Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

March 14, 2007

NIU College of Education joins national initiative
on strengthening educational doctorates

DeKalb — Physicians serve internships and residencies and must pass the medical boards. Lawyers must pass the bar exam, and some work as judicial clerks, before arguing cases.

But what sort of universal capstone experience is or should be provided to, or required of, those educators who earn doctoral degrees in preparation for professional roles in the field?

The Carnegie Foundation aims to answer that question with the help of the Northern Illinois University College of Education and 19 other U.S. universities.

Dean Christine Sorensen joined Jon Crawford and Teresa Wasonga, professors in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, at a Carnegie-sponsored “orientation meeting” held Feb. 23 in New York City.

“In education, we don’t have a signature pedagogy. The question was, ‘Can we establish our own signature pedagogy, and what should it look like?’ ” Wasonga said. “We believe that this group is going to set the tone, and we want to be among those setting the tone.”

“We were excited we were selected,” Sorensen said. “The group has decided to focus on two areas: laboratories of practice and the scholarship of teaching. Our folks are going to focus on laboratories of practice, and given our strong partnerships with local school districts, that would make sense for us.”

A critical time

The Carnegie Foundation’s efforts, coming on the heels of its five-year study of professional preparation programs, arrive at a critical and tenuous period in U.S. education.

Federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation demands accountability and achievement from schools, and fingers often are pointed at principals and superintendents when adequate progress toward those benchmarks fails to meet expectations.

Meanwhile, regional accrediting associations are paying attention to doctoral education, particularly the preparation of professional practitioners.

“A degree of concern exists, and that may be an understatement, over the progress being made toward closing the achievement gap and improving student performance on standardized achievement tests: We’re not making as much progress with that as the society as a whole expects,” Crawford said.

“Why is progress toward closing the achievement gap lagging? Does the fault lie with leadership in the schools? If the problem lies with the leadership in the schools, the whole process of training and preparing school leaders is going to be under the microscope.”

Study groups created

Organizers of the Feb. 23 event created three subgroups to focus on teacher education, higher education and school leadership respectively. NIU’s delegates joined the school leadership group.

They’ll spend the next four or five months looking at the traditional capstone experience for doctoral students in education: the dissertation – or, as one Carnegie official posited, a potentially soon-to-be fossil.

Abandoning or even altering the dissertation poses a great hurdle, Crawford said.

“One of the things prevalent in a university environment is paranoia. University programs tend to be afraid to do too much tinkering or changing of a program for fear of what our colleagues at other universities might think,” he said.

“The Carnegie Foundation is creating is a community of learners with these 20 universities and has granted this cadre of learners license to push the envelope. The comfort of being among a group of 20 other universities is heightened by the blessing of the Carnegie Foundation. The Carnegie Foundation’s reputation lends credibility to the project.”

Another mission is to define both a standard skill set and knowledge base needed for people earning the doctorate degree in educational leadership to be successful in providing effective leadership to schools, Crawford said.

“If you went to law school at USC, the University of Texas, Harvard or East Snowshoe University, you’re not going to recognize much difference in the first-year program of study, regardless of the law school you visit. There may be a slight variance, but generally a first-year law student is going to take a contracts course, a torts course, a property course,” he added.

“Contrast this level of conformity with education. If you went to these same four or five universities and compared their educational leadership programs, it is likely you would see considerable variance.”

Higher education also must ease its fear that change will send students away.

Wasonga said the University of Southern California revamped some programs, scaring some that students would flee to other institutions. Yet the university’s communication of the tweaks, the more-rigorous requirements and the excellence of its graduates made employers more interested in the school and added value to the degree.

“We should not hide from quality. Let’s be proud of quality. Let’s distinguish ourselves as people providing quality students with skills, and let the employers know that. People will come to you,” Wasonga said.

“We can be proud of producing people of quality and not worry about competition. We will still get our share of students as long as people understand what we are doing and that what we are doing impacts practice.”

Sharing of knowledge

A key part of the Carnegie project is sharing information and ideas among the participating universities, Crawford said, and NIU already is engaged in several exciting programs that will be deposited in the collective knowledge bank.

Partnerships with local school districts, such as Crystal Lake and Rockford, use cohort models to train potential future school leaders. Internships begin immediately rather than serving as a culminating experience. Internship portfolios are presented not just to university professors but to school district leaders as well.

Innovations such as these caught Carnegie’s eye when NIU was asked to participate in the project, he said.

“The Carnegie initiative fit so nicely with where our educational leadership team has been over the past three or four years, examining and reflecting on where our program is and where it could be going,” Crawford said. “This is a chance to catapult NIU’s educational leadership program onto a national stage.”

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