About The Center for Urban Education Leadership

The Center for Urban Education Leadership (CUEL) seeks to impact issues of equity for PK-12 students through research, development, and policy advocacy. We investigate and act upon both leadership-focused and multi-disciplinary, leadership-inclusive problems to generate knowledge. We design, test, and enact learning designs to develop leaders and their organizations. Our work occurs locally, nationally, and globally. We accomplish these outcomes by applying our expertise in the areas of educational leadership, organizational development, equity/social justice, and continuous improvement/improvement science as we collaborate with other researchers and practitioners. We are driven to use our expertise and passion to IMPACT the lives of PK-12 urban students locally and throughout the world. Independently and in collaboration with other research/development organizations, CUEL has secured over 17M to fuel a broad assortment of research and development projects. In collaboration with UIC’s Ed.D. program, CUEL has been recognized for its expertise with continuous improvement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement in Teaching.

Research, Publications, and Podcast Spotlight

Paul Zavitkovsky Advances Balanced Assessment of CPS Literacy Challenges in Chicago Sun-Times Letter

In a pointed Letter to the Editor in the Chicago Sun-Times(dated April 25, 2024), CUEL assessment specialist Paul Zavitkovsky argues for a balanced reading of the Chicago Public Schools’ recent record in advancing childhood literacy. Grantingthe claim of a recent op-ed that CPS faces a chronic “illiteracy epidemic” among low-income students, Zavitkovsky situates that challenge within a broader pattern of success in Chicago, particularly when compared with other large urban school districts. Based on a line of data analysis which he developed at CUEL, Zavitkovsky points out that in 2019 40% of low-income African-American students in CPS met or exceeded state-wide reading averages, a gain of 11% over the average in 2014 and 23% from 2001. “There’s clearly more to do,” he concludes.“But over the last two decades, no other large city in the nation has moved this far, this fast.” In his view, a balanced appraisal of Chicago’s literacy program can give CPS educators, students, and parents “the credit they deserve” while acknowledging the urgent need to redouble efforts to meet the on-going literacy challenges facing the city’s low-income students. Follow this link to access Paul’s letter.

UCEA Podcast on Continuous Improvement of Educational Leader Preparation Programs – Episode 5:  A Discussion with Dr. Shelby Cosner on Mentoring Programs for Improvement

UCEA’s In the Lead podcast series presents pivotal conversations with people making an impact on educational leadership preparation, practice, and policy. The series dives deeply into national efforts that supported the continuous improvement of a set of principal preparation programs engaged in The Wallace Foundation’s UPPI project.  In this podcast episode CUEL Director Cosner discusses her work in mentoring leader preparation programs engaged in continuous improvement.

WISE ALL-IN Network releases Third Report on Global Educational Transformation Through Collaborative Leadership, with Contributions from CUEL Director Shelby Cosner

The Qatar Foundation’s World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) recently published its third report in a series devoted to exploring the applications of leadership development to a global agenda for educational transformation. Three working groups from WISE’s international ALL-IN Network coordinated cases across Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East, and South Asia to explore an encouraging spectrum of collaborative structures and initiatives and the challenges they face. CUEL Director Shelby Cosner served as co-leader to one of the three working groups and supported the examination of leadership development programs across the set of African nations selected for consideration.  The report emphasizes how the constraints posed by traditional power hierarchies can be shifted through collaborative networking of educational leaders across diverse constituent groups. The report relies on extensive case studies to illustrate the range of collaborative networking structures under development in several geographic and political contexts. 

CUEL Affiliates De Voto and Superfine Publish Findings in School Leadership and Management about Leader Responses During COVID-19

This mixed-methods study examines two CASPIR districts—Washington and Hamilton—and how their leaders have mitigated the unexpected challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, including what local factors proved most influential. We conducted extensive interviews with leaders (n = 41) and teachers (n = 18), gathered responses to the Comprehensive Assessment of Leaders for Learning (CALL) survey (N = 111), and collected district emergency plans. Our analyses revealed that the district possessing a culture focused on instructional inquiry, more developed distributed leadership networks, and greater material resources was better positioned to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. In contrast, the district lacking such capacities experienced increased anxiety and stress. Together, these findings further demonstrate the importance organizational preparedness and resources play when limited expertise and technical solutions exist for a given crisis. 

