Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Psychology and Research

Major Professor

Jennifer A. Morrow

Committee Members

Gary J. Skolits, Lauren Moret, Todd M. Moore


Student engagement is widely documented from the perspectives of students, teachers, and school-level administrators (Bazenas, 2014; Marks, 2000; Rosenquist, 2015; Sutherland, 2010; van Uden, Ritzen, & Pieters, 2013). At this time, understanding student engagement from the perspective of district leaders, including members of the school board, represents an untapped area of research. Engaged students are more likely to learn, find the learning experience rewarding, as well as are more likely to graduate and pursue higher education (Marks, 2000). In this regard, student achievement is contingent upon the development of a sense of efficacy and confidence in their ability to be successful in school.

Educators in positions with formal or informal authority have more opportunity to leverage, regulate, and guide reform efforts (Park, Daly, & Guerra, 2012). Thus, linking the perspective of district leadership to decision-making can improve how student engagement is conceptualized, encouraged, and measured. Further, McMahon and Portelli (2004) stressed “the term [student engagement] has become a popular, but at times, an empty and superficial, catchphrase or slogan” (p. 60). This exploratory qualitative study (Robson & McCartan, 2016) was designed to examine the concept of student engagement from the perspective of K-12 district leaders at a large urban school district located in the southern United States in 2016. Using systems theory as a theoretical framework, this exploratory qualitative study sought to understand student engagement as it relates to district leadership at multiple levels in the central office, how it was defined and assessed, and how district leaders used student engagement to influence policy decisions. One-on-one, semi-structured interviews were completed with 32 district leaders representing 12 levels of leadership within a large urban school district. Findings were described by research question and participant group (i.e., school board members, cabinet-level administrators, and non-cabinet level administrators). Future researcher and implications for practice were provided.

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