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NCEE’s NISL program is the most widely used research-proven professional learning program for school leaders in the country. It prepares school leaders to create and lead high-performance organizations, improve instruction, leverage data-driven decision making, improve student and school culture, and focus on equity. 

NISL is the product of a $20 million research and development effort, involving leading policymakers, researchers, and practitioners from the best-known business and corporate universities, education programs, and military leadership schools. NISL also benefits from NCEE’s three decades of research into the top-performing education systems in the world and the shared lessons for American schools. The result is a program that combines the best and latest thinking on leadership and education and is delivered using approaches that positively impact leadership, instruction, and learning in schools across districts and states.


The NISL program is designed to meet each district’s needs. NISL’s cohort-based design can blend virtual and face-to-face sessions to reduce time out of school to provide flexible access to the learning and its application. Whether delivered in a blend of virtual and face-to-face sessions or entirely virtually, the content and learning of the NISL program is consistent. NCEE can also provide partners with the capacity to deliver the program internally utilizing local staff, allowing for scaling and sustaining the program across large districts or states.

NISL includes 12 units, divided into three courses, spread over approximately 12 to 15 months. NISL Units 1, 4, 8, and 12 can be delivered onsite, providing opportunities for face-to-face interaction between NCEE facilitators and participants. Face-to-face units are delivered in back-to-back days. Districts may choose to take advantage of all four face-to-face units, or opt for some or all of these face-to-face units to be delivered virtually. Virtual units are delivered in three four-hour sessions over consecutive days. The duration and pacing of virtual sessions can be tailored to district needs.

NISL utilizes Zoom for virtual sessions to allow for digital breakout sessions, chat functionality, digital “hand raising,” and sharing of digital resources. 

A key component of NISL is action learning. Action learning allows participants to apply their learning through an interactive process involving the deep analysis of participants’ individualized contexts, setting clear visions, and working through a theory of action and related strategies. Action learning deepens participants’ understanding of the content and processes embedded in NISL and it affects positive change in their schools. Each participant receives targeted support from NCEE facilitators in smaller groups around common action learning themes. Action learning support typically begins in the last NISL units and continues for three to six months beyond the 12 NISL units.

Throughout the program, all participants benefit from access to the NCEE Portal, a proprietary digital tool that provides readings, videos, research, diagnostic tools, and network supports for participants.

Participants in cohort: Min: 25 Max: 32

Note: Contact NCEE to inquire about individuals joining national cohorts


The NISL program empowers leaders to succeed through a thoughtfully designed, cohesive curriculum consisting of 12 units delivered over 12 to 15 months:


  • Unit 1: The Educational Challenge
  • Unit 2: The Principal as Strategic Thinker
  • Unit 3: Elements of Standards-Aligned Instructional Systems


  • Unit 4: Foundations of Effective Learning
  • Unit 5: Leadership in the Instructional Core: English Language Arts and History
  • Unit 6: Leadership in the Instructional Core: Science and Mathematics
  • Unit 7: Promoting the Learning Organization


  • Unit 8: Leading for Effective Teaching
  • Unit 9: Teams for Instructional Leadership
  • Unit 10: Ethical Leadership for Equity
  • Unit 11: Driving and Sustaining Transformation

Research Base

NCEE, along with the Carnegie Corporation, the Broad Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, the Stupski Foundation and the Wallace Foundation, invested more than $19 million to develop a leadership program benchmarked to the top business schools and military institutions that could support leaders in creating high-performing systems in their schools. From this research, NCEE launched its suite of leadership and system design offerings:

  • For School Leaders: The NISL program, NISL Applied Plus, School Leadership Coaching Program (SLCP), Teaching for Effective Learning (TEL) Series
  • For District Leaders: System Design Benchmarking (SDB), the Superintendent Academy

The following research has driven NCEE’s work—to address the changing role of school leaders, to build a rigorous curriculum rich in lessons on education and leadership, and to deliver NCEE’s program with as much impact as possible. The research base of the NISL program is the foundation on which all NCEE”s programs are built. 

