Budget & Finance

Harvard, School Districts Team Up

By Jeff Archer — October 29, 2003 2 min read
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The Harvard Business School, which practically wrote the book on the study of corporate management, has embarked on an effort to better understand effective leadership of public school districts.

In a joint venture with Harvard University’s graduate school of education, faculty members at the business school have chosen nine large and urban school districts to take part in a three-year endeavor to research and develop best practices for management in educational administration.

Announced last week, the Public Education Leadership Project includes some of the country’s major urban hubs, such as Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, along with two large suburban districts. Together, the districts serve more than 1 million students.

Architects of the project say they hope to fill what they see as a critical gap in knowledge about organizational change in education. While many district leaders now have clear performance goals, Harvard officials say, the field of education lacks a general understanding of how to restructure all of a district’s varied operations—such as human resources and financial planning—to meet those goals.

In that area, business experts have much experience, said Allen Grossman, a Harvard business professor and a lead scholar on the project.

“Business schools are not the experts on products,” he said. “What they are experts on is building the right organization or system that will allow whatever the product or service that’s being delivered, to be delivered in the most effective fashion.”

Other districts participating are Anne Arundel County, Md.; Charleston, S.C.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Minneapolis; Montgomery County, Md.; and San Diego. Harvard picked them after inviting more than two dozen school systems across the country to take part in a vetting process over this past summer.

Each district has already begun to pursue a large-scale improvement strategy on its own.

“We’ve chosen places where we think there is already quite a lot on the ground,” said Richard F. Elmore, an expert on leadership at Harvard’s education school who is working on the new project. “So, they can teach us something about this.”

New Thinking Sought

Faculty and staff members from the university’s business and education schools will make periodic visits to each school system, and teams of top officials from each district will go to Harvard annually for weeklong seminars designed especially for them.

The project is being paid for with about $3 million in gifts from the Harvard Business School’s class of 1963.

Organizers stress they aren’t looking simply to transplant a set of business principles to education. Rather, they aim to create a new body of knowledge—in the form of published research—about district leadership by pooling the expertise of practitioners and academics in both business and education.

Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the 140,000-student Montgomery County public schools, says it’s the right combination.

“If you go totally on the business side, you lose the human element of instruction,” he said. “If you go totally on the education side, you lose the effectiveness of change techniques that have been learned in the world of business.”

The Harvard Business School—which helped pioneer the use of case studies and field research in management instruction—is already experienced in blurring the lines between sectors. Its 10-year-old Initiative on Social Enterprise has become a leading force in adapting business ideas to fit the world of nonprofit organizations.

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