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Doctoral degree equips educators to impact Arizona's K-20 schools

January 02, 2014

There’s a select group of Arizona educators studying at the highest university level in order to make a measurable difference in the state’s K-20 schools. Enrolled in Arizona State University’s Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation program, the full-time teachers, principals and superintendents are discovering ways to apply academic research on the job at schools and in school districts to effect positive change.

According to Debby Zambo, associate professor in the program, the three-year plan of study offered through ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College better equips doctoral students to become “scholarly practitioners” who lead change and implement innovation. The program is offered at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix and West campuses.

See graduates talk about their experience in the Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation program.

Although the doctoral degree dates back to 1920, when it was first created by Harvard University’s education dean, the degree was reclaimed seven years ago by 56 colleges and schools of education across America – including ASU – that wanted to distinguish it from the PhD and increase its relevancy for education practitioners.

“Our students understand what the difference between the two degrees means,” Zambo said. “They want to remain in education and they want to impact the field.”

Third-year doctoral student Brian Johnson is a Spanish teacher who launched a successful peer tutoring program at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix last year. The school’s initial response to sliding student achievement scores had been to implement a credit recovery program. But Johnson said he still “saw students falling through the cracks.”

“Had I not been able to look at my workplace in an innovative way, I wouldn’t have seen the potential for a peer tutoring program,” he explained. “Our ASU studies give us a roadmap for solving problems in a way that is sustainable – and we have the research to back it up.”

Associate professor David Garcia noted that ASU’s EdD program requires a special student. As a working professional, the doctoral candidate needs to be highly organized, committed to the program and ready to think reflectively and critically about problems in Arizona’s K-20 schools and educational organizations.

“This is a transformative process for students,” Garcia said. “At the end of the program, they shouldn’t see their world the same way. They should have a new set of analytical and theoretical tools, leadership skills and a broader network, or sphere of influence, in their field.”

Beginning in summer, students in the cohort-based program take an introduction to doctoral studies course before proceeding to their professional and research core classes. They also conduct multiple cycles of inquiry and learn research by doing it in their own workplace. At the close of each semester, students share their research during roundtables, posters and symposia at Teachers College’s Research Day.

Leader-Scholar Communities (LSCs) provide another source of academic and personal support to the degree students. Formed at the end of the first year, the LSCs consist of five to seven students and two faculty members, and meet regularly during the second and third years of the program.

Traditionally, teachers in the United States have been paid more for having advanced degrees. However, according to Zambo, most students entering ASU’s EdD program are not motivated by financial gain.

“The type of student that is really successful in our program is the one that comes with a love and a passion for learning,” she explained. “They want to continue learning and to continue growing, not for monetary reasons, but because of who they are.”

The grassroots movement started by universities in 2007 to change both the degree program’s status and purpose, known as the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED), appears to be making progress, Zambo said. She co-authored research in 2013 to determine if the CPED principles and design features are shaping the degree to better meet the needs of professional educator students.

“It is evident that newly designed and redesigned programs are beginning to clarify the role and place of the EdD in higher education,” the study stated.

At ASU, Zambo and Garcia agreed that the doctoral students who graduate from Teachers College come away with a new set of skills that is highly marketable.

“I have seen classroom teachers become principals and superintendents,” Zambo said. “I have seen principals become faculty at community colleges, and so on. The job changes are tremendous. In fact, our students are always amazed at how quickly those job shifts happen.”

“Either they find new opportunities or the opportunities find them,” Garcia added. “Very rarely do they go back to doing the exact same thing the exact same way.”