Public Education Goes to School

Harvard's schools of Business and Education are bringing management skills to nine school districts across the country—and positive results are starting to show.
by Mallory Stark

Can the art and science of management help public schools improve student performance? In the fall of 2001, faculty and staff from the Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) began to discuss how they might work together on the leadership and management challenges facing the education sector.

The result was the now three-year-old Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), which works with nine urban public school districts representing over one million students. "Rather than creating an institutional partnership, we formed an intellectual one, and the deans of both schools and the president of the university have enthusiastically supported us all along," says PELP co-founder and HBS lecturer Stacey Childress.

The nine participating school districts together employ nearly 100,000 people and manage $11 billion in annual expenditures. They include some of the country's largest cities, including Boston, Chicago, Memphis, and San Francisco. Based on a rigorous selection process, the Harvard team invited the districts because each had a performance-improvement strategy and a long-term commitment to enhancing student achievement. They also demonstrated a base of support in their cities for system-wide change.

We discussed the program in this e-mail Q &A with Childress and Allen Grossman, who is the HBS faculty chair for the program. Childress, Grossman, and coauthor Richard Elmore, a professor at HGSE, teamed up on an HBS working paper, published this year, titled "Promoting a Management Revolution in Public Education."

Mallory Stark: How does the PELP program operate?

Stacey Childress and Allen Grossman: PELP operates as a learning laboratory with seed funding from the HBS Class of 1963. Using an action research model, we go out in the field to develop and test hypotheses about the managerial challenges identified and shared by the nine PELP districts, write cases and notes that are relevant to addressing the challenges, and then deliver a week-long executive education program to teams from each district on the HBS campus each summer.

Most of the materials for the program are new cases we develop in urban school districts, along with a few classic business school cases such as Southwest Airlines and the New York City Police Department. Each district team leaves Harvard at the end of the week with an action plan to implement back home what they've learned on campus. We then visit each district a few months later to check on the progress of their action plans, and to identify topics to study in the next cycle. Then the knowledge development process starts again. Following this model for two years, we've produced sixteen teaching cases, two conceptual notes, and a working paper.

Q: The performance problems of U.S. public education are receiving growing attention. How are urban schools performing in terms of student achievement?

A: This year spending on K-12 education by federal, state, and local governments will reach approximately $450 billion. Although per-pupil spending has more than doubled in real dollars over the last thirty years, student achievement has remained stagnant. U.S. students look mediocre, or worse, in comparison to students in other industrialized countries, ranking 16th out of 20 in the number of students who complete high school. Just as importantly, public education is facing a social justice issue that has the potential to undermine our democracy. Even with a dramatic increase in targeted spending to close the performance gap between poor and minority students and their middle class and white counterparts, the gap persists. By age nine, African American and Latino students are on average three grade levels behind, and students from low-income communities are seven times less likely to graduate from college than those from wealthier areas.

U.S. students look mediocre, or worse, in comparison to students in other industrialized countries.

Urban districts on average perform far below national averages, and have highly concentrated student enrollments. In fact, while the 100 largest urban districts represent less than 1 percent of all U.S. schools, they enroll over 20 percent of all students, and around 40 percent of minority and low-income students. A national report issued in November by the U.S. Department of Education shows that a few urban districts made progress last year in narrowing the performance gap, especially in the early grades. When viewed in absolute terms, the data show that urban districts still perform well below national averages and have a long way to go, but the progress is cause for optimism.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the school districts with which PELP works?

A: It's important to note that all of our districts are achieving high performance in parts of their systems, and making progress on some key dimensions of student achievement. For instance, San Francisco was the top performing urban district in California last year and was ranked by a national foundation as one of the top five urban districts in the country, along with Boston. But their overall performance is far from where they want it to be. This is a problem for all large urban districts. You can find pockets of excellence—great schools in underperforming districts and wonderful classrooms in terrible schools—but no large urban district has cracked the code about how to spread excellence across its entire system.

We asked our nine districts what their biggest barriers were in achieving excellence at scale, and they described five categories of management challenges:

  1. Implementing a district-wide strategy
  2. Achieving organizational coherence in support of the strategy
  3. Developing and managing human capital
  4. Allocating resources in alignment with the strategy
  5. Using performance data for decision making and accountability

Here's how these play out on the ground. Once a large urban district has developed a strategy for achieving results across the entire system, moving from planning to action and ensuring fidelity of implementation on such an enormous scale is very difficult. Redesigning the structures and systems of a district so that they are coherent with the goals and objectives of the strategy is a monumental task, but one necessary for achieving high performance. The design and implementation tasks are complicated by the fact that schools across large districts have wide variation not only in performance, but also in their capacity to improve. For instance, Chicago Public Schools has over 600 schools and Memphis over 200. The implementation of the strategy in these districts must be purposefully differentiated to be effective across so many schools.

