In the 2018-2019 academic year, the Department of Educational Leadership will be highlighting a new RESEARCH series where we take a deeper look at our programs and researchers to learn more about the work they are doing, what excites them, and how these larger issues relate to their professional careers within the Neag School of Education.
“Reform to me means real, fundamental change,” responded Department of Educational Leadership Professor, Dr. Casey Cobb, when asked about what reform meant to him. He explains the idea that true reform is radical, but “school reform” has been ongoing for the past four decades - meaning we have not gotten it right yet.
Dr. Cobb’s research pushes the education reformers, or those responsible for education reform, to consider the larger sociopolitical, health and economic conditions under which schools operate to ignite real change and improve educational outcomes. In his research, he examines the distribution of resources related to child development across metropolitan Hartford. While school choice programs brought on by the Sheff v. O’Neill case in 1996 have been in place for over 20 years, the greater Hartford area remains one of the most racially and economically segregated regions in the United States.
Specifically, his research uses geospatial techniques to explore housing, economic, health, and educational indicators in Hartford’s Sheff region. While his study is not designed to confer causal relationships, it does offer a social epidemiological case study that policy makers can learn from. Results demonstrate gross inequalities on a variety of key indicators related to child development, including housing and property resources, health outcomes and accessibility, and household income. These findings are significant as they reveal structural inequalities in the relatively small geographic area, which is reflective of similar inequalities in the educational experiences of students in the area.
The use of geospatial techniques to study educational issues and child development is relatively new. The method uses several sources of data more commonly used in Public Health and Economics. This new perspective adds to educational policy reform in a number of ways as it offers a more holistic account of the conditions under which schools operate in more and less advantaged communities. Additionally, the results are presented in multilayered maps, which communicates data in real and specific contexts for a more meaningful impact.
Oftentimes, school reform policies limit their focus to just schools; however, Dr. Cobb’s research tackles inequalities outside of the scholastic environment. This research not only offers insight to scholars in the education space, but it is a successful example of interdisciplinary and inter-modal research that can be used by those in different fields of study as well.
What intrigues Dr. Cobb most about this research is how the mapping data convey powerful messages that can lead to fresh conversations about how best to reform schools and the communities in which they reside. The maps bridge economic, health, housing and education data that are typically looked at in isolation.
“I think we are all unique as researchers because we each bring different knowledge bases, world views, and analytic skills to bear on educational problems. I examine policies with an eye toward their implications for equity and fairness.” - Dr. Casey Cobb
Dr. Cobb is a professor with the Department of Educational Leadership, whose research focuses on school choice, accountability, and school reform, where he examines the implications for equity and educational opportunity. He holds an A.B. in Economics from Harvard University, an M.S. in Educational Leadership from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Arizona State University. He is one of the many professors in the department who is using research to challenge current ideas, develop a broader perspective and create actionable reform.
Written by: Meghan Farrell, October 2018
“Engaged scholarship, as I conceptualize it, takes time and dedication. It is about building relationships and confianza (trust) with community members. It is about working in solidarity alongside community members. It is about co-constructing knowledge with communities. It is about viewing scholarship as an act of resistance,” describes Dr. Erica Fernández on the challenge of using scholarship as a form of engagement. A challenge, that Dr. Fernández demonstrates a strong commitment to—promoting school justice and equity through her research.
One of her current research projects, in collaboration with Dr. Michele Femc-Bagwell, employs photovoice to understand the parental engagement experiences of Parents of Color, specifically undocumented Latinx immigrant parents, in urban schools in Connecticut. Photovoice is a qualitative research method in which community participants use pictures to identify and represent issues that are important to them. Dr. Fernández and Dr. Femc-Bagwell provided access to cameras for the parents in the study to capture visual representations of how they conceptualize acts of parental engagement in their kids’ schools. The research is currently established in two urban schools in the state with plans to expand. They are also planning on integrating teacher and administrator perceptions of parental engagement to form a comprehensive narrative analysis.
Dr. Fernández’s work goes beyond the traditional role of a researcher as she engages and works alongside Parents of Color. She does not just “study” Parents of Color, she works directly with them to make research decisions including design, analysis and the presentation of findings. Through this process, she is able to give study participants a role in the co-construction of knowledge and a voice in the issues directly affecting them.