CUEL Affiliates and CUEL Director Cosner Examine the Identification of Local Problems within Research Practice Partnerships as a Part of NSF Project

This chapter reports findings from the CASPIR Math Project, an NSF-funded study in which UIC researchers and professional developers formed partnerships with several K-8 school districts to improve math teaching and learning. Specifically, we describe how two of these districts—Washington and Hamilton—(1) developed effective leadership teams, (2) learned to develop a vision for improving math teaching and learning, and (3) identified local problems of practice in relation to these goals. Our initial analyses highlight the important influence of district history, boundary spanners, and organizational readiness. Despite establishing a partnership with UIC simultaneously, the two districts took notably different paths in forming effective teams, crafting a vision for improving math teaching and learning, and pinpointing local problems of practice. While Washington’s problem was grounded in strongly articulated goals for math teaching/learning and primed for systematic data collection, Hamilton’s problem was largely anecdotal. This discrepancy left Washington better positioned to initiate an improvement cycle around its identified problem. These differences suggest that those establishing research-practice partnerships should identify these factors during the recruitment stage, including how to address them from the outset of implementation. 

CUEL Affiliates De Voto and Castro Superfine Publish Findings Related to District Math Leadership Teams from NSF Project

This book chapter analyzes early findings from the Collaborating around Systems, Processes, and Instructional Routines (CASPIR) project, an NSF-funded project in which researchers and professional developers from UIC have formed partnerships with several school districts to improve math teaching and learning. Focusing on two partnering districts, we outline several structures and routines that evidence suggests can be implemented as part of a scalable model for discipline-specific continuous improvement. Data sources include: a) meeting observations (N= 53); b) semi-structured interviews (N = 117); the Visions of High-Quality Math Instruction (VHQMI) instrument (N = 59); and social network surveys (N = 62). First, we find that creating a robust vision around discipline-specific teaching and learning is a necessary first step. Doing so provides an anchor for future district work focused on improvement through an inquiry-cycle routine. Second, university researchers need to be flexible but firm when collaboratively engaging districts in research-based continuous improvement. Discerning when partners’ differing areas of expertise are relevant and helpful must be part of the groundwork for founding a successful partnership.

Center Affiliate Richard and Center Director Shelby Cosner Examine Equity-Oriented Principal Preparation Program Improvement

In this recently published book, Equity & Access: An Analysis of Educational Leadership Preparation, Policy and Practice, the chapter by Richard and Shelby Cosner examines equity-oriented principal preparation program improvement with attention to improvement of program curriculum. The chapter, “Using Cycles of Inquiry to Drive Equity-Oriented Curricular Improvement Within One Leadership Preparation Program,” shares insights into the establishment of an equity-oriented vision for school leadership. Such a vision identifies the key leadership practices to be cultivated through the program experience. Importantly, this vision serves to orient the program’s learning experiences. Their chapter also identifies areas of program improvement work and the kinds of capacities that will need to be cultivated to support such work. 

CUEL’S Dr. Steve Tozer Co-authors New Study of the Chicago Public Schools as an Improvement Success Story

CUEL contributor and UIC Professor Emeritus Dr. Steve Tozer has co-written a new study of the recent history of Chicago school reform, emphasizing the evolving capacity of CPS and its civic partners to sustain an improvement agenda through turbulent and contentious times. The co-authors include six partner-participants in the Chicago story, starting with lead author Anthony Bryk, past Carnegie president and former director of the Consortium on Chicago School Reform (CCSR). As such, the book offers a unique partner’s lens on Chicago’s success, and is the most comprehensive treatment to date of the forces that led from Chicago’s status as “worst school system in the nation” in 1987 to top 4% of the nation in student learning gains by 2017. Those forces included the mobilization of the civic community, particularly business leaders, grass-roots neighborhood organizations, and foundations. Also influential was a new research infrastructure, led by the UC Consortium on School Research and investigated by Catalyst Magazine. These and related partner assets comprise what the authors call an “exoskeleton” supporting continuous school improvement, a “new civic architecture” for collaborative reform. Further, the Chicago Public Schools played a dynamic and creative role in shaping this exoskeleton. UIC’s College of Education also is featured both for its partnership with CPS in leadership development and for breaking new ground in teacher education.

