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New UIndy MBA aims to be a principal training model

Scott Elliott

That’s the goal of a new MBA program at the University of Indianapolis, said John Somers, who directs graduate programs in education at the university.

A panel of experts from the colleges of education and business, convened to study what school leaders really need to know, concluded principals should have an understanding of teaching and learning along with proficiency in analytical and problem solving techniques more common to business schools.

Just as important, they found, was a need for ongoing support and mentoring even after the training program ends.

In cooperation with the national Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, and with financial support from the Kern and Walton family foundations, the university is one of just two sites in the country that this summer will pilot a new education masters in business administration. Its share of funding is $3 million.

The MBA aims to partner initially with 12 central Indiana school districts and charter school groups to identify teachers with leadership potential. During the initial three years, at least 15 future school leaders will receive $50,000 fellowships to support coursework over two summers and three years of executive mentoring. So the funding will support at least 45 future school leaders in the first three years.

The cross-college collaboration, Somers said, resulted in a unique program of study the university believes builds on the work its done to overhaul teacher training.

“It’s honestly been a treat,” Somers said. “Both sides really listened to each other.”

Teachers who want to be principals typically begin by completing a certification program or seeking a maters degree from a graduate school of education. They have many choices locally, from universities in the city like IUPUI and Butler to nearby schools such as Indiana and Purdue to online-only options like WGU Indiana. Some educators pursue those degrees or certificates to earn continuing education credits that help them earn higher pay. They don’t necessarily plan to seek leadership positions.

The MBA program is aimed at those who really want to be school leaders.

Woodrow Wilson’s interest in an education MBA came from research that examined what principals were taught compared to what they did on the job, said Arthur Levine, the former president of Teacher’s College at Columbia University who heads the fellowship program.“By and large what we found was the programs have very little to do with what principals actually do,” Levine said. “They have very little connection with practice and with the kinds of skills and knowledge principals needed to have.”

Today’s average principal leadership programs, Levine said, lead to “very weak degrees. It’s embarrassing.”

The MBA program will build on the university’s overhaul of its teacher training program, which aimed to incorporate concepts that are central the Wilson fellowships. That means placing a high priority on getting students working in schools and learning on site, with professional educators paired with them as mentors.

“Those students are in classrooms for a solid year with clinically based mentors,” Somers said. “You have real teachers teaching the students as they are in the classroom. They are learning by doing, which I think is the most powerful pedagogy you can have.”

Levine had high praise for the University of Indianapolis, a Methodist college with about 5,000 students.

“Of all the institutions we work with, the University of Indianapolis is probably the most impressive,” he said. “I really think they’ve reinvented teacher education. They wanted to try it and we couldn’t imagine a better place to work with in terms of the imagination and the results they produce.”

For the MBA, principal preparation was similarly redesigned with a heavy focus on mentoring and support for principals on the job, along with the introduction of business management concepts into the curriculum.

“They’re going to learn lots of business quantitative tools that will allow them to engage in deep analytics to determine where are the bottlenecks,” Somers said.

John Somers
John Somers

One of the features of the program, for example, is that it expects students to earn a “green belt” in Six Sigma, a quality management system popularized in the U.S. by General Electric. Green belts are the first step in a hierarchy of expertise in reducing errors and defects in business processes.

“They will know how to engage in the quality management process that takes companies from good to great,” said Somers.

The education-focused MBA is the latest Indiana-based experiment in educator training by Woodrow Wilson.

Indiana was the first state to partner with the Princeton, N.J.-based fellowship in 2007 when it established a training program for promising recent graduates or career-changers to become teachers in science, technology, engineering and math. Now four other states have that program — Georgia, Ohio, New Jersey and Michigan. Four Indiana universities — Purdue, Ball State, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Indianapolis — altered their teacher training programs to participate.

The University of Indianapolis and the Milwaukee School of Engineering are the pilot sites for the MBA, which Levine hopes will be an idea that can be exported elsewhere.

“We want these places to be the models for the country,” he said. “We think the University of Indianapolis could really be that model. We think other institutions will replicate what they’ve done.”

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