Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Julie Causton


District-Level Inclusive Education, Educational Leadership, Inclusion, Inclusive Education, Special Education, Special Education Leadership

Subject Categories



Considering six million children ages six through 21 receive special education services in the United States (Department of Education, 2017), it is critical to examine the leadership it takes to provide equitable education to students with disabilities. This study employs a qualitative research methodology utilizing in-depth interviewing to understand the leadership experiences of seven district-level special education administrators who are committed to enacting inclusive educational practices using the following three paradigms or ideological approaches: phenomenological perspective, social construction perspective, and transformative inquiry. The following research questions guide this dissertation: 1) How do district-level special education leaders articulate their conceptualization of and commitment to inclusive education? 2) What strategies of advocacy are evident in the ways that district-level special education leaders make sense of their enactment of inclusive educational opportunities and service delivery for students with disabilities? 3) What actions and decisions have district-level special education leaders implemented in order to remain committed to their district’s enactment of inclusive education?

A philosophical approach of inclusive education and theoretical frameworks of social justice leadership and disability studies in education provide the analysis lens in which to understand participants’ resistive actions and leadership practices. The data were analyzed using NVIVO, a digital research software, followed by hand-coding, analytic memos, and member checks. Data demonstrated that participants’ drive for inclusive educational practices stemmed from family experiences or a poignant career event. Another finding was participants’ work in the field of inclusive education was an intentional social justice action to prepare students with and without disabilities to engage in the larger inclusive society. In addition, themes emerged in the data that demonstrate advocacy strategies linked to: 1) personal leadership disposition; 2) advocacy for students with disabilities; 3) capacity building; and 4) actions. Finally, themes demonstrated that leaders worked toward improvement through: 1) an emphasis on the growth process; 2) connectedness with community; and, 3) compliance with legal regulations.

I conclude by discussing social justice leadership, advocacy tactics, and district practices that participants have implemented and describe implications for administrator preparation, teacher preparation, and state and federal policy. I propose a theory of inclusive education leadership that illuminates the process for creating systems change at the district level that involves praxis and critical reflection. It is my hope that participants’ subtle resistive tactics, incremental changes, and methods to set innovative district norms provide an exemplar for leaders who feel called and have an opportunity to enact inclusive educational services with a vision of constructing public school districts that seek to educate and include all learners.


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