Deleting the Doctorate (and Other Vestiges of Outmoded Preparation)

What ever happened to a call for significant changes in how universities educate school leaders through graduate study? by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean

Every year a multitude of organizations and commissions issue a cornucopia of reports about myriad education concerns. Most receive scant notice; a few enjoy their moment in the sun, a day of news media attention. As a rule, these reports have little impact on American education.

The standard of success by which all education reports seem to be measured is Abraham Flexner’s “Medical Education in the United States and Canada. Bulletin Number Four.” Published in 1910 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the report transformed the ways in which the nation’s medical schools educate doctors. No other report in modern times has had this level of impact on a profession with the possible exception of “A Nation at Risk,” which launched a two-decades-long school reform movement in the United States.

Why was the Flexner report such a phenomenal success?

First, the characteristics of the report and its dissemination and implementation plan were letter perfect. For example:

• The times were right for a report on medical education. There was a high level of public dissatisfaction with the quality of the nation’s doctors and the ways they were prepared.

• The sponsor of the study, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, was an institution with the prestige and standing to make the work visible, important and credible. The researcher was diligent, a self-promoter, a credentialed educator and disinterested in medical education.

• The research was straightforward, comprehensive in focus (Flexner visited every medical school in the United States and Canada) and definitive in its recommendations based on specific exemplars of best practice.

• The report was disseminated on a broad scale and advocated by powerful stakeholders, including the states and the American Medical Association.

Second, the Flexner report offered a fix. The problems of medical education were well known and the remedies were equally clear. What was missing was neutral documentation, which is what the report provided. With that documentation and a pledge of significant funding from the Rockefeller philanthropies in hand, the American Medical Association and the states could take action to improve medical education. These actions included the closure of failing programs, more rigorous licensure and certification requirements for medical schools and doctors and funding for strengthening medical schools.

The constellation of factors that made the Flexner report’s success inevitable is unlikely to greet the multitude of policy reports released each year. So what does it take to get policy recommendations adopted in the field of educational leadership? What are the barriers to change? How can they be overcome?

Few Models
“Educating School Leaders,” written by one of us (Levine) and published in March 2005 by the Education School Project, was the first in a series of reports on the state of America’s education schools. Funded by the Annenberg, Ford, Ewing Marion Kauffman and Wallace foundations, the study involved large-scale surveys of education school faculty and deans as well as alumni and principals. The author included case studies of education schools, studies of the characteristics of education schools and their programs, their curricula, the degrees they award and the content of their student dissertations.

In the end, the report concluded that there are few strong educational leadership programs for superintendents or principals in the country. The mission of the field is confused; the curriculum and degrees awarded have little relevance to practice; clinical experience is weak; the faculty is overly dependent on adjuncts and insufficiently involved with schools; admission and graduation standards are low; and research is of poor quality.

The research found little differentiation between programs to prepare superintendents and principals. Too often the approach is that one size fits all. This is exacerbated by the paucity of faculty in leadership programs who have served as superintendents or have had experience in a superintendent’s office.

“Educating School Leaders” also suggested that universities are using educational administration programs as cash cows. At least half the students in leadership programs were teachers who enrolled solely for the salary increases tied to earning degrees and credits and had no desire to be school administrators. This influx of uninterested students forced leadership programs to reduce their length, rigor and quality.

The report cited England’s National College for School Leadership as a model of excellent practice and offered six proposals for improving America’s school leadership programs:

• States and school districts should grant teachers raises only for studies that expand, deepen or update job-related skills and knowledge as a vehicle for raising standards and reducing enrollments in leadership programs;
• Universities should close failing programs and strengthen mediocre programs;
• If universities do not improve their programs, states should step in;
• School leadership programs should replace their current master’s curriculum with a terminal degree, which would be the educational equivalent of an M.B.A.;
• School leadership programs should eliminate the practitioner Ed.D., cited as an unnecessary and irrelevant hurdle for school administrators; and
• School leadership programs should reserve the Ph.D. for preparing scholars of educational administration.

In terms of the characteristics that made the Flexner report successful in spurring reform, the timing for “Educating School Leaders” was right as public concern with school leadership and the preparation of school leaders was high. The report was issued by the then-president of a highly regarded organization (Teachers College) and was widely disseminated. The report was based on a substantial research base, identified a model of excellent practice and offered a small number of explicit recommendations based on the data. So how much change did it produce?

Initial Responses
To date, there have been three waves of response to “Educating School Leaders,” ranging from acknowledgment to action.

The first wave probably is best described as “voting yea or nay.” In the weeks immediately following the release of the report, it received substantial media coverage in the popular and trade press. The initial articles, editorials and op-eds focused on the content of the report and included comments by supporters and critics.

The various constituencies cited in the report released a flurry of press releases and statements. In general, the closer a constituency group was to school administration programs, the more negative their response. For instance, the University Council for Educational Administration, the organization representing school leadership programs and their faculties, issued what can best be termed a denunciation, taking issue with the report’s methodology, declaring the findings old news and rejecting many of the recommendations.

