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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Lisa Keller

Second Advisor

Kysa Nygreen

Third Advisor

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley

Subject Categories

Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research | Educational Leadership | Elementary and Middle and Secondary Education Administration


Accountability for American public education systems, which spend more than $750 billion annually as of 2019, has been a topic of longstanding controversy. The test-based accountability movement has led to conditions that penalize schools that educate traditionally underserved students (low socioeconomic status, English language learners and students with disabilities are examined in this paper). Further, leaders of these schools lack evidence-based guidance to help make high-impact improvements, as schools serving high proportions of these students are rarely cited as exemplars of high-quality education.

In three phases, this study demonstrates the feasibility of using a demographically normed, test-based status metric to identify high-performing schools that are generally unidentified under most status and growth metrics, due to the confounding effect of demographics. It further incorporates interviews with the leaders of those schools and quantifiable data collected at the state level to examine the levers of change that the leaders of those schools have employed to facilitate change. Finally, these levers are tested for potential association with positive student outcomes, both within the larger context of middle schools as well as demographically similar subsets of schools. Tested inputs include class size, teacher turnover and multiple domains of culture, as measured by the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey. All financial variables were eliminated due to analysis of interview data.

Findings are largely consistent with Wang’s (2019) model of transformational leadership – that attending to culture is a very important tool for a principal to facilitate institutional change. Different aspects of culture, such as shared leadership, community engagement, school safety and professional development, are more or less associated with improvement, depending on school context. Perhaps more importantly, this study demonstrates a low- or no-cost way for State Education Agencies to conduct accountability and facilitate school improvement that both reduces the bias against schools serving high proportions of traditionally underserved students and identifies and amplifies high-impact practices that are context-embedded.