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Research and Evaluation Projects

Our Approach

Using a range of methodological approaches and anchoring our work in appropriate conceptual tools, we engage in applied research that generates actionable and consequential findings for the field of education as well as for practitioners and policy makers. CUEL also designs and enacts program and intervention evaluations for school districts and other educational organizations. These evaluations are used to examine the fidelity and impact of programs and interventions and to inform refinements to existing programs and interventions. 

Current Research and Evaluation Studies

Funded by the Children’s First Fund and the Finnegan Family Foundation, and beginning Spring 2022, Cosner and a team of CUEL-researchers are examining the coaching of principals as early childhood leaders. Findings from their research will be used to evaluate and redesign an existing leadership coaching intervention in Chicago Public Schools (CPS).


Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and beginning Summer 2019, Cosner and an interdisciplinary team of UIC-researchers (CUEL, College of Education, Learning Sciences Research institute) are enacting and testing a multi-level (district, school) intervention designed to develop the kinds of organizational capacities of consequence for the improvement of mathematics teaching and student learning.


Funded by the Qatar Foundation and beginning Spring 2019, Cosner has been leading an international research team that is examining national school leader development contexts and programs/approaches in five developing countries in the Global South: India, South Africa, Morocco, Kenya, & Lebanon. The goal of this research is to learn about these educational contexts and existing development programs, broadly publish research findings, and draw on findings to make and disseminate recommendations that will inform international leadership development investments and policies. The first report from this research, completed by CUEL’s Meagan Richard, examines school leader development in Lebanon.

Richard, M. (2021). The Ta’theer Program: NGOs Supporting School Leadership Development in Lebanon. Doha, Qatar: WISE, Qatar Foundation.
Read here.
Read more about this research project here
Read the story here.

Examining the Clinical Setting, Mentor Principals, and Leadership Coaches as Learning Resources for Aspiring and Practicing School Leaders

Funded by the US Department of Education and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation and using a variety of conceptual tools, various members of the CUEL team have examined the clinical setting, mentor principals, and leadership coaches as learning resources that support aspiring and practicing school leader development. Publications include: Cosner, S., & De Voto, C. (2023). Strengthening the developmental opportunity of the clinical experience in principal preparation: Leadership coach as broker and third-party influencer. Educational Administration Quarterly, 59(1), 3-39.Access the article here.

Cosner, S. (2020). A deeper look into next generation active learning designs for educational leader preparation. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 15(3), 167-173. Access the article here.

Cosner., S. De Voto, C., & Andry Rah’man, A. (2018). Harnessing the school context as a learning resource in school leader development. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 13(3), 238-255. Access this article here.

Cosner, S., Walker, L., Swanson J., Hebert, M., & Whalen, S. (2018). Examining the architecture of leadership coaching: Considering developmental affordances from multifarious structuring. Journal of Educational Administration, 56(3), 364-380. Access this article here.


Using literature on leadership for social justice, community activism, education markets, and critical urban theory as conceptual tools, Salisbury, Cosner, and Richard are examining an assortment of issues that relate to understanding and strengthening social justice and community activism practices by school leaders and about the kinds of context factors that challenge and shape this work in larger urban school districts.

First phase publications from this work include the following:

Richard, M. & Cosner, S. (forthcoming, 2022). Preparing equity-oriented school leaders: One program’s improvement work toward preparation for equity. In D. Fowler (Ed.), Equity and Access: An Analysis of Educational Leadership Preparation, Policy, and Practice. Information Age Publishing.

Salisbury, J., Richard, M., & Cosner, S. (2021). (Re)connecting schools and communities: Leader activism as a mechanism to disrupt neoliberalism. In A.D. Welton & S. Diem (Eds.), Strengthening anti-racist educational leaders: Advocating for racial equity in turbulent times. Bloomsbury.

Richard, M., Salisbury, J., & Cosner, S. (2021). Social justice leadership in educational market contexts. In C.A. Mullen (Ed.), Handbook of social justice interventions in education (pp. 415-439). Berlin: Springer Nature.

Richard, M. (2021). Socially just school leadership: Putting theory into practice. Principal Leadership, 22(10). https://www.nassp.org/publication/principal-leadership/volume-22-2021-2022/principle-leadership-october-2021/role-call-october-2021/

Richard, M. (2020). Relationships as assets, relationships as barriers: Social justice leaders’ use of relationships in their work. In C.A. Mullen (Ed.), Handbook of social justice interventions in education. Springer Nature.

