Mission & Impact

To improve the management and leadership competencies of public school leaders in order to drive greater educational outcomes.  To truly serve all students and meet the demands of the new accountability environment, leaders at all levels of a school district must work to ensure that all students have rich learning opportunities and achieve at high levels throughout a system of schools.

View: Extending and Expanding the Impact into the Second Decade 

     Our Impact

Our Origins

While there are excellent schools in struggling districts and outstanding classrooms in underperforming schools, there are no high-performing urban districts. The reality is that 49.4 million students are educated across 15,000 urban districts in the United States. K-12 public education is in crisis and the numbers alone portray a troubled system:

  • Only about 70% of U.S. students graduate from high school.
  • Low-income students are seven times less likely to graduate from college than middle class and affluent students.
  • By age nine, many African American and Latino students are already three grade levels behind in reading and math, and only half of those students will obtain a high school diploma. Those students who do receive their diploma read at an 8th grade level on average.

Three key factors heighten the level of concern many educators feel:

  • The rapid pace of economic change.
  • A growing awareness that academic skills and knowledge increase a young person’s chances of leading a productive life.
  • The recognition that a poorly educated citizenry erodes not only the quality of a country’s workforce and its competitiveness, but undermines the potential of our democracy.

In the fall of 2003, faculty and staff from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Harvard Business School (HBS) joined together to examine how the art and science of management could help public schools improve student performance. The Public Education Leadership Project evolved from that question.

Through partnerships with nine urban school districts, the PELP team and district leaders identified five key management challenges:

  • Implementing a district-wide strategy when schools have different characteristics.
  • Creating and achieving a coherent organizational design in support of the strategy.
  • Developing and managing human capital.
  • Allocating resources in alignment with the strategy.
  • Using performance data to guide decisions and to create accountability.

What we have learned so far:

We know that managerial challenges are not independent of each other. The PELP Coherence Framework illustrates that all organizations are integrated systems with interdependent parts. To achieve success, all elements must directly link to the work of teachers and students in the classroom. PELP believes that a coherent strategy and a focus on the implementation of that strategy at all levels of an organization can improve student achievement across a district.

School districts are highly complex organizations and act in very different ways than businesses. But when we focused on the similarities between high-performing businesses and high-performing school systems, we found that effective leadership and management are linked to high-performance both in a thriving business and in a thriving urban school district.

To learn more about PELP findings, visit our Research/Resources page for a list of articles and case studies discussing a range of public education leadership topics.

Our Impact

  • Past Participants include [40] distinct large urban districts in 24 states representing over 4.2 million students [Anne Arundel County (MD); Austin ISD (TX); Baltimore City (MD); Baltimore County (MD); Birmingham (AL); Boston (MA); Charleston County (SC); Chicago (IL); Clark County (NV); Cleveland Metro (OH); DeKalb County (GA); Denver (CO); District of Columbia (DC); Ferguson-Florissant (MO); Fresno USD (CA); Guilford County (NC); Gwinnett County (GA); Harrisburg (PA); Jefferson County (KY); Knox County (TN); Los Angeles USD (CA); Madison Metro (WI); Memphis City (TN); Mesa (AZ); Milwaukee (WI); Minneapolis (MN); Montgomery County (MD); Nashville (TN); Orange County (FL); Philadelphia (PA); Prince George’s County (MD); Providence (RI); Rochester (NY); Sacramento City USD (CA); St. Louis (MO); San Antonio ISD (TX); San Diego USD (CA); San Francisco USD (CA); Santa Fe (NM); Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (NC)]

  • Testimonials
    "The environment at PELP creates a unique and special forum for school district leaders. The most valuable elements of the program are the experiences with world-class faculty, time together as a district team, and time with other districts – away from the day-to-day demands of our district jobs. The program helped us define what success would look like and got us thinking about goals and strategy."  –  US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (prior PELP participant as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools)

    “The PELP institute is one of the most dynamic professional learning experiences that I’ve been involved with. And I would recommend it to any superintendent, or school leader, or district office person.” – J. Alvin Wilbanks, CEO/Superintendent, Gwinnett County Public Schools

    “It’s been like no other professional development that I experienced in terms of the opportunity to work with a team. The potential for that team to grow. The potential for that team to then go back to the district and teach others a different way of thinking, a different way of approaching the problems of the work.” – Andres Alonso, CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools 

Coherence Framework

We developed the PELP Coherence Framework to help leaders recognize the interdependence of various aspects of their school district – its culture, systems and structures, resources, stakeholder relationships, and environment – and to understand how they reinforce one another to support the implementation of an improvement strategy. The framework has roots in what business has taught us about organizational alignment. However, that knowledge has been elaborated by what we know about reform in education. Throughout its development, the framework has been informed by our interactions with senior leaders of large urban districts who face unique managerial challenges because of the size and complexity of their school systems, and often because of the poverty of the communities they serve as well. Putting a district-wide strategy into practice requires building a coherent organization that connects to teachers’ work in classrooms and enables people at all levels to carry out their part of the strategy. The framework identifies the organizational elements critical to high performance and poses a series of diagnostic questions about each element, all in an effort to bring them into coherence with the strategy and with each other.

The framework assists with achieving and sustaining coherence by:

  • Connecting the instructional core with a district-wide strategy for improvement.
  • Highlighting district elements that can support or hinder effective implementation.
  • Identifying interdependencies among district elements.
  • Recognizing forces in the environment that have an impact on the implementation of strategy.

Key framework elements include:

Adapted from Tushman and O'Reilly's Congruence Model, 2002

Instructional core: The core includes three interdependent components: teachers' knowledge and skill, students' engagement in their own learning, and academically challenging content.

Theory of Change: The organization's belief about the relationships between certain actions and desired outcomes, often phrased as an "if… then…" statement. This theory links the mission of increased performance for all students to the strategy the organization will use to achieve that goal.

Strategy: A coherent set of actions a district deliberately undertakes to strengthen the instructional core with the objective of raising student performance district-wide. Gaining coherence among actions at the district, school, and classroom levels will make a district's chosen strategy more scalable and sustainable.

Stakeholders: The people and groups inside and outside of the district - district and school staff, governing bodies, unions and associations, parents and parent organizations, civic and community leaders and organizations.

Culture: The predominant norms, values, and attitudes that define and drive behavior in the district.

Structure: Structures help define how the work of the district gets done. It includes how people are organized, who has responsibility and accountability for results, and who makes or influences decisions. Structures can be both formal (deliberately established organizational forms) and informal (the way decisions get made or the way people work and interact outside of formal channels).

Systems: School districts manage themselves through a variety of systems, which are the processes and procedures through which work gets done. Systems are built around such important functions as career development and promotion, compensation, student assignment, resource allocation, organizational learning, and measurement and accountability. Most practically, systems help people feel like they do not have to "reinvent the wheel" when they need to get an important, and often multi-step, task done.

Resources: Managing the flow of financial resources throughout the organization is important, but resources also include people and physical assets such as technology and data. When school districts carefully manage their most valuable resource--people--and understand what investments in technology and data systems are necessary to better support teaching and learning, the entire organization is brought closer to coherence.

Environment: A district's environment includes all the external factors that can have an impact on strategy, operations, and performance (i.e. regulations and statutes, contracts, funding and politics).