Morgaen Donaldson

RESEARCH Series: Evaluation in K-12

Image of laptop promoting Evaluation in K-12: "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'? - Quote by Dr. Morgaen Donaldson

Dr. Morgaen Donaldson headshot
Dr. Morgaen Donaldson


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.

Department of Educational Leadership Welcomes Post-Doctoral Researcher

Reem Al Ghanem Headshot
Reem Al Ghanem

The Neag School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership welcomed Reem Al Ghanem as a postdoctoral researcher in September.  

Dr. Reem Al Ghanem earned her B.S. in Special Education from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, and her Ed.M. and Ed.D. in Special Education from Boston University.  In her undergraduate studies, she majored in severe disabilities, but in her graduate studies, Al Ghanem shifted her interests to mild/moderate disabilities with a focus on reading disability.

Al Ghanem’s interests in reading disability developed from her professional experience as a special education teacher in Saudi Arabia, where she worked alongside Arabic/English bilingual students with reading difficulties.  The school in which she worked had numerous resources for reading intervention strategies in English, but similar resources in Arabic were scarce. Given the thin literature on reading disabilities and reading intervention in Arabic, the school relied largely on translating and trying to adapt English reading interventions to Arabic and Al Ghanem began to question whether this approach was truly effective as English and Arabic are distinctly different languages. She also challenged herself to identify ways she could better help those students with the most severe reading disabilities.

These questions lead Al Ghanem to focus her graduate studies in the area of reading. She became more heavily involved in reading research when, during her first year of doctoral studies, she began working with Dr. Devin Kearns and in 2015 she jointly published a literature review with Dr. Kearns on word recognition in Arabic in the Reading Research Quarterly journal. Today, Al Ghanem continues her research and efforts to help improve reading interventions in both English and Arabic.

Al Ghanem became involved in leadership and policy research during her last year of graduate studies. Her interest in leadership, policy, and teacher education developed as a result of her own experience as a student-teacher and her experience teaching methods classes to pre-service and in-service teachers working with students who had reading disabilities. In both experiences, she ran into cases where school administration and district personnel, played a great role in determining what reading programs, interventions, and instructional methods were to used to support students with reading difficulty.

These thought provoking disparities align with the work that Dr. Al Ghanem will be conducting at UConn working on an IES-Funded Project with Professor Morgaen Donaldson. The project focuses on the associations between district policies related to principal evaluation, principal’s enactment of learning-centered leadership practices, and student achievement in reading and mathematics. Al Ghanem and Donaldson are working together as part of a larger research team headquartered at the University of Connecticut with collaborators at the University of Virginia, and Michigan State University.

Within her role at Neag's School of Education, Dr. Al Ghanem’s responsibilities will include interviewing principals, conducting surveys, and analyzing student data to learn more about the principal’s involvement in making instructional decisions, their leadership style, and how they influence student achievement. She is working primarily from the University of Connecticut branch in Downtown Hartford, CT, and is looking forward to working with the community of scholars in the Department of Educational Leadership. Welcome Dr. Reem Al Ghanem!

Teaching Excellence Honorees

Congratulations to the following EDLR Faculty who received the Teaching Excellence Honor by the University Provost's Office:

DFLS-CooperSandy Bell
Laura Burton

Joseph Cooper
Morgaen Donaldson
Justin Evanovich
Michele Femc-Bagwell
Richard Gonzales
Preston Green
Robin Grenier
Marijke Kehrhahn
Sue Saunders
Howard Thiery
Sarah Woulfin

Based on recent teaching evaluations, these individuals are among a select group of faculty who excel in teaching, which involves successfully engaging students and facilitates an environment of learning around a spirit of inquiry and intellectual curiosity. These educators are innovative and are consistently seeking new ways to improve as teachers.
Congratulations on this success as you continue to serve as a model for the students and peers within the department, keep up the outstanding work!