Posted by: Catherine Lugg | April 21, 2011

Cultivating thoughtlessness in the pursuit of the trivial: Executive Ed.D. programs in Educational Administration

Below is a working document of an essay that will be distributed on Monday. Please feel free to give me feedback.

Since the 1990s, executive Ed.D. programs in educational administration have cropped up like kudzu across the US scholarly landscape. Typically modeled after executive MBA programs–not the long established traditional Ed.D. program–these executive programs promise students that they can complete a doctoral program of study in a mere 3-4 years (this includes a dissertation or “capstone experience”), by focusing their efforts on solving “problems of practice,” hopefully at their own worksite. By definition, students will not deeply understand the extant scholarship nor learn how to conduct rigorous independent research that is publishable in peer-reviewed research journals and scholarly books. In some institutions, the distinction is made between cultivating leaders (“do-ers” or the executive Ed.D. track) and researchers (“thinkers” or the Ph.D. and traditional Ed.D. tracks).* For many career-oriented educators who are ambivalent about doctoral study, they are persuaded by this promise of quickly becoming “Dr. Leader” while they continue to work full-time.

Part of this growth in executive Ed.D. programs has been fueled by the deregulation of higher education across the US (Baker, Orr & Young, 2007). Since the mid-1980s, states have allowed traditional teaching institutions to first offer MA programs in educational administration, and increasingly, doctoral programs. Additionally, with the advent of on-line and for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and Walden University, hundreds that multiply into the thousands over the years of graduates from their respective fast-track executive Ed.D. programs have been pumped out, making holders of the Ed.D. increasingly ubiquitous. These numbers of graduates also increase the fiscal and political pressure on the research-extensive universities, particularly the state research extensive institutions, to “get into the game.” The comparisons then flow: For example, if the University of Phoenix can offer a fast-track executive Ed.D. program, why not Rutgers?

In a similar vein, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is leading an effort to supposedly “reclaim” the Ed.D. as a doctorate of practice (again “do-ers” instead of “thinkers”). It has encouraged institutions across the US to develop new fast-track programs targeting practitioners working in K-12 settings. The traditional Ed.D. in educational administration, while designed for working professions (i.e., classes are held after 4 PM instead of during the day), has been quite similar in scope and sequence to Ph.D. programs, and it typically takes a student 6-10 years to complete their degree. This is particularly the case at my home institution, which has been offering the traditional Ed.D. since the 1930s. But with the advent of a Ph.D. program in education, the pressure has been how to better delineate between the two doctoral programs. While the espoused hope is to enhance the educational leadership skills of practitioners, many university administrators like the idea of increasing the numbers of doctoral students, particularly by generating predictable annual numbers of matriculated students to boost their fragile fiscal bottom lines. To be blunt, for many university administrators who are desperate to establish a pedagogical “cash cow” in an era of ever-eroding finances an executive Ed.D. program looks like a sure winner. But are such programs a “winner” for the students they supposedly serve, the students whom they in turn serve, or for the larger society?

Historically, the field of educational administration has a nasty reputation for crass anti-intellectualism. Besides the contemporary stories of MA students needing to learn to play golf (or redoing their wardrobe, see Lugg & Tooms, 2010) before they are permitted to graduate, you have the legacy of vacuous coursework leading to truly trivial dissertations. As Raymond Callahan painfully delineates in his 1962 masterpiece, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, the early doctoral programs in educational administration were notorious for their appalling lack of scholarly rigor (ca. 1900-1955). The goal of these programs was to produce as many graduates as quickly as possible. Any deep knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum, psychology, sociology, philosophy or history was dismissed as irrelevant and actually counter-productive. Only the problems directly related to the efficient management of the district–or “problems of practice” in today’s parlance–were considered worthy of doctoral investigation. In the section of the book entitled “The Descent into Trivia,” Callahan found that the fetishization of problems of practice led to dissertations focusing on the efficacy and efficiency of various “toilet bowl cleaners,” “roach powders” and even “toilet paper” (see Callahan, 1962, p. 242). While the field finally embraced rigorous research approaches with the advent of the “theory movement” (Culbertson, 1981) the current embrace of “problems of practice” for executive Ed.D. programs may well mark a return to the much older anti-intellectualism of the field.

