01 Jun 2013
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Minding The Gap

An innovative HBS/HGSE project designed to help advance urban school achievement marks a decade of progress
by Deborah Blagg

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A grizzled Baltimore cabbie does a double take when an out-of-town visitor requests a ride to 3220 The Alameda at the corner of 33rd Street. "That neighborhood?" he queries in a thick Russian accent. "Not good." Well outside the boundary of Inner Harbor tourist attractions, the northeast Baltimore district in question admittedly shares the city's well-publicized reputation for crime and other urban woes.

But the improbably massive, Gothic-style building on a hilltop at 3220 The Alameda rises far above its gritty surroundings, as does the reputation of the school it houses. In an urban school system that has struggled for decades, Baltimore City College high school (enrollment 1,300, drawn from neighborhoods across Baltimore, with competitive admissions) is annually ranked among the best public schools in the United States. This year, 96 percent of the school's graduates are college bound, many to elite institutions in the United States and abroad.

Principal Cindy Harcum is one reason why. Focused and pragmatic, she is deeply committed to across-the-board success at a school where 93 percent of students are African American, and 65 percent are from economic backgrounds that qualify them for free or reduced school lunches. Harcum is a 1988 graduate, a former teacher, and a former assistant principal of the school she now leads, an institution with a proud, 174-year history that counts a constellation of distinguished professionals, political leaders, judges, philanthropists, and a Pulitzer Prize winner among its devoted alumni.

For the past two years, Harcum has been selected by Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso for a prized spot on the team that represents the district at a weeklong summer institute run by Harvard's Public Education Leadership Project (PELP). Harcum's assessment of the program—which seeks to turn best practice in public school management into common practice across school systems—is informed by a realistic view of the difficulty of that task. "If you think PELP will give you all the answers," she observes, "that's not what it's about."

Sitting in a conference room across the hall from the school's bustling main office, Harcum elaborates. "The professors at Harvard don't try to tell us how to run our schools like a business. They push us to consider possible applications of business models and methods in our work, but they understand that the organizational complexities we face create unique leadership challenges."

Searching for System-Wide Solutions

Baltimore City College's stellar education outcomes stand in sharp contrast to those of schools with similar racial and economic profiles. Statistics from across the United States indicate that by age nine, African American and Hispanic students are 20 to 30 points below proficient cut off scores in math and reading. The high-school graduation rate in the 50 largest US cities is about 53 percent. Nationwide, low-income students are seven times less likely to graduate from college than middle-class and affluent kids.

PELP demonstrates the immediate impact of a class gift. Funded by the 40th Reunion gift from the HBS Class of 1963, PELP was launched in 2003 to see if HBS could help narrow the urban school achievement gap with a two-pronged approach of knowledge development and leadership development. The program is a joint venture with the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), originally in partnership with 9 large, urban school districts. (That number has since grown to 21.) "One of the distinctive aspects of PELP is the belief that strengthening leadership and managerial skills at the district level is critical to improving public education," explains Senior Lecturer and William Henry Bloomberg Fellow John Kim, who will take over as PELP's cochair when HBS professor Allen Grossman retires from the faculty this month.

Grossman, the School's MBA Class of 1957 Professor of Management Practice, was a driving force in PELP's creation. He stresses that raising educational outcome­­s across the board is at the heart of the initiative's mission. "The challenge is to build great schools that add up to great school systems," he notes. "When we first looked at the sector, we realized almost every district had some great schools and every school had some great classrooms, but no urban district had a portfolio—a system—of great schools. From the outset, our goal has been to change that reality."

Remarkably, in a large, decentralized institution like Harvard where cross-school initiatives present significant challenges, PELP has successfully harnessed the distinctive competencies of both HBS and HGSE. "One of the reasons the collaboration has worked is that we need each other," says Susan Moore Johnson, the Jerome T. Murphy Professor in Education at HGSE and PELP's cochair since 2007. "Without the Business School's management knowledge, resources, and facilities, HGSE couldn't do this. But without the Ed School's knowledge about instruction, school organization, union leaders, and the central office-school interface, HBS couldn't connect with practitioners." Among the PELP faculty, Johnson emphasizes, "there is respect for what each of the Harvard schools brings to the table."

Measurable Success

Some measures of PELP's success to date are quantifiable. PELP's summer institute, a centerpiece of the project, has brought nearly 450 district leaders—superintendents, principals, staff, teachers, community liaisons, and union leaders—to the HBS campus from across the United States. Those participants share responsibility for 1.5 million students, the majority Hispanic or African American, from economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Past participants include some of the nation's most influential education leaders, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who first attended PELP in 2003 when he was CEO of Chicago's public schools.