All of our districts have projects underway to improve their data collection and analysis function.

Additionally, a district-wide improvement strategy usually creates a massive gap between what people know and are able to do, and what they are now expected to do. This creates the need to invest heavily in human capital. Given a longstanding culture that values egalitarianism and rewards effort rather than results, differentiating among units and people based on performance is even more daunting. In order to address these challenges, all of our districts have projects underway to improve their data collection and analysis function (which until the last few years was either non-existent or antiquated), in order to use the data to help teachers adapt and improve their classroom practices to focus on individual student needs, and to help principals spot and respond to performance problems among teachers. For example, four of our districts (Charleston, Chicago, Memphis, and Montgomery County, MD) are creating systems, similar to the Comstat model developed by the New York City Police Department in the 1990s, to take a problem-solving approach to improving student results. All of these efforts are complicated by the environment in which districts operate—their elected governance structures, collective bargaining arrangements, and conflicting policy mandates.

Districts are increasingly being held accountable by external stakeholders for the academic performance of their students. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 set targets for the improvement of student performance and put in place rewards and sanctions for school performance, in conjunction with the accountability framework in each state. In order to operate in this new accountability environment, our districts are designing and implementing internal accountability systems that allow them to monitor and respond to individual-, school-, and district-level performance. This movement to focus on results instead of effort provides external pressure to address all of the managerial challenges we mentioned above.

Q: What is the PELP Coherence Framework?

A: In working with district leadership teams, we observed something striking about the way they thought about their managerial challenges. They identified them easily, but most viewed them as distinct issues to be solved independently, rather than seeing their organizations as integrated systems in which these are all interdependent parts of a whole, directly linked to the work of teachers in classrooms. We designed the PELP Coherence Framework to create a picture of how the parts fit together. In order to develop the picture, we studied a number of districts that are producing gains, and discovered they share a common characteristic: They are making an effort to organize their activities more coherently.

One similarity between businesses and public school districts is that effective leadership and management is correlated with high-performance.

The PCF has roots in organizational alignment frameworks developed for business, but incorporates what we have learned in studying fifteen large districts and the education literature, and is therefore relevant to the unique managerial challenges leaders of urban systems face. The primary function of the PCF is to identify the organizational elements critical to high performance, and to pose a series of questions, rather than answers, about each in order to bring them into coherence with the strategy and each other. The key elements are the instructional core, strategy, stakeholders, culture, structure, systems, capacity, and the environment.

As a first step, districts must develop a strategy to address their specific performance challenges. In business, strategy is usually a response to conditions that exist "out there"—forces like competition and demand drive innovation and performance inside the company. In public education, the fundamental challenges and the primary customer are "in here"—students and their performance challenges are at the heart of the enterprise rather than an external force to be dealt with. In other words, in public school districts, an improvement strategy works from the inside out, rather than outside in. The classroom is at the center of a public school district, and the activities that take place there are what we call the instructional core. Strategy is the coherent set of actions that the entire organization commits to in order to improve the core dramatically and rapidly. Most other organizational decisions, resources, and activities should be directed toward the district's strategy to make the core more powerful. The other aspects of the framework are elements of the organization that must be brought into coherence with the strategy and each other.

Stakeholders are people and groups inside and outside the organization who have a legitimate interest in the system and can influence the effectiveness of the strategy. These include teachers, principals and their unions, parents, school boards, community and advocacy groups, and local politicians and policymakers, among others. Managing stakeholder relationships in a way that is coherent with the strategy is often difficult because of their varied interests and often-conflicting definitions of success.

Culture consists of the norms and behaviors in the organization—in other words, everyone's shared understanding of "how things work around here." As we mentioned earlier, public education has long had a culture that emphasized effort, rather than results. Education has historically valued egalitarianism, and in the new accountability environment, differentiating based on individual performance rather than treating all individuals and schools the same is directly counter to this notion. Shifting the culture into coherence with a strategy focused on driving performance is a tough but necessary challenge, and must be supported by changes in the structures and systems of the organization.

