When four South Carolina universities established a cooperative pathway to a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in education systems improvement science at Clemson University, they did so with the intention of seeing the program’s alumni quickly make positive, measurable impacts in education across the state. Fortunately, what they intended is already happening before the first cohort member has even graduated from the program.
Noelle Paufler, assistant professor in Clemson’s College of Education, serves as program coordinator for the Ed.D. program. She said this kind of immediate productivity from students was inevitable when many of them are already working as administrators and leaders in the field of education. This particular brand of doctoral program hinges on institutions’ ability to make a program as applied as possible, so it should come as no surprise that they’re wasting no time putting lessons learned to use in their respective workplaces.
“This is a degree designed with working professionals in mind, and it is designed to solve the so-called ‘wicked problems’ in our state,” Paufler said. “Land-grant institutions such as Clemson have a duty to address the specific issues in education that arise due to race, rurality and poverty, and our students have already shown that they’re becoming equipped to address these issues in a very real, practical way.”
Clemson University, Coastal Carolina University, Winthrop University and The Citadel established an Ed.D. consortium partnership and the program’s first cohort in summer 2018. Completing an education specialist (Ed.S.) degree program at any of the four institutions offers students who are admitted to Clemson’s Ed.D. a pathway to earning a doctorate, which can help speed their overall time to completion.
The program’s enrollment has already grown substantially over the last two years. Its third cohort, which just began in summer 2020, nearly doubled the previous cohort’s size to 30 students for a total of 61 students across all three cohorts. According to Paufler, these students hail from urban and rural districts from across the state, and more than two thirds of these students come from Ed.D. consortium partnership member institutions.
Natasha Harvin-Wright is a part of that initial cohort and has worked in education for 20 years. Since starting the program, she has become director of human resources for the Berkeley County School District. Harvin-Wright is a graduate of the Citadel’s Ed.S. degree and said she chose the program because of how it was geared toward solving actual problems—not theoretical ones—in South Carolina schools.
“Growing up in rural South Carolina, my teachers helped me shape future goals and define possibilities beyond my reality. I recognize that many students in South Carolina face a variety of limitations that create obstacles to advancement in their lives,” Harvin-Wright said. “That’s why this program spoke to me on a professional and personal level. The way we solve many problems in this state and improve people’s lives is through education.”
Harvin-Wright said that the applied nature of the program became even clearer when she chose the issue on which she wanted to focus her dissertation. In her role, she works with new teachers with five or less years of experience, and this group is statistically the most likely to exit the profession. Around 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession between years one and five, which is a big reason for teacher shortages in the state.
It was for this reason that Harvin-Wright chose to focus her dissertation on teacher self-efficacy and the effect of focusing school efforts on increasing confidence and support through sustained personalized professional development for new teachers. She has tested interventions and improvement strategies that can better translate to classrooms, and she’s found her confidence improve as her school system confronts complicated issues around returning to classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The skill set I’ve learned from this program is something I’ve used in planning and implementing changes around the pandemic,” Harvin-Wright said. “It’s become more apparent than ever that we’ve got to fully understand a problem before we start presenting solutions to it.”
Marquice Clark, principal at Cleveland Academy in Spartanburg, is part of the program’s second cohort and is in the process of settling on his dissertation topic. Clark is a graduate of Morris College’s Call Me MISTER program, and he said his focus on the effect of systemic racism in education has only increased as he has progressed through his career and through the Ed.D. program.
He has chosen to examine language as a barrier for black students and their reading proficiency. Clark said as the Ed.D. program has improved his abilities as a researcher, it has allowed him to examine his own position as a black male in South Carolina and how that affects his outlook on his research topic. He said the program also creates an open, honest environment among students, which he said gave him more confidence to explore the topic.
“Clemson allows and encourages me and my fellow cohort members to have tough conversations with one another,” Clark said. “We’re all doctoral students and we all work in education, but beyond that we’re all humans, and we’ve been able to have tough conversations and see one another’s humanity. I’m better as a result of our time, and I’m hopeful they are, too.”
Clark is a devoted practitioner of the continuous improvement model, and he said the Ed.D. program has allowed him to more effectively implement change based on this model while also having a positive effect on his day-to-day experiences as a principal. He said the program allows him to examine situations more holistically so that he can create interventions for teachers who are struggling and examine what is leading to success for other teachers.
“I can confirm these approaches and implement them better,” Clark said. “I don’t go into my teachers’ classrooms telling them what the solution is; if anything, I tell them we’re going to fail our way to it together. That’s how we get results.”
The college is directly involved in the national Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, which is an initiative that critically examines the goals of the education doctorate at large, which puts Clemson on the leading edge of design in Ed.D. programs. George J. Petersen, founding dean of Clemson’s College of Education, currently serves as chair elect of the dean’s council of the Carnegie Project.
Petersen said the growth in enrollment of Clemson’s Ed.D. and the positive impacts it has already produced across the state are proof that this approach to doctoral education works.
“Programs geared toward educational leaders should be as rigorous as they are applied and practical,” Petersen said. “Our Ed.D. students already see the value that the degree program has added for them as they implement change in their schools, districts and communities. The Ed.D. that Clemson has developed along with other institutions is already proving to be a best-in-class program because it puts real issues in South Carolina education front and center.”
For more information on requirements and admission to the program, click here.
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