The popular program engages eight-person district teams in an intensive learning experience that includes analyses of education- and business-based cases, group study with peers from other districts, and the development of specific strategic improvement plans for the coming year. Each team brings a real-world "problem of practice" to tackle at the session and leaves at the end of the week with specific action steps.

Articles, case studies, and books extend PELP's reach even further. "How to Manage Urban School Districts," for example, a best-selling 2006 Harvard Business Review article written by PELP faculty, has sold 6,000 copies and was made available free of charge to educators in 2012. PELP researchers have written 62 cases and notes on topics such as compensation reform, resource alignment, student-weighted formulas, and data-driven decision-making, which have sold roughly 45,000 copies.

These resources are used by district leaders nationwide for professional development training, as well as in courses at HGSE, HBS, and other academic institutions. At HGSE, for instance, a casebook coauthored by PELP faculty, Managing School Districts for High Performance, is required reading for a course on reform in urban school districts and schools. And at HBS, the second-year MBA course Entrepreneurship in Education Reform, taught by John Kim, consistently incorporates PELP-developed cases.

PELP in Action

Less quantifiable, but arguably more important, is evidence that PELP is influencing practice. PELP faculty often point to the practical applications of the "Coherence Framework," a conceptual tool that helps district leaders develop and implement district-wide strategies that support the work of teachers and learners in the classroom. "When we visit districts," reports HGSE professor and PELP faculty member Monica Higgins (PhDOB 1995), "we literally see the PELP Coherence Framework posted on the walls in the central office and in the schools. People are taking PELP tools and adapting them to their own contexts. We're really transforming their thinking."

Feedback from PELP participants supports that assessment. For istance, the Los Angeles Unified School District—the second-largest district in the nation—recently enacted a strategic plan for its more than 900 schools and 187 public charter schools that is based on PELP's Coherence Framework. Public school districts such as Baltimore City, Gwinnett County in Georgia, and Montgomery County in Maryland credit PELP with helping to design and implement strategies that have led to significantly higher performance.

In Montgomery County, district leaders designed a process for analyzing data, monitoring progress, identifying best practices, and making and implementing decisions with system-wide outcomes that is based on a case about a successful NYPD reform initiative taught at PELP. The county is also one of the few large districts in the nation to significantly close the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students and their nonminority peers over the last 10 years. "We did a very powerful case on their work," shares PELP's lead researcher Geoff Marietta (MBA 2007), a doctoral candidate at HGSE. "Participants tell us that the case prompts conversations about race, student achievement, and accountability that they've never been able to have in their districts before."

Baltimore principal Cindy Harcum credits her exposure to business cases with opening new ways of approaching intransigent problems. "Prioritizing stakeholder needs and interests is my biggest management challenge," she says. "The business-based cases are helpful because you're analyzing problems outside your normal sphere, where the stakeholders are not your stakeholders. It frees you up to think more creatively."

Harcum's boss, Andrés Alonso, who holds a JD and an EdD from Harvard, has led his district's team at PELP's summer institute since 2008—a year after he became CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. A visionary administrator whose collaborative, all-parties-at-the-table approach to addressing the district's failures has been held up as a model for other cities, Alonso underscores the iterative process required to effect system-wide improvement. "My first year at PELP, we were launching a huge reform effort that pushed resources into schools. We were wrestling with broad questions of roles, responsibilities, and boundaries. "Every year since," he says, "we've returned to Harvard with some dimension of implementing reform. But our focus now is more specific: communication, project management, and getting buy-in from our colleagues. Each year when we come back, we have moved forward."

Scaling Up

As PELP moves forward to its second decade, John Kim notes that the project's success has created new challenges. "Word's gotten out," he says. "Right now, we're oversubscribed and looking to scale our impact. There are nearly 15,000 school districts in the United States. How do we reach a larger subset of them? We also want to collaborate with other executive programs at HBS and HGSE and would like to formalize the network of PELP participants to facilitate continual interaction and knowledge-sharing."

Reflecting on the project's progress, Allen Grossman is struck by the increased activity around education management at HBS, particularly the interest among MBAs like lead researcher Geoff Marietta. "PELP has established our credibility when it comes to improving public education. People like Geoff, who want to pursue careers in education management, are now choosing Harvard's MBA Program.

"We've demonstrated that HBS has the capacity, together with HGSE, to make a difference in a new and vital management arena," he continues. "The challenge we've set for PELP is significant, but so is our proven power to drive performance in this field."

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