Case Study by CUEL Researchers Describes the Evolution of Long-Standing District-University Partnership Between UIC and the Chicago Public Schools

In a chapter contributed to a new edited volume devoted to how district-university partnerships can drive equity-focused school improvement, CUEL affiliates and their CPS colleagues describe the twenty-year evolution of their partnership to improve principal preparation for Chicago’s public schools. The chapter, titled “Preparing Principals for Urban Schools: The Challenge of Equitable Outcomes at Scale,” explores how the UIC/CPS partnership has evolved over 25 years from a contractual relationship around principal certification, into a research-practice partnership to deepen principal capacity to advance the District’s ambitious equity-centered goals. Several useful tables summarize the arcs of change and growth in terms of the Carnegie Corporation for the Advancement of Teaching’s “Developmental Progressions Framework,” for the partnership and each of the partner organizations.

CUEL Affiliate Craig De Voto Explores Leadership Responses During Pandemic in New Article in Education Administration Quarterly (EAQ) 

In a new study published by the journal Educational Administration Quarterly, CUEL Affiliate Craig De Voto, with colleagues Benjamin Superfine and Marc DeWit of UIC, investigate how K-12 leaders have responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic— especially the extensive federal/state policies governing their systems. The study focuses on two school districts over two years (2020– 2022), drawing on extensive interview and survey data. The data reveal that districts that possessed adequate expertise and organizational resources were better positioned to make sense of and respond to the crisis, whereas those lacking such capacities experienced increased anxiety/stress. The authors conclude by considering how how principal preparation programs and professional development efforts might prospectively address such crisis-related challenges faced by K-12 leader.

Recent Work Exploring Leadership Coaching By CUEL Director Shelby Cosner and CUEL Affiliate Craig De Voto Published in Educational Administration Quarterly (EAQ)

In a new study published by the journal Educational Administration Quarterly, Shelby Cosner and Craig DeVoto report findings on a study examining the deployment of leadership coaching as a developmental support to aspiring principals during the clinical portion of their preparation. Using theories of brokering and third party influencers, Shelby Cosner and Craig De Voto reveal a set of actions that coaches can take to impact the developmental opportunity of the clinical experience–the aspect of principal preparation that research identifies as vital to practice development and challenging to enact in a developmentally useful manner.

CUEL’s Assessment Specialist Paul Zavitkovsky Posts New Research Brief on Large-Scale Interim Assessments and the Not-So-Common Sense of Standardized Testing

The UIC Center for Urban Education Leadership (CUEL) announces the publication of a research brief that adds new urgency to a quiet war about what standardized tests can and can’t do that’s been simmering for decades between independent assessment professionals and commercial testing organizations.  In the marketplace, at least, testing organizations have been winning this war hands down. In this brief, Paul Zavitkovsky reviews the track record of large-scale “interim” tests, and wonders whether pandemic disruptions, a decade of dismal return on investment and growing demands for instructional equity might finally begin to turn the tide on their continuing popularity. Paul Zavitkovsky is an assessment specialist at the CUEL and is a former principal and leadership coach in the Chicago Public Schools.

Working for Impact

Research and Evaluation

We investigate both leadership-focused and multi-disciplinary, leadership-inclusive problems to generate critical and relevant knowledge that matters and will impact practice and policy.

Continuous Improvement, Organizational Development

We are sought by both PK-12 districts/schools and higher education institutions to help them strengthen their approaches and cultures for continuous improvement. In this work, we design and provide both in-person and remote learning designs as well as ongoing support and guidance for continuous improvement and organizational development work. Both in-person and remotely, we also consult with and speak to international, national, state, and regional educational organizations, educational philanthropic organizations, universities and school districts about continuous improvement/organizational development. 

Leadership Development

We are hired by international/national educational organizations, state departments of education, regional educational offices, philanthropic organizations, school districts, and community agencies to design and deliver a broad assortment of in-person or remote leadership development experiences that are tailored to the unique needs of each setting.

Dissemination and Policy Advocacy

We actively communicate to practitioners and the policy/political community through policy briefs, webinars, zoom convenings, videos, and podcasts to ensure that the impact of our research and work is extended and expanded. 

Data and Assessment System Design/Design Support

CUEL is devoting increased attention to understanding the principles and practices of quality data system design, along with the consequences for educators when poor data system designs amplify systemic inequities and distort education policies. Our expertise in this area has benefited from collaborative partnerships with national and regional foundations, school districts, and state lead education agencies.