About NISL

NISL is helping districts and states create school and district leaders capable of designing and leading high-performance education systems.

The Leader in School Leadership


Leading High-Performance Systems

The National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) is the leading provider of school leadership development supports in the country. NISL partners with schools, districts and state departments of education to provide leaders with the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to design and lead high-performing systems. By preparing leaders to serve as strategic thinkers, instructional leaders and creators of a just, fair and caring culture, NISL strives to create education systems that provide students equitable opportunities for learning and meet the highest standards.

NISL is the product of $20 million of R&D studying leadership and adult pedagogy within the best-known business and corporate universities, education programs and military leadership schools, as well as more than 3 decades of research by its parent organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), into identifying the top-performing education systems in the world and translating the common elements of those systems to the American context. All of this is embedded in NISL’s research-based and research-proven supports.

Learn more about NISL’s offerings:

Our Vision

We want, at a minimum, to be sure that all high school graduates are ready to succeed in the two-year and four-year college or technical programs that will prepare them for both work and further education.

But that is not all we want. We want students whose mastery of the subjects they have studied runs deep—they have the kind of deep understanding of those subjects that will enable them to learn other things easily when they need to and to apply what they have learned creatively and effectively to a wide range of problems and challenges. We want them to be able to synthesize what they have learned from many domains as they address those challenges and to analyze the challenges they face so that they can address them. They will have to be very good communicators, in many mediums. They will need to be both disciplined and creative at the same time. They will need to be able to set a goal, develop a plan, and work toward it.

But we want far more than that for our students. They need to learn how to lead and how to be good team members. We want them to set high standards for themselves and to be prepared to work hard to achieve them. Their character matters a lot to us. We want them to know right from wrong and to do the right thing when it is not easy to do. We want them to take pleasure from serving others and being contributing members of society. We want them to be tolerant and inclusive. We want them to be tough and kind.

School is about a lot more than just classwork. It is about all the kinds of learning that need to take place to develop graduates who will succeed.

Realizing the Vision: Districts

For over 30 years, NISL’s parent organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), has identified education systems that are performing at the highest levels—based on student achievement, equity, and efficiency—and have distilled the common elements into the Nine Building Blocks of high-performing system. NISL works with state and district leaders to view their systems through these lenses and to envision their systems with each of these elements thoughtfully designed to fit together and support each other:

  1. Provide strong supports for children and their families before students arrive at school.
  2. Provide more resources for at-risk students than for others.
  3. Develop world-class, highly coherent instructional systems.
  4. Create clear gateways for students through the system, set to global standards, with no dead ends.
  5. Assure an abundant supply of highly qualified teachers.
  6. Redesign schools to be places in which teachers will be treated as professionals, with incentives and support to continuously improve their professional practice and the performance of their students.
  7. Create an effective system of career and technical education and training.
  8. Create a leadership development system that develops leaders at all levels to manage such systems effectively.
  9. Institute a governance system that has the authority and legitimacy to develop coherent, powerful policies and is capable of implementing them at scale.

Realizing the Vision: Schools

At the heart of high-performing schools, there must be rigorous instructional systems that provide equitable opportunities to all students, support high-quality teaching, and are organized as professional work environments in which educators can grow their careers.

NISL illustrates these and other elements of successful schools, in the NISL Wheel. More than 15,000 school and district leaders in 25 states utilize the NISL Wheel as part of our Executive Development Program. 


Realizing the Vision: Leaders

NISL believes that every student can succeed. This success will come from effective leaders who can build and lead districts and schools designed as systems, with every element benchmarked to the highest levels. 

Leaders of these systems muct understand what research has indicated is essential to their design, but they also need the leadership skills necessary to lead for results, drive change and build a shared vision that addresses persistent challenges. These are the leadership skills represented by NISL’s Dimensions of Leadership that leaders need in order to create a high-performing education system:

  1. Student of Learning: Leadership teams must understand the most current research about how people learn and must model the behavior expected of school staff and students.
  2. Strategic Thinker: Great ideas will have impact only by connecting a shared vision to strategic decisions and actions. Leadership teams must have a framework within which to approach decisions in a strategic way.
  3. Advocate for Change: Leadership teams must be able to convince stakeholders that the vision is worth striving for.
  4. Builder of Teams: Districts need an effective cohort of team leaders that have a meaningful voice in the decisions that will be made.
  5. Creator of Learning Culture: Leaders need to build a culture committed to continuous improvement.
  6. Ethical Decision Maker: Moral leadership is indispensable.
  7. Communicator: Leadership teams must effectively communicate with all stakeholders.
  8. Driver of Equitable Results: leadership teams do what it takes to get results that benefit all.


NISL has unrivaled experience successfully delivering research-based leadership development support to urban, suburban and rural districts. NISL programs have supported the development of more district and school leaders than any other program, with over 300 district leaders and 15,000 school leaders having graduated NISL programs.

Third-Party Evaluations

Multiple third-party evaluations of NISL’s Executive Development Program (EDP) show the program’s direct link to statistically significant student achievement gains:

  • A three-year study of Milwaukee Public Schools showed students in schools led by NISL-trained leaders caught up to and surpassed students in comparison schools as a result of the EDP.
  • Researchers compared student achievement results in Pennsylvania schools led by EDP graduates and found students achieved proficiency more quickly than peers in comparison schools.

