The Doctoral Debate

Rapid growth in educational leadership programs raises serious questions about selectivity and quality by Margaret Terry Orr

“Successful experience as a teacher is expected and experience as a principal and superintendent and an earned doctorate from an accredited institution are preferred, but not required.” (Advertisement from Gilroy Unified School District, a K-12 district of 9,200 students in California)

A cursory review of current superintendent openings nationwide typically reveals a long list of complex leadership qualifications and expectations of what candidates will be capable of accomplishing. Such vacancy notices stress that candidates should possess extensive preparation and proven experience.

Only some job announcements explicitly call for an earned doctorate, yet the percentage of superintendents holding doctoral degrees has increased steadily in recent years, pointing to its critical role as a distinguishing qualification and a perceived need among aspiring superintendents to be better prepared for school district challenges.

According to research by University of Kentucky Professor Lars Bjork for AASA’s 2000 “Study of the American School Superintendency,” entry into the superintendency usually requires an advanced academic degree (but not necessarily a doctorate) along with state certification. In 2000, nearly 45 percent of all superintendents had attained a doctorate, up from 36 percent in 1992. In AASA’s latest nationwide survey in 2006, some 50.7 percent of superintendents reported holding a doctoral degree.

The value of the doctorate in educational administration has been debated in recent years over its appropriateness as a qualification for the superintend-ency. Underlying these debates are two overlapping trends. One is increasing program availability and shifts in institutional type, and the second is changes in program content and dissertation research to become more relevant to the preparation of effective leadership. Both trends are reshaping the debate over the role of the doctorate for school district leaders preparing for current and future challenges in education.

Program Growth
In recent years, the number of educational leadership doctoral programs and Ed.D. degrees conferred nationwide has grown significantly. According to 2007 research by Bruce Baker, Margaret Terry Orr and Michelle Young, the number of programs increased by 48 percent between 1993 and 2003 with almost 200 programs now available nationwide. Much of this growth has been through the addition of educational leadership doctoral programs at comprehensive institutions, which are regionally focused colleges and universities.

The number of educational leadership doctoral degrees conferred also increased dramatically over this 10-year period, rising by 31 percent to almost 2,300 degrees in 2003. Yet significant trend differences exist among institution types. Institutions that were traditional providers of educational leadership doctorates and that have the most graduate-level resources — Research I and II and Doctoral I institutions — actually reduced their degree production or showed modest growth over the 10 years. In contrast, institutions newer to the field with far more limited graduate education resources showed more than five-fold growth, moving from insignificant to prominent graduate program providers.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of these trends for educating future and current superintendents? First, more programs are regionally available, enabling greater access for aspiring and current superintendents who often pursue their doctorates while working. With greater access has come greater utilization as reflected in the growth in degrees earned.

Second, a new educational leadership doctoral program may be the first doctoral program for many institutions. On the positive side, these programs may be fresh, new approaches and have cutting-edge content because their faculty can start from scratch and want to be distinguishable from their competitors. Such programs may be more likely to tailor their program to regional, rather than national, educational leadership and school improvement priorities.

On the negative side, these programs lack the institutional resources, breadth and history of other universities to support a doctoral program. New programs are more likely to start up with fewer full-time dedicated faculty members and be more reliant upon adjunct faculty. They may be less able to develop more advanced-level coursework, offer more diverse specialized course options, support research and research skill development or have other educational developments in their institutions that would enrich their content. They also may be less willing to be innovative when seeking program approval inside their institutions and in their states, and thus design them to mirror more conventional approaches.

A final concern centers on program selectivity and the rigor of their admissions standards. These programs play an important role in the determining who is qualified to advance in the leadership pipeline based on who they admit. The more boards of education include having an educational leadership doctorate as a formal or informal part of superintendent selection decisions, the more important are program selection decisions (at admissions) and evaluations for conferring doctoral degrees. Yet it is likely that institutions differ in their selectivity. As research and doctoral institutions reduce their doctoral program accessibility, applicant competitiveness is likely to increase at these institutions.

Conversely, as comprehensive institutions expand both doctoral program availability and number of admissions, access becomes less competitive. But does greater access diminish the value and quality of the degree? Such questions are answered by looking at program content and the dissertation requirements.

