NISL's Advanced Credentialing System for Principals

A transparent, codified and respected leadership development system for school principals.

Explore NISL's Advanced Credentialing System for Principals

NISL Advanced Credentialing System for Principals

NISL has partnered with three states to develop and pilot advanced credentialing systems that aim to transform the principalship in America in three ways:

  • Increasing retention of top school leaders
  • Strengthening principals’ leadership skills at every stage in their careers
  • Further professionalizing the position

Advanced credentialing systems are based in part on international benchmarking research conducted by NISL’s parent organization, the National Center on Education and the Economy. Benchmarking research has shown that top-performing education systems around the world place a priority on creating a leadership development system that develops leaders at all levels to manage the education system effectively. These systems accomplish this goal by:

  • Providing new school principals with access to experienced mentors to support their career growth and professional learning
  • Providing all principals with consistent, high-quality access to on-the-job and formal training and supports
  • Creating strong incentives for high-performing principals to take on additional responsibilities, including the support of lower-performing schools and principals

The NISL Advanced Credentialing System (ACS) Project seeks to recreate those conditions for success in school districts and states. We envision achieving this goal through the creation of an advanced credentialing system, in which principals will be incentivized, supported, and rewarded throughout their careers as they seek professional recognition in the form of an advanced credential. Within an ACS, all principals will have access to high-quality professional development and opportunities for action research through the NISL Executive Development Program (EDP) and related offerings.

The goal of this work is to develop a transparent, codified, and respected leadership development system and set of credentials for principals to pursue, and for districts and states to implement and sustain.

Why a Credentialing System?

There is now clear evidence that strong school leadership is required to turn around low-performing schools and that improving school leadership leads to improved student learning. Improving school leadership is also a cost effective way to improve the education system as a whole because a single principal impacts dozens of teachers and thousands of students during their careers.

So what is the best way to improve the quality of principals across an entire district? Research from NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking shows that many of the top-performing countries in the world—as well as many high-performing organizations in other fields—systematically identify and nurture the talents of their leaders.

In high-performing education systems, this often takes the form of an advanced credentialing system along with a career ladder and an aligned professional development system.

These systems are particularly powerful as they are designed to not only identify strong leaders, but also create them. NISL’s advanced credentialing system is similarly designed to create strong leaders in two ways. First, it will make the credential valuable—for principals, for superintendents, and for policy makers. States may then create policies to increase the number of credentialed principals, superintendents can use the credential in hiring and promotion decisions and principals strive to obtain their credential.

Second, NISL’s system will have aligned and integrated support systems to help principals obtain their credentials. The support system is a combination of training, coaching and strong leadership development practices that accelerate a principal’s development into a highly effective leader. The cascading coaching model, where nearly all principals are receiving coaching from their more-accomplished peers, creates a “virtuous cycle” where the development of one principal benefits others.

Advanced Credentialing System Overview

What is the relationship between the NISL Advanced Credentialing System (ACS) and the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Grant?
The ACS initiative is being funded in its pilot stages by a multi-year, $10.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through its SEED program.  Under the grant, NISL partnered with districts in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi, enrolling some 1,100 principals serving more than 700,000 students. The principals participate in the initiative in a number of ways, including serving as Distinguished Principals; completing NISL’s Executive Development Program (EDP); receiving coaching from Distinguished Principals; or serving as control principals in a randomized controlled trial conducted by RAND Corporation. Following the end of the grant, NISL will continue its work with district partners to continue the ACS development work in the three original states, and, over time, possibly expand into other states.

The Distinguished Principal Credential

What is a Distinguished Principal?

Distinguished Principals have demonstrated that they are highly effective school leaders, either maintaining high student achievement results over the course of a number of years, or producing clear student achievement gains in their buildings.  Once awarded the credential, Distinguished Principals have been asked to take on greater responsibilities in their districts in order to expand their efficacy to other schools and to support other school leaders in reaching the credential. During the pilot phase of the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) Advanced Credentialing System (ACS) Project, these extra responsibilities involve coaching other principals as part of the pilot credentialing program and study conducted by RAND Corporation and funded by a federal Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) grant by the U.S. Department of Education. In the future, districts will expand the responsibilities and incentives for Distinguished Principals as more leaders are credentialed and districts determine how best to leverage the experience of these leaders in their specific contexts.

How were the Distinguished Principals selected?