Structure and systems are more concrete than culture, and can be changed through direct action. Reporting relationships, roles and responsibilities, spans of control, departmental arrangements, teams and task forces, accountability and reporting mechanisms, compensation and resource allocation systems, and professional development efforts all fall into these categories. Achieving coherence among the various systems and structures is critical to executing the strategy.

Capacity is a large category that includes the knowledge, skill, and time of people in the organization, the financial resources available, as well as the material assets such as buildings and technology. When a district develops an overarching strategy, diagnosing and closing the gap between what people know how to do and what they must be able to effectively execute is crucial. Another capacity challenge is convincing the very best people to take on the most challenging assignments, such as teaching in or leading a chronically underperforming school.

The environment in which public school districts operate includes the political and policy context at the city, state, and national level, the funding mechanisms that allocate revenue each year, the collective bargaining arrangements in place, and the characteristics of the community in which they are located. District leaders have little direct control over their environment, but must spend significant time managing these dynamics in order to implement district-wide improvement strategies.

Overall, the PCF is designed to focus the attention of public school district leaders on the central problem of increasing the achievement levels of all students by making the elements of large districts work in concert with the strategy. The framework can be useful when evaluating or changing an existing strategy, as well as when developing a new one. By providing a common language and consistent way of addressing the challenge of coherence, the PCF can help leaders create high-performing school districts that are responsive to the increasing external demands for accountability.

Q: Could you please elaborate on the idea that "in public school districts strategy works from the inside out, rather than outside in."

A: Sure. Our coauthor, Richard Elmore, introduced the outside in framing of school reform efforts a number of years ago. He asserted that for school-level reform to really work, it had to first focus on fixing the instructional core, which is what happens in the classroom. Separately, early in the project, we examined the way strategy is developed in corporations, and the purpose it usually serves, to see if there were lessons for public school districts. Strategy is about creating value by choosing—choosing what to do, and just as importantly, choosing what not to do. Good ideas and worthwhile activities almost always outweigh the resources available to pursue them, even in companies. By choosing a coherent set of actions that together and are most likely to lead to desired results, an organization can put its scarce resources to work more effectively, and accomplish the objectives it sets out to achieve. This idea applies to organizations across sectors. The difference for public school districts is in the orientation of strategy development. As we mentioned earlier, in business, strategy is usually a response to conditions that exist "out there," but in public education, the fundamental challenges and the primary customer are "in here." Students and their performance challenges are at the heart of the enterprise rather than an external force to be dealt with. In fact, the external forces acting on school districts—politics, funding formulas, disagreement among stakeholders about the definition of success—often push districts to focus on issues unrelated to strengthening the instructional core. Extending Elmore's idea that school-level reform must start with the instructional core, we developed the idea that to be effective in driving student outcomes, a district-wide strategy for improvement must also start there, and then drive decisions in the various organizational elements in the PELP Coherence Framework.

Q: What are the significant differences between managing businesses and managing educational institutions?

A: People often say that school districts should be run more like businesses. The idea is simple and seductive. The problem is that while public school districts have myriad managerial, leadership, and organizational concerns, they are not businesses. In reality, their differences are greater than their similarities. They acquire capital differently—there are no investment banks to help them find investment dollars from private sources, so they must rely on the will of local voters to issue bonds. Similarly, the increase or decrease in revenues is rarely linked directly to their performance, as it is in business, but rather to policy and politics at the state and local levels. Districts for the most part can't choose their customers; they have a mandate to serve all students (customers) who enroll, regardless of the district's capacity or the various needs and desires of the students and families. And as we mentioned earlier, districts are accountable to a multiplicity of public and private stakeholders, who often have conflicting interests, significant power, and a lack of agreement about the definition of success. In fact, school districts today face unique challenges that make them more difficult to lead and manage than virtually any other enterprise in our country. This was a primary motivation for focusing the work of PELP on leadership and management challenges in large urban districts.

One similarity between businesses and public school districts is that effective leadership and management is correlated with high-performance. However, there's been scant attention to creating useful knowledge for practitioners about the managerial aspects of large public school districts. While the pool of well-trained executive leadership for corporations is wide and deep, only recently have a few schools of education and outside providers begun to focus on preparing people for the specific managerial challenge in this complex environment. The content we are developing for PELP is helping to fill the knowledge gap so that the existing and emerging programs aimed at developing the next generation of leaders will be grounded in the real work of driving performance in urban public school districts.

About the Author

Mallory Stark is the Career Information Librarian for Baker Library at Harvard Business School.