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A venerable leadership program changes with the times
Lynch School of Education graduate students fanned out to Massachusetts school districts early this fall, looking for research subjects with legs. Over the next 15 months, small teams of Professional School Administrator Program (PSAP) students will plumb “problems of practice” in individual Bay State districts, develop case studies, and share their findings in consultation with district leaders, according to PSAP coordinator Lauri Johnson.
Students hope to do things such as explore a special education system, evaluating services for students with autism and anti-bullying programs; identify school district leader “competencies”—what they should know and know how to accomplish that—in urban public, Catholic, and charter schools; measure the impact of teacher evaluations and merit pay on professional performance; and analyze a district’s professional development program.
The case studies and consultations culminate PSAP’s “Capstone” requirement—a group research report that has replaced the traditional dissertation as a requisite for the doctoral degree and licensure at the superintendent or assistant superintendent level, said Johnson, a former school system administrator and University of Buffalo professor who joined the Lynch faculty last year.
“We revised the final project to align with what our students are actually going to be doing as school district leaders,” said Johnson. “We want to offer the targeted, practical skills they will need to lead districts.”
PSAP has also formed a partnership with the Superintendent/Assistant Super-intendent Leadership Licensure Program, a coalition made up of Teachers 21, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association, and the Massachusetts Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, member organizations with vested interests in training talented school district leaders. Teachers 21 hires local superintendents to teach modules on nuts-and-bolts subjects such as school board and community relations, funding and policy, and special education to PSAP students.
School district leaders today have to be “fluent” in teaching and learning, professional development, school-community partnerships, and fiscal management, according to Johnson. “Students who expect to move into superintendent and assistant superintendent positions need the skills, abilities, and dispositions to lead complex districts. They have to know how to do research, and use the latest research available to solve real-world problems in today’s schools.”
Thirty-seven years ago, in the fall of 1973, the Boston College Graduate School of Education established PSAP as a part-time doctorate for full-time professional elementary, secondary, and central office school administrators. At the time, it was a unique program designed for working professionals who wanted to earn superintendent licensure while pursuing a doctoral degree.
Since then, some 230 students have completed the program, and their roster reads like a who’s who in Massachusetts education leadership. Dozens of school district superintendents, assistant superintendents, special program directors throughout New England, and a slew of university faculty earned their terminal degrees and licensure through PSAP.
PSAP has evolved over the years to meet the needs of professionals educators and the demands of school administration itself, said Lynch School of Education Dean Joseph O’Keefe, SJ, including changes in measures of success, testing procedures, student populations, parent engagement, youth culture, technologies for teaching and communications, and rising expectations of the skills and knowledge required by an administrative leader.
Students admitted to the three-year licensure and doctoral program must be current school administrators who already hold master’s degrees. They begin the program in cohorts of approximately 20 students, and are expected to work in teams. Students and teachers convene at Boston College for three consecutive summer sessions and meet two full days each month during the academic year. The first half of the program is devoted to courses in education theory and research; much of the second half focuses on education leadership practice.
“We are moving to develop more creative and thoughtful leaders,” said O’Keefe, “to stretch individuals in the program both intellectually, philosophically, and socially. Once they graduate from the program, they can use the long-term relationships they develop at PSAP to help them in the workplace,” O’Keefe adds. “They can call each other and bounce ideas off one another. The isolation of being a leader can be really difficult, but with the kind of network people develop here they can be engaged with other leaders of school districts.”
PSAP’s new partnerships are crucial to improving the program and the quality of students it attracts, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for School Superintendents, and a 1990 PSAP graduate.
“The quality of the new program is markedly better than when I was in it,” said Scott, who now teaches in the program. “It’s much more rigorous. We’re only a little over a year into this form of the program and the results so far have been very encouraging. Every candidate for a degree in this cohort is of high quality.”
The current PSAP program is “right on point,” according to William Gartside, a PSAP student who was recently named head of school at the St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton, a collaboration with Boston College and the Boston Archdiocese. “There is no way that current principals of schools can go and get doctorates if they are working full-time without a program like this one,” said Gartside. “It’s also helpful to be with all these colleagues, working together in a cohort. These are people who help push one another, and everyone brings all of their contacts to the table, so it is just really helpful in terms of networking, too.”
Needham, Massachusetts, superintendent Daniel Gutekanst, a 2003 PSAP graduate and current program mentor, credits the program with giving him the skills he needed to advance his career. “The whole structure of the program is a model to breed future successful leaders,” Gutekanst notes. Moreover, he adds, “I’m still in touch with the people from my cohort. We constantly exchange ideas, call each other to help solve problems. It’s really useful.”
PSAP was founded to address what was then a great concern about the quality of superintendent candidates, according to Lynch professor and former PSAP coordinator Elizabeth Twomey. “Though the program has evolved, it still maintains its main purpose—to prepare people for the practice of school administration,” she said. “We want to prepare people to do the best thinking that they can. We aim to take everyone who comes to the program, all of whom have practiced as leaders on some level in the school system, and combine their skills with university-level research to really enhance their knowledge.”
Andrew Clark is a writer in the Boston area.