During the initial pilot phase of the ACS Project (2016-2018), superintendents in the participating districts nominated school leaders to be considered for the next level of a new advanced credential system: Distinguished Principal. The pool of candidates went through a two-phase evaluation process in which an expert panel considered the nominees’ experience, student achievement data from their schools over a period of several years, responses to written prompts about systems thinking and school leadership, and competencies demonstrated at a summer institute. From this pool of candidates, 39 educators (about 28% of those who applied) received the credential in the initial round. Because many school leaders move on to district leadership and other opportunities, for the pilot phase of the ACS project, a parallel credential – National School Leadership Coach – was created to recognize former school leaders with equally strong records of success.

How do Distinguished Principals contribute to the ACS Project?

Distinguished Principals play a critical role in this phase of the ACS Project (2016-2019), serving as coaches to the “treatment” principals in the coaching study. RAND Corporation will evaluate the impact of their coaching support on student achievement in coachees’ schools for the purpose of the study as part of the SEED grant. As Distinguished Principals, they are expected to help their coachees positively influence student outcomes in their schools by coaching them in ways specifically related to the NISL Executive Development Program (EDP) and the NISL coaching philosophy. The coaching runs the gamut from systems thinking to high performance management to instructional leadership.  Further, they are intended to support their coachees in seeking the Distinguished Principal credential, while they themselves grow in their instructional leadership in ways that may eventually enable them to meet the requirements to earn a Master Principal credential.

What support do Distinguished Principals receive as part of the ACS Project?

In order to support the Distinguished Principals in growing their knowledge of international benchmarking research, systems thinking, learning theory, and the NISL coaching philosophy, NISL has designed a professional learning system. Distinguished Principals receive ongoing formal and informal support and learning opportunities, including nine days of face-to-face professional learning with NISL staff; a shoulder-to-shoulder coach and thought partner; and ongoing coaching calls allowing for network-building and reflection.  This professional learning serves the Distinguished Principals and the project in two ways: first, it supports them in becoming strong, effective coaches responsible for growing the next generation of Distinguished Principals; and second, it prepares them to eventually apply for the Master Principal credential once that credential is developed with our partner states and districts.

What is next for Distinguished Principals?

Distinguished Principals will continue to coach their principal coachees during the 2017-18 school year. During this time frame, we also will embark on a new phase in our partnership with the Distinguished Principals and their districts. Distinguished Principals will inform the design of the ACS in their states, and in particular, help us and their superintendents think through and craft incentives and direction for the credentialing system as it is designed and rolled out.

NISL also will continue to offer its robust system of continuous professional learning for the Distinguished Principals, including ongoing shoulder-to-shoulder coaching, regular networking calls, online support, and, as requested by the Distinguished Principals, face-to-face networking and formal learning opportunities, as funding permits.

When the Master Principal credential is ready to be piloted, the first cohort of Distinguished Principals will be the first group of school leaders eligible to apply for this credential.

The Pilot Evaluation Study

The Advanced Credentialing System pilot project is being evaluated by the RAND Corporation, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. RAND, a prestigious non-profit research organization, is conducting a “gold standard” randomized control trial in order to determine the impacts of NISL’s Executive Development Program (EDP) and aligned coaching model on principals participating in the early phases of NISL’s Advanced Credentialing System. In addition to being well-prepared to apply for the Advanced Credentials, NISL expects that principals who are the recipients of these supports will have positive impacts on the student achievement in their schools, as demonstrated through state standardized test results in addition to a myriad of other metrics.

The resulting report by RAND, which is expected to be published by 2020, will be a preeminent document in the field of school leadership research, and one of the largest studies ever conducted on the impacts of coaching of school principals. Positive findings will prove to the field that quality supports for school principals succeed in impacting student achievement in schools of all backgrounds, from multiple states, and facing a myriad of challenges.

What is the project’s theory of change?

As illustrated in Figure 1 below, NISL aims to provide high-quality training and coaching that is targeted to their contexts and levels of prior expertise of the principals receiving the coaching, to transform educational practices and improve school effectiveness on a large scale. RAND hypothesizes that many of the impacts of these principal development activities will be observed first in the practices of principals themselves and of the teachers they manage, and then in changes in student academic performance and behavioral outcomes. This chain of effects is reflected in the design of the evaluation plan, which consider potential mechanisms and mediators of impact, alongside investigation of ultimate benefits that may accrue to students.

Concurrent with efforts to directly develop principals’ skills and improve their schools’ effectiveness, the project also aims to develop and leverage a growing talent pool of school leaders in participating districts through a virtuous circle of “train-the-trainer” and “train-the-coach” development activities. These activities require the successful transfer of leadership skills from NISL-trained staff to cohorts of new Distinguished Principals. RAND’s evaluation will take on the latter component, evaluating the impact of the train-the-coach model on principals in each state.

