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Volume 30, Number 3
May/June 2014

District-Based Dissertations

“Real-world” projects link research and practice


In 2010, the Rowland Unified School District, a diverse K–12 district of 50,000 students in an industrial area in Southern California, was in the midst of several reform efforts—among them improving literacy instruction and establishing learning communities for teachers. 

Robert Rueda and David Marsh, professors at the University of Southern California (USC) Rossier School of Education, approached Superintendent Maria Ott with a proposal: What if their Ed.D. students evaluated the Rowland reforms? This would provide the district with in-depth, free research and would give the doctoral students a real-world research experience—a “capstone project”—that could serve as their dissertation.

Thus began a mutually beneficial partnership. Over the course of a year, three teams of three doctoral students conducted qualitative and quantitative research in the Rowland district. Each of the projects focused on a specific area of concern for the district: Was its systemwide school reform effort working? Were high schools educating students effectively compared with other area schools, and how could they do better? How could the district increase the academic achievement of English-language learners (ELLs)? “It was appealing to have these graduate students take a look at things that were perplexing us without a cost to the school district and to get an outside, objective view,” says Ott, who now teaches in the doctoral program at USC. 

What happened in Rowland is catching on. Doctoral programs around the country have begun engaging in such partnerships in order to give their students—future education leaders—experience in getting at the heart of problems of practice, the way they will one day in their jobs, rather than writing dissertations that are primarily theoretical. 

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.