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Fall 2013

PELP a Decade Later

PELPIllustration by Daniel Vasconcellos

How do you measure impact? There are times when you can say you did A and as a result, B happened. But impact is hard to measure, in part because it's hard to define.

Ten years after the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) began as a collaboration between the Ed School and the Harvard Business School to see how business strategies could be used to help public schools improve student performance, what has been the program's impact?

Harvard Business School Professor Allen Grossman, who has been a faculty member of the project since it started, has no problem answering that question.

"PELP played an important role in underscoring the idea that the quality of a district's management and leadership is directly linked to its ability to improve educational outcomes for the majority of its students," he says. "While the context for school districts is considerably different than in business, those same elements must be in place for success." In other words, in order to be effective, whether a company or a school, the leadership has to be strong."

Grossman says one great example of this comes out of the Baltimore City Public School district, which participated for five years in the PELP summer program.

"Baltimore City Public Schools had dismal results for years and was considered a lost cause by many until [Professor] Andrés Alonso, [Ed.M.'99, Ed.D.'06] took over as superintendent," he says. "He developed a focused improvement strategy, put a team in place that could deliver on the strategy, and built a coherent organization to drive the strategy. This is not unlike what an excellent business leader would do to improve a company. The result for Baltimore City Schools? Improved student performance."

Professor Susan Moore Johnson, M.A.T.'69, Ed.D.'81, faculty cochair of PELP, says another way the program has made an major impact — less tangible than performance measures, but nonetheless critical — is in the deep, strong connections created within and between the 20 large urban districts that have participated over the years.

"Superintendents might know each other, but what we've done is built a network, not just with superintendents, but also with leadership teams within the districts," she says. Districts send teams of eight, not individuals. Teams live and work together for a week in the summer. During the rest of the year, PELP faculty produce related research and are available to the participants for guidance and ideas.

The result, Moore Johnson says, is that best practices on how to effectively lead and manage urban school districts are being shared and are spreading in meetings, at conferences, and online. For example, case studies, which are an important part of the PELP summer program, are available, for free, to the public, and have been used in classes at the Ed School and at the Business School. Students in the Ed.L.D. Program are also starting to find placements for their third-year residencies in PELP districts.

Participant Meria Carstarphen, Ed.M.'99, Ed.D.'02, superintendent of schools in Austin, Tex., says that she continues using the case studies — and the connection to PELP faculty — when she returns to her district.

"It's one of those relationships where, four months later, I can pick up the phone and call one of the professors and say, 'We're really trying to use this case with our teams. These are the kinds of questions that are coming up. Can you advise me on how to do a better job of facilitating our organization through this discussion?'"

Another factor in the program's longevity is that the work done during the summer isn't just theoretical — it focuses on real issues being faced by districts.

Tom Boasberg, superintendent of schools in Denver, has attended the program five times with his teams. Each year, they come ready to tackle an actual problem.

"It's something we really want to focus on as a team, to go in depth on, have probing and challenging discussions about," he says, "and then be able to take that back as a team to our district and share our thoughts with other members of the leadership team. It allows us the time and the space to go deeper in a more thoughtful way."

Having that time and space is unique, says Lecturer Karen Mapp, Ed.M.'93, Ed.D.'99, who participated that first year, in 2003, when she was deputy superintendent for family and community engagement for the city of Boston.

"You rarely have time to sit down and really think about solving a problem of practice," she says. "Most of the time, you're putting out fires as they are presented to you. To have the time to be strategic and to have the tools to be strategic is extraordinary."

To read a case study: http://pelp.fas.harvard.edu/book/pelp-cases