Center on System Leadership

Lessons from Other Fields

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Four Lessons on Leadership

Lesson 1: Exceptional Leadership Development Focuses on Real-World Practice

Most principals in the U.S. are self-selected. Most master’s degree programs they graduate from focus on theory—and are disconnected from the real world that principals face.By contrast, the military grooms its leaders by providing job assignments with the mix of experiences that will prepare them for their next promotion. Likewise, strong businesses do not rely on MBA programs alone to prepare their future leaders. They supplement employees’ book training with increasingly challenging job assignments that provide junior staff members with significant real-world learning experiences and that allow them to grow into their next jobs. The NISL program is designed to address the needs of districts as they strive to improve school leadership and provide school leaders with opportunities to apply what they learn to real situations in their schools.

Lesson 2: Leaders Belong to a Learning Community

Most school leadership training in the U.S. occurs in a classroom or seminar format where future leaders gather with a different group of people for each learning experience. But other professions employ a very different approach. In medicine, for example, future doctors function as medical interns under the close supervision and coaching of a doctor. Future military officers complete their training with a group of other future leaders.

The NISL program is organized for this same type of cohort-based professional learning. Cohorts of school leaders meet regularly every month or two over the course of the program. NCEE recommends that these cohorts comprise a mix of experienced and inexperienced leaders, as well as those from struggling and high-performing schools that have ambitions for greatness. This mix creates an environment where participants are comfortable discussing their fears and weaknesses and where participants can learn from one another. The cohorts become a Professional Learning Community and support network for participants during and after the program.

Lesson 3: Leadership Development Focuses on a Current Vision of Best Practice

State and federal efforts to bolster standards and accountability place increasing demands on schools and aim to transform the role of the principal. Yet most leadership preparation programs in the U.S. are obsolete; they have not been updated to reflect new research or changes in the field. It is inconceivable that the medical profession would train doctors based on anything other than the latest and greatest knowledge of best practice. The military meticulously measures the results of its leadership training and incorporates lessons learned into the content and delivery of its training programs. Large corporations create their own training programs when many MBA programs fail to keep current with best practices.

NCEE’s $11 million research and development effort resulted in a state-of-the-art professional development program—one that continues to be updated with new research that reflects current challenges. Today, NCEE prepares school leaders to become turnaround artists focused on improving student achievement or to take “good” schools to “great,” rather than as mere building managers responsible for delivering a curriculum.

Lesson 4: Great Leadership Programs Incorporate Powerful Learning Methods

Most leadership development programs in the U.S. rely heavily on outmoded instructional methods such as lectures and readings, while other fields incorporate more interactive techniques and practical lessons. Military trainers pioneered the use of case studies and simulations to provide future leaders with the knowledge and experiences that would be difficult to obtain outside of combat conditions. MBA programs now also frequently use case studies, simulations and group exercises. Meanwhile, the medical internship consists almost entirely of “case studies” involving real patients, under the careful eye of an expert.

NCEE incorporates these kinds of best practices in adult learning, using case studies and simulations to provide participants with experiences that mimic real life. School leaders participate in projects and exercises that are job-embedded, forcing them to apply their new knowledge to their urgent school challenges. The NISL program includes highly engaging, interactive activities, including carefully constructed online curricula, group exercises and applied games to take advantage of the latest findings on adult learning.

A Singularly Comprehensive Attention to Best Practices

NCEE’s researchers did find a few education groups that had created programs in the U.S. and abroad that incorporated some of these best practices. However, the researchers failed to find a single country or school system that had incorporated all of these practices into a cohesive and comprehensive approach to the preparation of school leaders. The NISL program serves as a unique and powerful contribution to the advancement of education.

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