Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Leading Change in 20 Low-Performing Districts

What began as a statewide initiative targeting districts with the most challenges became the most widely delivered leadership program in one of the top-performing states in the nation.

Explore the Massachusetts NISL Case Study


David Driscoll, the former Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, faced the seemingly intractable problem of low-performing schools and districts. It was not all bad news. There were instances of individual teachers performing well in low-performing schools. But how could administrators improve instruction outside of these isolated classrooms? Even more challenging, how could such an intervention be scaled across a state with the limited resources on hand? Driscoll decided that the answer lay in the quality of school leadership.

Student achievement had stagnated in most schools in 20 underperforming districts —and the school cultures often reflected this. Some school leaders lacked the leadership skills to challenge the status quo. Others lacked the depth of knowledge of standards-based instruction or of teaching in the content areas—knowledge that is essential to chart a course for improvement.

Targeting support only to principals who were struggling the most risked creating a cohort without the ability to share strategies that could work. It would be important to include a diverse mix of school and district leaders, and build in ways of sharing the lessons learned quickly within schools and across districts. All of this had to be accomplished efficiently in an environment of limited budgets. Massachusetts needed a cost-effective approach for systemic change.

“We selected the NISL program because of its breadth, rigor and the wealth of knowledge about leadership gathered from experts in diverse fields. NISL [empowers] our school leaders to work together toward common goals in a collegial network, so that eventually [all] leaders in the state will speak the same language and use the same skills as they work together to refocus their schools toward results.”


David Driscoll, former Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts


In 2005, Massachusetts selected NISL’s EDP program to train school leaders in the commonwealth’s 20 lowest-performing districts. The program began in 2006, and by the summer of 2008, the first group of school leaders had graduated. Third-party studies came back showing that the initiative was not only improving the skills of leaders, but that these leaders were raising student achievement. The positive effects of the program spread beyond the most underperforming districts to more broadly improve the skills, knowledge and effectiveness of school and district leaders across Massachusetts. After 4 years, NISL had statistically significantly higher positive growth than comparison schools in both math and ELA, with the math ES of .14 and the ELA ES of .11.

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  • Proven Impact

    A direct link to statistically significant student achievement gains.

  • + 1 Month

    NISL-led students gain over a month of learning over peers.

  • + 9.48%

    Increase in math proficiency rates above matched schools.

  • 1/10th Cost

    NISL achieves same achievement gains at one tenth the cost

  • 120 Schools

    NISL increased proficiency in math and literacy assessments.

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