NISL Units 1-3: Systems Thinking and Strategic Leadership

NCEE Research

  • Leading High-Performance School Systems: Learning from the World’s Best. National Center on Education and the Economy. 2019.
  • Preparing to Lead: Lessons in Principal Development from High-Performing Education Systems. National Center on Education and the Economy. 2017.
  • The NISL Program’s Strategy and Strategic Thinking. National Center on Education and the Economy. 2019.
  • What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? The Mathematics and English Literacy Required of First Year Community College Students. National Center on Education and the Economy. 2013.

External Research

  • Eiter, Marie. “Best Practices in Leadership Development Lessons from the Best Business Schools and Corporate Universities.” The Principal Challenge: Leading and Managing Schools in an Era of Accountability. Jossey-Bass. 2002 (Revised 2015). 
  • Heffington, Steven, Adam Oler, and David Tretler. A National Security Strategy Primer. National Defense University Press, 2019.
  • Hughes, Robert C. and David A. Tretler. “Best Practices in Professional Military Education (PME): Lessons Learned for the Development of Principals and Other School Leaders.”  The Principal Challenge: Leading and Managing Schools in an Era of Accountability. Jossey-Bass. 2002 (Revised 2015). 
  • Santamaria, Lorri J. and Andrés P. Santamaria. Counteracting Educational Injustice with Applied Critical Leadership: Culturally Responsive Practices Promoting Sustainable Change. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 2015.
  • Schleicher, Andreas. Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education World Class How to Build a 21st-Century School System. OECD, 2018.
  • Stewart, Vivien. A World-Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation. ASCD, 2012.
  • Volz-Peacock, Mary, et al. “Action Learning and Leadership Development.” Advances in Developing Human Resources, vol. 18, no. 3, Aug. 2016, pp. 318–333.

Curriculum Examples

  • Basic Education Curriculum Guide. Hong Kong Education Bureau. 2014.
  • Curriculum Frameworks. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Updates vary by subject area).
  • National Curriculum for Basic Schools. Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. 2014.

NISL Units 4-7: Social Emotional Learning, Culturally-Responsive Pedagogy, Assessment

NCEE Research

  • Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems. National Center on Education and the Economy. 2015.
  • Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World. National Center on Education and the Economy. 2017.

External Research 

  • Goldman, Susan R. and James W. Pelligrino. Research on Learning and Instruction: Implications for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2015. 
  • Gregory, Anne and Edward Fergus. Social and Emotional Learning and Equity in School Discipline. The Future of Children. Spring 2017. 
  • How People Learn: Brain, Mind, People and School. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2000.
  • How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2018. 
  • Ladson-Billings, Gloria. Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal. 1995.
  • Lee, Carol. Integrating Research on How People Learn and Learning Across Settings as a Window of Opportunity to Address Inequality in Educational Processes and Outcomes. Review of Research in Education, March 2017.
  • Mehta, Jal and Sarah Fine. The Why, What, Where, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools. Jobs for the Future. December 2015.

NISL Units 8-12: Organizational Learning, Culturally-Responsive Leadership, Change Leadership

External Research 

  • Argyris, Chris, and D.A. Schon. Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Addison-Wesley. 1978.
  • Foster-Fishman, P. and Erin R. Watson. “The ABLe Change Framework: A Conceptual and Methodological Tool for Promoting Systems Change.” American Journal of Community Psychology 49 (2012): 503-516.
  • Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Immunity to Change. Harvard Business Review Press, 2009.
  • Khalifa, Muhammad A., et al. “Culturally Responsive School Leadership: A Synthesis of the Literature.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 86, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 1272–1311.
  • Kotter, John P. Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. Harvard Business Review Press. 2014.
  • Russo, J. Edward and Paul Schoemaker. Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision Making and How to Overcome Them. Doubleday. 1989.
  • Schwarz, Roger. Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Teams Get Unstuck to Get Results. Jossey-Bass. 2013.

