Training Leaders to Transform Education

Kathleen McCartney
Richard Elmore
Harry Spence

Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) has created a new doctor of education leadership (Ed.L.D.) program, a three-year, practice-oriented degree aimed at preparing a small cohort of leaders who can effect major changes in K-12 education. Dean Kathleen McCartney said the program aims to teach its students “how to create change, how to be entrepreneurial, how to create a strategy and really stick with it.” Her very vocabulary underscored how the new course of study differs from the traditional research- and dissertation-focused Ed.D. But the Ed.L.D. graduates’ goal, McCartney emphasized, is consistent with HGSE’s purposes as adapted to challenging circumstances in primary and secondary education: “Everything these leaders do should have a laser-like focus on learning.”

“Sometimes people think education is an intractable problem,” she said, citing the scale of the issues, the flood of unanalyzed data about students’ performance, and the apparently inadequate American level of learning revealed on tests administered around the world—not to mention the daunting gaps in performance between and within U.S. districts.

The Ed.L.D. attacks that challenge in two ways. The unusual curriculum—based in part on current HGSE-led executive-education programs for superintendents, principals, and other K-12 leaders—suggests the rationale for the school’s first new degree in 74 years. First, it aims to equip graduates with expertise not only in teaching and learning, but also in organizational management and leadership, and command of policy and politics. By linking HGSE faculty members with Business School (HBS) and Kennedy School (HKS) colleagues, and scholars with practitioners, the Ed.L.D. program recognizes that superintendents, state education policymakers, nonprofit advocates of school reform, and even private investors are all involved in enhancing education—and that each sector’s leaders need to master multiple skills and disciplines. (Curriculum development was supported by the Gates, Hewlett, and Noyce foundations; see

Second, after two years of work on campus, each student will enter a field placement, at venues ranging from large urban school districts to nonprofit organizations such as the New Teacher Project, the New Schools Venture Fund, and Teach For America (TFA). During that on-site, final year, the doctoral candidates will lead an education-reform project, prepare a “capstone” product, and gain hands-on experience building and leading a team—and evaluating its members’ performance as their own is assessed. McCartney noted that the new degree solves “a human-capital issue” by opening a path for those seeking education careers but not a research doctorate and unsure about navigating from an M.B.A. or J.D. into their preferred field.

“As we’ve engaged in this work over the past 20 years,” said Wendy Kopp, TFA founder and CEO, “we’ve seen that it is absolutely possible for kids in low-income communities to excel academically”—at the classroom level, school-wide, and even through entire school systems, demonstrating the “possibility of school-system-wide change.” At each of those levels, she said, “Ultimately, it turns out, it’s all about talent and leadership,” in classrooms, the principal’s office, and the superintendency. There is now widespread recognition of the “role of leadership in actually moving the needle against educational inequity.” The Ed.L.D. program, she said, “promises to provide one more stream of talent who do have deep grounding” not only in education but in “relationship-building skills” that have to be applied in the very complex setting of education reform.

The Ed.L.D.’s faculty co-directors—Anrig professor of educational leadership Richard Elmore and professor of practice Lewis (Harry) Spence, J.D. ’74—embody its ambition to combine content with application.


Elmore described two strands of work that underpin the new curriculum. More than a decade of research, at Harvard and elsewhere, on accountability, school improvement, and school organization has, he said, become “increasingly specific about the conditions that promote high-level learning and performance in educational institutions,” within classrooms and in systems as a whole. But the work of public schools is “highly compartmentalized, disorganized, and incoherent,” reflecting historical forces that have shaped education. In response, Elmore said, school systems and education leaders need to define coherent strategies for improvement, specify the elements of each strategy, and detail the actions required to implement them—and figure out how to explain all these changes to the public.


At the same time, previous HGSE collaborations have opened the way to apply those findings to effect change in large school systems. The Public Education Leadership Project, an HGSE-HBS venture, developed a case-based executive-education curriculum for superintendents and principals from large urban school systems. (Alumni include former Chicago superintendent Arne Duncan ’86, now U.S. Secretary of Education.) Week-long campus sessions and field consultations by faculty members introduced training in strategic alignment, executing a strategy, managing human capital, and designing systems for resource allocation and accountability measures.

Since 2006, the Wallace Foundation (see below) has supported a separate Executive Leadership Program for Educators (ExEL), to provide training on campus and in the field for teams of school-district leaders and the leaders of their state education departments (two states each year). The joint approach aimed to combine state-level policy with practice and application in operating districts and schools. ExEL’s faculty ranks include HGSE, HBS, and HKS members.

Now, the content and techniques of the executive-education programs are being extended into a regular degree course of study. Beyond superintendents and chief academic officers, Elmore envisions enrolling people who will create entrepreneurial training organizations (nonprofit and for profit); organizations that will support charter schools; people interested in funding innovation; and pioneers in data and other services—hence the breadth of the partners for students’ third-year placements.

Co-director Harry Spence brings that hands-on perspective directly into the design of the Ed.L.D. From 1991 to 1995, he was receiver for Chelsea, Massachusetts, where restructuring the school system was a principal priority. Thereafter, he was deputy chancellor for operations of the New York City board of education, and then commissioner of the Massachusetts department of social services.

