Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership

Committee Director

Jay Paredes Scribner

Committee Member

Karen L. Sanzo

Committee Member

Phil Reed


The purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship between how school leaders at both the district and school level make sense of a policy change and how that understanding affects implementation. Specifically, this study explores how different factors affect individual sensemaking and the effect that has on policy implementation. Using an embedded case study methodology, data were collected through sixteen, semi-structured interviews. Additionally, field observations and document analysis were conducted to triangulate the data. Data were coded and analyzed to determine three major categories--policy ambiguity, internal and external factors, and communication. These three categories were integrated to form a conceptual framework.

Findings suggest that the more ambiguous the policy, the more important it is for strong leadership. Stronger leaders were empowered by the openness of the ambiguous policy while weaker leaders demonstrated frustration and paralysis. These leaders were shaped by both internal and external factors. Internal factors include background experiences, motivation, and cognitive abilities. External factors include networks and organizational structures and practices. Finally, a learning community results from both vertical and horizontal communication by strong leaders. Without this facet, little to no change to the organization will occur.

Systems should leverage the skills of those leaders who show capacity to lead their schools through change and design professional development to build capacity in the other school level leaders. Secondly, it is imperative for desired outcomes and clear expectations for all district leaders if policy change will happen with fidelity.

This study has three main findings. First, bureaucratic inertia occurs as a result of inconsistent policy interpretations at a variety of levels. Second, the interdependence between state, district, and local levels creates an ecosystem where a variety of needs need to be considered. And finally, a bifurcation of priorities leads to organizational paralysis.


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