UAB’s revamped K-12 master’s degree curriculum has resulted in a new, stronger graduate program that faculty say will lead to the development of effective and dedicated leaders.

George Theodore, left, Linda Searby, center, and Loucrecia Collins are part of the new, stronger graduate program they believe will lead to the development of effective and dedicated K-12 leaders.
“Our goal is to put highly qualified, dedicated and motivated leaders in positions to have positive impact on students, faculty and the staff in general,” says George Theodore, Ph.D., coordinator of the residency program in the new Master’s Degree in Instructional Leadership Program. “Research is replete that leaders make a difference — whether they are good or bad. We want the leaders graduating from our program to set a positive tone for learning in the school.”

In 2006 the Alabama State Department of Education mandated all colleges and universities discontinue any K-12 Add-on Certificate and Master’s Degree programs by spring 2008 and redesign their curriculums to focus on instructional leadership. The agency required the change because it needed more candidates who were serious about pursuing administrative positions, and it wanted the education and training of these future leaders to reflect the most important role that school administrators now play.

The changes led UAB’s Department of Educational Leadership to implement the new Master’s Degree in Instructional Leadership Program this past year. The six-course program is 30 hours and covers four semesters. Each course has a one-credit-hour, imbedded field experience attached. In addition to the six courses, there is a 10-day residency for six credit hours.

The state also mandated that universities engage in local education agency (LEA) partnerships with area school districts and help design and develop new courses, contribute to admission policies and procedures, mentor and assess candidates, co-teach courses and perform exit evaluations of candidates.

“The paradigm has shifted from the school principal as a manager of buses, budgets and buildings,” says Linda Searby, Ph.D., Instructional Leadership Program coordinator. “The school principal’s main role now is leading and monitoring instruction, and focusing on instructional leadership. Our program gives students a hands-on, real-life look into the day-to-day operation of school leaders and teaches them how to lead in the future.”

What sets UAB apart?
All re-designed programs were required to gear their courses toward eight standards for instructional leadership. The standards are:

• Planning for continuous improvement• Teaching and learning
• Human resource management
• Diversity
• Community, stakeholder relationships
• Technology
• Management of learning organization
• Ethics

The Alabama State Department of Education mandated other changes in addition to the LEA partnerships to help meet the standards. Schools had to design a 10-consecutive-day residency, and university faculty had to train mentors for field experiences.

What is it that sets UAB’s program apart from other state universities? Searby says it’s the partnerships and the strong field experiences.

“We have partnered with some excellent school districts — Birmingham City, Hoover City, Cullman County, Cullman City and Jasper City — and they are providing our students with hands on, real-world, real-time leadership experiences,” Searby says. “Our partners co-teach courses with us, and every course has a one-hour field-experience credit that goes with it, so every class has activities and leadership experiences. They’re not waiting until the residency at the end to do it all.”

For example, students in the Data Driven Decision Making course had assignments that required them to research the data on their school and complete a gap analysis to determine areas in which their students were not achieving academic success.

“They researched what areas need to improve to close that achievement gap and made a presentation to the faculty at their school on the things they could do to close the gap,” Searby says. “That was a real leadership experience in front of faculty. They had to do the same research and presentation a principal would have done. And we have two or three of those every course.”

The students also have mentors and clinical field coordinators with them in the field to help guide them through their developmental exercises. LEAs and UAB faculty choose mentors for the students. The clinical field coordinators, who include area academicians Marilyn Gibson, Jan Dennis and Pat Robertson, are trained by UAB faculty.

“These are well-respected people who have had extensive administrative experience, and they are very conscientious and keep contact with our candidates in the field, which is really a plus for our program,” Theodore says. “They come to our classes to see what their assignments are so they fully understand them. And we meet with them regularly and get them to tell us about our candidates, how they’re performing and where they may need some help.”

Learning together
Another strong component of UAB’s program is the cohort system. There are 28 students split into three cohorts currently enrolled in the inaugural class of the new master’s program.

The students in each cohort go through the program with each other and take their courses together as a group. They take two courses each in the spring, summer and fall before completing their residency the next spring term.

“The idea is that the students go through this together and become supportive of one another,” Theodore says. “It builds collaboration skills – they can network and they can provide us valuable feedback as a group on things we can do to continually improve our program.”

Tougher to get in, out
The admission and exit process for the program also has changed. A good grade-point average and a high test score no longer are enough for admission. Prospective students are screened and interviewed by UAB faculty and LEA practitioners.

“They have to show us their portfolios and the things they already have accomplished in their school as a teacher-leader,” Searby says. “We also have candidates complete a writing sample to see if they can write proficiently, an element that is unique to our program. We are really expected to ensure we get top-notch candidates.”

If accepted, candidates’ portfolios at the end of the four semesters will be filled with examples of rich leadership experiences that show they are ready to accept administrative responsibilities.

“When the students are doing their residency they’re expected to keep the same hours as a principal,” Searby says. “They attend meetings, lead activities, create handbooks – whatever the principal is doing. And they design some activities around the eight standards so they will have many more leadership opportunities.”

The final hurdle is the exit exam, which includes a mock interview with a school superintendent and a school principal as though the program participants are applying for a job as an assistant principal. They will use their portfolio as evidence of their abilities, their competencies and their readiness to enter school leadership.

“That’s their final exam,” Searby says. “We want them to dress up, come to a formal setting and participate in an interview that will feel as real as it can be. It will be as if they are interviewing for their first leadership position, and it should be a valuable experience for them.”

“It’s really an authentic program for our candidates,” says Loucrecia Collins, Ed.D., associate professor in the program. “It brings together the theory and reality of the things that work for 21st century principals and leaders. We had a good program before, but we have a better program now.”