What the Research Says

Developing strong school leaders is an especially effective strategy for improving student achievement school-wide—and transforming schools throughout a district.

Explore What the Research Says

NISL invested $11 million from our parent organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy, and from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Broad Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund and the Stupski Foundation, to support the research, design, development and field-testing of the Executive Development Program for School Leaders. The scope of the research is unprecedented.

This research has driven our work from the start—to address the changing role of school leaders, to build our rigorous curriculum rich in lessons on education and leadership, and finally to how we deliver our program to be as impactful as possible.

The Importance of School Leadership and Leadership Development

  • Empirical evidence links strong principals to positive student, teacher and school outcomes. Leadership is second only to teaching among school influences on student success—and the impact is greatest in schools with the greatest needs (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom 2004; Branch, Hanushek & Rivkin 2009; Hallinger & Heck 1998).
  • Principals’ influence accounts for about one-quarter of school-level variation in student achievement (Leithwood et al. 2004; Waters, Marzano & McNulty 2003).
  • Effective leadership is essential for turning around persistently low-performing schools. “Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader. … [L]eadership is the catalyst” (Leithwood et al. 2004).
  • Principals’ knowledge, dispositions and actions can directly influence school conditions and professionalism; teacher quality, placement and retention; instructional quality; collegial, team-based culture; use of data; resource management; and the successful implementation of programs that impact school performance and learning (Clifford, Behrstock-Sherratt & Fetters 2012).
  • Schools face a leadership crisis rooted in the changing nature of the job (Davis, Darling-Hammond, LaPointe & Meyerson 2005) and the aging of the workforce (Gates et al. 2006). Professional demands on principals are swelling as their role shifts from administrative to instructional leadership. Schools struggle to attract and retain an adequate supply of highly qualified leadership candidates. Even with credentials from principal preparation programs—typically in graduate programs in higher education institutions—principals often have a limited capacity to lead.
  • Traditional methods of preparing principals, from schools of education to leadership development and in-service programs, are falling dismally short (Davis et al. 2005; Levine 2005; Hess & Kelly 2005; Kelly & Peterson 2002; Cotton 2003). A survey of principals found nearly all—96 percent—considered their colleagues more helpful in preparing them to be instructional leaders than their graduate training (Farkas, Johnson & Duffet 2003), and two-thirds say leadership preparation programs are out of touch with school realities (Farkas, Johnson & Duffet 2003; Johnson, Arumi & Ott 2006).

The NISL Curriculum—Instructional Leadership

The NISL curriculum reflects aspects of instructional leadership that research suggests are critical to improved instruction and learning, including:

  • Standards-based instruction. Research documents the critical role of standards for student performance in instruction (Smith & O’Day 1993; Tucker & Codding 1998) and the important ways that principals can implement standards-based reform in classrooms (Portin et al. 2009).
  • Formative assessment. A comprehensive review of formative assessment concluded that “innovations that include strengthening the practice of formative assessment produce significant and often substantial learning gains” (Black & Wiliam 1998).
  • Instructional teams. While principals remain the chief instructional leaders in their schools, they can play this role more effectively when they form instructional teams that include teacher leaders (Portin et al. 2009).
  • Compelling school vision. A compelling vision can motivate the school community to achieve lofty goals (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson & Wahlstrom 2004) and is particularly important in turning around low-performing schools (Herman et al. 2008).
  • Differentiated instruction. Principals help teachers differentiate instruction by building a system for collecting and analyzing student level data and ensuring that it is used to place students and focus instruction (Herman et al. 2008). They can also provide professional development for teachers to improve data use and instruction (Herman et al. 2008).
  • Professional learning communities. A study of 1,500 schools that were undergoing restructuring found that professional learning communities led to higher student achievement, lower dropout rates, and improved behavior and attendance (Wehlage & Newmann 1997).
  • Instruction in the content areas. As Hill (2002) notes, principals “… need to be able to recognize good teaching and what it means to effectively implement different teaching strategies in different learning contexts” (p. 66).
  • Learning modalities. Principals need to understand how children learn and how to create learning environments to maximize learning. A seminal report by the National Research Council synthesized decades of research in cognitive science and outlined the key foundations of learning (Bransford, Brown & Cocking 1999).

The NISL Curriculum—Organizational Leadership

NISL has incorporated leadership best practices from a variety of fields, including education as well as business, the military and medical professions:

  • Culture and team building. Effective leaders articulate and maintain the organizational culture, and in so doing, build and hold together a team (Collins & Porras 1996). Leaders need to know how to articulate their own core values, understand what other managers and employees think the organization stands for, and collectively develop a set of shared values (Deal & Kennedy 2000).
  • Data-driven organizations. Businesses have long focused on results and on looking at data to drive decisions. Leaders need to set performance goals, identify key indicators, support personnel to achieve results, hold everyone in the organization accountable for results, and monitor performance continuously (Eiter 2002).
  • Importance of systems. Effective leaders are skillful at designing systems and aligning them to the organization’s priorities and goals (Hill 2002).
  • Coaching. Teachers need to be able to improve their own performance, and effective leaders need to be able to provide the coaching and feedback to support teachers in doing so (Goldsmith, Lyons & Freas 2000).
  • Strategic thinking. Researchers such as C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel have framed strategic thinking as a three-pronged concept: strategic intent, or creating a vision of a new organizational direction; strategy as stretch, or highlighting the mismatch between resources and ambition; and strategy as revolution, or radical rethinking of an organization’s approach (Eiter 2002).

The NISL Pedagogy

The NISL program not only has strong content, but it is delivered in a manner that increases participant learning, consistent with best practices in adult learning:

  • Use of cohorts. Studies of teachers have found that professional learning communities can enhance teacher learning and improve practice (Little 2003). A study of leadership development programs found that a cohort design is a key feature of exemplary programs (Darling-Hammond et al. 2007).
  • Job-embedded learning. Learners are better able to transfer what they learn to new situations when their learning is contextualized to real situations (Anderson, Simon & Reder 1996). Learning in context is also an important feature of exemplary programs studied by Stanford researchers (Darling-Hammond et al. 2007).
  • Use of simulations. Simulations provide opportunities for relevant work that is less abstract than traditional coursework and that build on situational cognition.
  • Use of 360-degree assessment. 360-degree assessments provide leaders with feedback from multiple layers within their organizations as well as from customers and partners. Education leaders need to be able to implement a 360-degree assessment and feedback system and to use the results to improve performance (Eiter 2002).
  • Extended period of study. A number of studies of teacher professional development have found that isolated workshops are ineffective; teachers are better able to learn and adopt improved practices if their professional development is sustained over time and integrated into their practice (Cohen & Hill 2001; Supovitz, Mayer & Kahle 2000).

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