Best Practices in Adult Learning

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).


More than 12,000 school and district leaders in 27 states have participated in NISL—far more than any other rigorous school leadership program in the country. Since it was piloted in 2004, several multi-state, third-party reports have shown that NISL not only improves leadership, but also positively impacts instruction and student achievement. 

  • Research Results show Significant Positive Impact on Student Achievement: As part of a multi-year, federally-funded Supporting Effective Educator Development grant (SEED), the RAND Corporation evaluated over 700 school leaders (impacting over 420,000 students) participating in the NISL program across Kentucky, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. In the soon-to-be-released evaluation of the NISL program, RAND found significant positive results. The quality of this study and the positive results achieved are anticipated to align with ESSA Evidence Tier 1.
  • Implementation Case Studies Provide Evidence of Impact on Leadership: As part of a multi-methods evaluation, the RAND Corporation surveyed participants and conducted interviews to better understand the impact of NISL. The RAND Corporation evaluated 172 NISL program participants in 2019. Participants reported that the NISL program impacted their ability to conceptualize and lead school improvement efforts and greatly helped them to lead their schools.
  • Multiple Research Compilations Include NISL: Two independent research reviews offer further support for the quality of research and results achieved by the NISL program. 

Learn more about NISL’s proven results here.

University Partners/CEUs

NCEE partnerships allow participants to receive advanced credit or degrees for completing NCEE offerings. Learn more about credit opportunities here.

NISL Opens the Opportunity for Deepening Transformation

NISL can open up a world of learning and support to school leaders and districts. Graduates may continue to benefit from a network of peers and learning opportunities through The Collaborative or more targeted learning through NISL Applied Plus. Districts may choose to strengthen their in-house leadership coaching and align it to support NISL principals through the School Leadership Coaching Program (SLCP) or drive the NISL learning into the classroom by bringing in teachers alongside school leaders through our Teaching for Effective Learning (TEL) Series. Districts may also choose to apply the lessons from NCEE’s international benchmarking of top performers to reenvision the district system through System Design Benchmarking (SDB). 

The Collaborative

The NCEE Leaders Collaborative is a professional learning network exclusively for graduates of NCEE offerings that is designed to continue the learning, collegial relationships with peers, and the improvement in school systems begun in their initial engagement. The Collaborative provides members access to networking and learning with peers in small and large groups, experts in education leadership from across the U.S. and world, and NCEE’s cutting-edge research.

NISL Applied Plus

NISL Applied Plus online courses deepen and apply the learning of the NISL program. These targeted five- to eight-week courses build upon NISL concepts and focus on applied learning which transforms knowledge to practice and ensures positive impact in schools. Courses include: Collaborative Structures for Professional Learning; Mentoring and Induction for New Teachers; Formative Assessment for Instruction; and High Quality Teachers and Teaching. 

School Leadership Coaching Program

NCEE’s School Leadership Coaching Program (SLCP) supports principal supervisors with the NISL coaching model. This provides SLCP participants and the school leaders they support with a shared leadership understanding, tools, and applied learning opportunities necessary for effective principal coaching. During the five-day program, principal supervisors and coaches learn and practice using a research-based coaching model, study how to leverage NISL, and develop a professional learning community. 

Teaching for Effective Learning (TEL) Series

NCEE’s Teaching for Effective Learning (TEL) Series supports teachers of the instructional core in schools led by NISL graduates. TEL drives the research on how people learn into the classroom by equipping teachers with a deep understanding of its implications within the disciplines of language and literature, mathematics, the sciences, and history and social studies. TEL builds teachers’ capacity to use this research to support effective learning by engaging students’ preconceptions and helping learners systemically build and organize their knowledge, and take ownership of their learning processes. Teachers learn to combine a rigorous, disciplinary approach with teaching that is informed by their students’ progress and responsive to their learning needs.