For Dr. Morgaen Donaldson, the topic of evaluation in the K-12 setting leads to a broader philosophical question: how do people get better at whatever it is that they choose to do? And, moreover, what is “better?” These are questions Donaldson has been interested in for as long as she can remember. “Since I was a kid, a student and an athlete, I’ve been curious about what constitutes really outstanding performance or really good work.”
Donaldson’s current research focuses on precisely this question. She is the principal investigator of an expansive project that spans three states (Connecticut, Tennessee, and Michigan) and 23 school districts to take an unprecedented look at school principal evaluation. The project, which is funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is co-led by Dr. Shaun Dougherty (Vanderbilt University), Dr. Madeline Mavrogordato (Michigan State University), and Dr. Peter Youngs (University of Virginia).
“We’re interviewing superintendents and principals, we’re analyzing the different policies districts have put in place to enhance principals’ skills, we’re surveying teachers to get their perspectives on principals’ leadership, and then we’re looking at student performance measures to see whether they’re correlated with the teachers’ perspectives and the policies.”
The study is groundbreaking in both aims and scope. There hasn’t been a great deal of research on principal evaluation, says Donaldson, and there have been very few studies, if any, of this size. The goals of the study are diverse. “One goal is definitely to understand how to better evaluate principals, but also to try to understand what superintendents consider to be effective leadership among and for principals, and whether that differs depending on district and school characteristics,” says Donaldson.
“I’m particularly interested in superintendents’ tacit beliefs about what makes a good principal. Superintendents are acting on their beliefs about principal leadership all the time. If we have a good understanding of what those beliefs are, we can craft professional development and learning opportunities for principals to be able to build the skills they need.” – Dr. Morgaen Donaldson
Another aim of this study is to address the increasing push for instructional leadership among principals. There has been some research that suggests that helping principals improve their management skills pays off in terms of student learning, but it’s still a largely untested idea, says Donaldson. “When we try to help principals improve, we have to make some decisions about what areas to focus on. Should we be pushing principals to be better instructional leaders? Should we be pushing them to make stronger connections with families? We’re adding evidence to that debate.”
Donaldson’s passion for these issues stems from her own experience as a founding teacher of a public high school in Boston. “That was very formative for me,” she says. “It raised many of the questions that I’m still working on today. It underlies a lot of the work that I do.”
In the future, Donaldson hopes to continue investigating principal quality, as well as digging more deeply into the role of superintendents, which, she says, has not been studied in much detail. She’s also curious about the role of individuals with less positional authority, in particular school secretaries and custodians. Donaldson’s sense, based on her own experience, is that they play a pivotal role in setting the culture for schools.
For Donaldson, the real-world impact is the most exciting part of her research. “It’s very exciting to actually receive emails and phone calls from principals, superintendents and teachers across the country who want to use papers from the study,” she says. “It’s just great to hear that practitioners are reading our work and that it’s useful to them.”
Dr. Donaldson’s work is integral to the rich tapestry of research that goes on within UConn’s Department of Educational Leadership, and promotes the department’s mission to develop quality leaders in the field of education. To learn more about Donaldson’s current project, visit the IES blog.