School & District Management

Project Distills Lessons of ‘Coherent’ District-Level Reforms

By Lynn Olson — July 17, 2007 6 min read

How can districts organize and manage themselves to achieve excellence in every school and classroom, not just a few? For the past four years, a joint project of Harvard University’s business school and its graduate school of education has been pressing that question in partnership with nine large school districts around the country.

This summer, the 4-year old initiative, known as the Public Education Leadership Project, or PELP, held its first national conference here to share a framework it’s developed based on what it’s learning.

And like most business classes at Harvard, the meeting began with a case study—in this instance, of a mythical district that’s a composite of what the researchers first encountered when they began working with school systems in 2003.

The “Bristol City” district’s superintendent has an ambitious vision: to “ensure that each student achieves his or her potential by supporting high-quality teaching and learning and comprehensive academic programs, working in conjunction with the entire community.” But as the discussion quickly uncovered, the superintendent actually has no strategy for achieving that vision, just a frenetic amount of unconnected activities and initiatives.

“How familiar does this look to you?” Stacey M. Childress, a lecturer at the Harvard Business School and one of the founders of PELP, asked the audience of district leaders, business executives, consultants, academics, foundation officers, and nonprofit executives. “Most of our districts looked like this.”

“The challenge becomes, once you recognize that there’s this disconnect between what your big vision says and all this activity,” she said, “what do you do about it?”

Coherence Is Key

The answer, according to the “PELP Coherence Framework,” is that districts have to start by focusing on the “instructional core,” the critical work of teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms. They have to set concrete performance objectives and intermediate milestones to determine if they’re making progress. And they have to articulate an explicit theory of action about the causal relationships between certain actions the district will take and the desired outcomes.

For example, many districts believe that improving the quality of teaching provides the best leverage for increasing student performance. So their theory of action might be: “The most direct way to increase student learning is to improve teachers’ instructional practice. Therefore, if we help all teachers improve their instructional practice, then we will accomplish high levels of achievement for all students.”

A districtwide strategy to put that theory into action would include the concrete steps to which the organization commits itself to ensure that high-quality teaching is happening in every classroom, every day.

“Having a well-articulated strategy helps leaders choose what to do,” according to the framework, “and just as importantly, what not to do.”

Equally important, district leaders have to bring the key organizational elements of the school system together in a way that is congruent with the strategy. Those elements include the culture of the district, or expectations about “how things work around here”; formal and informal structures and systems, such as the way decisions get made; accountability mechanisms; compensation arrangements and training programs; the allocation of resources, including people, technology, and data; the management of stakeholder relationships both inside and outside the organization; and the external environment, such as state rules and regulations, union contracts, and public and private funding sources.

Allen S. Grossman, a professor at the business school and the faculty chair for PELP, noted that such external forces can pull superintendents away from having a strategy for large-scale improvement, but that too often those forces serve as “an excuse set” for districts’ failure to take responsibility for what they can control.

“Districts wind up with a host of unrelated programs piled on each other, each with its own funding stream,” he said. “This lack of coherence is rampant.”

Next-Generation Issues

While the framework draws on models of managing for high performance in the business and nonprofit sectors, Mr. Grossman said, it was designed to fit the particular context and challenges of public education, including charter-management organizations that serve many of the same functions as school districts.

“Although public education is a $450 billion enterprise,” he said, “there was virtually nothing about how to manage to high performance.”

One goal of the meeting, said Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard and a faculty member with PELP, was to get people “to think in powerful ways about the next level of work.”

For example, one panel focused on efforts to close achievement gaps by ensuring all students have access to a content-rich and rigorous curriculum, and the pedagogical supports to succeed. Another focused on efforts by districts, charter-management organizations, and for-profit companies to create accountability systems that both encourage self-reflection and analysis on the part of schools and intervene in schools that don’t improve, as well as data systems to support such work.

James S. Liebman, the chief accountability officer for the 1.1 million-student New York City schools, described the district’s Children First Intensive Training, in which teams based in each of the city’s 1,400 public schools will be expected and supported to use data to identify 10 to 20 students “outside the school’s sphere of success,” figure out how to help them, and track their progress over the course of a school year.

Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the 138,000-student Montgomery County, Md., public schools, described his district’s efforts to align its curriculum with what students need to know to succeed in Advanced Placement calculus and English courses, and then map backward from there, starting with what students need to learn in kindergarten.

Since 2002, the district—the state’s largest and racially and ethnically most diverse—has nearly closed the gaps between the percentages of African-American, white, and Hispanic kindergarteners meeting end-of-year benchmarks in reading. It has significantly narrowed the gap in the proportion of 5th graders enrolled in higher-level math courses across poorer and more affluent areas of the school system. And the percentage of black students taking one or more AP courses is more than double the national average, while the percent scoring 3 or higher out of a possible 5 on at least one AP exam is more than five times the national average (16 percent vs. 3 percent).

“You can’t get this done by focusing only on high school,” Mr. Weast said of the district’s efforts. “High school is only 720 days, so you have to start the process in preschool and carry it all the way through.”

In describing the district’s work, he added: “We learned a lot of it right here in PELP. These case studies helped us connect the dots in our strategy, take concrete actions, and accelerate our rate of improvement.”

In addition to working with teams from the partner districts over successive summers, Harvard faculty members visited the school systems to reflect with administrators on the changes they were trying to make and to write case studies about their work. They also drew upon examples from the private sector.

Thirteen years ago, said Mr. Elmore of Harvard, when he began looking for examples of districts working on large-scale improvement efforts, it was hard to find much going on. Now, there are big, ambitious instructional-improvement strategies on the ground in a number of districts, and such efforts are beginning to bear fruit with improved student achievement.

The bad news, he said, is that there is still “a very large proportion of [superintendents] who have no idea what we’re talking about.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Project Distills Lessons of ‘Coherent’ District-Level Reforms

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