Figure 1. Theory of Change for Impacts on School Effectiveness

What research questions does the evaluation seek to answer?
The evaluation seeks to answer the following research questions:

  • To what extent are the key components of NISL’s Executive Development Program (EDP) training and the coaching of principals implemented as intended?
  • What are the key mechanisms through which the project’s coaching and/or training activities lead to changes in leadership, teaching, the working environment and culture of the schools and eventually student learning?
  • What is the effect of providing EDP training to principals on their leadership practices, school climate and culture, and student academic and behavioral outcomes in schools?
  • What is the incremental effect of providing intensive coaching to school principals who are engaged in, or have completed, EDP training, on their leadership practices, school climate and culture, and student academic and behavioral outcomes in schools?

Methodology and Performance Measures

Questions Performance Measures
RQ #1-2 Extent to which NISL training is implemented as intended (via observations of EDP with Cohorts 1 in Summer 2016 & AY 2016 and a Spring 2016 Principal survey)
Extent to which NISL coaching is implemented as intended (via principal and coaches logs and interviews with coaches/principals in case study schools in AY 2016-17 and 2017-18)
Of principals who receive coaching, percent who perceive change/improvement to their leadership practices (via coach logs, interviews with coaches and principals, questions on Principal Practices surveys included for coached principals)
RQ #3-4 Principal Practices surveys in all participating district schools (in Spring 2016 and April 2018 [1]).
School Climate surveys of teachers, in a sub-sample of up to 600 schools (October 2016 and April 2018).
Annual school average retention rates of teachers deemed effective according to state-wide teacher evaluation criteria, where this data is available
Student achievement on state tests in Math, Reading, and Science, by year
Student attendance, discipline, graduation, and grade progression outcomes, by year

[1] Control school teachers will be surveyed only in April 2018.

Contact us to learn more about the Advanced Credentialing System project.

News and Updates

For the most up-to-date news regarding NISL’s advanced credentialing system and distinguished principals, please click here to read more.

October 13, 2016
NISL’s CEO Discusses Distinguished Principals

Jason Dougal, CEO of NISL, discusses principals who have been awarded with the Distinguished Principal credential. Principals from Rankin, Harrison, Madison, Winona, Gulfport, Grenada, Sunflower and McComb school districts in Mississippi have been recognized.

Listen to the discussion on Super Talk Mississippi (discussion begins at 28:45).

June 10, 2016
NISL Launches Advanced Credentialing System for School Principals in KY, MS and PA

Some 1,100 school principals from Kentucky, Mississippi and Pennsylvania became the first educators eligible for the first-ever National Advanced Credential for School Principals as the National Institute for School Leadership launched its three-state effort this week.

Funded through a three-year $10.9 million Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the initiative is based on NISL’s years of research on the leadership development strategies and structures in the world’s best education systems and organizations.

“This initiative will keep our most talented principals in a field that desperately needs them,” said NISL CEO Jason Dougal. “Advanced credentials will empower principals with the ability to train and coach early-career colleagues, strengthening school leadership at scale and increase the future pool of candidates for advanced credentialing.”

A respected, international team of school leadership experts has been convened to advise NISL through the course of the project. A top research team from the RAND Corporation, using a rigorous, random control trial design, will study the impact of the advanced credentials on student achievement and growth, teacher effectiveness and school climate.

To learn more, please contact us.


Download Kentucky Distinguished Principal Candidates Institute Information

Download Mississippi Distinguished Principal Candidates Institute Information

Download Pennsylvania Distinguished Principal Candidates Institute Information (Cohort 1)

Download Pennsylvania Distinguished Principal Candidates Institute Information (Cohort 2)

How NISL Can Support Districts or States to Dramatically Improve School Leadership

NISL is prepared to support states and districts interested in dramatically improving their corps of school principals. NISL can offer technical assistance to design and implement a sequenced rollout for school leadership credentialing and support systems. We can also provide the same support components found in our SEED-funded initiative.

These include:

  • Rigorous professional development for all school leaders: NISL’s Executive Development Program provides a foundation of research-proven leadership development to school leaders at every stage of their career.
  • Targeted training for experienced principals: Intensive leadership institutes focused on critical issues, including:
      1. Targeted Student Populations: English Language Learners, Students with Disabilities, Early Childhood
      2. Areas of Leadership: Instructional Coaching, Parent/Family/Community Engagement
      3. High Priority School Goals: College and Career Readiness
  • Train-the-Trainer certification for Advanced Credentialed school leaders so that they can scale and sustain rollout of the EDP and Targeted Institutes.
  • Coaching Training for Advanced Credentialed school leaders so that they can better support principals earlier in their career. This training program equips coaches with a research-based coaching model and empowers them to use the EDP framework and tools to advance instructional leadership in their coachees.

To see how NISL can support your school or district, please contact us.