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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

School and District Leadership Initiatives

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
January 13, 2012


With the support of Race to The Top funds, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been able to continue and expand our earlier state investment in developing and implementing a suite of new educational leadership training opportunities. Our commitment to create a new vision for educational leadership in Massachusetts' schools and districts is evolving: we are grounding this vision in the belief that leaders at every level must have be focused on promoting the conditions that foster high levels of student engagement and learning. The "Massachusetts Way of Leading" is a conceptual design that embraces the notion that adult learning is the key to improving student learning. Our theory of action follows that if people in key leadership roles can:

  • focus their decision-making and improvement planning on what students need in order to consistently achieve at high levels,
  • deliberately strive to align and coordinate their work, and
  • establish collaborative working relationships by learning and implementing new strategies that support cooperation and shared decision-making,

then the likelihood that effective leadership will be a more powerful factor in improving educational outcomes for all students is real and will have a measurable impact on student achievement.

The National Institute for School Leadership Executive Development Program (NISL)

In 2005, after a year of research and deliberation, the Department partnered with the Center for Education and the Economy and adopted their National Institute for School Leadership's Executive Training Program (NISL) to build capacity for student-centered leadership in our lowest performing schools, largely within the ten large urban "Commissioner's Districts." The research-based principles of learning, teaching and curriculum upon which the NISL training is built also served, at the time, as a reference point for the array of other professional development offerings the Department provided or supported.

Growth of the NISL training program in the first few years - enabled by funding from both the Wallace Foundation and the Department's budget - began to change the conversation about district and school improvement, and resulted in fostering a shared, research-based vision of what leaders need to know and be able to do in order to provide the optimum conditions for student success in all our schools. Participation in the training has helped broaden our concept of education leadership at every level and provided a common language for educators within schools, across districts, and throughout the state to talk more clearly about where and how best to focus their efforts on the core work of educating students. The training has also armed leaders at the school and the district level with new skills and practical strategies for getting that work done and enlisting resources and support essential to successful implementation of effective instructional management systems.

The two-year NISL curriculum focuses on:

  • training in standards-based instructional systems aligned by the Department and NISL staff with the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks,
  • training in data analysis skills related to student achievement data,
  • capacity to take learning theory into practice, by providing skills and knowledge to enable principals to be instructional leaders in literacy and math in their own schools, and
  • training principals in distributed leadership strategies that will assist in developing the professional capacity of school staff.

As the first piece of the Commonwealth's ambitious statewide effort to ramp up instructional leadership training and support, the NISL program continues to engage growing numbers of participants from among our current district and school leaders through the District and School Assistance Centers (DSACs); the program is now funded by Race to The Top (RTTT).

The Department continues to work closely with NISL leaders to help ensure that the program evolves to meet the changing needs of Massachusetts principals. Over the past several years supplemental curricula for serving students with special needs, serving English language learners, and for leading improvements in science instruction, are now included in an enhanced NISL training program. Leadership standards adopted by the Board in June 2009 offered another opportunity for alignment of the NISL curriculum with the evolving landscape of Massachusetts education. In 2011 work has continued to align the NISL curriculum with District Standards, the Conditions for School Effectiveness, the New Superintendent Induction Program, and the curricular changes brought with adoption of the new Massachusetts frameworks incorporating the common core state standards. Such updates and enhancements will continue as needed to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of the program.

NISL has collaborated with a number of private and public universities in Massachusetts to encourage institutions of higher education to offer graduate credit to participants who successfully complete the NISL training program toward the award of principal licensure and/or graduate degrees.

  • In June 2007, Lesley University admitted the first group of NISL participant principals to its doctoral program. Participants are receiving 24 graduate credits at Lesley for successful completion of NISL training, and qualify for reduced tuition for other doctoral program costs. In 2008, Fitchburg State College agreed to grant graduate credits toward a master's degree or administrator certification (CAGS) for completion of the NISL curriculum, as well as reduced tuition.

  • Nova Southeastern, a private university in Florida, has also made arrangements with NISL to grant 24 graduate credits and reduced tuition in their leadership doctoral program.

  • Discussions are currently underway with several Massachusetts state universities about the possibilities for similar arrangements.

These agreements attest to the caliber of the curriculum, and provide added incentives for district and school leaders to make the substantial commitment of time and effort required for full participation in the Commonwealth's 18-month NISL executive leadership training program. From the state's perspective these opportunities facilitate a growing cadre of leaders whose practice is based on developing theories and national research on successful school improvement initiatives.

As a result of our statewide leadership training effort with the NISL curriculum and its principles of "leading for learning" at its center, leaders from ten other states have visited Massachusetts to observe our strategic system of program delivery and are working with NISL to begin statewide training programs of their own. NISL training is being offered at the district level in 18 other states.

To date, 1,200 Massachusetts school leaders have been NISL trained. They represent approximately 99 school districts across the state and all school leaders in each of the Commissioner's districts have been trained.

In 2008, the Meristem Group completed a comprehensive evaluation of the NISL training initiative; the report was released in June 2009 and was reviewed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. At that time, the evaluators noted an increase in the time that school administrators were spending in classroom observations and other activities focused on instructional practice and were able to link that strategic shift to early gains in student performance on MCAS results. In 2010, an independent study produced by the Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University examined 38 Massachusetts schools led by NISL-trained leaders and compared their MCAS results in math and reading to the results in schools where leaders had not participated in the training. This study confirmed higher average gains for students in schools where the tenets of NISL training are being implemented. Both studies are available for review.

The New Superintendents Induction Program (NSIP)

Just as the NISL training and support for principals is designed to build new capacities in school leaders that emphasize the skills and knowledge necessary to hone instructional leadership, so too has the New Superintendent Induction Program been designed to sharpen and elevate the role of the superintendent in supporting and prioritizing effective instructional practice and management.

In the spring of 2010, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS) entered into a new and innovative partnership, the goal of which is to expand state and district capacity to develop and sustain effective district and school-level leadership that is focused on student learning and continuous improvement. The Department had decided to shift the emphasis of its school improvement efforts from a model that had focused on improvement at the individual school level to one that places emphasis at the district level. This theory of action is based on the belief that the direction and design of the work that needs to happen in every school in a district must be part of a coordinated plan that is developed and overseen by strong and effective district leadership working in concert with and in support of effective leadership at the school level.

The New Superintendents Induction Program, a three-year induction program for all superintendents new to the position of superintendent or new to the state, began in July 2010 with 25 superintendents. During that first year of the program all of these superintendents led Level 3 or Level 4 districts. The second cohort of 27 superintendents began the program in July 2011. This cohort expanded to include superintendents of Level 1 and 2 districts.

Initially funded by state resources, this initiative was included in the state's Race to The Top proposal. Fiscal support for this work has now been shifted to the RTTT budget. A plan for sustaining the NSIP is being developed.

Within four years, MASS and the Department expect to be serving at least 120 superintendents, representing more than half of the superintendents in Massachusetts. The professional development and technical assistance provided through the program is expected to result in a statewide common language and concepts for leadership that will deepen and sustain the learning that is essential for district and school improvement. At the same time a statewide common language and shared concepts of leadership will help support more effective transitions in district and school leadership.

The Donahue Institute at UMASS has been engaged to evaluate this project and has provided an early assessment of progress and impact. Tom Scott, Executive Director of the MASS, and Dr. Joan Connolly, NSIP Project Manager, will be present at our meeting to provide more information and respond to your questions.

The District Governance Support Project (DGSP)

In the spring of 2011, with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) as the lead partner supported by the Department and the MASS, we began to focus on an emerging body of research that suggests that effective school committees can have a positive impact on overall student achievement and identifies specific strategies that have an impact on the success of students, schools and districts. In addition to the formal roles of policy making, budget setting, selection of the district superintendent, and collective bargaining, recent events have also highlighted the importance of fulfilling the fiduciary responsibility of an elected board to the community. The District Governance Support Project Design Team has gathered resources, developed training materials, and is poised to present Massachusetts school committees with strategies, skill building tools, professional development, and ongoing coaching to help local elected members focus their work on student achievement, accountability, and fulfillment of their fiduciary responsibilities. The project will deploy the best practices of Massachusetts and other states' school boards, current research, and new strategies, such as detailed self-evaluations, to ensure lasting success.

The District Governance Support Project (DGSP) is a parallel initiative to the NSIP; both share an explicit focus on the development of a collaborative working relationship that honors the unique roles and responsibilities of each leader with student achievement as the common foundation. The project is further integrated with the NSIP through the teaming of experienced board members with successful retired superintendents to coach both local policy makers and chief administrators with a goal of higher levels of student achievement, fiscal stability, and public support for public education. It will also work closely with the emerging Labor Management Initiative to study and implement strategies for a new era in collective bargaining.

Curricula for the DGSP include a series of seven segments that integrate the role and purpose of the School Committee with policymaking, goal setting, and planning with technical skills including budget and finance, collective bargaining, effective meeting management, communications, parliamentary procedures, and evaluation and assessment.

Beginning this month, an initial group of 17 districts in Level 3 and Level 4 status will pilot the program. In addition, the MASC will be expanding the program on its own to other districts with the intent of creating a sustainable resource for every school committee with the overall goal of making boards a more powerful force for student achievement.

Funded by the state's portion of Race to The Top funding, this initial stage of the project will support the model's development and early implementation. We expect this initiative to set a new standard for school committee governance practices. With the MASC's on-going leadership, the DGSP can be continually improved, updated and made available to school committees across the state in a range of school districts.

The Donahue Institute at UMASS has been engaged to evaluate this project and is currently developing the process by which it will examine early work and develop measurable outcomes.

Glenn Koocher, Executive Director of the MASC, will be present at the meeting to provide more information and respond to your questions.

Building Capacity to Strengthen Districts' Labor-Management Relations

We have recently developed and published a fourth opportunity for leadership training: Building Capacity to Strengthen Districts' Labor-Management Relations. Funded by the Department's Race to The Top resources, this project aims to provide training and support to districts seeking to improve climate, culture, labor contracts and procedures and on-going problem-solving mechanisms through a collaborative focus on improved student achievement. This effort will build on promising practices in innovative labor-management relations and calls for the development of a plan to disseminate such practices through a systematic training and support program. A review of proposals will result in the selection of a lead partner that will work with representatives appointed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the Massachusetts Secretary of Labor, and other experts to design activities, recruit participating districts, manage the training process and create a learning network that will support this collaboration. We expect to receive and review proposals over the next several weeks; the lead partner selection will be announced in early February 2012.

I look forward to discussing these initiatives with the Board at the January 24 meeting.

Last Updated: January 19, 2012
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