Pockets of excellence exist in all school districts. One can find spectacular classes in otherwise dreary schools and stunning schools in mediocre districts. However, to truly serve all students and meet the demands of today’s accountability environment, district leaders must find a way for these pockets of excellence to become the norm rather than the exception. This is one of the greatest challenges facing American education today.
What does an urban school district that enables systemwide improvement look like? How is the district organized, and how does it implement a comprehensive strategy to improve student learning? To help leaders of urban school systems answer these questions, 12 faculty members from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education launched the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) in 2003. The PELP team set out to identify effective leadership and management practices from both the business and nonprofit sectors that could be adapted to the unique needs of urban districts. The team also spent hundreds of hours observing 15 urban districts of varying sizes across the United States (see sidebar "Districts Participating in the Public Education Leadership Project"). Twelve district teams, composed of the superintendent and other leaders, have participated in the PELP programs, discussing a series of leadership and management cases drawn from settings within and outside education.
Based on its research, the PELP team developed a tool called the PELP Coherence Framework to help district leaders understand and communicate how a school district can be managed to advance and sustain a strategy for achieving high student performance across all schools. Webster’s
defines coherence as “the quality of being logically integrated.” In the context of public education, this means that the organizational elements of a school district are synchronized with one another to achieve overarching goals. Often, however, school districts and their practices are more haphazard than purposeful, the product of convenience or history rather than deliberate design.
The PELP Coherence Framework helps leaders recognize the interdependence of multiple parts of their school district—its culture, systems and structures, resources, stakeholder relationships, and environment—and understand how they must reinforce one another to support the successful implementation of a districtwide improvement strategy. PELP participants, now back in their districts, continue to test and refine how best to use the framework in the hard work of building effective organizations.
Creating a Coherent Organization
At the heart of the PELP Coherence Framework is the instructional core
, the critical work of teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms. The core includes three interdependent components: a teacher’s knowledge and skill, students’ engagement in their own learning, and academically challenging content. A district will not see notable improvement in student performance unless there is steady improvement in the instructional core of classes districtwide. Therefore, everything that a district does should support and enable more effective work in the instructional core.
Given the size and complexity of urban school districts, this is an ongoing challenge. To initiate and sustain progress, a district must first have a deliberate, well-articulated strategy
for improving the instructional core, one that is widely understood and purposefully enacted. Whatever the chosen strategy, the district’s subsequent decisions—whether about activities, resources, or organizational structure—should be based on how well each decision will advance the strategy.
The coherence framework is not meant to promote a single or uniform approach for strengthening the instructional core. Districts have demonstrated that effective improvement strategies vary from place to place. For instance, the San Francisco Unified School District pursued an approach designed to capitalize on the strengths of individual schools, allowing principals to choose instructional activities and allocate resources to improve student learning and holding schools accountable for the results. This decentralized approach contrasts with that of the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, where the district office drove the agenda by identifying areas of instructional concern (such as elementary students’ reading skills) and provided curricula and professional development programs to support improvement in these areas. Both districts have generated impressive results districtwide and narrowed racial and ethnic achievement gaps.
The PELP program focuses on how a district can gain coherence at the district, school, and classroom levels. The various elements that must work in concert to advance the strategy constitute the remaining parts of the PELP Coherence Framework.
. Culture consists of the prevailing norms and behaviors in an organization—in other words, everyone’s shared understanding of “how things work around here.” Culture is difficult to change and does not readily respond to edict or slogan. Rather, it must be reshaped gradually by changes in individual practices and beliefs. Successful districts develop a culture where everyone believes that success for all students is attainable.
Despite popular skepticism, over time district leaders can upend an entrenched counterproductive culture and replace it with a dynamic and productive one. They can send important signals about what behaviors they value when they redefine roles or relationships, alter performance expectations, or use job assignments in creative ways. Texas’s Aldine Independent School District, for instance, decided on a strategy that focused initially on improving the working relationships among teachers by capitalizing on their knowledge and skills. The district empowered groups of teachers to develop districtwide curricula and work with peers to identify and share effective ways to teach the material. In the process, these educators developed a sense of shared responsibility for the results and a culture of collaboration began to take hold. Efforts in Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District focused instead on the potential of the principals to lead instructional improvement. School officials convened monthly meetings where principals worked on common challenges. Because the district reassigned each principal to a different school every six years, these school leaders realized that their colleagues’ problems could soon become their own. A sense emerged that problems in one school were everyone’s responsibility to solve.
. Structure includes how people are organized, who is responsible for results, and who makes or influences decisions. A district’s structure may constrain rather than enable high performance and frequently needs to be reworked to support the implementation of an improvement strategy.
