Smarter School Leaders

Smarter School Leaders: Enough to reverse the trend?

This recent New York Times article highlights a new doctoral program for educational leaders that is a joint venture of Harvard Graduate School of Education, Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. An interesting approach indeed and one that will hopefully generate some top quality leaders for public schools and school districts. But, there are about 100,000 public schools out there, spread across 16,000 or so school districts and public charter schools. In the best of cases, each of these schools and districts would get the best and brightest possible leader. My guess, however, is that this new Harvard program will barely make a dent in our national needs.

Perhaps the new Harvard program can serve as a model for making a bigger and better dent.  Now, when I say that, I should clarify that I’m not taking the pop-policy position that this program is a model simply because it involves a business school and public policy school and the education school, but rather because it involves a GOOD business school, HIGH QUALITY public policy school and TOP NOTCH education school. There are as many, if not more intellectually vacuous b-school programs as comparably vacuous ed-school programs. You see, it’s not about b-school versus ed-school. It’s about high quality schools with highly self-selective pools of degree-seekers and top notch faculty deciding to play a more significant role in public school leadership. However, it’s going to be an uphill battle!

A few years back, Michelle Young, Terry Orr and I explored changing patterns of degree production in educational administration. With other colleagues, I explored the characteristics of faculty in educational administration programs, their pipeline and their qualifications. More recently, I’ve been exploring the effects of the changing principal preparation pipeline on schools in states like Missouri. AND IT’S NOT A PRETTY PICTURE!

Michelle, Terry and I found in our degree production study, that:

“The largest number and greatest increase were among master’s degrees. In 2003, there were 15,720 master’s degrees conferred in educational leadership, a 90 percent increase since 1993.”


“Even more striking are the increases in master’s degree granting programs at Comprehensive II and Liberal Arts II institutions. Such program increases reflect a dramatic growth in the availability of programs in local and regional institutions.”

And further, that:

“The percentage of all master’s degrees produced by higher status institutions, the Research I through Doctoral II institutions dropped from 42 percent in 1993 to 36 percent in 2003.”

That is, master’s degree production in particular has mushroomed over the past decade-and-a-half and many of the new masters degrees produced are from institutions that previously had minimal involvement in educational administration and are generally considered lower status institutions.

The figure below shows the top Educational Administration masters’ granting institutions in 1990 and then again for the period from 2002 to 2005, based on data from my study with Michelle Young and Terry Orr. The data are from the National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System – Degree Completion files. In 1990, Harvard made the list. But by the later period (and perhaps even worse by now), the list had changed – a lot. The list now includes mass-producers of graduate degrees like Nova Southeastern University and William Woods (Missouri) pumping out about 500 masters degrees per year in educational administration (and related degree codes). Other standout newcomers include Lindenwood University (also Missouri), National Louis University (Illinois) and St. Peters College (New Jersey).

From 2002 to 2005, Harvard continued production at its 1990 levels, like many major research universities. But by 2002 to 2005, Harvard had dropped to 68th in production, right behind Mid-America Nazarene University in Kansas (their radio jingle still sticks in my head from my Kansas years… MNU, not Harvard… who I doubt has a radio jingle).

If trends in Masters’ Degree production weren’t bad enough, similar if not more disturbing trends have occurred in the production of doctoral degrees in educational administration. In 1990, Harvard reported about 40 doctoral degrees in Educational Administration and Nova Southeastern about 100. Bad enough already. By 2005, Harvard was no-longer listing or reporting doctoral degrees granted under program codes for Educational Administration, and the biggest producers nationally were: Nova Southeastern (368), Argosy University – Sarasota (196), St. Louis University (62).  Even if these programs were/are credible, managing the quality control on 200 to 400 doctoral candidates per year seems problematic at best. Simply finding, enrolling and retaining 200 to 400 high quality candidates willing to pursue this type of degree seems a bit of a stretch! How many applied? How many, if any were rejected?

The damage done by these institutions and the diversified production of educational leaders is astounding in some states. In 1999, only a few principals of Missouri public schools held graduate degrees from the state’s emerging degree-mills. By 2006, 185 held their Masters’ degrees from Lindenwood University and 205 from William Woods out of a data set having just over 2,000 completely matched records over time. Nearly 400 of 2,000 or nearly 20% of Missouri principals held degrees from institutions which are arguably hardly qualified to grant them.

Principals who attended these graduate programs are substantially more likely to have attended the least competitive undergraduate colleges. For William Woods University, 80% of Masters Degree recipients who became Missouri principals attended undergraduate colleges in the bottom 3 (of 6) categories of competitiveness (based on Barrons’ Guide ratings) compared to 68% of principals statewide.

And further, the shares of teachers who also attended the least competitive colleges hired into schools headed by these principals have grown dramatically – from 65% to 75% from bottom two categories of Barrons’ ratings in 7 years – and faster than for other schools statewide.

