Tucker’s Lens: A Design for School Leadership Training

By Marc Tucker

nisl logoI have not, until now, used this space to talk about a program run by NCEE, the organizational sponsor of this newsletter.  But I am doing just that in this Tucker’s Lens.  I have the sense that there is a growing realization around the world that ambitious aims for the schools will not be realized unless the people who lead those schools are well trained for that role and highly skilled practitioners of it.  That is a challenge we know something about.

More than 15 years ago, NCEE was approached by representatives of several leading foundations and the United States government asking if we would be prepared to design a new institution to train school principals, one that would have the same prestige and rigor in the schools arena that many associate with the National War College in the military realm.  The institutions that came to us had different education reform agendas, but they all recognized that none of them could achieve their objectives unless American schools had much more capable school leaders.

We accepted that assignment.  After five years of research and development and the investment of $11 million, we opened the doors of the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL).  In this Tucker’s Lens, I want to give you some idea of how we went about it, what we created, its effectiveness and, not least important, how and why, after so much success, we are now planning major changes in the NISL program.

When we started, we expected to proceed in the usual way, to find the best examples we could find of great training for school leaders and then figure out how to learn from and improve on that model.  But, to our surprise, we discovered there was no such model.  When we looked outside the United States, we found that schools were typically much smaller than in the United States and were led by people not called principals, but rather heads, meaning head teachers, because, in most of the countries we looked at, school leaders still taught some classes and were regarded not as professional managers, but rather as senior teachers with some leadership responsibilities.  They were rarely the objects of specialized training.

Within the United States, we asked leading deans of graduate education schools to nominate the best graduate training program in our country for school administrators.  We went to visit the consensus nominee and found a tiny, very poorly designed program no part of which was worth emulating.  So we decided to look outside the field of education for foundations on which we could build a world-class school leadership program.

In the end, we built our model on elements that we found in the best of the corporate universities, graduate schools of business, the American military’s top leadership training institutions and professional schools in areas as disparate as engineering, medicine and even theology.  We asked the head of the Executive Development Program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management to summarize the relevant literature on leadership training and modern management theory for us.  This led us to work on strategic thinking, the best thinking on the management of professionals, and so on.  But we did not think we would succeed just by drawing on the world’s best ideas and research on generic leadership development.  So we looked hard at the best research on instructional leadership, teacher professional development, curriculum, the moral dimension of school leadership and other domains specific to elementary and secondary education.  And we conducted a thorough review of what is known about adult learning and the technologies that can be used to support it.

schoolleadersAs the research phase was drawing to a close, we hired a former Dean of the National War College to develop the National Institute for School Leadership’s Executive Development program.  The result was by far the most ambitious program of leadership development for school principals the United States had ever seen.  We constructed a “blended learning” program for the participants: 40 hours of computer-based, Internet-delivered instruction, combined with 27 days of face-to-face instruction delivered over 14-18 months.  We scoured the literature on leadership and the literature on education to build a curriculum quite different from any we had seen, a curriculum that reflected the best research anywhere on the topics of interest.

That system included not just the usual computer-interactive material, but carefully constructed cases modeled on the Harvard Business School approach, as well as simulations and games that would fully engage the participants in dynamic models that could recreate exactly the kinds of situations they would be confronted with in their own work, and help them think about how to bring what they had learned to bear on those situations.

The curriculum is intended to develop school principals who are highly effective strategic thinkers; instructional leaders; team leaders; creators of a just, fair and caring school culture; visionaries; masters of data and its uses; coaches and mentors; and drivers of change.  We are not interested in training people to “keep school” efficiently.  The aim is to train people who can lead their schools to internationally benchmarked levels of student performance.  We started with serving school principals and then went on to include other school leaders and aspiring principals, too.

The results have been very gratifying.  When we were asked when we started the program what we expected to achieve, we did not dare dream that we would be able to show direct effects on student achievement under experimental or quasi-experimental conditions.  After all, the states and districts involved would be making very small investments per student, compared to much larger investments in many other school interventions that were unable to show any statistically significant results.

