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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Understanding Principal Agency within the Context of School Autonomy: How Do School Principals and Central Office Navigate Principal Leadership?
by LePelley, John Michael, Ed.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2020, 139; 27742609
Abstract (Summary)

This research is a study of principal agency within the context of school autonomy. School autonomy as a reform effort is a theoretical construct while principal agency is the practice of schools making things happen for their schools. While district leaders create structures to allow for autonomy, it is still up to the principal to effect positive change. This research showed that autonomy and agency are not synonymous. This study looked at how social cognitive theory and structure agency theory play a role in how public school districts support the dual roles of principals as both the top leader of an organization (their school) and, at the same time, a low-level manager of another organization (the school district). Understanding how both principals and their supervisors and central office staff navigate the tensions that occur when principals exercise their agency is key to helping districts understand how to support schools and school leaders in autonomy reform efforts. This study used qualitative phenomenological research design and methods, including interviews, focus groups, and observations, to better understand the shared experience of school leaders and the relationship between principal autonomy and principal agency, and how principal agency is either supported or suppressed in a large urban public school district. This study found that principals who are effective in gaining agency: exercise professional tact, create and cultivate multiple support networks, operate within resources and self-initiate their own resource expansion, find a way to “yes,” and actively participate in opportunities that represent principal voice. Principals navigate the tensions that may arise when exercising their agency through these five methods. Principal supervisors were found to be the biggest district lever in supporting principal agency and setting the tone for district culture. We learn from this research that there is an ideal state in which autonomy and agency can thrive.

In this ideal state: (a) districts create autonomies which allow for principal agency;

(b) districts are intentional about explicitly developing agency within each principal; and

(c) districts cultivate a culture in which non-principal supports share in the same behaviors and beliefs that encourage principal agency.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: D'Auria, John
Commitee: Johnston, Frances, Levin, Stephanie
School: University of Pennsylvania
Department: Educational and Organizational Leadership
School Location: United States -- Pennsylvania
Source: DAI-A 81/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Educational leadership, Educational administration
Keywords: Agency, School autonomy, School leadership, School reform, Site-based management, Urban education
Publication Number: 27742609
ISBN: 9798662344549
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