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Preparing Leaders to Drive the Big Changes Education Needs

Ten cohorts of Ed.L.D. — and a growing network of committed, equity-minded leaders with the tools to transform the field.
Ed.L.D.

When students and alumni from HGSE’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Program gather on Appian Way this week for their annual convening, they’ll also be marking a milestone: Welcoming the 10th cohort to enroll in the Ed.L.D. Program. Ten cohorts of Ed.L.D. — all dedicated to the principles of excellence and equity in education — means that an impressive network of diverse, energetic, and committed educators are now leading or preparing to lead systemic change in the education ecosystem.

“We started the program to respond to the needs of the field,” Senior Lecturer Elizabeth City, former director of the Ed.L.D. Program, says. “We were trying to figure out how we could best help with some of the most persistent problems in education — and one of HGSE’s strengths is leadership.”

As the Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Program celebrates its 10th cohort, alumni and current students reflect on leadership and the impact of Ed.L.D. on their current work.

Indeed, HGSE has a long tradition of preparing education leaders. But at the time the Ed.L.D. Program was rolled out, the education sector was undergoing significant changes. Building on the work of HGSE’s strong Urban Superintendents Program, a leadership program would also have to consider the role that other sectors, such as nonprofits and philanthropies, were starting to play in education.

“The school had decades of graduates doing great things, but the same problems were still there. So, we wondered, how we can really try to transform U.S. education,” City says. To meet the needs of an evolving sector with persistent problems of inequality, the program’s founding leadership team wanted to bring together a diverse — in every sense and dimension of the word — cohort of professionals with demonstrated leadership experience and a desire for systemic change. These cohorts would take classes together at HGSE but would also take classes at other Harvard schools. They would work on collaborative projects, confront real world problems, talk to other leaders and researchers, and eventually apply their learning in a residency in their third year. And they’d form a network that would last beyond their program and help maximize the impact of their transformative approach.

“A single person as a superintendent is not going to change the sector,” observes Senior Lecturer Drew Echelson, the new director of the Ed.L.D. Program. “[The Ed.L.D.] is about bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, both from an identity perspective and professionally, and having them work together to solve some of the complex problems facing our preK–12 education system. That is the way that we’re going to have the most impact. And I think that Liz [City] and her colleagues did such a brilliant job designing the curriculum. There are real opportunities to get people to work with each other and work on themselves to be ready to transform the sector.”

A commitment to excellence and equity in U.S. education remains at the heart of the Ed.L.D. Program’s work. “One of the problems we’re trying to solve is that too often, demography is destiny in U.S. education — your race, your home language, your disability, zip code, economic status, all of these things are substantial predictors of kids’ educational outcomes and, as a result, life outcomes. We want to break that cycle,” City says.

One of the ways the program hopes to move toward this goal is by fostering collaboration across the education sector and beyond. “At that moment in time, and this continues to persist, there isn’t necessarily a lot of tight collaboration between the different elements,” Echelson says. “Part of the design of this program is how to take people from different parts of the sectors and bring them together. We are creating a space for folks who have experiences in different parts of the ecosystem to come together and learn from one another.” And not just learn from and with one another, but act together, too.

Indeed, that collaboration has already rippled across the field, and away from the Harvard campus. Graduates often find themselves working for the same organizations or doing their third-year residencies in settings that have a former Ed.L.D. student in a leadership role, like the New York City Department of Education or Jobs for the Future. Additionally, graduates find themselves partnering across cohorts and across the country. One alum from the first cohort, Samantha Cohen, who is running a leadership program at American University in Washington D.C, has partnered with an alum from the fifth cohort, Annice Fisher, who is based in California, to develop curriculum. “We wondered: If we have people pulling from multiple parts of the sector in the same direction, would that make a difference? That part is starting to happen. Sometimes they’re in the same organizations and sometimes they’re collaborating, not just across sectors but across geographic boundaries,” City says.

The program has also started to shift the way professionals in different areas of practice think about one another. In the education sphere, state and district Departments of Education often find themselves at odds (or at least, not collaborating productively), as do those from charter school networks and traditional public schools. The Ed.L.D. Program brings people from both sides together and allows for productive conversation and future collaborative opportunities.

City notes that diversity and diversity of leadership have long been themes that Ed.L.D. Program leaders and students have discussed — and in the last five years or so, the sector has started to think more critically about equity. “We were out in front of all that doing our own learning and struggling and learning, and our people are now leading lots of those conversations. One of the significant contributions I think Ed.L.D. will make in the next 10 years is not just helping people talk about equity but actually enact it,” she says.

To ensure the cohorts form lasting networks that can effect change, the program’s curriculum provides students with experiences that get them to interrogate and broaden their existing perspectives on education. Students have spoken enthusiastically about a course called Practicing Leadership Inside and Out (PLIO). Throughout the process of breaking down and analyzing leadership and power structures, confronting biases, and driving change forward, students find support from their classmates in assigned “pod” groupings and often continue to meet with their groups long after graduation.

“It’s helped people confront some of the biases they bring to the table and think about new ways of thinking and acting in ways that are consistent with equitable and excellent education for all,” Echelson says.

He hopes that as he steps up to lead the program this year, he can continue to involve the expanding network of current students and alumni in rich conversations about the future of the Ed.L.D.

“Student voice really matters in this program,” he says. “I can see the evolution of the program based on [student] feedback, which is a powerful model. We want to continue to do that well and refine as necessary. We’re going to roll out a community conversation after [this week’s] convening about what some of our strategic priorities should be and what the actions need to be, as a community, to get direction around where to grow.”