2018 IDEA Award Winner Q&A: Bryan VanGronigen

Every year, the Curry School of Education awards grant funding to select students as part of the Curry Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEA) Competition. Funded through Curry’s Research and Development Fund, this grant helps students advance both their careers and the field of education through the development of innovative research. This article is a part of a series that explores the winning 2018 IDEA projects and their potential impact on education.

Program: Administration and Supervision
Project: An Examination of the Structures, Operations, and Perceived Effectiveness of School Leadership Teams in State-Designated High Schools in Improvement

Can you give me a brief overview of what this project is about? 

The project focuses on the structures, functions, operations and perceived effectiveness of school leadership teams (SLTs) in U.S. high schools that states have deemed “underperforming.” A typical SLT, which functions like a board of directors, often consists of the principal, assistant principals, department chairs and other select staff. However, much of what we know about SLTs comes from research conducted before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which profoundly altered the landscape for underperforming schools in the U.S. The project’s main purpose is to update and expand our understanding of SLTs: what they look like, what they do and don’t do and how members assess their own performance.

The project has two phases. Phase 1 consists of conducting interviews with the principal, one SLT member (e.g., assistant principal), and one non-SLT member (e.g., teacher) in about 15 high schools that have been designated underperforming for at least one of the past three school years. These interviews are a necessary first step because few studies have zeroed in on SLTs in high schools, and even fewer studies focus specifically on SLTs in relation to school improvement efforts. I then plan to analyze the interview data in order to create a survey. Phase 2 consists of administering the survey to all SLT members in Phase 1 sites plus 10 additional underperforming high schools. Phase 1 permits me to dig deeper into the perspectives of a small sample of principals, SLT members and non-SLT members—and Phase 2 permits me to obtain the perspectives of a broader sample of SLT members.

Why are you passionate about this area of research?

I’m passionate about this topic because schools play a critical role in developing and preparing future generations of active citizens. I know that sounds grand—because it is—but it’s what drives me. I firmly believe that education can be society’s great equalizer, but for many today, it’s not—and I am committed to dedicating my career to doing what I can to right those inequities.

My overarching research interest centers around the notion of organizational resilience, or an organization’s ability to function while responding and adapting to gradual changes and sudden shocks in its environment. I think this notion is particularly important for underperforming schools, which contend with an array of complex and competing issues.

One lever that can increase an organization’s resilience is its capacity for continuous improvement, which can be enhanced by increasing an organization’s capacity for leadership. That’s where this project comes into play. I’m curious to learn if SLTs might be a potential way to increase a school’s capacity for leadership that, in turn, will enhance a school’s capacity for continuous improvement that, in turn, will increase its resilience.

Where did the idea for this particular project come from? 

In my last high school, I served on the SLT—and we had three different principals in four years, which afforded me the opportunity to observe a variety of SLT leadership styles. One principal challenged us to rethink how the school did curriculum, instruction and assessment. As a result, departments went off in different directions. Another principal, after learning about these divergent efforts, said we needed to go back to basics, a perspective that curtailed and shifted our thinking away from “the big questions.”

These profoundly different experiences prompted me to apply for and enroll in UVA’s Administration and Supervision PhD program. I was eager to learn more about how principals could create and sustain working conditions that fit in the middle of my two experiences: on one hand, school staff members need to be empowered to think big—and on the other hand, the principal needs to work with school staff members to articulate a vision. This can be a challenge for principals, but it’s particularly difficult in high schools because of size and in underperforming schools because of accountability pressures. For principals of underperforming high schools, the difficulties compound—and I have a hunch that SLTs are an untapped resource.

How did you decide to submit a proposal to the Curry IDEA competition? 

Time and again, my dissertation committee members have told me how this project—especially for a dissertation—is both ambitious and large in scope. If I wanted to do the project right, I would have to visit many of these high schools in-person to meet with and learn from administrators, teachers and other school staff members. My two mentors, Daniel Duke and Coby Meyers, suggested I submit a proposal to help pay for transportation costs and incentives to encourage educators to participate.

What other people and organizations will be involved? 

If all goes to plan, the project will involve about 25 high schools in 17 school districts across eight states. Phase 1 interviews are slated to occur in 15 high schools for a total of 45 interviews with principals, SLT members and non-SLT members. Phase 2 survey administration is slated to occur in 10 additional high schools—and an average SLT size of seven totals to about 245 SLT members. The project is very much a collaborative effort. I have been and continue to be so appreciative of the administrators, teachers and other school staff members who have opened their doors and blocked off time in their busy schedules to share their experiences with me.

In addition, I relish the involvement of my stellar dissertation committee, which consists of Daniel Duke as chair and Pamela Tucker, Michelle Young, Coby Meyers and Donald Peurach as members. At all stops along the route, from helping me settle on a topic to talking through preliminary results, they continue to offer their support and guidance.

What goals do you have for this project?

This project is intended to be the first step into a larger consideration of SLTs in an array of school types and helps frame part of the puzzle’s outer boundaries. Based on the research on groups and teams outside the education field, it can be hypothesized that the structure, composition and perceived effectiveness of SLTs may influence how they operate, which, in turn, may influence how schools operate. To get there, though, I first need to learn about the “what” of today’s SLTs: who’s on them and why, what they do and don’t do, how they go about doing what they do and what they think of the job they’re doing.

How will the IDEA grant help you achieve those goals?

I’m in the throes of conducting Phase 1 interviews now and if all goes to plan, I’ll end up logging about 2,500 miles in the car during the summer and early fall. I’m using Curry IDEA grant funds to pay for gas so that I can travel to five of the eight states to visit and learn from these high schools—and, most importantly, start to fill in part of this puzzle. The Curry IDEA grant application noted the significance of funding original data collection, which my project has in spades—it doesn’t get more original than me driving to 20 high schools in five months!