This shift would be inconsequential were it not for strong and consistent evidence from a multitude of studies that the academic caliber of the teacher workforce is highly relevant to student success. While many sources highlight this issue (see for example, Baker & Cooper, 2005), Loeb and colleagues provide a particularly striking in the work in New York City. They report that:

“ . . . almost half of the teachers in the most effective quintile (based on student outcomes) graduated from a college ranked competitive or higher by Barron’s, compared to only ten percent of the teachers in the least effective quintile.”(p. 23)

This is a serious issue and one state policy makers seem unwilling to address. National accrediting agencies are comparably unwilling and/or incapable of addressing this educational leadership brain drain.

A graduate program in educational leadership or any field is only as good as the quality of its students and faculty, but criteria for program accreditation pay little attention to either the academic quality of students or qualifications of faculty.

Altering the quality of school leadership requires greater involvement of leading public and private universities, pursuing endeavors like the new Harvard program. But equally important, altering the quality of school leadership requires that state policymakers step up and shut down institutions that by the quality of their average student and qualifications of their faculty have no business preparing school leaders.

While this argument might easily be construed as academic elitism, it is important to acknowledge that this argument relates to the preparation of leaders for academic institutions –namely public schools. It is difficult to conceive of a rational argument for ignoring the relevance of academic credentials for individuals wishing to lead academic institutions.

Relevant research readings:

Baker, B., & Cooper, B. (2005). Do principals with stronger academic backgrounds hire better teachers? Policy implications for improving high-poverty schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 41(3), 413-448.

Baker, B.D, Orr, M.T., Young, M.D. (2007) Academic Drift, Institutional Production and Professional Distribution of Graduate Degrees in Educational Administration. Educational Administration Quarterly 43 (3)  279-318

Baker, B.D., Wolf-Wendel, L.E., Twombly, S.B. (2007) Exploring the Faculty Pipeline in Educational Administration: Evidence from the Survey of Earned Doctorates 1990 to 2000. Educational Administration Quarterly 43 (2) 189-220



  1. Here’s the “selection process” information for NJ Excel – New Jersey’s alternate route program for principal preparation:

    Selection Process

    Recruiting participants for NJ EXCEL takes place in several ways. The most productive approach is through word-of-mouth by current and previous candidates. Colleague-to-colleague marketing is attracting most new applicants. NJ EXCEL also recruits through the publications of its parent organization. A third recruitment approach now emerging as a good source involves superintendents: They are identifying teacher-leaders in their district and supporting their participation in NJ EXCEL with tuition and release time for coursework and internships. The program is developing additional recruitment strategies to identify and attract applicants from underrepresented groups.

    Most NJ EXCEL participants self-select into the program; however, a formal application and selection process ensures that all candidates meet established criteria. Applicants typically come from such positions as instructional supervisor at a school or in a district office, high school deans and counselors, and teachers. All participants hold a master’s degree in education and some hold doctoral degrees.

    The completed application packet must include copies of all state certifications and graduate degrees, the applicant’s job description, a current resume, and evidence of authorized sponsorship and commitment from the applicant’s school district. At a formal interview with NJ EXCEL staff, applicants complete a writing sample and present a professional portfolio or work samples that exemplify both their leadership and supervisory practice and their knowledge of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and learning. After the interview, NJ EXCEL notifies successful applicants of their acceptance, and they begin the program in appropriate cohorts.

    I’m not comforted that this process in any way filters out academically weak candidates as it is driven by “word of mouth” and “self-selection” according to the above information. Sadly, New Jersey’s data system will not allow me to link academic preparation to personnel files across all working in NJ schools. This is something I can do with many other state data systems.

  2. Good post, and I agree. Even more disturbing than the colleges and universities at the tier II level who are granting these masters and doctoral degrees are the school districts, both public and private, who take any advanced degree and consider them all to be equal in terms of pay scale and advancement potential.

    1. Indeed, if the market mechanisms were working correctly on sorting and selecting, there would be no market for these institutions and their degrees, and I would not have to advocate state intervention to correct for the market failure.

  3. But the “market” is actually a manipulated market, since many of the second tier institutions have devoted alumni who serve as state legislators and support these institutional aspirations, regardless of the potential negative effects on academic quality.

    Bottom line? Public schools should not be led by individuals who are deficient in a school’s core technology–learning.

  4. Another interesting question is what are the tier I level schools doing in response to market pressures created by tier II level schools. Are the tier I schools holding the line on a quality program or are they watering down their program to compete with the relative ease (i.e. group projects instead of individual dissertations, performance porfolio instead of comprehensive exams) of tier II level schools. I am afraid that in many cases, it is the latter.

    To me the bottom line is that only true tier i research universities should be allowed to grant doctoral degrees.

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