In addition to this anti-intellectual legacy, contemporary executive Ed.D. programs seem to run afoul of some of the most intriguing research findings from the “new cognitive science.” It appears that when meaningful learning occurs, the biology of the brain is altered. Yet, as many of us who are struggling with the glories of aging know, to actually change your biological state you need a key component–time. And time is the one thing students in executive Ed.D. programs simply do not have. For example, at Rutgers we are now offering “inquiry classes” lasting a mere 3 or 4 weeks during the summer (depending on the level–the advanced class is 4 weeks). I am quite unsure how anyone can gain a basic understanding of a research tradition, much less design and implement a study, but I am confident the central administration loves those tuition dollars. And if a student manages to fail his or her doctoral qualifying exams or dissertation proposal because of their grossly inadequate methodological preparation, s/he can always take the traditional methodology classes offered during the academic year. Only then, will s/he be grounded in a specific research tradition and given the time to actually design and implement a study.

Besides engaging in a possible form of intellectual theft from our own students, we may be also “stealing” from the very public school students who we claim to be indirectly serving by offering these fast-track executive Ed.D. programs. While the research data are very tentative and focus on MA programs, it appears that the intellectual rigor of a given program, as defined by its Carnegie Classification, influences not only the quality of building principals, but of their actual practice. Principals who received their MAs from research intensive institutions tend to hire better academically prepared teachers, who, in turn, seem to generate better outcomes on state assessments of student learning (see Baker & Fuller, 2009; Fuller, Young & Baker, 2011). This seems to be particularly the case in low-income urban public schools (Baker & Cooper, 2005; Baker & Fuller, 2009). So while there are no real hard data on this point regarding executive Ed.D. programs, I will shamelessly speculate that, if nothing else, hiring a graduate from a doctoral program that focuses on trivia instead of research and scholarship is probably not good for the intellectual health of any school district, much less for the intellectual health of the children within that district whom we are supposedly serving.

But perhaps the biggest danger presented by executive Ed.D. programs in educational administration is their aggressive cultivation of “thoughtlessness.” Like the executive MBA programs after which they are modeled, executive Ed.D. programs privilege having students “finish quickly” over deeply “knowing” much of anything. Unlike the traditional Ed.D. or Ph.D. programs, executive Ed.D. students are prepared to be “do-ers” not “thinkers.” Hence, students are encouraged to embrace of “problems of practice” instead of “areas of research” as they proceed through their abbreviated course of studies. Above all, the time-line to completion is sacrosanct, the skills involved in careful thinking and judging are deemed as far less crucial. Given the anti-intellectual history of educational administration, this is a recipe for a host of disasters, not the least of which is cultivating a new generation of embarrassingly bad dissertations on trivial topics. Furthermore, graduates of these programs are overwhelmingly public school administrators, leaders working in a very specific political context, engaged in the task of educating all children, regardless of social status, to be citizens in a democratic republic. Drawing on Hannah Arendt (2006), by extolling thoughtlessness over thinking deeply, and denying our students the time to reflect on their own thoughts and actions, as well as the actual contexts in which these occur, executive Ed.D. programs may well produce leaders who are largely incapable of making critical judgments about much of anything. But this ability to make wise judgments is critical to the lifeblood of any educational institution as well as for any country. According to Arendt, to be a moral leader in the area of politics, and educational administration is very much about politics and the polis, one must think, one must judge, and then one must act upon these judgments (2006). Before “doing,” a good leader must carefully think and judge. Thinking, judging, and the acts of leadership (“doing”) are inseparable. Yet, executive Ed.D. programs largely ignore this profound responsibility demanded by political leadership by aggressively cultivating thoughtlessness in the pursuit of the trivial. After all, the students only have 3 or 4 years to finish their degrees.

For universities whose central mission is research, the essential function of executive Ed.D. programs is parasitic. By design, these programs are not tied to the research mission so there are few incentives for faculty to be willingly involved with Ed.D. dissertations, or “capstone projects,” since none of these will be suitable for publication in research venues–the lifeblood of research institutions and tenure-track careers. Yet if tenure-track faculty members are compelled to be involved these projects, the intellectual result will be like having kudzu on a tree. The sheer volume of un-publishable executive Ed.D. dissertations will slowly but surely strangle the research mission of the faculty and ultimately of the institution. For UCEA member institutions, we need to consider carefully as to whether or not fast-track executive Ed.D. programs actually advance our research missions and the field of educational administration, or are they instead something else entirely.


Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin Press.

Baker, B.D., Cooper, B. (2005). Do principals with stronger academic backgrounds hire better teachers? Policy implications for improving high-poverty schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 41, (3), 449-479.