Meets ESSA Standards

  • NISL meets the level of Moderate Evidence, as defined by the evidentiary thresholds of ESSA and What Works Clearinghouse, based on an evaluation of NISL’s work in Massachusetts which demonstrated significant positive results.
  • A report by the George W. Bush Institute finds that the EDP is the only leadership development program that has research of necessary vigor that met ESSA’s standards of evidence, with independent studies showing improved student achievement in both English language arts and mathematics.
  • RAND Corporation report singles out NISL’s EDP for its positive impact on student achievement based on studies that meet criteria for evidence under ESSA.

NISL was the only leadership support organization to receive favorable designations in both the RAND and George W. Bush Institute reports.

Quality Pedagogy

NISL deeply understands that quality instruction is essential to student learning. For this reason, NISL has invested in research not only into the content of our programs, but into their delivery. 

Executive Development

NISL has researched top leadership programs from the military institutions, education, and top business schools. NISL’s pedagogy mirrors that of dynamic, state-of-the-art executive development programs. School and district leaders are active participants in applied, job-embedded learning experiences. NISL’s offerings heavily focus on application to ensure real-world improvements in school and district organization and instruction. NISL is continuously looking to increase its pedagogical focus on experiential learning and direct application, including opportunities for faculty-led and peer-to-peer coaching and mentoring. The NISL learning experience asks participants to actively and directly apply core concepts to their schools, and this in turn generates new learnings that inform their work.


NISL uses a cohort-based model that builds a network among peers to tackle common issues and share best practices. Participants need to be able to share challenges and weaknesses in order to address them, and NISL’s cohort-based learning provides the opportunity to build the trust necessary between participants to allow for this trust to arise. Above and beyond the extensively-researched curriculum, participants often point to the cohort of peers that they have developed as one of the most powerful aspects of the NISL approach. While it is increasingly common to recognize that teachers have been “on an island” in their classrooms, school and district leaders are even more isolated, and have even more to gain by developing real connections with their peers. NISL programs initiate these relationships, and we are proud that these relationships provide benefits and live long after the programs’ last face-to-face sessions.

Extended Learning

Too much of the current support for school leaders is delivered in sit-and-go sessions over the summer or stand-alone online modules. These initiatives may “check the box” for the provision of a minimum number of PD hours, but they do not move the needle on skills development, much less student performance. NISL’s programs are designed to transform leaders and the schools they lead, and research has shown that this takes time. It takes opportunities to delve deeply into topics, to apply that learning, and to reflect. All NISL courses are designed with this in mind.

Quality Faculty

NCEE and NISL’s research has shown that top performing systems hire top-quality educators. But they don’t stop there. They continue to invest their ongoing development and leverage those with more experience to support those earlier in their careers. NISL’s own human resources management reflects these beliefs.

NISL facilitators have years of experience successfully leading schools, districts, and even state departments of education. Most have advanced degrees or their equivalent. All Executive Development Program facilitators have gone through rigorous training and certification. NISL also has created NCEE University, an internal college to provide our staff with deep exposure to the latest research in leadership and education. All faculty go through ongoing observations and periodic recertification. NISL has also developed an internal career ladder that emulates those of top-performing education systems, where clear thresholds for advancement are set out and those at the upper tiers are charged with ensuring the continued improvement of practice and advancement of other faculty. Through this process and the people that make up NISL faculty, NISL has developed a reputation for delivering high-quality, consistent facilitation across all of our programs.


NISL believes that face-to-face, cohort-based learning opportunities are essential to foundational learning.  However, technology can be a tool to increase the application and efficacy of that learning, and NISL has developed a cutting-edge digital Portal that provides a suite of resources to participants.

Diagnostic instruments and tools on the NISL Portal build the capacity of districts and schools for continuous improvement and ongoing sustainability of practices. NISL Portal instruments and tools provide the structure and key indicators for reviewing participants’ individual leadership strengths and needs, as well as to develop a deep understanding of the systems they lead. Participants collect data and use it to conduct baseline and ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of policies, practices of school systems. Together, these resources allow for a comprehensive view of a school as a system, including leadership competencies, standards, curriculum, instruction, assessments, learning context, professional development, time management, team building and moral culture.

The NISL Portal also provides continuous access to curriculum, including handouts, videos, and readings. The Portal tools allow participants to not only consume research, but to interact with it, by annotating text and videos and sharing annotations with peers and facilitators.

NISL believes firmly in applying learning, and the NISL Portal also allows participants to load, track and review artifacts of application, including tracking Action Learning Projects.

The NISL Portal is not a replacement for face-to-face learning, but a catalyst to focus and apply that learning for maximum effect while leveraging digital tools to facilitate and strengthen participants’ content exploration, conduct self-reflection through diagnostics, implement their action learning, and use social networking tools for collaboration throughout NISL programs. NISL’s App gives participants access to videos, case studies and self-assessment tools to evaluate each leader’s skills and their context.

The Instructional Leadership Instrument is part of a suite of diagnostics provided within the Executive Development Program that allow participants to better understand their unique context and better tailor the learning to their needs.