Salisbury, J., Richard, M., & Cosner, S. (2020). Merging schools and communities: Engaging in activist leadership beyond your school walls. In J. Brooks, T. Watson, & A. Heffernan (Eds.), The school leadership survival guide: What to do when things go wrong, how to learn from mistakes, and why you should prepare for the worst (pp. 131-153). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Find this book here.

Richard, M., Salisbury, J., & Cosner, S. (2020). The school-community connection: Social justice leaders’ community activism to promote justice for students. International Journal of Leadership in Education. Access this article here. 

Salisbury, J., & Richard, M.(2020). Anti-racist activist leadership. In A.D. Welton, S. Diem, & D. R. Owens (Eds.), Strengthening anti-racist leaders: Advocating for racial justice in turbulent times (pp. 121-132)NY: Bloomsbury.




Past Research and Evaluation Studies

Funded by the Qatar Foundation, a team of researchers from the Center for Urban Education Leadership led by CUEL’s Director Shelby Cosner spent 2021 examining a set of more mature non-system intermediary organizations that work directly with schools to generate important insights about their work in forging relationships within and gaining vital resources from these expansive and diffuse ecosystems. In doing so, CUEL recognized a growing global trend that has positioned “intermediary organizations,” and particularly non-system intermediary organizations, or those not involved in the formal governmental education system, in an oversized ecosystem role. Through their direct work with schools, especially the most vulnerable schools, these organizations straddle the larger ecosystem and the local schoolhouse, becoming a primary and proximal conduit of external leadership resources to schools. Examining the ecosystem from the vantage point of these organizations has potential for helping non-system intermediary organizations to better consider and gain access to the kinds of ecosystem relationships and resources that are likely to prove important to their work, to schools, and to students. It also sheds light on broader issues relevant for ecosystem-building efforts. View study findings here.


Funded by the Fry and Crown Foundations and undertaken from Summer 2019 to early Fall 2020, this study used organizational learning and continuous improvement as tools to conceptually frame this study. Whalen led this investigation into the leadership practices associated with, impacts of, and challenges encountered from a “big city” Chief Executive Officer’s continuous improvement approach to system-level leadership. Read the executive study here. Read the full report here. Read additional background about this work here.

Examining Affordances of Active Learning Leader Development Designs

Funded by the US Department of Education and using situated learning theory, Cosner and team examined the situational learning resources harnessed through an active learning leader development design and identified authentic leadership considerations and actions that are enabled.

Cosner, S., De Voto, C., & Andry Rah’man, A. (2018). Harnessing the school context as a learning resource in school leader development. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 13(3), 238-255.

Examining Aspiring and Practicing School Leader Coaching

Funded by the US Department of Education and the Fry Foundation and both situational learning and social network theories, Cosner and team examined the design and impact of leadership coach structuring on leadership coaching practices and outcomes.

Cosner, S., Walker, L., Swanson J., Hebert, M., & Whalen, S. (2018). Examining the architecture of leadership coaching: Considering developmental affordances from multifarious structuring. Journal of Educational Administration, 56(3), 364-380.


Examining Collaborative Data Practices by Teacher Teams and Leadership for Collaborative Data Practices

Funded by Chicago Community Trust, Cosner in collaboration with Susan Goldman (subject matter learning, instruction, assessment) and Taffy Rafael (literacy), examined grade-level collaborative data use and the administrative and teacher leadership supports of data use in urban elementary schools.

Cosner, S. (2011). Supporting the initiation and early development of evidence- based grade-level collaboration in urban elementary schools: Key roles and strategies of principals and literacy coordinators. Urban Education, 46(4), 786-827.

Cosner, S. (2011). Teacher learning, instructional considerations, and principal communication: Lessons from a longitudinal study of collaborative date use by teachers. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 39(5), 568-589.

Cosner, S. (2012). Leading the on-going development of collaborative data practices: Advancing a schema for diagnosis and intervention. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 11(1), 26-65.

Cosner, S. (2014). Cultivating collaborative data practices as a schoolwide improvement strategy: A phase-based model of school Leadership supports. Journal of School Leadership, 24(4), 692-724.

Evaluating Start Early’s Professional Development Initiative

Beginning in fall 2011 CUEL conducted a three year evaluation of Start Early’s (formerly, the Ounce of Prevention Fund’s) new Professional Development Initiative (PDI), with funding from the US Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Initiative (See Executive Summary). The project expanded our capacity to study education leadership in early childhood settings and led to a scale-up of PDI across Illinois.

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Investigating Effective Principal Practices

With funding from Chicago’s Fry Foundation as well as the U.S. Department of Education, CUEL developed a series of case studies and documentary research to inform the preparation of school leaders in Chicago and across the country.

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