanning college and university reference books, I focused on Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. I discovered the program had a strong reputation and was viewed as a leader in graduate-level virtual education.

After contacting Alan Arroyo, dean of the education department at Regent, I realized the university and its model of online education could fit my needs. Although this institution is nowhere near Plymouth, it didn’t make a difference because of Regent’s cohort model and the nature of virtual education. I asked the dean whether the university would be interested in establishing a Massachusetts cohort consisting of like-minded, motivated educators. Within a month, he came to Boston to present an overview of the program to colleagues throughout southeastern Massachusetts.

The components of Regent University’s cohort model are essential to a successful online degree experience. Over time, the cohort members — there were 20 of us — became like family, sharing personal struggles, studying for comprehensive exams together and bonding at the mandatory summer residency on the Regent campus.

Regent’s program in educational leadership has well-developed and standards-driven online components, but each student also must attend three summer residencies on campus. I was unsure what to make of the residencies, but once on the campus I realized quickly that the university is committed to providing a quality education experience regardless of the delivery means.

As an educator, I seem to be drawn to the brick and mortar of college campuses and libraries, so the notion of pursuing a doctoral degree in a virtual education program was hard to fathom at first. Soon after my admission, I was directed to establish a Blackboard account where I could peruse the courses that awaited my first semester.

I was amazed at the level of detail each professor contained in his or her course. From the standards-based syllabi to the online discussion forums, I became excited about interacting through this medium. During a visit to campus, I attended an accreditation presentation by Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. She highlighted the accreditation process that schools accredited by SACS had to go through. At that point, I saw the correlation between course design and the standards required by regional accrediting bodies.

Self-Discipline Imposed
Pursuing my doctoral degree through this program enabled me to work at a distance and within my schedule as a superintendent. Still, initially I found it challenging to reserve time to work on course assignments or study for the next exam. While the online instruction offered convenience, I soon realized I would need to create and follow a personal schedule to be a self-directed online learner when I could not depend on my cohort to motivate me.

I liken my online learning experience to a common catchphrase, “the loneliness of the long distance runner.” One’s dedication and determination are essential if one is going to succeed in an online degree program.

From the classes through the dissertation, I worked with the same six professors, all of whom took a genuine interest in my success as a student and, more importantly, as an education leader. As a result, the education I received at Regent helped prepare me for the challenges of running a public school system. The program took me five and a half years, about half of which was devoted to completing a doctoral dissertation about the Reading First initiative and its impact on referrals of students for special education services.

Although the classes were engaging and provided relevant assignments, the most rewarding experience was the dissertation process. The latter served as an opportunity to apply the research and statistical skills I gained in the program.

I don’t believe virtual education is right for every type of learner. For me, the online instruction worked because of my need for flexibility. At the same time, a high level of latitude also can be a detriment because students must be disciplined to establish and follow a strict schedule for themselves to earn their doctorate.

Gary Maestas is superintendent of Plymouth Public Schools in Plymouth, Mass. E-mail: gmaestas@plymouth.k12.ma.us