Center on System Leadership

NISL Increased Proficiency in Math and Literacy Assessments

Milwaukee Public Schools is a large, urban district with a diverse, largely economically challenged student population and its achievement scores have historically lagged state averages in both mathematics and reading. MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton took meaningful action to impact student achievement quickly.

NCEE’s NISL program was selected as MPS’s principal leadership development program. Over four years, some 120 school leaders, along with more than 30 central office staff, participated in NISL. In April of 2016, Johns Hopkins University and Old Dominion University issued a study on the impact of the NISL initiative in Milwaukee. The results were impressive: hundreds of students moved to proficiency in both math and reading in schools led by NISL graduates and overall achievement scores grew at faster rates in those schools than in schools led by non-NISL graduates.


MPS enrolls some 80,000 students in 175 schools. More than half of students in MPS are African American (56 percent), about one quarter are Hispanic (24 percent), 14 percent are White, and 5 percent are Asian. Most students are from economically challenged backgrounds as well, with more than 8 in 10 MPS students—83 percent—qualifying for the federal Free and Reduced-Price Meals program. And according to a recent Brookings Institute report, the city of Milwaukee itself has the unfortunate distinction of being the most segregated major metropolitan area in the country.

These demographic and social dynamics made the need for effective and impactful school leadership at MPS particularly acute and the district’s student achievement data underscored this reality. In the 2010-2011 school year, just 14 percent of MPS students scored at or above proficient on the state reading assessment, the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examinations, compared to 35.8 percent statewide. In mathematics, just 19.7 percent of MPS students scored at or above proficient compared to 49.1 percent statewide.


In its efforts to improve student achievement, MPS faced headwinds on par with the nation’s most challenged school systems. District leaders sought strategies and solutions that were both cost-effective and could be broadly implemented at scale.

After evaluating its options, MPS identified NISL as a low-cost, high impact lever for school improvement. With MPS’s leadership anxious to get as many leaders trained as quickly as possible, 48 experienced principals enrolled in and completed NISL in the first year. Two more cohorts of principals completed NISL in the following two years. In total, 120 MPS school leaders graduated from NISL.

Wishing to further leverage the value of the NISL curriculum, MPS leadership asked NISL to create a training for central office instructional staff. In the summer of 2012, more than 30 central office staff participated in a five-day Instructional Leadership Institute administered by NCEE staff. The training helped central office staff to better align their work with the efforts of their school leaders who were NISL graduates.

As evidence of the power of the NISL train-the-trainer model, in 2013, MPS graduates of NISL created a multi-day conference featuring NISL staff as guest speakers. The conference, along with a NISL curriculum-focused website created by MPS, served as a leadership development refresher for the NISL graduates’ and allowed them to share best practices based on the NISL curriculum.


A three-year study of Milwaukee Public Schools from Johns Hopkins and Old Dominion Universities found that students in schools led by principals who graduated from NISL outperformed their peers in math and literacy on state assessments.

The Milwaukee study compared 24 schools led by NISL-graduate principals to 42 comparison schools led by non-NISL graduates from 2010 to 2014. The principals that would be trained in NISL began the study with their schools facing greater challenges than the matched schools in the study. NISL-trained principals led schools with student populations that included higher percentages of English Language Learners, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and students with special needs. These schools also had higher percentages of Hispanic students and lower percentages of Asian and White students. Most striking, NISL-trained principals led schools whose students started with lower levels of proficiency in both math and reading prior to the NISL training their principals received.

Despite these challenges, the students in schools led by NISL graduates caught up to and surpassed the students in comparison schools as a result of NISL. The researchers estimated that in the 24 schools studied with NISL-trained principals, 377 more students achieved math proficiency and 289 more achieved reading proficiency than comparable peers.

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