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In an era of tight budgets, rigorous standards and unprecedented accountability, educators at every level are under pressure to find proven ways to increase the success of their students. Research shows that strong school leaders are critical to providing children with a world-class education. Improving their effectiveness may be one of the most efficient ways to improve instruction and learning across districts and states.

Nevertheless, as a recent report found, developing school leaders is often the last item on a long list of school-system priorities. Cash-strapped states and districts that do invest in school-leader training often choose between two inadequate solutions. Most often they tap homegrown programs that frequently lack a strong research base, are short in duration and are narrowly focused on teacher evaluation or the issue du jour. Other programs are often too costly for more than a few participants; this compels administrators to target only a handful of school leaders, making it difficult to have a larger impact. What’s most often missing from such programs are ways to connect the dots between best practices in leadership with those in teaching, learning and curriculum. This bridge between school leadership and classroom instruction is essential to impacting student success.

School leaders
Dr. Chris Nicastro, left, is the Missouri Commissioner of Education. Dr. Bob Hughes is the president and CEO of the National Institute for School Leadership, a leading provider of professional development for school leaders.

An increased focus on measuring and accountability means that principals must be more than capable managers. They must also be instructional visionaries who motivate their staff, establish high expectations for performance and create a safe and supportive climate for effective teaching and innovation to take place. All school leaders need to have the tools, resources and training to identify strong instruction and provide ongoing support to their teachers.

These essential skills aren’t a luxury, and they certainly aren’t developed overnight. But training options for school leaders have too frequently been too piecemeal, too localized or too expensive to make a larger impact. Fortunately, another model exists—leveraging a nationally researched program, tailoring it to local needs and giving state and district staff the training to deliver it to current or aspiring principals who can spread it through their schools, districts and communities.

Missouri offers one example of such an approach, which a growing number of states and districts are pursuing to train cadres of school leaders. As part of Missouri’s initiative to move its schools into the top 10 in the nation by 2020, the state is working to make sure that those at the helm of its districts and schools have the knowledge, skills and tools to become instructional leaders who can improve student achievement in the lowest-performing schools and turn good schools into great ones. Beginning in January, the state partnered with the National Institute for School Leadership to provide a comprehensive training program for more than 400 current administrators, principals, assistant principals and aspiring leaders statewide. The training includes 13 two-day units delivered over 18 months through 13 regional cohorts.

What we’re learning in Missouri, as well as in school districts taking a similar approach in Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Virginia, is that in order to be successful, school leaders need more than two-to-three day institutes that seldom address their on-the-ground needs. They need extended, applied professional development, much like professionals in other industries such as business, law, medicine and the military. They need training that uses an interactive approach to building school leaders’ knowledge of instructional best practices, instruction in the content areas and leadership skills. And states and districts need to develop the internal capacity to deepen and expand the curriculum to other principals and aspiring leaders, producing a cost-effective ripple effect.

Graduate of this program will receive professional development credit, but this type of cohort-based training model has another benefit in that it allows school leaders—so often isolated in their schools—to develop professional learning communities to share information, best practices and ideas for school improvement among their peers. Just as in other professions, school leaders need more than sound research; they need to learn to disseminate and apply evidence-based practices. This can be immensely empowering to even the most experienced school leaders.

“There’s a practicality to the training that helped me to make researched-based changes and step up to the daunting tasks I faced,” said a principal from Pennsylvania, where NISL is used statewide to train and certify novice principals.

School leaders are a key component in efforts to create an environment where great teaching can thrive and best practices can be embedded. Based on a decade of experience, we believe that one of the most effective ways to accomplish this goal is to combine the different advantages of national and local-level approaches to offer high-quality training and ongoing support to school leaders. We are developing our local capacity to deliver a rigorously-research curriculum.  In the process, we are charting a course that will strengthen school leadership and impact student learning across our state. We know what works and what doesn’t — so, in Missouri, we are driving forward with our commitments to transform all schools to do even better than they thought possible. This century demands no less.

Dr. Chris Nicastro is the Missouri Commissioner of Education. Dr. Bob Hughes is the president and CEO of the National Institute for School Leadership, a leading provider of professional development for school leaders.

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  1. Excellent focus – kudos to you and your organizations! It seems to me that for principals to be able to lead great teaching, they need to be great teachers themselves. My belief is that if you can’t teach, you can’t lead teachers. Part of any leadership development, PD, or evaluation of principals should include videos of their own teaching in a classroom.

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