01 Dec 2003

Business Answers the Call

Managerial Expertise Aids Education Reform
Re: Shannon Kete (MBA 2000); Monique Epps (MBA 2000); Stig Leschly (MBA 1997); Monique Thompson (MBA 1993); Ben Fenton (MBA 2000)
by Garry Emmons


Despite increased attention to public education in recent years, today’s schools are still not producing graduates equipped to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy, many business leaders contend. Most Americans seem to agree. Although they generally approve of their own local schools, they give the nation’s schools a grade of C or below. That mix of approval locally and misgivings nationally translates into an attitude of “Let’s work to improve the model we’re used to,” according to a September Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll. The survey’s findings indicate that Americans, by substantial margins, want reform to be instituted through the familiar public-school structure.

For their part, HBS graduates have long been involved in various education initiatives and reform efforts. Alumni have created and funded national programs to train and support school administrators and teachers, have founded schools, and have gotten their companies involved in tutoring and other in-school activities in their local communities. Scores of alumni serve on their local school boards or work with education-related organizations and initiatives. And, in a significant development, many recent HBS graduates have shown increasing interest in carving out careers in these areas, while other alumni often look to make contributions following rewarding private-sector careers.

Innovative Leadership

One such individual is Donald P. Nielsen (MBA 1963). After a successful career as cofounder and president of Hazleton Laboratories Corporation, a Virginia research and laboratory-services company, Nielsen returned to his native Washington State. “I had retired early and decided to devote the balance of my working life to something totally different,” he says. Nielsen spent two years reading up on education issues, traveling to nineteen states, visiting more than one hundred schools, and speaking with federal and state officials, union representatives, and education think tanks. “I talked to anybody and everybody,” Nielsen recalls. “From that odyssey, I concluded that to make a difference you had to get inside the system.”

Nielsen decided to run for the Seattle school board and was elected in 1993. For the next eight years, he and other reformers on the board pushed through some remarkable changes, making Seattle one of the most innovative urban school systems in the country. The board put together an ambitious agenda for change and hired a charismatic leader named John Stanford, a former Army major general with no ed-ucation administration experience, to be superintendent. Stanford would die tragically of leukemia three years later. But by dint of his popularity, dedication, and force of personality, coupled with the leadership of his successor, a former investment banker, extraordinary structural changes were made in the Seattle system.

Nielsen retired from the school board in 2001 but remains active with a community organization that assists the public-school system. He cites several important lessons from his school-board service: “Without innovative leadership, nothing gets done. We wanted a nontraditional change agent, so we went after the general and hired him. If you have the right people as superintendent and principal, 95 percent of the other issues will start to be rectified.” Major changes included individualizing resource allocation and basing it on a child’s educational needs (“In Seattle, the schools with the smallest classes, the most teachers, and the most resources are the ones with the kids who are most difficult to educate”); installing standards for every grade K–10, and recognizing that some students need a longer day or extended school year to meet those requirements; decentralizing decision-making and removing seniority from the union contract in the hiring of teachers; eliminating mandatory busing and instituting school choice, giving a preference to neighborhood schools.

For Nielsen, the key to meaningful ed-ucation reform is getting topflight candidates to run for school boards. “There is no more important position from which to transform a school system than the school board. The board makes it possible to hire a first-class superintendent. Whether that individual is an educator or not doesn’t matter — leadership is what counts.”

Resident Executives

Trying to achieve similar change in the New York City school system is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (MBA 1966) who was granted control of the New York system by the state legislature in 2002. Bloomberg hired Joel I. Klein, the former Justice Department official who prosecuted the Microsoft antitrust case, as chancellor of his new Department of Education. The mayor has said one of his top priorities is reform of the New York system, the nation’s largest with 1.1 million students, some 80,000 teachers, and an annual budget of more than $12 billion.

Bloomberg’s commitment to change helped convince Shannon D. Kete (MBA 2000) to make the leap from investment banking into the public sector last February. Kete, who had enrolled at HBS to acquire skills to use in the social sector, was quickly given a major role implementing an important new “customer service” outreach to parents. Utilizing input from principals and parents, a “parent coordinator” was hired for every one of the city’s 1,200 public schools to help parents more successfully navigate the system and to promote greater parental participation in the schools.

“This was essentially a start-up effort within the department,” Kete says. “The hiring process was managed not by the districts but at each of the city’s schools, something without precedent in New York. The reform philosophy was to empower principals at the school level, so the challenge was to create the operations to match.” Kete has recently been chosen for the selective two-year “resident executive” program of the nonprofit Broad Foundation, whose goal is to attract MBAs to help “dramatically increase student achievement in New York City through improved management of the district’s resources.”

