Date of Award

December 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation


Gerald S. Edmonds


Common Core State Standards, instructional leadership, rigor, school culture, standards-based reform

Subject Categories



Principals, whose jobs are increasingly being reframed as requiring instructional leadership (Lunenburg, 2013; Hallinger, 2005), serve as a vital link between standards-based reform and its successful implementation at the school level (Fullan, 2011; Hallinger & Heck, 1996; Leithwood & Riehl, 2005; Spillane & Hunt, 2010). Standards-based reform or guidelines for change mandated by state government significantly influence teaching and learning (Beane, 2013). Our nation’s latest iteration of standards-based reform is comprised within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which are currently fully implemented in 42 states. Despite the essential role of the school leader in implementation of standards-based reform, research is limited on how principals understand their role, and how these understandings play out in practice. The goal of this research was to address this research gap and directly explore how principals perceive their role in facilitating implementation of the CCSS.

Based upon sensemaking theory, as explained by Coburn and Talbert (2006) and activity theory, as explained by Engestrom (1999), Nardi (1996), and Spillane, Halverson and Diamond (2004), this study explores how individuals make meaning of information and/or events from interacting within their school environment. Through semi-structured interviews with (current and past) elementary school principals leading nationally recognized, Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence and document analysis of demographic data, this study makes sense of how instructional leaders negotiate and facilitate mandated change.

Findings illuminated school culture and reflective practice of school leaders as important factors influencing implementation. Participants also identified three factors, from their perspectives, in successful change: the cultivation of strong sustained school culture oriented toward continual improvement and student achievement, the strategic development within the school culture of authentic relationships and trustworthy leadership, and the establishment of shared decision-making and distribution of leadership within the school environment. Participants described the role of the instructional leader as one of support and service, explained the challenges they faced in the implementation of the CCSS, and revealed the emotional work associated with their reflective practice. Findings are relevant to training of instructional leaders and serve to inform future research involving the ways principals interact with curriculum and instruction as it relates to standards-based reform.


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