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The NISL Program: Content Map and Course Descriptions (2023-24 PIL Version)

The NISL Program

NCEE's NISL program is a powerful initiative that will help school-level principals, assistant principals, and teacher-leaders, as well as superintendents, assistant superintendents, and directors and specialists redesign their schools as higher performance organizations, improve instruction, leverage data-driven decision making, improve student and school culture, and integrate a focus on equity. NCEE firmly believes that to dramatically improve student achievement for all students, school leaders need to understand the common components of successful systems, how they support each other, and how to lead teams to implement, sustain, and improve these systems. Leaders need to act with urgency to create momentum in the short-term, while also developing the long-term solutions that create high-performing systems.

NISL will equip school leaders with the skills, knowledge, and tools to create strategies for raising school performance, driving effective teaching and supporting student learning through structures and incentives, aligning instructional systems, creating a culture focused on equity, and implementing high-performance management structures that drive growth. NISL's leadership development approaches are culled from international best practices in education and research of leadership programs in the military, business, and education fields. This powerful program offers sustained, cohort-based, job-embedded, and applied learning. NISL uses a blended learning model of face-to-face and technology-enhanced learning, including video interviews from leading educators, case studies, best practice videos, simulations, and diagnostics that focus on both participants and their schools. NISL supports school leaders by developing strong foundational skills and increasing leaders' ability to transform schools.

The NISL program prepares leaders to create and lead high-performance schools. NISL participants graduate the program with an understanding of the common components of successful systems, and with the skills, knowledge, and tools to create and lead such systems in their schools. Participants strengthen their leadership capacity and learn to create high-performance management structures, aligned instructional systems, and cultures focused on ethics and equity.

Participants also graduate ready for further supports that deepen and apply NISL concepts. NISL Applied Plus courses and coaching allow participants to continue applying their learning to real school challenges and embedding their experience into their individual practice.

Twelve Units are Distributed Over Three Thematic Courses:

Course One: World-Class Schooling: Vision and Goals

  • Unit 1: The Educational Challenge
  • Unit 2: The Principal as Strategic Thinker
  • Unit 3: Rigorous and Adaptive Learning Systems

Course Two: The Research on Learning and the Implications for Teaching, Leadership, and School Organization

  • Unit 4: How People Learn: Implications for Teaching, Leadership, and School Organization, Part 1
  • Unit 5: How People Learn: Implications for Teaching, Leadership, and School Organization, Part 2
  • Unit 6: How People Learn: Implications for Teaching, Leadership, and School Organization, Part 3
  • Unit 7: Promoting the Learning Organization
  • Unit 8: Leadership for Effective Teaching

Course Three: Sustaining Transformation through Capacity and Commitment

  • Unit 9: Teams for Instructional Leadership
  • Unit 10: Culturally-Responsive Leadership for Equity
  • Unit 11: Driving and Sustaining Transformation
  • Unit 12: The NISL Program: Inquiry, Reflection, and Closure

Action Learning Within the NISL Program

The NISL program builds mechanisms that contribute to a cycle of continuous improvement. NISL includes an action learning component which is a sustained, job-embedded, applied learning experience. The focus of action learning is to bring together a schoolwide team with a wide range of roles and perspectives to solve an urgent issue around student learning. Participants from the district offices will focus on district-level or district-wide action learning efforts. During each action learning cycle, participants will identify a shared area of focus, a vision for success, and the strategies and actions needed to reach their vision. Throughout each cycle, participants will work with their facilitator to evaluate their context, interrogate their assumptions, and test their strategic plan with ongoing reflection as they work toward their vision. Facilitators ensure that participants focus their action learning on priorities or challenges, including equitable student outcomes. The learning that occurs within each cycle of action learning, regardless of outcome, helps participants—and by extension, the school—improve in solving complex problems and reflecting on the outcomes. Together, they develop their skills as leaders and as problem solvers. Action learning will serve as a recurring change process that will allow the school leader and their leadership team to continually improve the design of their school as a system, with a focus on improving teaching and instruction.


