Diehard Coug grad wins dissertation award
By C. Brandon Chapman – College of Education
James Crawford is inextricably connected to two unassailable facts. First, his doctoral dissertation, which he completed while earning his Ph.D. in educational leadership at Washington State University’s College of Education, was so good it’s now considered an award-winner. Second, perhaps not as important to the industry, but just as important, if not more so, to Crawford: he’s a loyal, appreciative Coug through and through.
Crawford, who is originally from Bremerton and is now the chief academic officer at Federal Way Public Schools, won the 2019 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Washington Educational Research Association. His qualitative study regarded professional relationships and learning for school principals.
“Research indicates the school principal is second only to teachers in positively impacting student achievement,” he said. “Enhancing a principal’s instructional leadership knowledge is pivotal to their role because it leads to positively impact student achievement for all children.
“This is not an easy task.”
Crawford should know. The theory is based in his own experience as a school principal and, for him, solidified the importance of good school leadership – a very eye-opening discovery as he moved from principal to a central office administrator.
“I wanted to initially research how central office roles best support enhancing the instructional leadership among school principals,” he said. “The direct pathway to the school principal, from my experience, is the supervisor. However, in researching, I found central office supports to vary among districts.”
As you can imagine, what Crawford found was that some districts provided direct instructional leadership support and others, for a variety of reasons, did not.
Yet, principals are held accountable to improving student achievement as an instructional leader, a work that is inhibited if a district doesn’t provide support, or the right kind of support.
“This led me to my research questions: ultimately, through the lens of the school principal, how could one districts’ experiences help support other districts’ implementing or beginning to implement a similar model.”
What much of the previous research focused on were logistical changes that districts had make – or could make – to their principal supervisor support model. For Crawford, this wasn’t complete, though.
“I wanted to not only unpack the logistical changes but then examine what happens when those changes take place and how that impacts relationships and learning among the leaders who are expected to implement the changes in school buildings,” Crawford said. “I wanted to see it, hear it, and feel it from the very voices that were experiencing and leading this work.”
To do this, Crawford said he hoped to collect “rich, thick data” that would help him better understand the variables that contribute to, or inhibit, the success of school principals and principal supervisor. The data he found contained nuances that Crawford said he found “perplexing.”
He re-examined the data and found one district that, beyond the relationship and learning between principal and supervisor, was a district experiencing deep organizational change.
Crawford said the changes this district was making was a result of low student achievement, lack of instructional leadership knowledge, and other variables that led to the organizational changes. This was, in essence, an organization attempting a new way of doing its work.
“This ultimately impacted the relationships and learning, and provided a context for the nuances or tensions that surfaced from the initial examination of the data I collected,” Crawford said. “This was fascinating and is real for many districts today. The study surfaced and named what many districts are experiencing.”
Previous studies have focused on principal supervisor model changes like the ratio of supervisors to principals, how often the supervisor met with the principal, the topics the supervisor and principal discussed.
“Previous studies did not focus on the actual impact of change on the organizational wellbeing or factors like building, establishing, and maintaining trust,” Crawford said.
He said moving forward, a lot can be learned from this. For any district in the same situation as this district he discovered during his research, historical context is vital.
“This context may contribute to helping school leaders navigate the changes in a way that establishes trust, allows for time to learn and lead for the changes, and plan for differentiated experiences among staff who are at varying levels of learning,” Crawford said. “In addition, the application of this work provides a context for districts to better understand organizational learning.”
This would include the impacts and strategies of organizational change among employees, from re-birthing to maturity.
Shannon Calderone, an assistant professor of educational leadership and chair of Crawford’s doctoral committee, said she’s not surprised that Crawford won this recognition.
“This dissertation quickly evolved into a passion project for James, and that passion was felt in every aspect of his work,” she said. “It seems altogether fitting that he would be recognized in this way.”
A diehard Coug
The path to becoming a loyal, diehard Coug, begins in a unique way for each person who claims that moniker. How and when it perhaps begins can be subject to debate. For Crawford it probably began when he did his undergraduate studies at WSU. That was before then spending six years as a school administrator in Federal Way, before spending the last four years as a district administrator. It was certainly sealed during his first doctoral class: Calderone’s Action Research class.
“It was this very first class that I got a chance to explore the idea of examining both theory and practice and it was through the lens of the principal supervisor model as a support for principals,” Crawford said. “Dr. Calderone’s feedback to me during that class ignited a passion in me around this topic that later inspired me to continue to explore this area during the subsequent classes, leading all the way to my dissertation.”
At the end of the course, Calderone was extremely encouraging of his work and offered to help guide him throughout the process.
“As my chair, she was instrumental in what I produced and spent countless hours talking through the research and data with me, as a guide and coach,” Crawford said. “Her efforts were instrumental. She is one of the best professors I had during my time at WSU, as both an undergraduate and a graduate student.”
As any story goes, there are actually a bunch of others that helped mold him into who he is. For example, Crawford includes professor Tariq Akmal helping him find his student teaching internship. Each one made his WSU experience transcend simple gratitude – it created a Coug through and through.
“WSU is my heart. WSU is the space that gave me the confidence after leaving my home town to be who I am today, become the leader I am today, and to give back in ways that the WSU community gave to me.”
“It’s a pretty special place. I am forever grateful for WSU and the Pullman community. We always find our way back home.”