Moving beyond education schools, the statements were more positive. For example, the elementary school and secondary school principals, superintendents and accrediting associations, while defending the quality of their members, were generally supportive of the report, though they were explicit in saying that existing mechanisms of quality control had been overlooked and eliminating the practitioner’s doctorate was inappropriate.

With regard to the reaction of superintendents in particular, the American Association of School Administrators concurred with the report’s conclusion that too many leadership programs were disconnected from practice, producing a gap between what is taught and what practitioners need to know. As well, too few faculty members have experience as superintendents. At the same time, AASA faulted the report for painting the field with too broad a brush, failing to differentiate among leadership programs. It stated that most school districts were headed by highly qualified, experienced and dedicated professionals.

The responses among individual superintendents were divided, with some saying their doctoral program was wonderful and others proclaiming it awful. E-mails overwhelmingly favored the latter; comments made after Levine’s speeches about the report were more balanced, supporting the former.

The most favorable comments came from those constituencies most distant from education schools. For instance, state and local government and quasi-governmental bodies such as the associations of governors, legislators and state education officers were among the most positive responders.

In no case was the response from any constituency uniform. One of the leading school leadership professors saw his field as so weak that he criticized the report for not going far enough. He urged states to establish sunset rules, requiring programs to raise standards or close. In contrast, there were state legislators and school board members with education administration doctorates who were very critical of the call to eliminate the Ed.D.

Subsequent Reactions
The second wave of reactions to the report might be characterized as “let’s discuss the report.” Levine was invited to present his findings and answer questions at the annual conferences and meetings held by key stakeholders such as the associations of chief state school officers, education funders, school boards, state higher education executive officers, state legislators and state school boards. The meetings were cordial and included serious debate.

The proposal to eliminate the Ed.D. was the most controversial element of “Educating School Leaders” and sparked much discussion. AASA rejected the call for a new master’s degree to replace the practitioner doctorate. The response by individual superintendents also was negative. Because many superintendents have doctorates in educational leadership, they often took the recommendation as criticism of their work and demeaning of their degrees. The recommendation also was thought unrealistic in that the doctorate was considered a union card for superintendents.

There were productive discussions of the value of an education equivalent of an MBA. In general, superintendents thought it a better idea to transform the Ed.D. into an education MBA than to eliminate the doctorate or substitute a new degree. The angriest were the students currently enrolled in doctoral programs who had put a lot of time and money into earning their degrees and did not want to be told they were wasting either.

Several of the meetings ended with the participants from key stakeholder groups saying they planned to take some action in the area of school leadership, varying from attempting to change teacher rewards to creating a model statewide leadership program in their states.

The third wave of reactions centered on using the report findings and recommendations to change or affirm existing school leadership programs. Several education schools and universities as well as cities and states used the criteria, findings and recommendations proposed in the report as measures of excellence to evaluate their own leadership programs. In several locales there were attempts to create new leadership programs. The results at this time are uncertain to the extent that much of the activity is still in process and could result in affirmation or reform of existing programs.

Reform Requirements
Here’s where things stand: Two years after the release of “Educating School Leaders,” the report has received a fair amount of attention. It has been widely discussed in the school leadership community. There are possibilities for school leadership changes in many venues, which may or may not bear fruit or even be a consequence of the report. The report may simply have been used to support existing reform efforts.

What would it take for this report or other reports to achieve substantial and broad-scale changes in the nation’s school leadership programs?

Given the Flexner formula for success, at least two ingredients are missing from “Educating School Leaders.” The first is ownership and willingness to act by key stakeholders. The second is the resources to support change.

After giving a speech at the National Association of State Boards of Education, Levine was stopped by a state board member who said, “Thank you for coming, but we are not going to act on your recommendation because we can’t do it alone.” He proposed bringing together the key state stakeholders with capacity to act on the recommendations because none would act independently. He recommended a tripartite team in his state: the university president, state board of education chair and chief state school officer.

We are convinced he is correct, although the appropriate team members are likely to differ from state to state. One thing is clear, however: Schools of education alone cannot reform school leader preparation. Nor should they be expected to shoulder single-handedly the enormity of the challenge.

Put simply, comprehensive change will not occur without teams of key stakeholders working together to plan and implement it. It also will require funding to support change, which ideally and primarily should come from the states, though foundations could certainly provide supplemental support or jumpstart funding. The Wallace Foundation already is moving in this direction. It is directing millions of dollars to create state and school district teams in 24 states to bring about improvements in school leadership preparation and performance.

We believe that widespread, substantial improvements in school leadership education are possible and essential on the scale of the Flexner report. But it will require a clear agenda for reform, a Wallace-like process rooted in the responsibilities and authority of the participants and the funding to implement change. The lesson from “Educating School Leaders” is that a report can provide the agenda, fuel discussions and result in disparate improvements. But a single report cannot transform our leadership programs.

Arthur Levine, the author of “Educating School Leaders” and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, P.O. Box 5281, Princeton, NJ 08543. E-mail: levine@woodrow.org. Diane Dean, who assessed the impact of “Educating School Leaders,” is assistant professor of educational leadership at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill.