Transformation at Scale: How the National Institute for School Leadership is Strengthening School Leaders Across 3 States

By Miki Aristorenas

Providing rigorous executive development to current school leaders is one of the most efficient ways to drive student achievement.  This is the driving force behind the National Institute for School Leadership’s (NISL) Executive Development Program (EDP).

NISL’s EDP is the product of a $19 million-dollar research and development effort.  The 12- to 15-month program is based on leading edge research in adult learning and is aimed at increasing principal effectiveness and improving student learning through a scalable and cost-efficient train-the-trainer model.  

In 2014, NISL was awarded a $12 million Validation-level Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study a large-scale implementation of the EDP across three states: California, Florida and Mississippi. Matching support was provided by the Wallace Foundation and, in Mississippi, the Phil Hardin Foundation.

The i3 grant to NISL now supports principals in 88 districts serving nearly 1.7 million students, many from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Throughout the duration of the grant, NISL will provide comprehensive leadership support to 750 principals. The effort has already impacted more than 93,000 students during the first year of the grant period alone. To maximize the long-term impact on instructional leadership in participating districts, additional school and district leaders in all three partner states are being trained to deliver the NISL program, building local capacity to strengthen school leadership statewide for years to come.

In addition to its wide-scale impact, the initiative will also produce a rigorous random control trial study of NISL’s EDP and coaching. This gold standard study is being conducted by a team of external evaluators from the RAND Corporation. The researchers are assessing the impact of the EDP and aligned coaching model on principals, teachers and students.

While the study is not yet completed, schools across all three states have begun to show promising results. In Pinellas County, Florida, all NISL participant-led schools have demonstrated improvements based on the state’s letter grade-based school accountability system. Punta Gorda Middle School, in Pinellas County, went from a C to an A. EDP coach Valerie Spriggs said principal Justinia Dionisio of Punta Gorda used her Action Learning Project from the EDP “as a springboard to assist with lasting change.”  Lee County, Florida, which is beginning their 5th EDP cohort this year, also saw achievement gains across all NISL participant-led schools. Based on the success of the program, some districts have even started to think more strategically and systematically about turning their schools into robust professional learning communities and are now partnering with NISL on new efforts to support instructional staff.

Multiple independent research studies, including a 2017 RAND Corporation report, have shown that students in schools led by NISL-trained leaders outperform their peers in both math and reading. NISL’s impact was also recently highlighted by the George W. Bush Institute. The Bush Institute report found that the NISL EDP was one of only two school leadership improvement programs that had been both rigorously studied and showed positive effects on student achievement.

The i3 fund was established to expand and develop innovative approaches with records of improving student achievement.  Operating on a multi-state scale, demonstrating impact across districts of various sizes, proving its applicability in rural and urban areas alike and making a difference in both high-performing and low-performing school systems is a high bar for any intervention. Yet the early returns on the work being supported by the i3 grant to NISL are encouraging.

But the most compelling evidence to date comes directly from the educators who are being supported in this effort.  The video below highlights the voices and perspectives of program participants across all three states and gives an inside look at the EDP in action. The participants, through EDP’s carefully designed curriculum and aligned coaching, are empowered to strengthen their skills across the multitude of roles of today’s school leaders, from strategic thinkers to visionaries and drivers of change. Grounded in leading research on adult pedagogy, the EDP uses highly interactive methods of instruction, job-embedded learning, and provides a professional learning community that fosters powerful peer-to-peer engagement.

NISL’s Executive Development Program is now the most widely used, school leadership development program in the country with more than 12,000 school leaders trained across 27 states. And for the principals enrolled in it, thanks to the Investing in Innovation grant, it’s making a meaningful difference in their everyday practice.

The Leader In School Leadership - EDP from NISL on Vimeo.