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Investigating the Practice of Transformational Leadership

Phase One (2007-2010): We assigned a small team of researchers to identify and investigate emerging excellence in the practice of principals enrolled in the UIC EdD program. With the help of UIC’s cadre of leadership coaches, we aimed to document these practices in granular detail, and establish an archive of tools and routines that other principals could access and adapt. Examples of practice documentation during this period include a detailed description of a data tracking system {hot link} to deepen information about the academic development of all students in a high poverty elementary school, as well as a portrait of routine and protocols used to nurture teacher leadership {hot link} in a high needs small high school on Chicago’s West Side. Amid growing concern about Chicago’s high schools, we also launched a study in 2008 to find out what UIC-trained high school principals were learning about “organizing for improvement.”  We structured our inquiry around UIC’s “Ten Critical Factors for School Transformation,” the same framework that had emerged from our first case studies in 2003 to inform UIC’s program redesign. We use to teach transformational leadership to our principal candidates. The interviews and on-site observations with a diverse set of 9 UIC-led Chicago high schools uncovered a wealth of strategies, tools and protocols {hot link} in areas like teacher team-building, community engagement and parent involvement, and laid the foundation for our next phase of inquiry.

Phase Two (2010 to 2016): In the second phase of research we continued our focus on high school transformation by incubating and documenting a network of UIC-led high schools committed to tightening the alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to accelerate student growth. The Curriculum Framework Project (CFP) began as a conversation among several UIC-trained principals and their UIC coaches around the question: “What do high school principals really need to know to support more powerful instruction across the many subject areas of a comprehensive high school?” Drawing upon the outstanding curricular practices of a team of teacher leaders from Arlington Heights, Illinois, the group assembled a network of UIC-led high schools to experiment with and adapt these practices in the Chicago urban context. UIC researchers documented the process in sufficient detail to convince the Chicago Public Schools to partner in the network and fund an expansion of schools in the second year {hot link to Fry report}. The CFP research coincided with the establishment of the CUEL as a Center in the UIC College of Education, while key features of its curricular alignment process made a lasting mark on CPS leaders, several of whom now lead the Chicago Public Schools as a district.

Phase Three (Since 2016): Today’s CUEL carries forward this commitment to researching leadership practice both by harvesting the leadership lessons of UIC’s program graduates as well as engaging other school leaders in and beyond Chicago to better understand their professional growth. A particular focus of inquiry since 2016 has been understanding how principals and teacher leaders jointly distribute leadership for teacher team development and ambitious adult learning. This focus first emerged from a concern among our leadership coaches that their coachees newly assigned to lead Chicago schools were feeling under-prepared to organize teacher teams to meet the challenge of implementing the Common Core State Standards. Starting with a sample of 12 UIC-trained principals nominated by coaches and otherwise evidencing strong school improvement trends, CUEL researchers have interviewed these leaders along with members of their instructional leadership teams to better understand the relational and design challenges entailed in developing their schools as learning organizations {hotlink to most recent AERA paper}.