EdPolicyWorks Profile: Grad Student Husain Tackles Issues of School Leadership in Research with Prof. Wyckoff

By Leslie M. Booren


Teacher turnover, especially of highly effective teachers, is a problem for schools but also more generally for the K-12 education workforce. Aliza Husain, a 4th year doctoral student in the Educational Policy program, witnessed this firsthand when teaching first and second grade in the California Bay Area.

“Quite a few of the really high-performing teachers were leaving the school, and it wasn’t for monetary reasons” explains Husain. “They were taking lower paying jobs for better workplace conditions, which were often attributed to the school principal.”

Husain noticed that these teachers were willing to take jobs with less benefits or pay as long as they felt more comfortable with their work environment and had more decision-making power.

“These instances got me very interested in understanding what motivates teachers to leave or join certain schools, especially when their reasons are not related to pay,” said Husain.

How do we keep our best teachers in our highest need schools? What roles do principals play in influencing school climate? How much control do principals have over hiring and retaining high-quality teachers? These are the kinds of questions that led Husain to EdPolicyWorks and to research with her faculty mentor Jim Wyckoff.

During the last four years, much of their research has focused on the role of principals in the school system. In general, people view principals as important instructional leaders and managers in schools, but there is little data that examines principal characteristics, quality, effectiveness, and subsequent outcomes for schools.

“We’ve been working in NYC for the last 12 years to understand how to improve the quality of teaching, but we know less about the role of principals,” explained Jim Wyckoff, Director of EdPolicyWorks. “Aliza’s works has filled a gap in examining school leadership, gender effects, and the resulting quality of culture in schools.”

This work examines whether female principals have different leadership styles compared to male principles, and if that is linked to teacher attrition, school climate, and quality of teaching. Through opportunities in the Ed Policy MPP/Ph.D program, Husain is able to follow principals’ careers over time and compare outcomes across districts.

“Aliza’s work has drawn on the expertise of other UVA experts like Michelle Young, an internationally known school leadership researcher and Dan Player, an economist with substantial research on school leadership,” said Wyckoff.

This research expertise, combined with partnerships with the New York City Department of Education and the District of Columbia Public Schools, has provided Husain with rich opportunities for her research.

“This program focuses on the intersection of education and research, but also connects to the public sector in a very real way,” explains Husain. “We don’t work in just an ivory tower and are able to affect policy though research.”

Husain thinks the hands-on design of the Ed Policy program is unique to UVA. She describes Wyckoff as someone who includes students in conversations with policymakers to understand the relevance to them, while also demonstrating how to develop sustained, meaningful, and productive partnerships.

“We try to create a climate and culture here at EdPolicyWorks where students feel supported but are also held to high standards,” describes Wyckoff.  “Aliza is incredibly hard working and is able to bridge research and practice easily.”

Both Husain and Wyckoff talk about those lightbulb moments or the “ah-ha” moments, where something just clicks. Something that will no doubt continue throughout the remainder of the program and their future research.

Both Wyckoff and Husain are affiliated with the Virginia Education Science Training (VEST) program at UVA, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Read the other EdPolicyWorks profiles about Daphna Bassok and Eva Galdo, Ben Castleman and Kelli Bird, Dan Player and Veronica Katz, and Chloe Gibbs and Michelle Zagardo.

EdPolicyWorks is a joint collaboration between the Curry School of Education and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. EdPolicyWorks brings together researchers from across the University of Virginia and the State to focus on important questions of educational policy and the implications for the workforce.