Milwaukee Public Schools

Improving achievement scores in a diverse, economically-challenged district

Students in Milwaukee schools led by NISL trained principals outperformed their peers in math and literacy on state assessments.

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Milwaukee Public Schools is a large, urban district with a diverse, largely economically challenged student population and its achievement scores have historically lagged state averages in both mathematics and reading. Then MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton took meaningful action to impact student achievement quickly.

NISL’s EDP program was selected as MPS’s principal leadership development program. Over four years, some 120 school leaders, along with more than 30 central office staff, participated in the EDP. In April of 2016, Johns Hopkins University and Old Dominion University issued a study on the impact of the NISL initiative in Milwaukee.


At the time of the study, MPS enrolled some 80,000 students in 175 schools. More than half of students in MPS were African American (56 percent), about one quarter were Hispanic (24 percent), 14 percent were White, and 5 percent were Asian. Most students were from economically challenged backgrounds as well, with more than 8 in 10 MPS students—83 percent—qualifying for the federal Free and Reduced-Price Meals program.

These demographic and social dynamics made the need for effective and impactful school leadership at MPS particularly acute and the district’s student achievement data underscored this reality. In the 2010-2011 school year, just 14 percent of MPS students scored at or above proficient on the state reading assessment, the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examinations, compared to 35.8 percent statewide. In mathematics, just 19.7 percent of MPS students scored at or above proficient compared to 49.1 percent statewide.


In its efforts to improve student achievement, MPS faced headwinds on par with the nation’s most challenged school systems. District leaders sought strategies and solutions that were both cost-effective and could be broadly implemented at scale.

After evaluating its options, MPS identified NISL as a low-cost, high impact lever for school improvement. With MPS’s leadership anxious to get as many leaders involved as quickly as possible, 48 experienced principals enrolled in and completed the EDP in the first year. Two more cohorts of principals completed the EDP in the following two years. In total, 120 MPS school leaders graduated from the EDP.

Wishing to further leverage the value of the EDP curriculum, MPS leadership asked NISL to create a program for central office instructional staff. In the summer of 2012, more than 30 central office staff participated in a five-day Instructional Leadership Institute administered by NISL staff.  The training helped central office staff to better align their work with the efforts of their school leaders who were EDP graduates.


A three-year study of Milwaukee Public Schools from Johns Hopkins and Old Dominion Universities found that students in schools led by principals who graduated from the EDP outperformed their peers in math and literacy on state assessments.

The Milwaukee study compared 24 schools led by EDP-graduate principals to 42 comparison schools led by non-EDP graduates from 2010 to 2014. EDP-led schools had student populations that included higher percentages of English Language Learners, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and students with special needs. These schools also had higher percentages of Hispanic students and lower percentages of Asian and White students. Most significantly, EDP-led schools whose students started with lower levels of proficiency in both math and reading prior to the EDP training their principals received.

Despite these challenges, the students in schools led by EDP graduates caught up to and surpassed the students in comparison schools as a result of NISL. The researchers estimated that in the 24 schools studied with EDP principals, 377 more students achieved math proficiency and 289 more achieved reading proficiency.

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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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