Tackling Problems of Practice in the Ed.D.

by Michael Copland

Criticism of university preparation programs for educational leaders as dubiously connected to real problems in the field is not without foundation. However, broad generalizations mask important new developments in programs around the country to reinvent formal preparation to make it more relevant to the work of leadership at the school and district levels.

At the University of Washington’s College of Education, faculty have taken seriously the complaints about doctoral-level programs to develop a responsive program. The Leadership for Learning Ed.D. program now is working with its third student cohort.

Superintendents and central-office leaders in the region told us our program needed to engage participants more directly in real problems of leadership practice to be relevant for educational leaders in schools and school systems. We knew it was true. While the previous iteration of the UW doctoral program had some laudable attributes, too many students ended up “ABD” — all but dissertation — and out of contact with us and fellow students.

More importantly, the dissertations produced in the old program were too often out of range of real problems facing system leaders.

A New Beginning
In 2001-02, several core UW faculty, joined by a visiting superintendent in residence, developed a new approach. The planners first established a set of core leadership principles on which to ground the redesigned program:

Equity and Excellence — Educational leaders must ensure that a quality education be received by every student in our schools.
Leadership — Educational leaders exert significant and responsible influence, which requires the articulation, justification and protection of equity and excellence for all.
Organizational Change — Educational leaders must nurture and sustain the process of dialogue, decision making, action and evaluation that lead to the improvement of schools as places for teaching and learning.
Collaboration — Educational leaders must create and support opportunities for the authentic involvement of all members of the education community in organizational change and school improvement.
Inquiry and Reflective Practice — Educational leaders must be committed to the importance and use of knowledge and have the ability to inquire and reflect critically on educational practice.
Teaching and Learning — Educational leaders work effectively with adults to analyze instruction and facilitate improvement through professional development that leads to improved student achievement.

These principles provided the foundation for program redesign decisions that followed.

The new program admits students in a cohort community that stays together for the duration of the three-year experience. Meetings are accessible for working adults and teaching occurs primarily in summer and on weekends throughout the academic year (one weekend per month). It’s also intensive.

The program rests on articulated values with clear commitments to inquiry, social justice and equity in schools and school systems. Curriculum is rigorous and interdisciplinary, collaboratively planned and co-taught by the faculty to connect across content strands and designed to build relevant skills for leading education organizations. Course experiences frequently put students into local school district contexts to work with other leaders on common problems. All participants design and participate in their own relevant field-based internship that targets individual career aspirations and learning needs.

Perhaps the most novel dimension, the Capstone Project immerses students in deep study and work on a relevant problem of educational leadership practice. In completing the Capstone Project, participants learn to assess organizational needs, gather and analyze data, and develop and implement an action plan to address a problem of practice in a context they care about. Many Capstone Projects employ an action research methodology in which the student, as scholar-practitioner, is doing the work in a school or school district while learning from the experience.

Relevant Research
As an educational leader focused principally on student learning, Monte Bridges, the first graduate of the first cohort, recognized that standards-based accountability systems call for educators to pay more attention to the link between personnel performance and improvements in teaching and learning. As superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational Service District, Bridges contended that assessing educational renewal and student success were the critical components of a superintendent’s performance evaluation.

In his Capstone Project, Bridges studied the design and implementation of leadership performance evaluation systems from school districts and educational services agencies nationwide. He used the findings of his project to create and pilot a model for superintendent evaluation that was ultimately adopted by his school district’s board, and it has since become a model for several surrounding districts and service agencies.

In developing his Capstone Project, Bridges addressed the fact that the performance evaluation of a superintendent often is limited to a school board’s discussion and completion of rating forms, checklists, written statements of the superintendent’s performance on a variety of traits or to management by objectives systems that educators inherited from the business literature. In addition, Bridges discovered evaluation processes lacked attention to the superintendent’s ability to create conditions for educational renewal and student success.

Bridges’ Capstone Project involved action research. He first took a rigorous look into the existing practices of superintendent performance evaluation. Based on what he learned through that inquiry, he developed a theory of action for how to make the evaluation process more focused on learning and organizational improvement.

With his own school board, he developed a model for evaluation based on those ideas and then tested it with several superintendent colleagues and board members in surrounding districts and service agencies. He used what he learned in the pilot to refine the approach for future use in his own district and in school district contexts with similar governance structures.

Skills Transfer
The Leadership for Learning Ed.D. program graduated members of its first two cohorts in June 2005 and June 2007. Faculty expect many of the degree recipients will progress into district-level leadership roles, including the superintendency. Other graduates will work in the areas of state policy development, leadership of educational service districts and non-profit organizations related to education.

Through the action-research orientation in the Capstone Project, these educational leaders are carefully examining and acting on real problems in context, on issues that are important, timely and substantively focused on the improvement of teaching and learning. Ultimately, we believe the thinking and actions needed to successfully complete the Capstone Project will develop leadership skills and orientations to the work that will transfer to the graduates’ leadership practices. These new practices will help them to work more deeply, critically and intentionally on the key problems facing them.

Michael Copland is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Washington, M219 Miller, Box 35356000, Seattle, WA 98125. E-mail: