Lessons From Other Fields
NISL's research team spent several years studying the way that school leaders are prepared in the United States and abroad and studied how other fields prepare their leaders. The lessons learned have been incorporated into the design of the NISL Executive Development Program.
Lesson #1: Future Leaders Are Identified and Groomed to Become Strong Leaders
Most principals in the United States are self-selected. Teachers decide to earn a master's degree in administration and seek out leadership opportunities. But most of the master's degree programs they enter are focused on theory and are disconnected from the real world that principals will face on day one.
By contrast, the military grooms its future 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.
To simulate this grooming method, NISL designed its 18-month program to provide principals with opportunities to apply what they have learned to real situations in their schools. They then have the opportunity to reflect on and discuss their experiences with their cohort members, as well as with expert facilitators.
Lesson #2: Leaders Are Part of a Learning Community
Most principal training in the United States is done in a classroom or seminar format where future leaders gather with a different group of people for each learning experience. But other professions do this quite differently. In medicine, for example, future doctors must 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.
NISL's Executive Development Program is organized for this same type of cohort-based training. A group of 25 or 30 school leaders meets regularly every month or two over the course of the 18-month program. NISL recommends to clients 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 are designed to become a support network for participants during and after the program. NISL also has designed implementations for clients that integrate the use of coaches and mentors.
Lesson #3: Leadership Development Is Focused on a Current Vision of Best Practice
Recent state and federal efforts focused on bolstering standards and accountability have placed increasing demands on schools and have transformed the job of the principal. Unfortunately, most principal preparation programs in the United States were created decades ago and have not been updated to reflect new research or changes in the field. It is inconceivable to think of the medical profession's training 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 began creating their own internal training programs when many MBA programs failed to keep current with best practice.
NISL's $11 million research and development effort resulted not only in a state-of-the-art training program, but in a new definition of school leadership: principals as turnaround artists focused on improving student achievement rather than as mere building managers responsible for delivering a curriculum. Consequently, NISL's program focuses a significant amount of its time on the single greatest determinant of student learning – classroom teaching.
Lesson #4: Great Leadership Programs Incorporate Powerful Learning Methods
Most principal programs in the United States 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 their future leaders with the knowledge and experiences that would be difficult to obtain outside of combat conditions. MBA programs now also frequently utilize 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.
NISL has created case studies and simulations to provide participants with experiences that mimic real life. Principals participate in projects and exercises that are job-embedded, forcing them to apply their new knowledge to their current situations. The program also includes carefully constructed online curricula, group exercises, and applied games to take advantage of the latest findings on adult learning.
It is important to note that NISL's researchers did find a few education groups that had created exciting new programs in the United States and abroad that incorporated some of these best practices. A few of them had even incorporated most of these ideas. However, the researchers failed to find a single country or school system that had incorporated all of these practices into a comprehensive approach to the preparation of school leaders. Therefore, NISL's Executive Development Program serves as a unique and powerful contribution to the advancement of the field of education.