100 STORIES OF IMPACT

Partnership for Impact

PELP statistic

As school districts faced the daunting challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, they turned to Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) for insights. And, as they have since 2003, the faculty leadership of PELP responded — convening three strategy sessions during the summer of 2020 to support these districts through these most difficult times.


With an innovative model to engage leadership teams, the Public Education Leadership Project has provided tools and strategies to  enable public school districts to address their specific challenges more effectively.


For nearly two decades, PELP has served as a resource for leadership development, case studies, and connections with colleagues across the country. Founded in 2003 by faculty from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and Harvard Business School (HBS), PELP brought an innovative model for engaging district leadership teams. Working in collaboration with nine urban school districts, the faculty of HGSE and HBS identified five key management challenges — implementing a district-wide strategy, achieving a coherent organizational design, developing human capital, allocating resources, and using data to drive decisions — and set out to enable district leadership teams to address these challenges more effectively.

The PELP Coherence Framework eventually emerged as a foundational element of the project. This framework connects the instructional core — the relationship between the student, the teacher, and the content — to a district-wide strategy for improvement. It highlights the interdependencies within a district and helps to identify ways to bring these elements into alignment.

The core experience of the PELP model is an executive education program led by faculty from HGSE and HBS. One of the program’s key success factors is that district leadership teams attend as a group of eight, including the superintendent. These teams bring with them a high-priority problem of practice and emerge from the week-long experience with an action plan to implement in their district.

PELP has now partnered with 46 school districts from across 25 states that represent more than five million students in annual enrollment; several districts have participated in the network for multiple years. Prior to becoming the United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan led a team to PELP as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. “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,” he said. “The program helped us define what success would look like and got us thinking about goals and strategy.”

Faculty from both schools have been integrally involved in developing the PELP Coherence Framework, writing case studies, and teaching in the executive education program. The Harvard Education Press published a book of PELP case studies, Managing School Districts for High Performance, edited by Professors Susan Moore Johnson and Richard Elmore of HGSE and Allen Grossman and Stacey Childress of HBS. In total, more than 60 case studies have been developed through PELP and made available to the field.

“The PELP Project afforded our district a valuable opportunity to not only learn from and strategize with world class faculty, but it also allowed us to strengthen our relationships with colleagues from throughout the country,” says Janice Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. “This dynamic experience positioned our organization to develop a comprehensive plan of action to positively impact the educational outcomes and lives of our students and families."  

The partnership among HGSE and HBS faculty was also instrumental in two current collaborations: HGSE’s Doctorate in Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) and the Certificate in School Management and Leadership, an online professional education program. PELP continues to provide district leadership teams from across the country with timely and relevant experiences and resources, exemplified by this summer’s virtual strategy sessions.

Says HGSE's Jennifer Cheatham, who co-chairs PELP with HBS's John Jong-Hyun Kim: “With an eye toward both coherence and equity, PELP will work diligently to support district leadership teams across the U.S. in their strategic efforts to define and achieve high performance that benefits every child.” – Keith Collar

Learn More and Connect

Explore the PELP Coherence Framework.

Read about the history and founding of PELP, and the HBS Class of 1963 donation that helped launch it.

Learn more about the Doctorate in Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) and the Certificate in School Management and Leadership programs.

Listen to conversation with Dr. Janice Jackson on the Harvard EdCast.