Writing the Case for Public School Reform

Professor David Thomas discusses his case studies on how the School District of Philadelphia is recruiting and retaining teachers and improving its human resources department. From HBS Alumni Bulletin.
by Julia Hanna

The state of public education in the United States is a perennial hot-button topic, with rhetoric often outpacing any real sense of progress. The Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), a 2003 joint initiative of HBS and Harvard's Graduate School of Education, seeks to remedy that situation by working with leadership teams from nine urban school districts over the course of three annual sessions to coordinate research and create coherent, scalable systems for education reform.

Two cases written for PELP and taught by HBS professor David Thomas focus on a piece of the puzzle. "The Campaign for Human Capital at the School District of Philadelphia" examines one district's innovative approach to recruiting and retaining qualified teachers; "Reinventing Human Resources at the School District of Philadelphia" continues the story by looking at the challenge of transforming a human resources department from a paper-pushing backwater to an entity that is strategically incorporated into the district's overall mission.

"One observation that we made early in PELP is that school systems have essentially not changed their personnel practices around hiring and retention since the end of World War II," says Thomas. It was assumed then that applicants for a teaching position didn't want to do anything else, or that they didn't have many other options, conditions that clearly don't hold in today's world, where vacancy rates in urban districts can reach as high as 50 percent at the start of the school year.

Thomas was struck by the Philadelphia district's approach to recruitment and retention. First, Tomás Hanna, special assistant to the district CEO, assembled a task force in 2002 of district employees and private-sector talent to create a blueprint for what came to be called the Campaign for Human Capital. He then oversaw the implementation of a variety of efforts, including a marketing blitz touting the benefits of teaching in Philadelphia; a recruitment event, "Rolling Out the Red Carpet"; leadership training programs for principals; and a mentoring program for new teachers.

Results of the campaign were felt quickly. For example, the mentoring program resulted in an improvement of new teacher retention rates from 73 percent in 2002 to 95 percent in 2003. The principal training program required that principals develop a detailed retention plan for their school; in April 2004, Philadelphia had 14 teacher vacancies, down from 102 in April 2003.

While the campaign was a success, it represented a work-around solution to the deficiencies of human resources, a challenge addressed in the second case. Thomas says that when Hanna was a classroom guest for the first case discussion, many participants suggested that he should be head of HR. "His response was that he didn't want to do that because he was an educator," Thomas recalls. "He later told me that the classroom conversation persuaded him to take on that role." In his new position, Hanna employed a number of strategies to revamp HR, such as renaming and reorganizing departments to emphasize the importance of customer service; institutionalizing programs that came from the campaign; creating coalitions across internal departments; and reaching out to foundations for resources and training.

Thomas plans to check in with Hanna to determine if a follow-up is in order; for now, these cases offer important takeaways for districts that too often find themselves in the position of circumventing HR. "Part of the power of this case combination is that PELP participants can see the movement from creating a work-around solution—the campaign—to reforming HR into a strategically viable entity," he observes. Understanding how to recreate that progression could be a valuable lesson for organizations across all sectors that hope to recruit and retain the best possible employees.

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.