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Funded in its pilot stages by a multi-year, $10.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through its SEED program, the goal of this work was 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. Under the grant, NCEE partnered with districts in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.

The goal of this work was to develop a transparent, codified and respected leadership development system and set of credentials for principals to pursue.

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

  • Increase retention of top school leaders
  • Strengthen principals’ leadership skills at every stage in their careers
  • Further professionalize the position

Benchmarking research has shown that top-performing education systems around the world place a priority on creating a leadership development system that supports 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 professional learning and supports
  • Creating strong incentives for high-performing principals to take on additional responsibilities, including the support of lower-performing schools and principals

NCEE’s Advanced Credentialing System (ACS) Project sought to recreate those conditions for success in school districts and states. NCEE created a system of professional development and supports for principals at different stages of their careers and opportunities to earn professional recognition in the form of an advanced credential. All principals had access to high-quality professional learning and opportunities for action learning through NCEE’s NISL program and related offerings.

The goal of this work was 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.

Advanced Credentialing System Overview

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The ACS initiative was 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, NCEE partnered with districts in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania enrolling some 1,100 principals serving more than 700,000 students. The principals participated in the initiative in a number of ways, including serving as Distinguished Principals; completing NISL; 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, NCEE continued its ACS development work with district partners in the three original states.

The Distinguished Principal Credential

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 were 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 NCEE’s ACS Project, these extra responsibilities involved coaching other principals. In the future, participating states like Pennsylvania may 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 as Distinguished Principals. 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 did Distinguished Principals contribute to the ACS Project?

Distinguished Principals played a critical role during the initial pilot phase of the ACS Project (2016-2019), serving as coaches to the “treatment” principals in the coaching study. The RAND Corporation evaluated 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 helped their coachees positively influence student outcomes in their schools by coaching them in ways specifically related to their learning from their NISL professional development and NISL coaching. The coaching ran the gamut from systems thinking to high performance management to instructional leadership. Further, they were intended to support their coachees in seeking the Distinguished Principal credential, while they themselves grew in their instructional leadership in ways that may eventually enable them to meet the requirements to earn a Master Principal credential if their state adopts such a terminal credential.

What support did 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 NISL coaching, NCEE designed a professional learning system. Distinguished Principals received ongoing formal and informal support and learning opportunities, including nine days of face-to-face professional learning with NCEE faculty; a shoulder-to-shoulder coach and thought partner; and ongoing coaching calls that allowed for network-building and reflection. This professional learning served the Distinguished Principals and the project in two ways: first, it supported them in becoming strong, effective coaches responsible for growing the next generation of Distinguished Principals; and second, it prepared them to eventually apply for a Master Principal credential if such a credential is adopted by one or more of our partner states.

Distinguished Principals continued to coach their principal coachees during the 2017-18 school year. During this time frame, NCEE embarked on a new phase with the Distinguished Principals and their districts. Distinguished Principals informed the design of the ACS in their states, and in particular, helped NCEE and their superintendents think through and craft incentives and direction for the credentialing system as it was designed and rolled out.

NCEE continued 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 permitted.

Why a Credentialing System?

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Clear evidence shows that strong school leadership is required to turn around low-performing schools and that improving school leadership leads to increased student learning. Strengthening school leadership also is 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.

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. NCEE’s Advanced Credentialing System was similarly designed to create strong leaders in two ways. First, it made the credential valuable—for principals, for superintendents, and for policy makers. States could then create policies to increase the number of credentialed principals, superintendents could use the credential in hiring and promotion decisions, and principals could strive to obtain their credential.

Second, NCEE’s system used aligned and integrated support systems to help principals obtain their credentials. The support system combined professional learning, coaching, and strong leadership development practices that accelerated a principal’s development into a highly effective leader. The cascading coaching model, through which many principals received coaching from accomplished peers, created a “virtuous cycle” where the development of one principal benefits others.

The Pilot Evaluation Study

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The ACS pilot project is being evaluated by 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 and aligned coaching on principals participating in the early phases of NCEE’s ACS. In addition to being well-prepared to apply for the credentials, NCEE 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 in 2020, will be an important document in the field of school leadership research, and one of the largest studies ever conducted on the impacts of coaching of school principals.

What is the project’s theory of change?

As illustrated in Figure 1 below, NCEE 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 considers 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 graduates 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

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 the NISL program and the coaching of principals implemented as intended?
  • What are the key mechanisms through which the project’s coaching and/or 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 the NISL program 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 the NISL program on their leadership practices, school climate and culture, and student academic and behavioral outcomes in schools?

Methodology and Performance Measures

Performance Measures for Questions RQ #1–2

  • Extent to which the NISL program is implemented as intended (via observations of the NISL program with Cohort 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)

Performance Measures for Questions RQ #3–4

  • Principal Practices surveys in all participating district schools (in Spring 2016 and April 2018, control school teachers were surveyed only in April 2018)
  • 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
To learn more about the Advanced Credentialing System project contact: David Osborne