Center on System Leadership

NISL-led Students Gain More Than a Month of Learning

David Driscoll, the former Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, faced the seemingly intractable problem of low-performing schools and districts. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) had highlighted the problem and Driscoll was determined to find the answers. It was not all bad news. There were instances of individual teachers performing well in low-performing schools. But how could administrators improve instruction outside of these isolated classrooms? Even more challenging, how could such an intervention be scaled across a state with the limited resources on hand? Driscoll decided that the answer lay in the quality of school leadership.


Student achievement had stagnated in most schools in 20 underperforming districts —and the school cultures often reflected this. Some school leaders lacked the leadership skills to challenge the status quo. Others lacked the depth of knowledge of standards-based instruction or of teaching in the content areas—knowledge that is essential to chart a course for improvement.

Targeting training only to principals who were struggling the most risked creating a cohort without the ability to share strategies that could work. It would be important to train a diverse mix of school and district leaders, and build in ways of sharing the lessons learned quickly within schools and across districts. All of this had to be accomplished extremely efficiently in an environment of limited budgets. Massachusetts needed a cost-effective approach for systemic change.


In 2005, Massachusetts selected NCEE’s NISL program to train school leaders in the commonwealth’s 20 lowest-performing districts. Training began in 2006, and by the summer of 2008, the first group of school leaders completed their training. Third-party studies came back showing that the initiative was not only improving the skills of leaders, but that these leaders were raising student achievement. With the success of the program, the training spread beyond the most underperforming districts to more broadly improve the skills, knowledge and effectiveness of school and district leaders across Massachusetts.

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