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.