Baker, B.D. Orr, M.T., & Young, M.D. (2007). Academic drift, institutional production, and professional distribution of graduate degrees in educational leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 43, (3), 279-318.

Baker, B.D., Fuller, E. (2009). The declining academic quality of school principals and why it may matter: Evidence from Missouri and Wisconsin. Working paper.

Callahan, R.E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Culbertson, J.A. (1981). Antecedents of the theory movement. Educational Administration Quarterly, 17, (1), 25-47.

Fuller, E., Young, M.D., Baker, B.D. (2011). Do principal preparation programs influence student achievement through the building of teacher-team qualifications by the principal? An exploratory analysis. Educational Administration Quarterly 47(1) 173–216.

Lugg, C.A., Tooms, A.K. (2010, February). A shadow of ourselves: Identity erasure and the politics of queer leadership. School Leadership and Management, 30 (1), 77-91

*Any doctoral program in educational administration should integrate “doing” and “thinking” per Arendt, who believed both were essential to becoming a moral political actor. Her classic example of the thoughtless leader is that horrific desk jockey of death, Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann, who never directly murdered a soul, enabled the murder of millions of human beings by his sheer “thoughtlessness” (see Arendt, 2006).



  1. The anti-intellectual Ed.D. programs never really disappeared — they just shifted venue. If Rutgers’ program is heftier than the ones Callahan criticized, there are still plenty of bad Ed.D. dissertations out there (now often available as electronic dissertations). I’m not sure I’d want to claim that the “traditional Ed.D.” is something to be especially proud of sui generis. But there are also plenty of bad Ph.D. dissertations (in education and elsewhere), and I think the stronger argument is the one about time and general rigor. The root of the problem in some of the programs I am familiar with is the failure to involve students in primary research activities early in doctoral programs and then fantasizing that students who have never done anything other than the bare minimum required readings for courses, and abbreviated proto-projects for methods classes will somehow be able to be competent researchers in anything.

    There are legitimate arguments to be made for changing the form of dissertations — M.L.A has talked about the importance of getting away from the “dissertation as proto-book” legacy, and a number of science programs have dissertations that are really compilations of article MSS (some of which may be published before the Ph.D. is granted). We’re still stuck with the “psych-envy five-chapter diss.” as the modal form, but I could see a legitimate dissertation for someone in the field being a set of papers on a particular practice/policy, akin to annual evaluation reports.

  2. Cath – You need to distribute this letter widely. Current and prospective students of these fast-track programs need to understand these differences between the traditional and fast-track Ed.D. that you discuss, as do educators in general and, especially, board of education members. Based on my experiences as an administrator and teacher in public schools, the majority of educators, both teachers AND administrators, cannot differentiate between a traditional and fast-track Ed.D. Forget about asking them to differentiate an Ed.D. from a Ph.D. (most will simply state that a Ph.D. is harder). I think the proliferation of for-profit schools offering a Ph.D. in educational administration continues to contribute to this problem. Your essay will go a long way in educating public educators about doctoral degrees.

    I feel the traditional Ed.D. program that I completed at Rutgers prepared me to first be a “thinker” to become a better “doer.” I use the skills that I developed during my course and dissertation work on a daily basis as a school principal. Perhaps the most important skill that I developed was the ability to critically assess research, which allows me to better connect theory and research to practice in ways which teachers (most with a BA/BS as their highest level of education) can understand and implement to improve their classroom instruction and student learning. This only happened by going above and beyond “the bare minimum required readings for courses”, which Sherman points to as a problem in Ed.D. programs. I heeded the guidance I received from several professors at Rutgers (I will name names…Jim Bliss, Bill Garner, Ron Hyman, and of course, Catherine Lugg) to “take the time to read, think, and write”, and to “let ideas marinate”, to “read closely”, as well as to “go read more papers”, all of which required TIME. I don’t know if these things would have happened if I was speeding through the program on a fast-track.

  3. Dr. Lugg,
    I want to write at the outset that I have tremendous respect for your views – but as is described below, I hope that you are wrong about some of these points. As a current student in what you are identifying as an executive Ed.D. program I am disappointed in the content of this post.