“By centering the schooling engagement experiences of People and Communities of Color, I provide counternarratives that disrupt and refute harmful deficit ideologies that perpetuate inequities in and around schools.” - Dr. Erica Fernández
This work is particularly meaningful for Dr. Fernández as her parents were undocumented Mexican immigrants. This personal connection to her work has served as a source of motivation and inspiration, driving her to empower and broaden opportunities for Spanish-speaking Latinx immigrant parents through her research. However, her motivation for this area of research is not only because it is familiar, but also because the experiences of undocumented Latinx immigrant parents are historically underreported in academic literature. By amplifying their narratives, she is able to humanize their existence and advocate on their behalf – demonstrating a steadfast commitment to social justice in the face of current anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
Over the past eight years, Dr. Fernández has added to larger conversations surrounding educational equity, presenting her work at conferences such as the University Council of Educational Administrators (UCEA), the American Education Research Association (AERA), and the Critical Race Studies in Education Association (CRSEA) conference. However, with her current research, she is taking engagement to the next level as she presented alongside some of the undocumented Latinx parents that she has worked with at a national conference. By engaging with Parents of Color, she is able to leverage resources to parents, giving them a channel in which to tell their story and influence policymakers. Community-engaged research is not only disrupting traditional notions of scholarship, its authenticity is inspirational. The Department of Educational Leadership is incredibly grateful to have faculty like Dr. Fernández, who show an immense passion and dedication to their work and the communities that their work serves.
Written by: Meghan Farrell, November 2018
Women currently represent almost 77% of the teaching workforce. And yet, only about 50% of principals are women (2014), and less than a quarter of school district superintendents are female. Moreover, this is true despite the fact, according to research by Brunner and Kim in 2010, female superintendents tend to be, on average, more prepared for the role than their male counterparts.
The frequent tendency towards grooming and selecting white males for leadership positions over their female and minority counterparts is reflective of larger systemic racism and sexism still present in our society. While most of the behaviors limiting the opportunities of women in educational leadership are subtle and ambiguous—they are discriminatory and harmful nonetheless.
In the fall of 2018, the Connecticut Association of Public School Principals (CAPSS) and the Department of Educational Leadership’s Drs. Laura Burton and Jennie Weiner kicked off the “Women in the Central Office” seminar series, which explores some of the underlying factors of how gender bias and discrimination impact women leaders. Most recently was a session focused on “workplace incivility” and the elements that may contribute to it, including why women experience more uncivil behaviors than men and why women may perpetuate or be perceived to perpetuate uncivil behavior towards other women. Acting as a safe space for female leaders to gather and discuss the ways their social identities shape their beliefs and experiences in their roles and the world at large, these workshops aim to address ways to combat gender bias as well as other forms of discrimination from an individual and organizational perspective.
“We name gender bias and other forms of discrimination (i.e., social identities) to move away from blaming women or asking them to change themselves or their behaviors to fit better with unfair expectations and norms. Instead, we orient our conversations towards helping women leaders to live and lead authentically and in ways true to their values.”
- Drs. Laura Burton and Jennie Weiner
The seminar approach enables participants, comprised of current and aspiring women superintendents, assistant superintendents and other district-level administrators, to make their voices heard on issues directly affecting them and their careers. Discussions in the first installment of the series included networking, incivility at work, and gender and race-based discrimination in the role. In upcoming seminars, these discussions will extend to issues of work-life interface and the expectations put on working women to “do it all.”
The purpose of the series is to bring focus and voice to the special and unique experiences of women in educational leadership—experiences shaped by social identity.
Additionally, in the series, participants have the opportunity to challenge institutional bias, network with women leaders across Connecticut, learn skills and strategies to enhance their effectiveness as a female leader, and enlighten others around issues of work culture and improvement.
Research is the cornerstone of the seminar series—both Drs. Burton and Weiner bring together expertise on women in leadership in sport and organizational change, respectively. Together, they have built a collaborative research agenda to explore how gender and racial bias impacts opportunity and experience in education. More specifically, recently together they looked at how the construction of turnaround leadership and school leadership tends to favor white male professionals by analyzing experiences in turnaround principal preparation programs. In this research, they found that women were often subject to gender bias concerning their leadership approach and acumen. Moreover, they found little discussion or awareness of the effects of gender bias in school leadership. Consequently, this silence caused the women to blame themselves regarding others’ negative feedback, diminishing their sense of efficacy or opportunity in leadership roles.
