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. NCLB had highlighted the problem—and Driscoll was determined to find the answers. 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.

In 2005, Massachusetts selected NISL’s Executive Development Program to train school leaders in the commonwealth’s 20 lowest-performing districts. Training began in 2006, and by the summer of 2008, the first group of school leaders completed their training. 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. With the success of the program, the training spread beyond the most underperforming districts to more broadly improve the skills, knowledge and effectiveness of school and district leaders across Massachusetts.

Today, district superintendents across Massachusetts request NISL training for their current and aspiring leaders. More than 1,400 school and district leaders have successfully completed the NISL Executive Development Program since 2005.

“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


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 training 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 train 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 extremely efficiently in an environment of limited budgets. Massachusetts needed a cost-effective approach for systemic change.

Read more about the Executive Development Program implementation in Massachusetts.

“There was a very clear message that the house was on fire, and we had to stop trying to put it out with little buckets of water.”


Marjorie Soto, Principal, Hurley K-8 School, Boston, MA.


To speed change at the school level, state education leaders and NISL worked together at the start of the implementation to broaden the focus of the training beyond struggling principals. They decided to train entire school leadership teams, often including assistant principals, department heads, grade-level chairs and teacher-leaders. To ensure a transfer of best practices, they included leaders from struggling schools as well as leaders from more successful schools in the districts. And to ensure that the school leaders would be able to move forward with full support from their districts, key district staff participated in the training as well.

To tackle the cost-effectiveness imperative, NISL used a “train-the-trainer” approach to build local capacity to deliver the training. For the first cohort of participants, the state worked with districts and professional associations to identify and recruit education leaders with the potential to become expert trainers for the NISL Executive Development Program. Trainer candidates first received the full NISL program as well as extra training in the art of facilitation. NISL staff then observed and mentored these trainer candidates as they delivered the training. Those who successfully completed the train-the-trainer program were certified to train other school leaders in the state.

 And what answers emerged to the central question of increasing principal effectiveness? One of the most significant changes principals make after the NISL training is how they use their time, says Janet Strauss, a former turnaround principal who was selected for the first NISL training cohort in Massachusetts and who is now program director of NISL for New England. NISL-trained principals have a new set of priorities; most important is an intense focus on instructional practices. They see themselves as instructional leaders, not only building managers. NISL-trained principals also:

  • Rethink how they leverage the human capital resources in their schools
  • Build networks of faculty focused on solving specific student learning problems
  • Use professional learning time for discussions centered on instruction and student learning


The nearly unprecedented 1,400 education leaders in Massachusetts who have successfully completed NISL training to date have provided a great opportunity for third-party research. Two major studies attest to NISL’s impact in Massachusetts:

  • Round 1. An initial study conducted by the Meristem Group found that students in schools led by NISL-trained principals outperformed students in comparison schools in both mathematics and English language arts, as measured on the state’s high-stakes assessments. This study, released in 2009, is particularly impressive, given that it examined the 132 schools in the initial NISL cohort. The student performance improvements in these schools came only a few months after the principals had completed the NISL program—an indication that principals were implementing NISL practices in their schools while they were still in training.

  • Round 2. A follow-up study conducted by Old Dominion and Johns Hopkins universities showed that NISL-trained principals outperform their peers in raising student achievement in English language arts and mathematics. This scientifically rigorous study, released in 2011, showed that students gained the equivalent of one month of extra learning. These gains matched gains observed in studies of significantly more expensive interventions, such as whole school reform and class-size reduction initiatives.

“The effect size is quite large when compared to results observed in similar studies such as comprehensive school reform effects or Title I program effects… When it is considered such effects apply to an entire school and that the NISL program costs (are low), the educational value to individual schools and to multiple schools state-wide is obvious.”



The Impact of the NISL Executive Development Program on School Performance in Massachusetts: Round 2 Old Dominion University, Johns Hopkins University, July 2011

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