Structures can be formal (as shown on an organization chart) or informal (the people you go to when you really need to get something done). Poorly designed formal structures often hinder effective action. In many districts, for instance, a principal does not have direct authority over the people responsible for designing and providing professional development, yet she is held accountable for the results. This arrangement can discourage principals from relying on professional development as a resource for improving instruction.
Informal structures can be even more difficult to manage than formal structures. Power may be based on factors such as proximity, social relationships, or a reputation for getting results. If a strategy is to be implemented effectively, district leaders must understand and influence informal structures. This is especially true if an initiative is controversial or hinges on collaboration. District leaders can use committee assignments and job rotation to reallocate informal power and shape informal structures throughout their districts.
. School districts are managed through a variety of important systems, such as hiring, career development and promotion, compensation, student assignment, resource allocation, and assessment and accountability. Whether systems are formal or informal, their purpose should be to increase the district’s effectiveness in implementing its overall strategy. Effective systems are even-handed and efficient, eliminating the need for individuals to “reinvent the wheel” or “know the right people” to get important things done.
Changes in one system often require adjustments in others. For example, in an effort to attract and hire a cohort of new strong teachers, Boston Public Schools adopted an accelerated timetable, which allowed the district to compete for talent with suburban districts. However, to implement this timetable effectively, principals had to accurately anticipate and report their staffing needs much earlier than in the past and those responsible for recruitment had to develop electronic systems for tracking candidates.
. Money is usually the first thing leaders think about when resources are mentioned, and it is obviously important. But organizational resources also include people, time, facilities, and other assets such as technology and data. District leaders must allocate the full range of resources in ways that are coherent with the district’s strategy if the strategy is to be implemented effectively. This means being disciplined about which current and planned activities receive resources and, just as importantly, which ones do not.
San Francisco Unified School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, recognized that funding all schools equally did not ensure that low-performing schools had the resources they needed to improve. In determining a school’s basic allocation for 2006–07, the district employed a weighted student formula that attached a variable dollar amount to every student based on his or her learning needs. A targeted group of under¬performing schools received an additional allocation of $431 per student, which the schools used to fund instructional and library materials, parent centers, arts classes, and afterschool programs.
. Stakeholders are people and groups inside and outside the district that have a legitimate interest in the schools and can influence the success of the district’s chosen strategy. These include teachers unions, parents, students, school boards, community and advocacy groups, and local politicians and policymakers. These stakeholders often disagree about what success looks like or how to achieve it. It is especially challenging to get these stakeholders to support a coherent strategy rather than to impose different ones and distract the leaders’ focus. District leaders must listen carefully to the diverse views and priorities of those with interests in the schools and draw upon the best of their advice. Ultimately, they must either persuade stakeholder groups about the wisdom of the district’s strategy or build an alliance among supporters that is strong enough to prevent others from becoming a disruptive force.
A critical factor in Long Beach’s sustained improvement in student performance was the relationship between the staff and the elected board. Carl Cohn, the former superintendent, convened retreats at which the district’s staff and board members had to agree unanimously on any major new plans for the district. New plans were then introduced to the community as “board initiatives.” Other stakeholders were unable to exploit the typical divisions that exist in many districts between the board and staff.
A district’s environment includes all the external factors that can have an impact on strategy, operations, and performance. The environment in which public school districts operate is especially complex and dynamic, and includes public and private funding sources, the political and policy context at the city, state, and national levels, and the characteristics of a particular community.
While district leaders have little direct control over their environment, they must nevertheless spend significant time informing and guiding influential parties. Careful investment of time and attention can increase political and financial support for their strategy.
For instance, schools frequently feel pressure to accept grants from private foundations, even when their agendas are not aligned with the district strategy. Thomas Payzant, former superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, would only accept grants from philanthropic sources that supported the district’s strategy, which focused on improving instruction and engaging families and communities. He raised almost $100 million during his 10-year tenure, often convincing potential supporters to shift their attention to the district’s focus.
The PELP Coherence Framework is designed to focus the attention of public school district leaders on the central problem of increasing the achievement of all students. It helps ensure that the key actions and elements of a district work in concert with one another in support of their strategy. The framework can be useful when evaluating or changing a current strategy, as well as when developing a new one. It provides a common language and consistent way to address the work of achieving organizational coherence. The PELP Coherence Framework has proved to be a useful tool for public education leaders as they strive to create high-performing school districts that are responsive to the increasing external demands for accountability and the enduring needs of students.
Adapted from Managing School Districts for High Performance: Cases in Public Education Leadership, edited by Stacey Childress, Richard F. Elmore, Allen S. Grossman, and Susan Moore Johnson (Harvard Education Press, 2007). Stacey Childress is a lecturer at Harvard Business School. Richard F. Elmore is the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Allen S. Grossman is the MBA Class of 1957 Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. Susan Moore Johnson is the Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.