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Staying Ahead in Education

Professional development programs allow administrators to stay on top of their game.
Wilbur Parker, director of diversity initiatives at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, speaks in class. (David DeBalko)

When Charles Soriano enrolled in classes a few years ago in the Mid-Career Doctorate in Educational Leadership program at the University of Pennsylvania, he was already an accomplished school administrator. Assistant superintendent of schools in the East Hampton (N.Y.) Union Free School District, Soriano had two master’s degrees—in English literature and educational leadership—and had served on state panels and advisory committees. He wasn’t satisfied and chose to pursue professional development. “I really believe school leadership is a craft,” he says. “I wanted that challenge to strive to get to the next level of my career. I do want to be a superintendent at some point, and while I don’t think it’s necessary to have a doctorate, I think the degree and the level of learning required is helpful in enhancing your chance of success.”

Administrators trying to keep up with developments in 21st-century education are finding that leadership at the school and even district level is changing. The three-year doctoral program at Penn’s Graduate School of Education offers working professionals the tools to strengthen educational outcomes at K12 districts, with a rigorous workload and a curriculum based on instructional, organizational, public, and evidence-based leadership. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is also launching a doctor of education leadership program next summer.

“We find there are a lot of people hungry for the experience,” says Mike Johanek, director of the program at Penn. “We have people with responsibilities for running a building or a district, people who run the technology for a district, a state commissioner of education. You can’t ask people at this level to stop their career for three to five years to do a program like this; that’s not going to happen.”

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says it’s probably more important today than ever for top-level administrators to get more professional development, be on top of energy conservation and human resources issues, be a manager and be trained in the very latest pedagogical approaches to teaching. “So much attention is being paid to accountability and closing the achievement gap,” he says. “They are essentially CEOs in the school system.”

Office of University Communications, University of Pennsylvania.

But professional development does not have to be a doctoral program at an Ivy League school. Administrators can attend programs that cover everything from integrating technology into a curriculum to improving English-as-a-second-language courses. Professional development has become so valuable that even Boston Public Schools has created its own in-house professional development institutions to develop management skills among staff. And the Association of School Business Officers International will launch a new certification program for school business officials next fall. It is designed in part to strengthen careers and show stakeholders that such officials have the know-how to support them.

“The need for continuing education is as great or greater than ever before,” says Tim Sloate, director of research at the University Continuing Education Association. “As baby boomers retire, employers will have a harder time finding administrators who are as ready. Professional development can help.”

The Programs

The University of Washington’s professional development programs in leadership offer the skills to maneuver around the complicated job of administrator, which in the 1960s was viewed as the domain of persons who simply kept an eye on the budget and kept programs humming along, according to Mike Copland, an associate professor and the chair of education leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington.

“Now we understand that leading instruction is a much more complex endeavor,” Copland says. “What does quality instruction look like, how do you lead to improve quality instruction, how can you grow teachers’ skills?”

Professional development programs cover technology in the classroom, No Child Left Behind requirements, data-driven decisions, and differentiated learning. Such K12 trends challenge administrators daily, and ongoing professional development provides district leaders with the state-of-the-art thinking on how a district can best approach such issues. At Eastern Kentucky University, for example, K12 administrators can attend an annual diversity conference that is a professional workshop on successful team building strategies.

K12 administrators sit with professors at Seton Hall University, which offers options for administrators who are interested in professional development and master?s degrees.

Seton Hall University offers options in professional development, including an executive doctoral program much like the one at Penn, and master’s degrees in issues such as school psychology and bilingual/bicultural education. The university also operates the New Jersey Superintendent Study Council, a group with more than 130 members who meet monthly to explore topics such as how to conduct a threat assessment and how to develop and implement a districtwide strategic plan. “Leading a school district today is like working in a level 5 hurricane. From high stakes testing to the different family structures that children grow up in today—it’s different than in the past,” says Charles P. Mitchel, Seton Hall’s College of Education and Human Services associate dean.

Pennsylvania now requires that school and system leaders, from vice principals to superintendents, take professional development courses designed to promote leadership standards. Some programs include how to create a strategic organizational vision and how to access and use appropriate data to inform decision-making at all levels of the system. At the Harrisburg campus of Penn State University, school administrators can take full-day workshops on topics such as data analysis for informed instruction and special education. “It’s designed to keep well-informed leadership in our schools,” says Miguel Hernandez, the manager of new programs at Penn State’s department of continuing and professional education.

Moving in the Same Direction

Professional development for school administrators tends to be an individual decision—to bolster knowledge and beef up a resume. But some districts are starting to see professional development for administrators like it is approached for teachers—as a requirement to ensure that staff are on the same page about pedagogical decisions. “Our theory is that districts need to develop expertise around professional learning. We coach principals, central office leaders. The unit of change, we feel, has to be the district,” says Stephen Fink, executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington, which works with such districts as the Atlanta Public Schools, the Marysville (Wash.) School District and the Norwalk-La Mirada (Calif.) Unified School District.

Administrators attend Eastern Kentucky University?s College of Education Diversity Conference, a professional workshop on successful team building strategies for educators.

The center works with a cadre of administrators from a specific district for a year or more, focusing on how each can bring out the best in each school’s faculty. The district’s principals learn instructional leadership, giving them a toolkit to help their teachers improve classroom instruction. And they form a cohort of like-minded administrators, building a shared philosophy of the importance of supporting teachers, finding avenues to improve instruction, and focusing on equity.

Boston Public Schools believes in developing management skills among central office staff and recently created the Management Institute. It will include three cohorts of 25 senior and mid-level operations managers from the district working with executive coaches from the District Management Council, a network of public school district leaders that represents 3 million students in 28 states, on skills like customer management, leadership development and program management. “We want to build the capacity of leaders across our system,” says William Horwath, assistant superintendent for human resources. “The idea is to get a return on the investment that will be many multiples of the money we put in.”

Going Online

Beyond the in-person programs at higher education institutions, online professional development is also available. At Seton Hall, for example, some of the master’s programs are blended—with coursework both in the classroom and online—and some are strictly online. Both options are designed so that students can work on their degree while on the job.

"The idea is to get a return on the investment that will be many multiples of the money we put in." -William Horwath, assistant superintendent for human resources, Boston Public Schools

At Northcentral University, all the courses are online. Teachers, counselors, assistant principals and district office staff take courses part-time toward a master’s degree. Principals, assistant superintendents and department heads work for an Ed.D. or a Ph.D. in education.

Northcentral offers its students courses with a tight focus, such as athletic department administration, curriculum design, or educational technology. The school also offers certificates of advanced graduate studies, which are earned with six courses in a specific topic. “If they want, learners can even elect to take just a course or two to sharpen their skills,” says Clinton Gardner, Northcentral’s president.

Immediate Payoffs

For administrators who commit to a professional development course, the payoff can be immediate. Soriano discussed strategy for how his district could get the votes for a $79 million bond referendum with faculty and colleagues in the Penn program, for example, and he credits their ideas and support as a factor in its passage. “We would simulate a problem in one of our districts and think about it with theoretical lenses, then apply what we learned to the real world on Monday when we were back in the office,” says Soriano, who graduated from the program in 2007. “There was a vibrant exchange of ideas—it was so enriching.”

Soriano gained an appreciation in creating “a culture of ongoing learning, that IT managers and principals can keep learning as well,” he says. “Whatever job title you hold, you can learn a lot when you bring together professionals with similar experience and work together to answer an organizing question.”

Carl Vogel is a freelance writer based in Chicago.