Episode 55 - Leadership and School Reform with Sarah Woulfin, PhD

About Sarah Woulfin, PhD 

Sarah Woulfin is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy who studies the relationship between education policy and equitable instruction. Much of her work draws on the research-practice partnership approach to formulate relevant questions, engage with practitioners in substantive ways, and transform practice.  
Using lenses of organizational sociology and qualitative methods, Dr. Woulfin investigates pressing issues of district and school reform, including how to strengthen instructional coaching and improve instruction. While analyzing the institutional structures and organizational conditions of districts and schools, she focuses on how leaders and teachers implement policy. Her research illuminates how infrastructure and leadership influence educational change. 
Dr. Woulfin's work has been published in outlets such as American Journal of Education, Educational Administration Quarterly, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and Teaching and Teacher Education. She co-authored Making Coaching Matter, a Teachers College Press book. Her research has been funded by the Spencer Foundation and Wallace Foundation. From 2019-2023, Dr. Woulfin served as co-Editor of Educational Researcher.  
As a former urban public school teacher and reading coach, Dr. Woulfin was dedicated to strengthening students literacy skills to promote equitable outcomes. As a scholar, her commitment to raising the quality of instruction for all students across all schools motivates her research on how policy shapes the work of district leaders, principals, coaches, and teachers. 

Episode Summary

Dr. Sarah Woulfin, an expert on leadership and school reform, joins the READ Podcast for a LEAD on READ conversation, co-hosted by Dr. Danielle Gomez and Jamie Williamson. Dr. Woulfin outlines effective actions of leaders to enact school reform and shares her expertise on how to sustain change in education. 

In this episode, you will learn about 

  • curriculum coherence, capacity building, and conditions for effective change. 
  • key actions of leaders that facilitate support for educational initiatives. 
  • the infrastructural pillars needed to sustain reform. 
  • considerations for processes of data collection and analysis. 

This episode provides insights for leaders at any level of an educational organization. 

Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Dr. Danielle Gomez identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”

1. What does it mean to be a leader in education? 
Listen to 14:25 – 16:44 to learn more. 

Dr. Woulfin operationalizes effective leadership by what a leader is doing.  

“What are the concrete action steps that a leader is actually doing to drive change?” 

She further explores specific actions leaders can take to facilitate reform, specifically focusing on 

  • Transparency 
  • Prioritization of relationships 
  • Coherence of programmatic changes 
  • Capacity building 
  • Curiosity 

2. Understanding school reform and its application to reading 
Listen to 23:24 – 26:40 to learn more. 

Dr. Woulfin shares insights to consider when implementing reading reform. 

“As leaders, you have to be clear about the things that you’re discontinuing and what is really going to be new. I think that links to the idea of the history of layers of reforms, pressures, and messages that need to be attended to.” 

  • Examine the history of reading reform in the United States. 
  • Ensure leaders at all levels of the organization understand the 
    • tasks/steps needed to enact reform. 
    • ways to facilitate support from key stakeholder groups. 
    • mechanisms for effective organizational change processes. 
    • features of high-quality professional learning. 
    • time required for individual and collective sensemaking around reform. 

3. Infrastructural Pillars that facilitate educational reform 
Listen to 31:29 – 34:34 to learn more. 

Dr. Woulfin explains the foundational pillars for successful school reform: 

  • Curriculum coherence 
  • Alignment of professional learning 
  • Leadership 

Read more about these pillars in an article that Dr. Woulfin co-authored with Dr. Rachael Gabriel for The Shankar Institute: “Creating and Animating The Infrastructure for Reading Instruction” (Woulfin & Gabriel, 2022). 

“For data use to be useful, there needs to be time to not just run and read the report from one assessment or across multiple assessments, but to create the action plan and consider the capacity building that aligns with the action plan.” 

While Dr. Woulfin also discusses the importance of collecting and analyzing data, she emphasizes the systems and processes that must exist to make this data valuable. 

“I ask folks to do an audit or an analysis of their district's data infrastructure and data systems. And what comes up within just that assignment is that sometimes data systems don't even talk to each other within large districts.” 


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READ Podcast is produced by The Windward School and The Windward Institute. READ is hosted by Danielle Gomez.

About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.

Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests and does not constitute an endorsement by The Windward Institute or The Windward School.