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Course One: World-Class Schooling: Vision and Goals

NISL Course One, World-Class Schooling: Vision and Goals, introduces participants to a research-based vision of high-quality teaching and learning for all students and a methodology that will allow them to work strategically to bring about that vision. The course analyzes global trends affecting local economies and educational systems and looks closely at the design principles that research has found are commonly shared across the top-performing systems. Participants examine a rigorous conceptual framework for strategic thinking, adapted from professional military education, which firmly ties strategy and decision-making to a vision relating to teaching and learning that emerges from and responds to context. Participants evaluate a theory of action (the "ways and means") through which they will achieve the ends described in the vision. Finally, the course looks at the school building as a high-quality aligned instructional system—the primary system affected by strategy.

Action Learning Within Course One

During Course One, NISL participants and stakeholders from their schools complete a contextual analysis for the school using the Context Analysis Tool and guidance provided. The course offers several opportunities to revisit and revise participant and stakeholder responses.

Course Two: The Research on Learning and the Implications for Teaching, Leadership, and School Organization

NISL Course Two, The Research on Learning and the Implications for Teaching, Leadership, and School Organization, closely examines current research around learning, with a deep dive into the National Research Council's decades-long study, How People Learn (2000, 2018), that will equip participants to organize and lead their schools for the highest levels of student learning.

Course Two takes us from the wide-angle view of Course One to focus closely on learning and related aspects of teaching, curriculum, assessment, and school organization. Within this, participants will study a range of essential topics including how people learn; students' engagement and motivation in learning; the learner at the center: culture and learning; language and learning; deeper learning; formative assessment for learning; and professional learning. These are all considered from both the perspective of the learner at the center and the perspective of school leadership. The course is designed to build the capacity of school leaders to leverage current research and practice to lead development of the rigor and adaptability of their learning systems and strive for equity, excellence, and efficiency.

Course Two is organized around several key questions that more deeply explore the elements of coherent and aligned learning systems introduced in Course One:

  • What does it really mean to be truly learner-centered and how does this drive equity?
  • How can we support students' motivation and engagement with learning?
  • What is the role of language in learning?
  • How can we improve the capacity of our curriculum and approach to teaching to prepare our students for success in 21st century society?
  • How can we build formative assessment in ways that inform teachers' decision making and learners' capacity to be self-regulating?

Action Learning Within Course Two

Across units 4–8, participants explore the research on learning and related aspects of teaching, curriculum, and assessment through a set of research probes for use back in their school environment. The probes offer opportunities for participants to extend and deepen contextual analysis and contribute to determining an appropriate focus for their action learning. Research probes are small-scale investigations into school context, designed to explore aspects of the unit content and stimulate data-based discussion about the unit content in the context of the participant's school environment. Data from each research probe is then shared for feedback and reflection at the beginning of each subsequent unit.

Course Three: Sustaining Transformation through Capacity and Commitment

NISL Course Three, Sustaining Transformation through Capacity and Commitment, concludes the program by weaving together major themes relating to high-performance organization and management. Participants reflect on their role as instructional leaders and examine how to play that role effectively, alone or in combination with other leadership team members. This course challenges participants to examine their roles as leaders as they create and nurture an ethical culture in their schools. Course Three presents the moral principles of a just, fair, and caring community, and participants use these principles to guide their discussions and decisions about the course's case studies.

Action Learning Within Course Three

 In Course Three, participants collaborate with their school-based action learning teams to perform two or three cycles of action learning between units. These cycles are also supported within units by the facilitator and cohort peers. Cycles of action learning include the design and leadership of a school-based action learning team to refine the area of focus and to plan for action, the use of a formal inquiry process by the action learning team, and feedback processes with cohort peers during NISL units in order to refine the cycles of action learning.