The doctorate of education program at the USC Rossier School of Education has been transforming one Southern California school district – administrator by administrator and teacher by teacher – into a success story for urban public education.
Michael Escalante EdD ’02, superintendent of the Glendale Unified School District, said it was never part of some master plan, but over time, his school district and the Ed.D. program at USC Rossier became inextricably connected.
“When you come in as a superintendent, one of the most important things you do is build a team, and one of the richest pools of talent at the highest level are Ed.D. candidates from USC,” Escalante said. “It really is the ultimate professional development program for a K-12 administrator.
“So when you’re looking for bright people, where are you going to go?”
The answer can be observed in the scores of graduates from USC Rossier’s doctoral program who hold leadership roles in just about every area of the Glendale school district.
While it may have evolved organically, Trojan pride is now palpable throughout the district, with Ed.D. alumni filling the ranks of assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals, other administrators and even classroom teachers.
“Dr. Escalante really fostered the concept of excellence into his administrators,” said Cynthia Livingston EdD ’97, the principal of Fremont Elementary School, also known as “Fabulous Friendly Fremont” and a Los Angeles Magazine award-winning pick.
“He values the commitment of people who dive in with both feet and take on the challenge, and I really think that speaks to your ability to take on any challenge,” Livingston said, adding, “And my kids know that I’m a Trojan through and through.”
To help demonstrate her point, Livingston, who met Escalante in the Ed.D. program, furnished an essay written by one of her first graders. Scrawled in pencil within the wide dotted margins were the words “Dr. Livingston likes the USA and USC.”
Escalante said by both recruiting administrators who have gone through the program and encouraging existing staff members to do so, Glendale Unified has up to 30 Ed.D. alumni from USC, a number that is growing.
Dozens are currently in the program, and a handful more have been admitted for the fall.
These graduates have gone on to lead his district in beating the odds and becoming one of the most successful in the state with consistent student achievement gains.
“The team has been able to increase student achievement despite drastic cuts,” Escalante said. “We’re making incredible strides even under the most difficult financial conditions.”
Glendale Unified had to reduce its instructional division from 25 to 8� employees, among other cuts, yet it has managed to see student scores climb over the last seven years. In 2002, the Academic Performance Index was 734 for the district. In 2008, it was 818. And it continues to rise.
The school district’s demographics reflect those of California. Thirty percent of students are English-language learners, and 50 percent are in some measure of poverty.
Yet Glendale Unified consistently exceeds the statewide average in student scores and was rated No. 29 of 1,000 school districts in the state by Standard & Poor’s, with higher-than-average return on investment in improving scores in language arts and math.
Some of that success can be attributed, at least in part, to the common training district leaders received through the USC Ed.D. program.
“Its focus on urban education, the use of data, innovation and positive change, is very much a part of our district. We’re very much focused on data-driven, research-based practice in each of our schools,” Escalante said. “We’re kind of like a laboratory for [Rossier’s] program. It’s really transforming a school district and taking the organization to the next level.”
Escalante has served on more than 30 dissertation committees since he graduated from the program. The reconfigured Ed.D. program went from individual dissertations to dissertation groups that tackle real-world problems of practice, which resonates with practitioners because “we don’t work in isolation,” he said.
“It does mirror what’s happening in schools today,” said Katherine Fundukian Thorossian EdD ’09, Glendale Unified School District assistant superintendent of educational services. “We share best practices and data, and those collaborative cohorts mirror what research shows works best in schools.”
The USC Rossier Ed.D. program was retooled to ensure its relevance for practitioners in today’s dynamic educational environment and to define its focus as distinct from the Ph.D. program. USC Rossier dean Karen Symms Gallagher led the effort to reshape the Ed.D. in 2004.
“We’re extremely proud of the educational practitioners that have emerged from this program,” Gallagher said. “Mike Escalante and his colleagues have proven that this program can and does improve educational outcomes for students, in this case the students of Glendale.”
Among its innovations, the new program includes four concentrations tailored to professional education fields, a strong student support system and thematic dissertation groups. Since its inception, the USC doctorate in education program has become a well-regarded model for schools of education across the country.
Many of those changes have made it all the more relevant for school district administrators, said Scott Price of Glendale Unified administrator business services, who participated in one of the first thematic dissertation groups under the guidance of USC Rossier professors David Marsh and Lawrence Picus.