Most recently, Drs. Burton and Weiner worked with Learning, Leadership, and Education Policy (LLEP) doctoral student, Daron Cyr, on research funded by the Obama Administration's Initiative on Women and Girls of Color to explore the impacts of leadership preparation programs’ failure to discuss issues of social identity. The research focuses primarily on perpetuated microaggressions towards black female participants, highlighting a need for educational institutions to tackle issues of racism and sexism plaguing career advancement in education.
Combating the silence, their research paired with these workshops empower women to engage in deep conversation about their collective and unique experiences, and afford them the opportunity to strategize enhancements to the experiences of women in educational leadership.
Drs. Burton and Weiner are proud of the success of the series thus far, and look forward to the upcoming seminars on January 11, March 15 and May 3, 2019. For more information please visit the CAPSS website.
Written by: Meghan Farrell, December 2018
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.
Written by: Madeleine Chill, January 2019
Clinical Instructor Jen Michno and colleague Dr. Jennie Weiner agree that research on administrator preparation is critically important for the field of education. Both Michno and Weiner are recent recipients of grants that support this vital research area.
Michno’s focus is to better prepare administrators to excel in Family School Community Engagement (FSCE). “This research helps practitioners in the field understand the types of strategies and practices that will garner the best outcomes for students in schools,” she says. Weiner’s research focuses on students’ experiences within the preparatory programs themselves: “Are we, instructors in preparation programs, replicating patterns that are problematic and that reify discriminatory and ineffectual practices?” she asks. “More progressive, feasible, appropriate ways of thinking about leadership need to be learned and discussed.”
Thanks to a generous grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving (HFPG), Jen Michno is currently conducting research that will inform the design and implementation of a new module of the Department of Educational Leadership’s UConn Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP) curriculum that will focus on the area of Family School Community Engagement (FSCE). The new FSCE module will ultimately become part of the curriculum for all UCAPP students, and will also be made available to several HFPG priority school districts across the state for use with currently-practicing administrators.
“There is clear evidence at the national level that there is a lack of focus on Family School Community Engagement in administrator preparation programs across the country. FSCE practices promote equity in schools and should be an integral part of every individual’s administrator preparation experience. This research addresses this issue by creating an empirically-validated FSCE curriculum module that will reach not only UCAPP students but administrators across Connecticut.” - Jen Michno
Broadly, Dr. Jennie Weiner’s research aims to redefine conceptualizations of leadership: to “move away from the ‘great (white) man’ theory, both literally and figuratively.” Her current research project investigates the experiences of black woman administrators–including their current roles and their experiences in preparatory programs–to understand if and how they have experienced microaggressions. After conducting a 10-person pilot study (forthcoming in the Journal of Research on Leadership Education), Weiner, Dr. Laura Burton, and Daron Cyr, a doctoral student in Educational Leadership, were recently awarded the Spencer Foundation Grant for Small Studies. This grant will allow them to widen the scope of the study to 25 participants, and to learn more comprehensively about each participant’s experience and career trajectory. “The ultimate goal is to create opportunities so that leadership itself is more inclusive and equitable in terms of who has access to it and who can succeed in the work,” says Weiner.
“We know from the pilot study that the participants experienced quite a few microaggressions in their administrator preparation programs. They cited being invisible in the space, never getting to talk about how their racial or gender identities might impact how people respond to them or how they engage in leadership, and a serious lack of curriculum written by anyone other than white men.” - Dr. Jennie Weiner
Whenever there were conversations about race, says Weiner, they were either centered around white privilege or students’ racial identities. “There was a focus on better understanding students from minoritized groups, which implies that the administrators are white,” she says. “And discussions about white privilege, while important, don’t really pertain to black women. There was more than one story in which a woman said she had to listen while instructors tried to convince a white man that white privilege was real. How safe or encouraged could she or anyone else outside our society’s dominant groups feel in that space?”
The impacts of both Michno’s and Weiner’s research are impressive, and neither woman’s work is without challenges. “As new material is introduced,” says Michno, “there is inevitably less time for other topics. Finding that perfect curricular balance is the biggest challenge emerging from this research.” For Weiner, the nature of her research calls for constant growth and learning. “Real change is really hard,” she says. “Every day I see the pain and the unfairness of how discrimination impacts people. I want change to happen yesterday but I also understand that this is not how things work. That said, I am committed to use my privilege to make a difference.”