But, when 38 participating schools in Massachusetts were evaluated by independent evaluators using a quasi-experimental design, they found that “NISL-led schools achieved statistically significantly higher student achievement in both mathematics and ELA [English language Arts] versus the comparison group….This translates into an average of a month of additional learning for all students….”  An evaluation of 101 schools in Pennsylvania found that proficiency in mathematics at the high school level in the NISL-led schools grew at an astounding 9.48 percent rate.  The Johns Hopkins and Old Dominion University researchers who conducted this second study observed that, “This is particularly noteworthy given that the program is highly cost-effective.”

In another study of NISL’s schools in Massachusetts, the Johns Hopkins-Old Dominion University team compared the effects of using NISL to the effects of using other school improvement models.  “The effect size,” they said, “is quite large when compared to results observed in similar studies such as comprehensive school reform effects or Title I program effects…. and was achieved for about $4,000 per school.”  Indeed, these effects were also comparable to those achieved by other very well known models, which cost five to ten times as much per student.

When we started offering NISL to states, many state leaders quickly found their graduate schools of education assuring them that they did not need NISL, that their own homegrown programs could meet the need for school leadership development.  That was particularly true in one state in which the state commissioner decided to implement the program over the determined opposition of the state university’s school of education.  But, recently, having seen what the NISL program had done for educators around the state, that school came to us and asked us to train their faculty to deliver the NISL program as an integral part of their advanced degree programs for school administrators.  It is now possible for school leaders around the United States to get substantial credit toward advanced degrees—meeting up to one-third of all the course requirements—by taking part in the NISL program.  Since their state often funds the full cost of participation in the NISL program, this is a big benefit for school administrators seeking advanced degrees.

Perhaps all of this is why the United States Business Roundtable, conducting a well-publicized search for highly effective, scalable education reform programs of any kind, named NISL’s Executive Development Program as one of only five of the many submitted that could meet their stringent criteria.  It is undoubtedly why a growing number of states—now including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Missouri and Kentucky have adopted NISL statewide and Arizona is using it to support its School Improvement Grant program statewide.

So, with this kind of success behind it, why would we be considering making any changes in the NISL Executive Development Program?

PrincipalsThis is where international benchmarking comes in.  While the curriculum begins with a unit designed to describe the global economic dynamics that set the context that demands such great improvements in the performance of American schools, the research on which most of the other units is based—relating to curriculum, instruction, management of professionals and so on—was largely conducted in the United States.  But, in the years since we first started to design the program, one nation after another has pulled ahead of the United States in student performance.

We do not intend to abandon any of the material in the NISL curriculum that has enabled it to be so successful.  What we do intend to do is add material that draws on our international research to give principals-in-training access to global best practices in education.  Instead of limiting their field of vision to the United States, we will give them a good feel for the way Shanghai approaches the continuing development of their teachers and the development of a school culture in which all teachers are encouraged and supported as they seek constantly to improve their professional practice.  We will help them understand how Singapore has used career ladders to structure a climate of real professionalism in that country and share the criteria Singapore has developed to gauge when teachers are ready to take a step up that ladder.  We will share with them how Finland has managed to create a culture in which teachers are trusted to do their jobs and in which they earn that trust every day.  We will help them understand the techniques that the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium have used to produce superior student performance in mathematics year after year.

By using cases based on examples of best practice from all over the world, and keeping them up to date, NISL will be able to keep its curriculum fresh and relevant, opening participants’ perspectives to a wider horizon of possibilities.  This is exactly what the best business schools in the world do for the world’s top business leaders.  There is no substitute for sending school leaders to other countries for that purpose, but few countries can afford to do that for many school leaders and we hope in this way to do something of great value for a large number of American principals whose perspective to the present has largely been confined to their own country.

Unless I am much mistaken, we will not be alone in this ambition.  Nations everywhere are awakening to the value of adding an international perspective to the range of tools available to their education professionals.  We all have a lot to learn from one another.