“If you really want to keep a $20 bill safe, put it in your final manuscript. It will still be there waiting for you in 10 years,” one of Dr. Dianne Renn’s colleagues told her years ago.

Bleak anecdotes like this once described the fate of doctoral dissertations, particularly those completed for pre-K-12 leadership programs.

“Theoretical research was not consumable or useful for pre-K-12 leadership, and it was only helping the doctoral students if they had plans to pursue tenure-track positions,” she said.

When Renn became associate chair of Illinois State’s Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF) in 2015, her top priority was to collaborate with faculty and school partners to increase the rigor and practicality of the program. One of the major changes involved aligning the course work and dissertation with a model proven effective for preparing medical, law, and educational leadership professionals: The Carnegie Project for the Education Doctorate (CPED).

“CPED offered a way to talk about professional education in a way that has a clinical component, and that made much more sense for our students,” Renn said. “And students wanted it because it’s practical.”

Under the guidance of Renn and Department Chair Dr. Lenford Sutton, the new program received an overhaul.

The updates included moving from a Ph.D. to an Ed.D. classification, adopting a cohort model, bolstering equity and social justice curriculum; and integrating Illinois’ superintendent endorsement into the course work.

Perhaps most importantly, the revised program featured a new dissertation process that empowers students to research and address problems happening in their own school communities.

“The idea is if we are preparing leaders who make change, why wouldn’t we put the tools in their hands to facilitate this change?” Renn said. “We don’t want them to rely on hiring professional development consultants. Instead, we’re empowering them with the design engineering principles present in CPED to support equity, social justice, school improvement, and better outcomes for kids.”

District-level leadership is praising the approach, including District 87 Superintendent Dr. Barry Reilly.

“The dissertation process really boils down to having an impact not only in your own building but beyond that,” he said. “I believe other leaders in education will benefit from their work, whether that’s using the research largely ‘as-is,’ tailoring it to their own unique needs, or advancing research in their own setting.”

The first ones

The initial CPED cohort finished its course work last fall. In contrast to many in traditional doctoral programs, most have already proposed or defended their dissertations, including Normal Community High School Principal Trevor Chapman.

He said researching a problem of practice in his own school helped him to progress in his research as quickly as he did.

“The work became very synonymous with the work I am doing in the building already,” Chapman said.

Students in the new CPED model are encouraged to begin exploring their topics as early as their first or second years in the program. They also practice conducting cycles of inquiry during course work. This data-gathering approach is used by all students in the dissertation process, as well. It allows them to get at the root causes of the problems happening in their schools.

“The faculty gave us opportunities that we probably would not have had elsewhere,” said Sheridan Elementary School Principal Jenifer McGowan, a member of Chapman’s cohort.

“They tailored assignments to help us grow, not just check off a standard they had to teach. They made it applicable to what we were doing and what we were interested in.”

In lieu of comprehensive exams, CPED students are challenged to present their dissertation topic in the style of a TED Talk to faculty and students, followed by a written piece.

“This makes a whole lot more sense for a practitioner,” Chapman said. “We don’t typically write 150-page documents for people about a problem. What we typically do is to identify a problem and we talk to stakeholders and constituents in a relatable way.”

The problem of practice Chapman examined was the disproportionality of students who were being disciplined at Normal Community. He found that black males were being disciplined at a much higher rate than all other populations.

To find out the causes of the problem, he formed and led an equity committee for his school. He later created a teacher leadership team to identify academic inequities occurring within the school.

Creating cartographers

These dissertation efforts often blaze new trails on emerging problems facing most pre-K-12 administrators. As a result, they serve as handbooks that map the terrain sharing what to do—and perhaps what not to do—when leaders address problems of practice in their own school environments.

“As a practicing principal, I would have loved to have some examples from other principals saying, ‘This is where I made a misstep in the process, this is what went well, and this is what I would recommend you to do, instead.’ I didn’t have that,” McGowan said.

McGowan is hoping her work can have a positive impact for others in District 87. Her dissertation examines the socio-emotional supports needed for students at her school who have experienced trauma.

McGowan said her school has already experienced progress. In particular, Sheridan recently became a community school. This has allowed her fourth-grade staff to implement wraparound services that better support students and families.

“Trauma is not going away, so understanding what those needs are is going to be different in every school,” she said.

Future planning

Faculty and staff in EAF are also working to further strengthen the internship component of the doctoral program, as well. This work occurs during the first two years of the course work and provides students with the superintendent endorsement. The internship will involve sending CPED students in teams to conduct cycles of inquiries, usually in districts other than the ones they serve.

“Once that is up and running, the idea is for schools and districts to identify their specific need,” Renn said. “That is the only way we will be able to effectively and ethically support them.”

This program enhancement will also empower students to build upon their abilities to collaborate in teams, serve outside constituents, and understand the challenges facing different areas of leadership within educational communities.

These efforts toward self-improvement are continuous. They also demonstrate how the faculty and staff in EAF are focused on preparing competent, impactful leaders whose $20 and two cents are put to use outside the dusty pages of an unread manuscript.