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A Doctoral Program Designed With Working Educators in Mind

A collaborative University of Pennsylvania program draws on the skills of class members to turbo-charge careers

Linda Grobman was a regional superintendent in the Philadelphia public school system and wanted to earn a doctorate to take her career to the next level. She could have enrolled in night classes for several years or signed up for online courses. But she ended up finding something better right in her own backyard: the University of Pennsylvania Mid-Career Doctoral Program, a nationally recognized curriculum designed to accommodate the schedules of working educational leaders.

"It didn't seem like your standard kind of program," said Grobman, a 2008 graduate. "It was very interactive, very intellectually stimulating, very collaborative."


Each year the 36-month program brings together a cohort of 25 educators with a wide range of backgrounds and roughly 450 years of total experience in the field. Grobman's class included superintendents, principals (traditional, charter), independent school leaders, district officers, leaders from national organizations, a state director, and a businesswoman, among others. Doctoral candidates have come from 23 states in every avenue of education—including public, private and charter schools — and from every type of job function.

The program uses an inquiry-based, problem-solving approach. The curriculum is built around four content areas: instructional, which includes curriculum development and teaching methods; organizational, or the use of leadership techniques to meet goals and inspire staff members; public leadership, which focuses on community relations and support; and evidence-based leadership, or the use of data and analytic techniques to shape decision-making.

"Right from day one you already have your support system built in."

No matter what is being studied, the program places a big emphasis on utilizing the skills and experience of other class members.

"Right from day one you already have your support system built in," Grobman said. "You really do draw upon the resources of your colleagues."

Classes are scheduled for one weekend a month in Philadelphia during the school year and one intensive week during the summer, with some online work squeezed in between.

Tuition includes all food and lodging, books, course materials and extras such as on-demand coaching in academic writing and research. Class members have access to such executive- type amenities as Internet connectivity, small-group meeting room space and fitness centers. Each cohort has a dedicated staff coordinator, who stays with the group from recruitment to graduation.

Students are expected to begin shaping their dissertation early in the program, with staged support embedded across coursework, which is a departure from other programs. Grobman chose to study a jump in test scores in some Philadelphia public schools after the formation of a principals' group that emphasized collaboration over competition. The datadriven techniques emphasized by the program gave her evaluation more heft, she said.

One tremendous value of the program—the contacts made in her class and in the school's robust alumni network —became readily apparent after graduation. Grobman relied on those groups for advice when she successfully sought a job as superintendent of Radnor Township School District in Wayne, Pa., she said. And she's called on her network of contacts to troubleshoot problems or kick around leadership questions since she's been on the job.

"We all chat with each other," she said. "I don't know many programs where you say goodbye and get your degree and you continue to stay in touch with each other."

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