Research/Policy | Ambitious Leadership

In our rapidly changing world, kids need to learn to think flexibly, creatively, and critically — mastering essential knowledge as well as the skills to apply that knowledge wherever their studies and aspirations take them.

Recognizing that reality, states across the country committed to new college- and career-ready standards. Yet performance on new standards-aligned tests indicates that many schools are struggling to reach this higher bar. Principals are the lynchpins to overcoming this challenge, but they likewise need new knowledge and skills to succeed.

In our new report, we share success stories and strategies gleaned from our study of principals who have led progress in moving students toward college and career readiness. We call the leadership we observed at these schools “ambitious leadership.”

Companion materials include practical resources to help principals enact ambitious instructional practices in their schools, and policy guidance that government officials can employ to strengthen school leadership across districts and states.

Six case studies also provide an in-depth look at how ambitious leaders positioned their schools and students for success, covering topics ranging from vision-setting and curriculum selection to coaching and professional development that supported teachers in making the leap to higher standards.

At the schools in our study, a deep understanding around the demands of college- and career-ready standards shaped everything principals did: the process of curriculum selection and refinement, the content and design of their assessments, the way in which they designed and delivered professional development, and the  coaching and feedback they provided to teachers.

Through those efforts, ambitious leaders turned their schools into engines of student and adult learning. They developed knowledgeable teacher leaders to increase instructional leadership capacity, and created structures that allowed teachers to deepen their expertise and master concrete instructional changes that moved students toward college and career readiness.


Ambitious leaders implemented a set of six key instructional leadership practices. Principals executed these practices at high levels of intensity and quality, with a sharp focus on alignment to college- and career-ready expectations.

Ambitious leaders drew on three types of critical knowledge. Principals understood: (1) the demands of college- and career-ready standards and assessments; (2) the components of challenging, standards-aligned instruction; and (3) high-impact approaches to instructional leadership.

Ambitious leaders established three critical conditions that allowed them to effectively lead improvements to curriculum and instruction. These were: (1) effective talent management; (2) maximized learning time; and (3) a high-quality professional learning culture.

Ambitious leaders aligned instructional leadership practices to their school’s stage of improvement. The schools in our study fell into three distinct stages in their journey to higher standards. The first focused heavily on setting an ambitious vision for challenging, standards-aligned instruction; the second stage focused on establishing or upgrading school-wide systems and structures; and the third stage focused on consistently implementing the school’s instructional vision.


collage of students and teachers


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