Pennsylvania Department of Education

A Statewide Program Increases Principal Effectiveness

Explore the Pennsylvania NISL Case Study


A decade ago, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell sought a systemic solution to the statewide challenge to improve student achievement. Rendell and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Frances Barnes wanted to improve both teacher effectiveness and the skills and knowledge of school leaders. The governor and education secretary directed staff to mine research on school leadership effectiveness to find solutions to the seemingly intractable challenge of raising student achievement. That research led directly to NISL.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education partnered with NISL to create the Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership (PIL) Initiative, which is built on the NISL Executive Development Program. Two rigorous, independent studies show that the NISL program, first implemented in Pennsylvania in 2005, is producing significant gains in student achievement.

Stimulated by this success with NISL, Pennsylvania changed its school leadership regulations in 2007 to require that all novice principals and assistant principals complete the NISL-backed PIL program within five years of taking the helm of a school. Principals who successfully complete the PIL program are awarded permanent administrative certification. With NISL’ s Executive Development Program, Pennsylvania found a systemic approach to developing standards-based leadership competencies that produce positive student results.

“… [T]he results … represent highly promising evidence that the NISL Executive Development Program for school leaders may result in statistically significant, substantial, and sustained improvements in student performance in reading and mathematics, particularly in the challenging context of secondary schools. This is particularly noteworthy given that the program is highly cost-effective.”

Nunnery, J.A., Yen, C. & Ross, S.M (2011). An Examination of the Effects of the National Institute for School Leadership’s Executive Development Program on School Performance in Pennsylvania: 2006-2010, Old Dominion University


When their quest for a high-quality, statewide leadership development program began, Pennsylvania policymakers knew that the quality of existing programs in the state was mixed —some were good; others were poor. At the time, data was scant to non-existent on which programs were most effective. What could be done to ramp up leaders’ competencies and results in Pennsylvania schools?

Pennsylvania tasked a work group of principals, superintendents and state association leaders to review the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards as well as research the factors that are critical to effective principal leadership. From that work, the group developed a set of leadership standards for Pennsylvania school and system leaders. Knowing what it takes for a principal to succeed is important—but actually preparing principals with leadership knowledge, skills and competencies is a challenge for any state. NISL had the only fully developed curriculum that met the state’s expectations.

Read more about the Executive Development Program implementation in Pennsylvania.

“My university program was based on hypothetical situations. My participation in NISL provided me with a venue to share live accounts with other principals.”

Dr. Tammy Stern, Director of Curriculum, Connellsville Area School District, PA


The Pennsylvania partnership with NISL that began with two 25-person pilot cohorts of principals and assistant principals has evolved into a thriving, statewide induction program for novice principals and assistant principals. The state’s vision for a comprehensive approach to increasing principal effectiveness has come to fruition. The Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership Program, the core of which is the NISL Executive Development Program, is now running 60 cohorts with 20 to 35 participants in each—with more on a waiting list for future cohorts.

Tammy Stern speaks directly to the effects of the NISL training program which she completed during her tenure as principal of Connellsville Area High School: “I was able to make researched-based changes that I learned about through the NISL program . … [For example,] based on what I learned from the NISL program, I assigned the teaching staff differently than the way it had been done in the past. … I was able to devise a stronger program based on what I learned through my NISL training.”


Results from two rigorous, independent studies show that the NISL Executive Development Program is producing significant gains in student achievement in Pennsylvania. Gains at the high school level are particularly striking, given that turning around low-performing high schools is a difficult challenge.

In the most recent study, Old Dominion University found a 10-percentage point improvement in proficiency rates in Pennsylvania high schools led by principals trained in the NISL program. This represents an average productivity improvement of more than 15 percent as measured by the number of proficient students per dollar spent in the schools.

Gains were strongest in high school math scores, with schools led by principals with NISL training outperforming their peers by nearly 10 percentage points. According to the researchers, ‘the difference in comparative gains [between NISL and non-NISL schools] is striking.”

The results of this study also show significantly larger gains in NISL schools relative to comparison schools in both reading/English language arts and mathematics. The study encompassed 101 schools: 68 elementary schools, 19 middle schools and 14 high schools.

Percentage Scoring Proficient in Mathematics from Pre-implementation Baseline (2006) through 2010 by Program: High Schools in Pennsylvania EDP Pilot Cohort Study.1


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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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