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Learning from a room full of top educators

Members of the UPenn Mid-Career Doctorate program learn from faculty and peers as they make their way through the rigorous course load

The University of Pennsylvania Mid-Career Doctorate in Educational Leadership is a demanding program with a top-notch faculty and an array of executive style amenities. But in the end, it may be exposure to the collective talent and experience of the educators who go through the program together that makes the most lasting impact on graduates.

"They did such a good job of providing a breadth of perspective in the room," said Jennifer Smith, chief transformation officer for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, who earned her doctorate through the program in 2009.


Each year, a group of 25 people from across the U.S. are chosen for each class—or "cohort," as the UPenn Graduate School of Education calls them. Applications are up 45 percent over the last few years, according to Michael Johanek, a Senior Fellow who directs the program. UPenn looks for diverse backgrounds academically, culturally, by sector, and in varieties of professional experience. Over 23 states are represented in the Mid- Career Network.

Enrollees have come from religious schools, elite independent schools, charter schools in tough urban neighborhoods, large and small public school districts and a host of organizations that support education, from consultancies to for-profits to unions and advocacy groups. Several have transferred from prior careers in the military or business. Each year, it is a high-powered lineup, with class members who have an average of nearly 20 years of professional experience. Smith, who worked in the District of Columbia public schools before graduating, said the range of views and insight from her peers was eye-opening and instructive.

"I'm a public educator," she said. "My background was as a teacher in public schools, assistant principal, principal. Your perspective is limited."

After going through the program, Smith said she is now more tuned in to different viewpoints.

"It's the ability now to take off whatever hat it is you wear on a daily basis and really put on the hat of someone very different sitting at the table," she said.

"They did such a good job of providing a breadth of perspective in the room."

The Mid-Career program is completed in a relatively compressed 36 months, so class members have to be highly organized and committed. There are advantages to that approach, however.

"The review cycle is faster," Johanek said. "The feedback cycle is a lot tighter, more real-time, and focused on actual challenges on the ground."

In recognition of class members' busy careers, the program meets three days a month and one week during the summer. In between, class members collaborate through the school's Web-based platform, through conference calls and other means.

To save time, UPenn arranges all meals, hotel accommodations, course registration, book purchases and other items related to stays on campus. It also provides a research coach and a writing coach to provide additional feedback on assignments and dissertations.

Johanek said the high caliber of students makes it easier for him to recruit fellow faculty. Many professors are thrilled to have access to senior educators who are grappling with the most pressing school issues of the day.

"They learn a great deal from folks in the room," Johanek said. "It adds a premium of intensity." Besides the bonds they form with members of their cohort, graduates can tap a growing and active network of alumni, Johanek said. The program stays in touch with alumni monthly, who can continue to participate in weekend events, receive coaching, etc. This coming school year they will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program, launching several new initiatives, including international study tours, a "postdoc" option, and enhanced online supports.

The program's reputation has grown steadily over that time, Smith said. "It's a respected name," she said. "People are beginning to see the caliber of individuals coming through program."

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