Lacey Hartigan

School comes naturally for some students. But for others, Lacey Hartigan knows well, a host of obstacles can push them off course.

Hartigan, one of four children raised by her single mother, first discovered her passion for teaching in high school, where she informally tutored classmates. As an undergraduate, she started working for The Learning Web, a non-profit that engages at-risk students in hands-on career exploration. Hartigan would go on to teach in private schools and tutor in a public school in Georgia.

Acting on her desire to support students and prevent high school dropout, Hartigan entered the  graduate program in Education Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Washington College of Education. While working toward her doctorate, Hartigan also serves as a research analyst for the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).

“Over the past year my projects have ranged from producing a report on Tennessee students’ equitable access to highly effective teachers to observing, shadowing and interviewing Tennessee school counselors to better understand their day-to-day work and needs,” Hartigan said. “The great thing about my job is that I’m able to identify a need—often collaboratively with other TDOE staff—and dig into the data.”

For her dissertation, Hartigan is exploring the life courses of GED (General Education Development) recipients and ways to support these students.

“We know that GED recipients are intelligent, as demonstrated by their performance on the increasingly difficult GED assessment, but they still typically have poor long-term outcomes,” said Hartigan, who has received an American Educational Research Association dissertation grant to fund her research. “My goal for this work is to try and figure out why this is the case.”

Hartigan notes that the GED is the main form of intervention for high school dropouts. But while the GED promises to be the “pathway to a better life” and a “second chance credential,” according to its website, Hartigan’s observations indicate that these promises are not being fulfilled.

“Individuals who drop out of high school set out to obtain a GED (or other high school equivalency) in order to improve their circumstances and get back on track,” she said. “They invest time and money—of which they may not have much—and hope. They pass their exam, maybe enroll in a postsecondary institution, but rarely persist.”

Hartigan believes systemic changes are necessary to improve life outcomes for students who have not followed the standard path of education. She hopes her dissertation, by showing a more humanized picture of GED recipients, helps educational leaders better understand nontraditional students and their educational pathways.

“If this can lead to better programming, supports, structures and policies for actual, as well as potential, GED recipients, that would make a tremendous impact on people’s lives.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications