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New Stanford program helps district leaders drive change

The new GSE/GSB executive program aims to strengthen participants' strategic thinking and problem-solving skills.
The new GSE/GSB executive program aims to strengthen participants' strategic thinking and problem-solving skills.

New Stanford program helps district leaders drive change

A new program by the graduate schools of education and business develops entrepreneurial leadership skills of superintendents.

How does school leadership impact student achievement? According to recent research, leadership is second only to teaching as a top influencer of student success.

With that in mind, Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) and Graduate School of Business (GSB) have teamed up for an innovative program aimed at strengthening the strategic thinking and problem-solving skills of district leaders and giving them the support they need to drive change and boost achievement among all students.

The new Executive Program for Education Leaders (EPEL) targets superintendents and two to three team members from their central office. For the first year, EPEL will focus exclusively on leaders from California school districts. The yearlong program includes both on-campus and distance-learning sessions taught by Stanford faculty and invited speakers who are leaders in the field.

EPEL is one of two programs offered by the Stanford Educational Leadership Initiative (SELI). The other is the Principal Fellows Program.

"Most often leadership training in education focuses heavily on managing rather than changing organizations," said Rebecca Katz, executive director of SELI. "Excellent management skills are crucial, of course, but today’s leaders have limited opportunities to interact with researchers to come up with new ways to approach and solve problems."

Matching the needs of education professionals

The curriculum matches the expressed needs of education leaders with the expertise of Stanford faculty. Topics include design thinking; crisis management; motivating and managing people; implementing and assessing reform; leading and supporting workforce learning; technology in education; and turning around low-performing districts and schools.

The program starts in July with one week on campus. During the first four days superintendents will focus on general management and leadership with in-depth analysis of strategies both from a general management and leadership perspective as well as addressing specific challenges faced by schools and districts.

They will be joined by their team members for last two days of the week, when the teams will continue to engage in sessions focused on using research and honing leadership skills, come up with action plans for their own districts, and learn how to apply the lessons learned.

"In addition to exposing participants to cutting-edge research being conducted by Stanford faculty, the program fosters collaboration, giving space and time for leaders to build relationships and create networks that support continued learning," said Katz. "It can often be lonely in these leadership roles and these supports are crucial to success."

The program continues off-campus with online sessions and one-on-one support and two additional on-campus sessions during weekends in October and the following March. 

"District leaders need to steer large and complex organizations toward the key social goal of providing excellent educational opportunities for students. Many education leaders have had little opportunity to learn the strategic leadership skills that can help them with this difficult task," said Susanna Loeb, professor of education at the GSE and faculty co-director of EPEL.

Loeb said the hope with EPEL is to provide the educational opportunities and also a place for superintendents and other district leaders to learn from each other.

"With new standards and a new system of accountability in California, the challenge today is particularly intense," she said. "Our aim is the bring the resources of Stanford to help them meet their goals."

A multidisciplinary approach

The collaboration between the GSB and GSE leverages the expertise each school has in its respective fields.

The Graduate School of Business has extensive experience with high-quality executive education; the school already offers programs for nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs. The Graduate School of Education regularly works hand-in-hand with district, school and policy leaders; it has a research partnership with San Francisco Unified School District, for example, that drives change in teaching and learning.

"The interdisciplinary nature of the program draws from best practices in business and education to encourage district leaders to come up with innovative solutions to the variety of challenges they face, " said Larissa Tiedens, professor of organizational behavior at the GSB and faculty co-director of EPEL. "Over the course of the year, we hope participants will extend beyond their comfort zone and find new ways to have impact."

Application deadline April 1

Applications for EPEL are being accepted on a rolling basis until April 1. The cost, highly subsidized by Stanford GSE and GSB, is $2,000 per team member and includes tuition, room, board and course materials.

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