updated 9/15/2009 12:39:50 AM ET 2009-09-15T04:39:50

Citing what it calls a "leadership deficit" in the nation's schools, Harvard University is introducing a doctoral education program aimed at attracting top talent to transform the U.S. education system by shaking up the status quo.

The Doctor of Education Leadership, announced Tuesday, is the first new degree to be offered in 74 years by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and comes as American students continue to lag behind their peers worldwide.

The degree is designed for people who want to be top-level managers — such as superintendents of large districts or state education agency heads — and seeks to attract upper-echelon candidates who normally would choose other, more lucrative fields.

"Education is getting better, it's just not getting better fast enough," said Robert Schwartz, the school's academic dean.

He says for too long, colleges have produced administrators isolated from other disciplines and geared more toward managing existing systems than pushing badly needed reform.

"Radically accelerating the pace of improvement is an urgent national priority. ... We need people who really are trained in large scale organizational development and change," he said.

Good teachers wanted
Harvard acknowledges "a widely shared view that U.S. schools are failing," in a description of its new program. It also blames "a leadership deficit in education" for making things worse.

Schwartz said too many school leaders don't know what good teaching looks like. They are unpracticed at navigating the policy-making process that allocates major education funding and unprepared to remake large, complex and always-changing organizations, he said.

International assessments show American students near the bottom in academic achievement. In 2006, for instance, 15-year-olds in the U.S. ranked 21st out of 30 countries in math and 25th out of 30 in science, according to the Program for International Student Assessment.

Arthur Levine, a prominent critic of current education school programs, said Harvard's program shows promise. He praised its collaboration with the business and government schools, and its third and final year, which he said offers the substantial, practical training absent in too many programs. Changing technology, demographics and economics are presenting challenges educators haven't figured out, but urgently need to, Levine said.

"We need a model — we desperately need a model — and this is an excellent candidate for that model," said Levine, head of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

The Harvard doctorate broadens the reach of traditional programs by collaborating with the Harvard Business School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, he said.

The first year of studies is devoted to a rigorous core curriculum. The next year, students chose from a slate of courses at the three schools — such as "Managing Human Capital" at the business school or "Marketing for Non-Profits and Public Agencies" at the Kennedy school.

Schwartz compares the final year to a medical residency. Students lead a "high priority" project at a school district, nonprofit organization or another program partner. Partners so far include the Atlanta and New York school districts and Teach for America, which recruits promising college graduates to teach in urban and rural areas.

"To my knowledge, there is no other university that has come at this problem in this particular way," Schwartz said.

No tuition
The Harvard program will start in the fall of 2010 with just 25 students. It's tuition-free and includes a living stipend to attract a broader range of students.

But that financial boost, which could make the program appeal to top talent, might limit its usefulness as a model, said Theodore Kowalski, a University of Dayton education professor who's written extensively on educational leadership.

Most schools don't have the name or the money to draw students to full-time study — most would-be top administrators in education just can't afford that, he said.

"The real question, when we look beyond Harvard, is: Are they going to come up with a concept that's exportable?" Kowalski said.

Kowalski strongly backs Harvard's call for transformative leadership, saying only a few teaching colleges have effective programs for administrators. But he underlined the difficulties ahead, even for the most dynamic leaders Harvard can produce, in U.S. systems that have often resisted reform.

"The existing bureaucracy tends to be more powerful in the long run," Kowalski said. "That doesn't mean we give up."

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