Professional Development

Leaders Go to School on Business Practices

By Jeff Archer — August 30, 2005 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: This story used an incorrect word to describe the goal of the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University. It is “coherence.”

Lots of districts like to think they have close-knit leadership teams. But few school leaders can say they’ve ironed their clothes together, which became a morning ritual for a group from San Francisco that spent a week at the Harvard Business School here this summer.

Joined by similar teams from seven other large districts, they camped out in dorm-like quarters while engaging in the kind of deep thinking about organizational change that, while common among captains of industry, is rare for most school administrators.

The workshop was part of the Public Education Leadership Project, a 2-year-old initiative meant to inject a dose of corporate sense into the way school systems are run. During the intense week, participants discussed case studies, attended lectures, and drafted action plans—some of which already have changed districts’ practices.

“The fact that we’re basically sequestered, in our case 2,500 miles away from our district, and forced to live together, is not a small part of the affect,” said Myong Leigh, the director of policy and planning for the 60,000-student San Francisco Unified system.

At Harvard, participants in the Public Education Leadership Project discuss a case study on crime reduction.

A joint effort of Harvard University’s business school and its graduate school of education, the project is part executive training, part research and development. Between summer sessions, Harvard faculty members visit participating districts to reflect with administrators on the changes they’re trying to make, and the challenges they face in doing so.

Underwritten by about $3 million raised from Harvard Business School alumni, the project has the goal, over three years, of forging a new understanding about redesigning districts to achieve large-scale improvement in student learning. In a field flooded with programs and “best practices,” understanding how to do that is still missing, argues Allen S. Grossman, a professor at the business school and a lead instructor for the project, known as PELP.

“If you accept the premise that there’s no such thing as a high-performing system in any sector that isn’t well led and well managed, then you have to ask: What is the body of knowledge on doing that in a public school system?” he said. “And the answer is that there is very, very little knowledge.”

Seeking ‘Congruence’

Together, the PELP districts serve about 1 million students. Along with San Francisco, they are Anne Arundel County, Md.; Boston; Charleston County, S.C.; Chicago; Harrisburg, Pa.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Montgomery County, Md. San Diego took part last year, but is on hold after a leadership change.

All of the districts had major reform efforts under way before being invited to join the project.

Organizers say districts shouldn’t act like businesses so much as think like them. The big idea at the center of the project is “congruence,” the alignment of all of a system’s parts to drive its mission. Translated to education, that means human resources, facilities, and even transportation are managed to increase the quality of learning.

Thomas W. Payzant, Boston's superintendent, listens at a breakfast group discussion.

That’s not easy in school districts, where the various constituents so often are at odds, concedes Stacey M. Childress, a lecturer at the business school who co-founded the project. That is why participants are urged to include union heads, parent leaders, and school board members on their PELP teams, along with senior district-level staff members.

“Our point of view is: Yeah, it’s hard, and that’s real life on the ground,” Ms. Childress said. “Having someone from central office and a principal coming to Harvard to talk about teacher assignment, with no union presence in the room, might actually not be so productive.”

About 70 people attended the summer session. The core of the curriculum is the case studies, not all of which are from education. Participants have studied personnel strategies in the Philadelphia and Boston public schools, as well as at Southwest Airlines. They’ve explored data-driven decisionmaking in school districts and in the New York City police department.

Each district’s team translates those lessons into action plans in daily meetings, guided by Harvard instructors. Eric J. Smith, the superintendent of Maryland’s 75,000-student Anne Arundel County schools, said one of the project’s biggest values is that it forces discussions that otherwise don’t happen amid the crisis management and local politics that consume much of a district leader’s time.

“If I were back in the office, I might have given this group maybe an hour of my time, and it would have been focused on functional stuff,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been on developmental thinking about the district.”

Theories of Action

Many participants say they work differently as a result of their participation in the project.

Suzanne Kelly, the chief of staff for the 118,000-student Memphis schools, said she saw the principle of congruence at work in the district’s latest round of budget planning. Officials in charge of each district function justified their numbers the same way.

“In the past, there might not have been necessarily the specific question: If we fund this department in this way, as we’ve done in previous years, does it really help us meet our mission, our priorities, our academic agenda?” she said.

Similarly, South Carolina’s 44,000-student Charleston system recently formed a “strategic planning team,” including top district officials from key departments, charged with mapping out the implementation of major district initiatives. Previously, departments planned more in isolation, said Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

“People were making decisions that affected other people, without talking to them,” she said.

Team members walk to a session at Harvard.

Even broader changes are planned in some districts as a result of the “theories of action” drafted at Harvard. A theory of action is essentially an agreed-upon statement of beliefs about how an organization hopes to succeed.

Leaders of the 436,000-student Chicago public schools, for instance, have honed a theory of action based on the idea that individual schools are the main unit of change. Once they agreed on that, the role that the central office should play became clear, said Laurence Stanton, the district’s chief planning officer.

“When you identify the school as the place where the improvement of instruction takes place, and the principal is the person responsible, then the role for everyone else has to be to support the principal,” he said. “We have some schools that are good at this, and others that are not, so that support varies.”

Recently, Chicago carried out its first-ever survey of principals, asking them to evaluate the service that the central office provides. Plans are under way to move certain business-support functions from district headquarters into regional offices to make it easier for school leaders to use them. The aim: Let principals focus more on instruction.


Still unknown is whether such moves will yield gains in student achievement. Going forward, Harvard plans to track test scores and other measures in each of the participating school systems.

“The proof of this is going to be: Is there any value added by the work that people do in this setting, ultimately, to the performance of schools?” said Richard F. Elmore, a lead instructor for the project from the university’s school of education. “If we can’t meet that criterion, then somebody else should be doing this.”

Only a few other universities have tapped the collective brainpower of their business and education faculties to try to crack the code of school improvement. One similar partnership is at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., where the business and education schools jointly train district leadership teams each summer in the 2-year-old Executive Program for Educational Leaders.

The schools of business and education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, also have launched a joint training program for district leaders, and last year began preparing principals to serve as “turnaround specialists” in some of the state’s low-performing schools.

Mr. Smith, the Anne Arundel County superintendent, believes the lack of such cross-fertilization until now partly explains why districts haven’t managed to scale up academic success. “We don’t need to be more like business,” he said, “but we do need to have a deep understanding of business principles, and we need to be able to have them make sense for the work that we’re doing.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at


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