For the past few years, online advanced-degree programs have been touted as a convenient way for teachers to meet their requirements for certification and ongoing professional development. Now, prospective K-12 administrators may benefit from such programs, too.

Anyone who wants to become a principal or superintendent—but has held off from earning an advanced degree in education administration because they were pressed for time or live in a remote area—now can fulfill the certification requirements in at least 20 states from an online university.

Supporters of the online program say it could alleviate the shortage of school administrators that many states now face. But critics say an online program is no substitute for the rigors of a traditional administrative program.

Capella University, an internet-based university headquartered in Minnesota, offers both a masters and doctorate program in education administration. Last month, the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education announced that Capella University’s program meets Arizona’s requirements for certifying principals and superintendents.

Because of the state’s reciprocity agreements, Arizona’s certification is valid in 20 other states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Washington.

But just because an online program meets certification requirements doesn’t mean its graduates will be able to get a job as a superintendent or principal, said Joe Schneider, executive secretary of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration.

“Online programs are a long way from preparing tomorrow’s principals and superintendents for the complex job of running our schools,” Schneider said. “I don’t think you’re going to see school systems running out to hire these people simply because Arizona approves the program.”

Capella University maintains that its online education administration program can help alleviate the shortage of K-12 administrators, because it provides a convenient way reach those who are interested in pursuing administrator careers.

“To do the program online at your desk, it lets you simplify your life and lets you reach your professional goals,” said Elizabeth Bruch, dean of Capella University’s school of education and professional development.

“Over the next decade, [more than] half of the superintendents [now in America’s school districts] are going to have to be replaced,” said Barbara Knisely, public information manager for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “There are 14,000 school superintendents, and you’re looking at half of that number being replaced.”

Schneider doubts whether online programs like the one from Capella University will have any impact on the number of people who enter superintendent or principal positions.

“More than 50 percent of people enrolled in these programs never become school administrators,” he said.

In his experience, he said, mostly classroom teachers enroll in online degree programs because they want to earn a convenient, comfortable, and low-cost masters degree.

“Those aren’t the people who want to be school administrators. They’re just people who want a masters degree to get a pay raise,” Schneider said. “Those aren’t the people we want running our schools.”

Although Schneider admits there is a shortage of K-12 administrators, he says the problem is not unique.

“There’s a shortage in every field. We’re going to have to replace half the teachers and half the nurses in this country,” he said.

Societal changes and higher standards for schools without commensurate salary increases have put additional pressure on school administrators.

“It’s not that [school districts aren’t] finding people to take the job, it’s just that the applicant pool is smaller,” AASA’s Knisely said. Prospective school administrators have to decide whether it’s really worth it for them to get into the field.

“It’s a very political position to hold in a school district,” Knisely said. “It’s certainly a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job. You’re not just there between eight and five.”

Urban school districts have an easier time attracting qualified superintendents and principals than rural districts. “Rural America has a hard time finding principals, but it’s not because they don’t have degrees, it’s because the job is in a rural area,” Schneider said.

For school districts considering hiring administrators who graduated from online programs, Schneider said, “I would look to see what practical experience in administration they’ve had—and at this point in time, I’d shuffle their resumes to the bottom.”

Schneider said a good education administration program should be rigorous and offer a lot of practical experience.

“We’ve got a lot of lousy traditional degree programs. … If we are going to add online ones, they really have to impress us,” Schneider said. “They’ve really got to convince us before we endorse them.”

Kathy Campbell, deputy director of the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education, said it was merely a routine procedure for its board staff to evaluate Capella Univesity’s course for school administrators against the state’s requirements.

“It looked like it met all the criteria,” Campbell said. “The curriculum looks fine, the required reading looks fine.

“If you have an executive or a busy individual that can’t go to class, then it’s great,” Campbell said. “I don’t think it’s any better than any other type of classroom, it just works for some people.”


Capella University

Arizona State Board for Private Post-Secondary Education

National Policy Board for Educational Administration

American Association of School Administrators