    I would not dispute the possibility that the quality of many of the Ed.D. dissertations will suffer as a result of the condensed nature of the cohort program; however, what I do dispute is the claim that writing a relatively trivial dissertation will equate to relatively thoughtless leadership in the field. I think it is worth reminding ourselves what the Ed.D. is – that is a doctorate program designed to enhance the knowledge and skills of practitioners. The Ed.D. is not a doctorate program designed to create productive researchers (if it is, it should not be). Though it may be a bitter pill to swallow, I argue that “thoughtful” leadership is that leadership which takes account of the current body of educational research when “doing”. For example, if an educational leader is considering the adoption of a new curriculum model what we should want of him/her is that he/she consults the existing research, and subsequently, makes an informed judgment. What we should not expect is that the educational leader will devote years to conduct a study of the proposed curriculum change – that is the function of university academics (Ph.D. holders). At minimum, if executive Ed.D. programs teach students how to properly consume research and how to appropriately incorporate the conclusions of said research into their decision making calculus then they may be regarded as successful. Though certainly neither laudable nor desirable, I would argue that this can be accomplished even if students produce a trivial and embarrassing dissertation. (I want to be clear here that I intend to produce an impressive dissertation despite this viewpoint).

    Though it is an analogy that suffers from flaws, consider the fact that those pursuing law degrees have far different experiences as graduate students than those pursing Ph.D. degrees in law – and rightly so because the purposes are quite different.

    From the perspective of a Ph.D. holder who spends her time conducting research at the university level it may be difficult to except that (for practitioners) conducting research is of much less importance than reading research; however, I believe that it is through the latter that educational leaders will have the opportunity to affect meaningful change for the students in our public schools. To suggest that universities are “stealing” from public schools by allowing graduate students to enhance their skills and knowledge through executive Ed.D. programs is, in my view, imprudent. Would it be better if these students did not attend the classes and complete the readings and assignments that consume them while enrolled? In my career I have known several educational leaders that hold doctorate degrees (some Ph.D. and some traditional Ed.D.). I know of not a single person who expects that someone with a doctorate (“Dr. Leader”) is equipped with the magic pill that will solve all of the problems of public education. All involved accept that despite convincing research in some areas, education is a social science in which very little is closed to debate.

    I also believe that the distinction made between “do-ers” and “thinkers” is a false distinction – they are not mutually exclusive. I am guessing that there are many Ph.D. (or traditional Ed.D.) holders that are relatively thoughtless despite their production of research. Likewise I am certain that there are many holders of Ed.D. degrees that fall short of being enlightened “do-ers”. My argument is that the Ed.D. program should aim to produce graduates who are both “thinkers” and “do-ers” (and I think the Rutgers program is accomplishing this). To equate thinking with the production of meaningful research over an extended period of time while earning a doctorate degree is a rather narrow interpretation of what it means to be a thoughtful member of a profession. (Are the only thoughtful physicians out there those who have Ph.D. degrees in biology? – again not a perfect analogy, but worth consideration) We read Arendt for the Leadership for Social Justice course (which I learned a lot from doing). Respectfully, I believe that implying that Arendt was making the argument that all leaders must engage in meaningful scholarly research as a prerequisite to thinking, judging, and acting morally goes well beyond the intent of her argument.

    Lastly, I would argue that the if there is a problem with executive Ed.D. Programs, it is not the program design that is the cause. The cause may be that the professors are unwilling to hold students to a high standard as a consequence of the program design. Every student in these programs should have the understanding that they have made the individual and personal decision to participate in a fast-paced and rigorous academic program. Though these students will certainly complain when the work becomes overwhelming, those complaints should not serve as justification for professors lowering standards and expectations. If students can’t handle it, they should drop out or pursue an alternative program. However, if the university is going to capitulate to (understandable) pressure from students to reduce the work load then, in my view, those concessions may be the real source of the problem.

    I have great respect for the author of this essay and I am going to assume that I am wrong and she is right. My position as a current student in the program being criticized no doubt retards my view. My hope is that despite reservations, all of the professors involved in the program (whether willingly or not) give their best effort to maximize its potential. My fear is that in the absence of this commitment, the criticisms of the program will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  4. […] the purpose of this new journal? Probably to publish work from trivial dissertations that would be rejected by every other reputable research journal. But “The Journal of Education Research and Policy” will provide a sort of legitimation […]

  5. […] Ed.D. degree is now beyond redemption and will move to offering the Ph.D. in education. As someone who has voiced strong concern regarding the Ed.D., especially those fast-tracked programs in educational administration/leadership, I view this […]

  6. […] going into much detail, this may have been the fate of some of my posts from a few years ago. This is not too surprising, though it is disappointing. The […]

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