Q&A with Dr. Sarah Woulfin: Connecting the Dots Between Education Policy and Equitable Instruction

“Educator Voices Across Texas” is a series that explores the educator’s experience across the Lone Star State. Each story shines a light on the people and voices behind the success of our children, schools and communities.

The shockwaves of COVID-19 exacerbated challenges for educators in many roles across many contexts. As the effects of the pandemic contributed to an already rocky terrain, districts and schools were forced to recognize the need for numerous reforms—from new instructional materials and evaluation systems to tutoring programs and assessment systems. Amidst this landscape, Dr. Sarah Woulfin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy seeks to investigate pressing issues of district and school reform in her work—with a commitment to create more just futures in raising the quality of instruction for all students across all schools.

Photo of Sarah Woulfin

Dr. Woulfin took a moment to share her journey from public school educator to the College of Education, to discuss the questions that keep her up at night and to pontificate about where she sees the future of her research.

Can you tell us about your route to doing the work that you do? The field of education is so broad, involving not just educators, but researchers, administrators, students, and sometimes all the above—everyone has an interesting path to how they got here.

My path to being a faculty member at UT Austin has roots in my experiences growing up in East Tennessee and volunteering in schools while at college in Providence, Rhode Island. Early on, I noticed inequitable structures and opportunities and wanted to actively make a difference for children and communities.

In the early days, I was an elementary school teacher and Reading First reading coach in East Palo Alto, California. This was a pivotal moment for me that provided glimpses into the intricacies of both educational policy and leadership. It further motivated me to study educational policy and organizations at UC Berkeley to better understand persistent challenges in instructional improvement efforts. As a PhD student at UC Berkeley, I was (and am!) fascinated by how concepts from institutional and framing theory precisely capture many issues and potential solutions in the education field. Then at the University of Connecticut, I worked on research projects related to teacher evaluation and district turnaround and partnered with district leaders to improve their professional learning system, including how they structured instructional coaching.

Last summer, I was delighted to join UT Austin’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. Getting to further learn about—and investigate—pressing issues in districts and schools across Texas is an honor. And through teaching in the Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP), which develops and supports leaders in the Texas-context, I get to play an exciting role in shaping schooling and instruction for children across the state.

In your current work, what question or issue are you most fascinated by? What’s keeping you up at night?

A tension from the education field that shakes me is how to take much-needed steps toward educational improvement without overburdening teachers, staff, and leaders. I’ve been thinking a great deal about how to support educators while aiming to improve experiences and outcomes for students. One core reason I care so much about supporting educators is that educators’ working conditions become students’ learning conditions. Based on this, I return to the idea that if we seek to improve student outcomes, we must make significant changes to educators’ working conditions.

I am currently extremely interested in how researchers, policymakers, and educational leaders can better understand and account for the infrastructure for instructional improvement. That is, rather than attempting to tackle, or ‘fix,’ one problem by adding one reform, how can decision-makers and other practitioners strengthen the conditions for teaching and leading and ultimately instructional improvement efforts?

And, from the researcher or methods lens, how can scholars examine the conditions for implementing instructional improvement and surface insights for designing robust, aligned infrastructure? This includes listening carefully to teachers and leaders to hear what is enabling and blocking their work. And it includes keeping a close eye on how and why teachers and leaders are responding to various aspects of reform, or saying no to other initiatives.

The Texas Education Research-Practice-Policy Partnership (RP3) aims to bring together researchers and practitioners to better understand statewide educational priorities and develop long-term sustainable strategies for improvement. Tell us about your role with this initiative and what excites you about this partnership and approach.

It’s been a joy to become hooked into the TX Education RP3! I feel RP3 is an amazing way for researchers and practitioners to team up, learning and leading together to positively influence Texas’s education policies, systems, and practices.

As a UT College of Education faculty leader for RP3, I facilitate working groups and convenings of RP3 members to bring to life the values, objectives, and foci of RP3. Many people have many definitions of partnerships, so I’ve intentionally guided our team in collective sensemaking activities. I’ve also sought to ensure that the structures, routines, and proposed practices of RP3 align with the principles and practices from the RPP literature. This includes wrestling with ideas about how to conduct actionable, policy-relevant research that elevates the voices practitioners and works toward equity-oriented change. I am eager to continue serving a bridging and coaching role in RP3.

4. Across your work with CSP and RP3, which takes you out into the field for site visits and collaborating with a range of partners, organizations, and educators—what’s something that’s surprised you or stayed with you along the way?

First and foremost, I’m struck by the universality of schooling in which students are inside classrooms, listening, reading, writing, discussing. Yet some aspects of schooling have shifted, so I’ve seen robotics classes, teachers and students using EdTech in several ways, and a variety of models to support emergent bilingual students.

I’ve also been impressed by the ways in which principals engage in positive, attentive leadership while interacting with a wide set of individuals—from teachers and custodians to students, parents, and volunteers. It’s notable how principals juggle communicating with many people about an array of topics.

Connecting these ideas: Texas is a big state with many large districts and schools, but in my ground-level, minute-by-minute experiences with leaders and teachers, I’ve seen how they continue caring deeply about the little things: how to support a new teacher, how to help a student find their rain jacket, how to creatively teach writing standards to middle schoolers. It’s quite a dance, and I’m fascinated by how the little things that educators do make a big difference in schools and for students. So, I continue caring about how the micro matters.

5. Over the course of the last few years, what do you see developing when it comes to your area of research?

I see two branches of my research agenda developing over the next few years. First, I will further develop my research on the infrastructural approach to instructional improvement. This will include mapping how concepts of organizational theory connect to—and aid in characterizing—components of infrastructure. This will also involve writing timely, relevant pieces on infrastructure to influence policymakers.

Second, I aim to expand my research on the implementation of special education. This will include paying attention to the administrative burdens of special education. From here, I plan to collect and analyze data from leaders and teachers to understand how to better balance components of special education, including compliance and equity.

6. What does your work mean to you? And what inspires you to keep pursuing it?

My research, teaching, and service in instructional policy implementation enable me to apply sociological frameworks while serving the field of education and, in a downstream manner, Texas and the U.S. The teachers, staff, and leaders who I engage with inspire me to ask questions and amplify insights to create more just futures.

I’m also ultimately inspired by the children and youth I see during site visits as well as my own 3rd grader and the children of my friends and family. I love how kids learn on the school bus, in classrooms, with their art teacher, at the cafeteria, during field trips, and on the playing field. To see how kids bring their school learning into their homes, and how kids share their whole selves with teachers and leaders is wonderful. The generosity and potential of kids drive me to contribute so each child has the educational experiences they deserve.