Growth in Doctoral Programs and Degrees in Educational Leadership: 1993 to 2003
Carnegie ClassificationNumber of Doctoral Programs% ChangeNumber of Doctoral Degrees% Change
19932003 19932003 
Research I465111%707478*-32%
Research II202420%222345%
Doctoral I3332-3%45357527%
Doctoral II222827%26644969%
Comprehensive I1058480%88541515%
Liberal Arts I and II 2  5 
* This count of doctorates is likely an underestimate due to reporting inaccuracies.
Source: The Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data Systems degree completion files

Explanation: The Carnegie Classification was developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (www.carnegiefoundation.org). Research I and II universities offer a full range of undergraduate programs, graduate more than 50 Ph.D.s annually and place a high priority on research. Research I institutions (such as Harvard and the University of Michigan) have much more federal funding than do Research II institutions (such as St. Louis University and University of Delaware).

Doctoral universities are similar but award fewer doctorates in fewer fields and place less emphasis on research. Doctoral I universities (such as University of Denver) award 40 or more Ph.D.s in five or more fields, while Doctoral II universities (such as San Diego State University) award fewer in fewer fields.

Comprehensive colleges (such as Barry University or Southwest Baptist University) offer a full range of undergraduate programs and master’s degrees in one or more fields. Liberal Arts Colleges I and II are primarily undergraduate colleges, which are selective or less selective, respectively, in their admissions policies. (Source: www.campuscomputing.net)

Dissertation Demands
More recently, the debate around the educational leadership doctorate has focused on its content relevance and quality. This shifts the quality question from selectivity of admissions to one of how much leadership development value is added through advanced preparation. Increasingly, such questions have encompassed the theory-practice debate, which has long plagued leadership preparation generally, and the role and function of the doctoral dissertation.

The development and promotion of national leadership standards for building and district leadership (through the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium), accountability pressures on schools and districts for improved student performance and recent research, particularly on how building and district leaders influence student outcomes, positively affects masters and doctoral program content. Increasingly, graduate programs are revamping their content to align with national standards and prepare building and district leaders to lead learning and systemic improvement. In keeping with the national focus on research-based approaches, leadership preparation is shifting to research-informed approaches to effective school and district leadership.

For example, the University of Washington’s Leadership for Learning doctoral program is not theory-based or course-based but includes a 30-credit sequence in advanced leadership focusing on “advanced understanding and skills in creating solutions to problems of practice, as well as interdisciplinary modules, reflective seminars” and mentoring in each student’s field of interest.

The purpose of the educational leadership dissertation also has been reconsidered. Several educational leadership doctoral programs now adopt a project dissertation rather than a traditional research study as the culminating experience for an educational leadership doctorate.

One comprehensive college, Ashland University, which started its doctoral program in 1997, offers a doctorate in leadership studies to engage individuals in a highly rigorous process of research, inquiry and site-specific practice in various educational settings. According to its website, Ashland’s dissertation is designed for scholarly research and inquiry to improve the practice of leadership. St. Louis University took an even more innovative approach by designing its dissertation requirement for its executive educational doctorate as a culminating capstone research project. Doctoral students working in teams undertake a problem-based learning approach to policy analysis, problem analysis or product development.

While these two examples are encouraging, a cursory review of institutional websites suggests doctoral programs in comprehensive institutions are no more likely than other institutions to be innovative and may even be more conventional.

Serious Implications
A dramatic increase in the availability and use of new doctoral programs in educational leadership, particularly among aspiring and current superintendents, appears to be responding to the need for more advanced preparation of superintendents and other school district leaders, based in large part on the increasing complexity of their work and its demands. While regional access to doctoral programs has improved, it does not necessarily translate into more locally tailored advanced leadership preparation. Moreover, the more limited resources of regionally accessible institutions and those institutions that are new to the doctoral-granting field may have implications for the quality and effectiveness of these programs.

Consequently, an earned doctorate is not necessarily synonymous with better advanced leadership preparation. Aspiring superintendents should critically evaluate not only the accessibility of programs but their core program design and content and the thrust of their dissertation as their advanced preparation for school district leadership.

The increased regional availability of doctoral programs, however, provides local districts and regional superintendent associations with a greater opportunity to offer input into what matters most in effective district leadership and leader preparation. Thus, as the ones most likely to hire graduates of these programs, they stand to benefit most from having input into effectively preparing district leaders, particularly aspiring superintendents, for their schools’ and districts’ priorities.

Margaret Terry Orr is a professor of educational leadership at Bank Street College, 610 West 112th St., New York, NY 10025. E-mail: morr@bnkst.edu