Another Broad resident executive is Monique N. Epps (MBA 2000), who left a position with the National Basketball Association “to fulfill my passion of working in education.” For the Oakland, California, Unified School District (OUSD), Epps is part of a team that is decentralizing the OUSD’s budgeting process. She is also performing analyses and reviews of special-education expen-ditures and policies regarding the closing or consolidation of school sites. Observes Epps, “Leadership and high levels of performance in central administration, individual schools, school boards, and unions are needed here and in all urban school districts. Schools need to be academically rigorous, equality-oriented, community-driven, and focused on teaching and learning.” Epps hopes one day to implement these sorts of changes in her hometown of East Saint Louis, Illinois, “one of the most impoverished cities in the country, where the children have been neglected for far too long.”

A People-Intensive Business

One HBS graduate with broad experience in both the practical and the research sides of education reform is Stig Leschly (MBA 1997, JD 1998). A former assistant principal at St. Mark the Evangelist School in Harlem, Leschly later founded Exchange.com, an online marketplace for rare and hard-to-find consumer products. When his company was purchased by Amazon.com in 1999, CEO Leschly moved into an executive role at Amazon, reporting to Jeff Bezos. Now a lecturer at HBS, Leschly is researching the applicability and adaptability of private-sector management practices and theory to educational reform. In addition to The Entrepreneurial Manager, a required MBA course, he teaches a second-year elective, Entrepreneurship in Education Reform. The course attracts eighty to one hundred students, an indication of the level of interest younger MBAs have in education, either as a possible career or as a pro bono activity after they graduate. Leschly is also a core faculty member and instructor in the new Public Education Leadership Project (see sidebar).

“What business managers and leaders most have to share with education officials lies in the domain of organizational behavior and human resources,” says Leschly. “Education is a people-intensive activity, and businesses know how to optimize a workforce and motivate people. When you think of it, that’s the challenge for the superintendent of a large city school system, or the head of a charter school —‘How do I take care of and support my people?’ ”

The best of what is known from management studies and experience, Leschly argues, can certainly be of value to senior-level managers in urban school districts. However, for any kind of management-expertise transfer to be successful, he adds, it is necessary to first understand the idiosyncrasies — political, regulatory, pedagogical, and sociological — of the public- education sector. Says Leschly, “Find a school that resonates with you and go help. Coach, advise, fundraise, run for school board, train yourself to operate a school, or try to influence policy. There are many ways to get involved in, and to educate yourself about, your local public schools.”

Leaders for Tomorrow

Monique M. Burns (MBA 1993) got involved in an entrepreneurial way — she cofounded New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS), a national nonprofit that is helping to develop the next generation of urban school principals. NLNS was launched from a business plan submitted to the 2000 HBS Business Plan Contest by Burns, Benjamin G. Fenton (MBA 2000) and Harvard grad student Jon Schnur. All currently serve as NLNS executives, with Burns spending the last three years as president and chief curriculum officer. To date, the organization has recruited, trained, and supported one hundred principals (for New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., public schools and Aspire Public Schools in California). NLNS is well on its way to its goal of training two thousand new leaders to serve some one million urban children.

Burns became interested in education when she volunteered to tutor children at Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project while working at Quaker Oats in brand management. Her interest piqued, she changed industries, went to work for superintendents in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and then returned to Harvard, this time enrolling at the Graduate School of Education. At HGSE, Burns researched what principals must know — and be able to do — to ensure that all children can reach high levels of achievement.

“My focus at NLNS is on building the managerial and instructional leadership skills necessary for a principal to be truly successful,” says Burns. “Without these capabilities, no matter how well-intentioned the principal, change and reform won’t happen.”

NLNS Fellows, or principals-in-training, have a broad range of professional experiences, including a minimum of two years’ classroom teaching, Burns explains. Fellows also must be dedicated to the belief that all children deserve and can achieve academic excellence. For thirteen months, Fellows undergo intensive, skill-focused training in instructional and managerial leadership and practice their new skills in a medical-style residency under the supervision of an experienced urban principal. Burns observes, “Today’s principals need control of their budget, curriculum, and staff and the skills to manage these resources.”

For Burns and the other alumni in these pages, as well as other involved HBS graduates, public education remains a complex and highly charged issue. Stig Leschly cites labor markets, public finance, and managerial autonomy for principals as examples of the kinds of questions the sector faces. “Public education is always going to present some difficult challenges,” he asserts, “because schools inherit all of society’s ills and have to deal with them. What I think we can contribute is a useful set of managerial and leadership practices. We can then help articulate the deeper reforms that will make it possible for those practices to be more widely adopted.

“Our task,” Leschly concludes, “is to study and influence how these urban school systems are managed and led. In the end, that should help those who make laws and policies to identify promising structural reforms, all in support of improved organizational management and leadership in public education.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1963, Section G
Class of MBA 1966, Section F
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