But with the challenges come successes. “I get most excited when I think about the impact this will have, not only on leader development but also on the students within these school systems,” says Michno. For Weiner, it’s rewarding to do work that feels relevant: “Maybe I could help somebody feel a little less alone or a little more empowered. Getting to work toward changing things that I think are wrong–what a gift!” Thanks to the HFPG and the Spencer Foundation, Michno and Weiner are making strides toward sustainable change that supports CT's emerging leaders.
Written by: Madeleine Chill, February 2019
For Dr. Sarah Woulfin, the bridge between research and practice is well-traveled. Now in her fifth year of collecting data as part of a research-practice partnership (RPP) with Hartford Public Schools, Woulfin says creating an open dialogue between research and practice is at the core of her work.
“I want to try to answer questions that people in the field really care about, questions grounded in real-world issues,” she says. “There’s a great deal of work being done to improve schools, to make sure that every child has access to positive educational opportunities every day. I want to make that all more feasible. Increasing and understanding the doability of reform, preventing overload: those are the big picture goals.” - Dr. Sarah Woulfin
Broadly, Woulfin’s current research seeks to understand implementation of reforms in educational systems, especially within urban districts. As school districts work to improve, they often use many levers: updating curricula, meeting state accountability goals, implementing new attendance policies and teacher evaluation methods, and more. Woulfin’s research asks: how do both district and school leaders cope with this mixture of reform pressures? How do districts support teachers in the midst of these reforms? How can districts avoid what Woulfin calls the “too-muchness” of reform?
In her partnership with Hartford Public Schools, Woulfin is able to explore these questions in real time and from many different angles. RPPs are necessarily dynamic, says Woulfin, and her role is continually shifting. Early in the partnership, for example, she was interested in understanding how Hartford was implementing Common Core standards, a national educational initiative that was adopted by Connecticut in 2010. She learned that the district was mostly using instructional coaches for implementation, so she started researching instructional coaches’ roles and responsibilities in Hartford Public Schools – what kinds of support they received, where they were struggling, and so on. Soon, Woulfin started sitting in on professional development sessions for teachers, offering an extra set of hands and and quick-cycle feedback for the coaches. “It’s an interesting dance,” says Woulfin. “I don’t have authority in that sphere, so what I can do is increase access to useful materials, share my experience from other districts, and be a transporter for different techniques.”
Woulfin’s data collection focuses on the instructional coaches and teachers who are experiencing the reforms and the professional development activities: how they experience the reforms and professional development, what they find challenging, and how the daily realities in their school buildings make it easier or harder to take on the tasks that are expected of them. Within the framework of the RPP, Woulfin is able to put her findings in practice in a streamlined way. In addition to working with coaches and teachers, she also advises district leaders. “It gives me a good sense of what the more macro priorities are,” says Woulfin. “Each role in a district faces a different set of pressures.”
Woulfin’s commitment to bridging the gaps between research and practice comes from her own past; before she returned to school and earned her Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley, she was a teacher and a reading coach herself. When she was deciding to pursue her Ph.D., the research-practice partnership model was still a relatively new concept. Nevertheless, Woulfin found herself drawn to it, ending up in RPP-style projects before she even fully realized how to classify them. For her doctoral dissertation, for example, she conducted a one-year study of a school district; although not originally designed as such, it soon became an informal RPP. “I kept hearing, ‘you’re back?’” says Woulfin. “There’s something unique about becoming fully embedded in a district instead of dipping in for a shorter period of time. People realize ‘oh, she’s really here.’”
Recently, Woulfin had an experience that exemplifies the uniqueness of the RPP model. “I’ve been working with the math coaching team in Hartford, and recently they created team t-shirts for a Hartford schools event,” she says. “After the event, someone emailed me and said ‘we got you a t-shirt, we’ll give it to you next time!’ I had tears of researcher joy in my eyes. It was a huge moment for me: I truly felt like a part of their community.”
Looking ahead, Woulfin is excited to continue her work in Hartford and also to expand a second RPP with Bristol Public Schools. She is also in the conceptual stages of a project that would bring together urban district administrators from across Connecticut in a “community of practice.” On top of her research-practice work, Woulfin teaches in a multitude of Department of Educational Leadership programs: the Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP), the Ed.D. program, the Ph.D. in LLEP program, and the Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates (TCPCG). She credits her students, many of whom are school and district leaders themselves, with helping her broker and continue these partnerships. The Department of Educational Leadership is proud of Dr. Woulfin’s outstanding efforts to integrate research and practice in education.
Written by: Madeleine Chill, March 2019