Why Have an Academic Dean?

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When I first arrived to Seattle, I thought I would find (or form) a network of academic deans. Given the number of independent schools in the area, I must find a few, right? The result? One. Why does only one other Seattle-area school have an administrator with primary responsibility for directing academic affairs?

The academic dean is more common in other cities, particularly in single-division high schools. The model has its origins in post Civil War development of administrative positions to assist in the supervision and management of student and faculty affairs. In both higher and secondary education, deans have multiplied and evolved. It is common for independent high schools to have three deans: a dean of faculty, academic dean, and dean of students.

Two division schools (K-8 and 6-12) are the norm among Seattle independent schools. Multi-division K-12s exist across the west coast. At these schools, divisions—not functions nor constituencies—dictate their administrative organization. When the work of division leadership is too broad for one director, multi-division schools typically create an assistant division director or divisional dean of students. The same is true for schoolwide leadership. The head of a multi-division school is much more likely to create one assistant head position than establish two or three deans.

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Every school works to coordinate and develop its curriculum and faculty programs. Who leads this work if not the academic dean? In Seattle, these responsibilities are typically distributed among assistant heads, division directors/assistant directors, and department heads. However, all of these individuals have many other responsibilities, such as hiring, supervision, student academic progress and socio-emotional well-being, and parent communication. Given the vital importance of student and parent support, these professionals can only devote a portion of their time to academic program coordination and development.

University Prep bucks the trend of spreading out leadership responsibilities for academic affairs. The school’s second academic dean, I serve as a single point of leadership for curriculum coordination, faculty professional development, and instructional program initiatives. We have the positions of director of the middle school, director and assistant director of the upper school. Yet, we still have an academic dean. Why?

Part of the answer lies within the school’s history. One may divide U Prep’s 40 years into roughly three phases: founding and construction, refinement of program, and leadership/innovation. During the second phase, the school made a strong push to develop the excellence of the academic program and professionalism of the faculty. The school developed its reputation for both academic challenge and student support. The academic dean position was created during this time to accelerate the development of the school curriculum. Responsibility for faculty professional development provided the support necessary for instructional change.

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A dedicated academic dean focuses primarily on curriculum, teaching methods, faculty development, and instructional innovation. At U Prep, we run our unique Individualized Teaching Improvement Program, send collaborative teacher groups to conferences, and organize thematically-based full-faculty workshops. Our academic deans have led schoolwide program initiatives including formative and rubric assessment, differentiated instruction, student 1:1 computing, computer science curriculum, design thinking, project-based learning, Global Online Academy, electives development, and more. We cultivate teacher leadership and lead processes to design the future of teaching and learning at U Prep. We observe classroom instruction and provide teachers with actionable, research-informed feedback. We supervise the directors of library, academic technology, learning support, and global programs. In case you think it’s all glamor and magic, we also create class schedules and order textbooks!

The academic dean helps bridge the research-practice divide. Well-documented in (self-referential) academic research, the work of education scholars rarely reaches the classroom. Why? Education research may be out of touch with the practical realities of classroom instruction. Teachers may not have opportunities to access and make meaning of education research. Teaching practice may be as much of an art as a science. Jack Schneider’s recent book takes a close look at these factors.

The academic dean helps mediate all of these factors. Knowledgeable of education research, the dean helps monitor, comprehend, and explain current articles and books. The dean has perspective on the history of school reform and can position the school within the landscape of education philosophies. The dean helps teachers navigate the interplay between research findings and practical classroom matters. The dean can articulate the school’s mission and values in industry terms and design professional development to cultivate an intentional identity of teaching practice in the school. The dean may act as a school leader to identify strategic opportunities for program innovation and growth.

How does this work benefit students? Student experiences and performance underlies every class observation and program planning conversation. Student engagement, questions, performance, progress, and difficulties are all included in teacher feedback and strategic program changes. Students are included in conversations, committees, focus groups, and surveys when proposed program changes are considered. Our students even propose such changes directly, whether through student government or by simply walking into our offices!

Serving as academic dean has been an exciting experience—a thrilling intellectual, interpersonal challenge. I encourage more independent schools to identify a single person to champion and lead academics, and for academic deans and curriculum coordinators to build stronger networks and collaborations. You know where to find me!

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