School systems are “easily pulled in a thousand directions,” Spence said: like the leaders of other public institutions, education executives spend 80 percent of their time on politics and administration, and only 20 percent on improving practice and the services delivered. Reversing that ratio, in his view, is the key to “genuine transformation” of education, and the Ed.L.D. promises “an intense focus on improving practice.” That means helping leaders find ways to rise above the details of budgets, legislation, or placating city councils and parent-teacher organizations so they can focus on enhancing teachers’ learning and their classroom effectiveness and marshaling resources properly. That is the only way, he said, to boost lagging student achievement overall, and to address effectively issues of race and identity that lie at the heart of urban systems’ achievement gaps.

These tough challenges cannot be overcome by “education rhetoric,” Spence acknowledged. By forming deep partnerships with the organizations where Ed.L.D. candidates will spend their third year, he said, HGSE could itself benefit from a “tremendous virtuous circle between the academy and practice” that will inform faculty members’ own knowledge and their ability to teach future leaders.


Heretofore, making education schools’ curriculums pertinent to the real problems of improving teaching and learning has been its own intractable problem. For the past decade, the Wallace Foundation has focused its education philanthropy (to the tune of $300 million) “exclusively around the notion that to make school reform work for kids, we need to spend much more time and attention on leadership,” said foundation president M. Christine DeVita. Leadership training and effectiveness, she said, are “under-recognized and under-leveraged aspects of school life.”

The job of contemporary school principals has changed dramatically, DeVita said—but their preparation has not. Their most critical tasks are “leading organizational change, creating cultures of learning for the adults in the building, and leading instructional improvement for the children”—and “none of those sophisticated organizational changes and management issues are things they’ve been prepared for.” Principals, the key actors in effecting school-level improvements, are thrown into their jobs without mentors (or whatever mentoring they get is passive and episodic), and subjected to inadequate or irrelevant performance assessments. Where these factors are altered, Wallace’s programs show, schools can improve.


School reform, DeVita said, is above all “a systems problem” and so requires systems thinking, “which is exactly what good leaders do in all sectors, and exactly what we’re asking education leaders to do, too.” But among education schools, “There isn’t anybody out there doing it in a way that’s worthy of the challenge—and that’s what’s so exciting about this program.” The kind of preparation and thinking she envisions for education leaders is “what’s taken for granted at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School,” which is why the Wallace Foundation originally underwrote ExEL. With such an approach now in place at HGSE, too, DeVita said, the foundation has followed up by making a $10-million grant for fellowships for the entering Ed.L.D. candidates.

Arthur Levine—past president of Teachers College at Columbia University, now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation—has been a harsh critic of prevailing practices. He characterized leadership programs as the weakest of education schools’ offerings, with low admissions standards; curriculums that “lack coherence and connections to the work that’s actually done in the field”; clinical programs devoted to mere shadowing of practitioners, whether they are successful or not; “watered-down” dissertations with little connection to practice; and other failings. Those deficiencies are particularly disturbing, Levine said, “given the enormous changes that need to happen” in response to changed demographics, the growth in student populations, new skills required for students to compete economically, and the rapid evolution of technology. “We need administrators who aren’t simply managers of [existing] schools,” he said, “but who can create new schools.”

In that light, he said, the Ed.L.D. venture could be “a very useful model” for the entire country. He cited the multidisciplinary curriculum as “unique and critical to the kinds of leadership training required today.” He also pointed to the substantive third-year placement “in organizations known for their accomplishments” in school reform, and with “incomparable” attention to the quality and rigor of the experience. Throughout the program’s design, he discerned a focus on real problems, he said, an approach that “makes so much more sense” than generating more “watered-down dissertations.”


The first cohort of 25 students is being recruited this fall, to enroll in 2010. They will do so tuition-free, and with stipends for living expenses, thanks to the gift for fellowships from the Wallace Foundation, among others. (McCartney cited a $1-million fellowship fund given by former Harvard Overseer Paul Buttenwieser and his wife, Catherine.)

Elmore and Spence imagine that the applicants will have at least several years of experience working in the “education sector,” broadly defined, who have demonstrated leadership in effecting some significant change or reform, and who come from diverse backgrounds and interests. Spence recalled students pursuing narrower professional degrees for whom the Ed.L.D. “suddenly answers their questions” about how to “genuinely prepare for the task of transforming large educational organizations, as much as humanly possible.”

A final check on the program’s design and aspirations is its executive director, lecturer on education Elizabeth City—herself a former teacher, principal, instructional coach, and doctoral student at HGSE. Now she is an evangelist with a mission: to build from 25 Ed.L.D.s per year, to extend to the partner organizations where they will intern and the entities they ultimately lead, and ultimately to affect other education schools. City drew on her own background and on the Ed.L.D. intellectual framework to outline everything “transformative system-level leaders need to know” to reform education today, from learning about the origin of teacher unions and the evolution of de facto segregation in urban school districts (“These things didn’t just pop up”) to effective teamwork to comprehensive performance assessments.

Until now, City said, it has been up to prospective leaders to accumulate these needed skills on their own. With the Ed.L.D., she said, “We’re trying to do the integrative work, rather than saying to the students, ‘Here, you put it together.’” They need all the help they can get, she said, given the urgent mission of “transforming American education.”

You might also like

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales