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‘Gold Standard’ Study Shows Positive Effects of NCEE’s Principal Development Program

A new “gold standard” research study shows that NCEE’s NISL program for school leaders along with aligned coaching leads to measurable improvement in student learning. 

The study — just published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis — meets the strong evidence criteria necessary for Tier One classification under ESSA and will be submitted to the What Works Clearinghouse for certification. 

In this first large-scale study of the effects of principal coaching, the not-for-profit RAND Corporation found the NISL program coupled with coaching had a positive impact on schoolwide student achievement. Few other rigorous studies of principal professional development show a positive impact on student achievement while there’s even less research on coaching principals.

The coaching had the largest effects in disadvantaged schools, the researchers said, adding that the coaching “enhanced the quality of implementation” of what the principals learned in the NISL training.

Having strong principals leading schools can have an outsized effect on student learning because of the number of students that each principal impacts, according to a report by the Wallace Foundation.

“Well designed professional learning, supported by coaching, can drive student achievement at scale,” said Claire Hollywood, NCEE’s Associate Director of Research and Development. “Because this study is working with principals, we can actually impact so many more students than we could with direct teacher intervention.”

Schools and districts are varied around the country. And they’re complex. That makes studying professional development programs a challenge for researchers, and makes the results of this research particularly valuable, Hollywood said. “With the study we are actually able to say Y was caused by X because RAND has controlled for other reasonable explanations.”

Researchers followed principals and the students they oversee at 800 schools spread across Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi in a pair of randomized controlled trials. One group received no training or coaching. Another group went through NCEE’s Executive Development Program (now known as NISL), and a third group also went through the leadership program and received an additional 18 months of coaching from specially NCEE-trained senior principals, either during the program or shortly after.

The professional development program lasts one year, consisting of monthly group meetings with NCEE facilitators. During that time, principals design Action Learning to apply the learning within their schools. 

A third of the principals in the study received a year and a half of personalized coaching from NCEE-certified Distinguished Principals either while they were going through the development program or shortly after. (Distinguished Principals were identified and trained in NISL aligned coaching as part of a principal career ladder piloted during the study.) Coaches met with their principals for a total of 60 hours over that period, working with them on leadership skills while implementing their action learning. Findings from the study point to that support playing a key role in the stronger implementation of the program over time. 

Cindy Zajac, a principal in the Harborcreek School District, near Erie, Pa., is a Distinguished Principal who worked as a coach in the study. She said talking through the context of the school she was working with was a learning opportunity for principals receiving coaching as well as herself.

“I think the difference that came out of this was (principals) had to look at things differently, you didn’t look at it just as a problem and a solution. We looked at it as a context and a learning opportunity,” she said.

Principals in the study told researchers they spent more time observing classrooms and got better at giving teachers usable feedback. They were more strategic and intentional in how they ran their schools, they said. 

Implementing those strategies, such as a new school wide leadership system, is more effective when the principal is being coached, RAND concluded.

“Having that coach just helps to process through the bigger picture,” said Sarah Herbert, an elementary principal in the Chambersburg Area School District, who also served as a Distinguished Principal in the study group.

Researchers compared student data from before, during, and after the professional development program, tracking academic outcomes in the schools for three years. Students in schools that had principals who went through professional learning and coaching, had measurable improvements in English language arts on state tests. Researchers also found an improvement in science scores at the middle school level. These improvements were more pronounced in schools with higher levels of students living in poverty or whose native language is not English.

More than 12,000 educators have participated in NISL’s school leadership program across 23 states, making it the most widely used, proven support of school leaders in the country. NCEE has recently updated its Executive Development Program under the NISL name and is including coaching as a standard component.