Harvard Business School » Social Enterprise » Blog » Faculty Insights: Public Education Leadership Project
Impact Insights

Faculty Insights: Public Education Leadership Project

By: Andres Alonso & John J-H Kim 16 May 2019

The Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University (PELP) is a joint initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Business School, with a mission to improve the management and leadership competencies of public school leaders in order to drive greater educational outcomes. The program is led by faculty Co-Chairs John J-H Kim and Andrés Alonso.

John J-H Kim is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School where he teaches the Social Innovation Lab, and created and teaches the second-year MBA course Entrepreneurship and Technology Innovations in Education. He also founded and leads District Management Group, a firm that partners with school districts to help them implement educational and management best practices. Andrés Alonso is Visiting Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he contributes to leadership programs such as the Doctorate in Educational Leadership and the Certificate for Advanced Education Leadership (CAEL). He is a former CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools and deputy chancellor at New York City DOE.

We asked Professors Alonso and Kim to share some thoughts with Impact Insights on K-12 education.

How does PELP seek to have impact in the Public Education Sector?

[JK] In working with public school systems around the country, I came to appreciate the enormously challenging leadership task facing our public education leaders: School district superintendents and school principals have to figure out how to implement the latest pedagogical approaches, help students with rising needs such as the increasing number of English Language Learners, meet rising academic standards, close the achievement gap between students from rich and poor backgrounds as well as between white students and African-American/LatinX students and do this in a setting that has not changed a lot in the past several decades.

One of the key ways to meet this complex challenge is by combining the best educational methods with latest management practices. We start by helping school district leaders examine if their organizations are well-aligned to support the teaching and learning happening in the classroom. Do they have good teacher development and support systems? Have they deployed data systems that will provide information on how students are progressing? Are they assessing the effectiveness and efficiency of various programs and ensuring how scarce resources are being used? Are the cultural aspects of the school and district supporting their goals? In essence, we seek to help school and district leaders build a coherent system to help them lead what is inherently a very complex mission.

How did you first become interested in leadership in public education?

[JK] My interest in public education derives from my own personal experience immigrating from Korea when I was seven years old and the incredible opportunities I was afforded through a strong education. Since graduating from Harvard College and HBS, I have started and led several organizations in the education sector such as a company providing tutoring services to students who come from under privileged backgrounds, providing management consulting support to school district leaders, and a large charter school network with more than 20,000 students in ten states. In all these experiences, I discovered that educators who integrated exceptional leadership skills produced the best long-term results.

[AA] Like John, I was an immigrant who made it in part because of what public schools did for me. I was originally a lawyer. While reconsidering direction, I agreed to teach at a school for emotionally disturbed adolescents for one year. I ended up doing it for more than a decade. At some point, I started asking myself about impact, and about the consequences of decisions about my students made outside the school. That led me to system level leadership, and later to Harvard and to PELP, where we fundamentally seek to make leaders smarter in making very complex decisions.

How did you get involved in PELP? 

[JK] One of the reasons why I was so excited about joining the HBS faculty in 2011 was because of the opportunity to contribute to PELP. Ever since it was founded in 2004, PELP has always had one co-chair from the Graduate School of Education and one from HBS. This interdisciplinary approach has been enormously beneficial and important since the two schools can combine their respective expertise and research to create a program that is well-suited to the challenges in the public education sector.

I became co-chair in 2013. Andres became co-chair for HGSE in 2015. Since that time, we have worked together to increase the impact that PELP can have on the participants and the sector at large. Each summer, twelve large urban school district teams of eight participants arrive at Harvard for an intensive week of learning in the classroom, working on a specific problem of practice they select facilitated by an EdLD student from HGSE, giving and receiving feedback with other districts and then returning home energized to put their learnings to work for the rest of the year.

In addition, we have also been researching and supporting the writing of cases that are widely used by school districts around the country. I am very pleased by the fact that with the support of HBS and HGSE along with the authors, we can provide all the PELP cases and articles free of charge. This is one small way that we hope to support the progress of the entire sector.

[AA] I was a participant as a superintendent for five consecutive years. When I considered moving on and Harvard approached me, leading PELP was a big factor in my agreeing to teach at HGSE. It was quite simply the best learning opportunity for me and my team, and probably the only chance we had to look deeply into our practices outside a context of constant distraction.

What do participants experience in the PELP Summer Institute? What value do they gain from the experience? 

[AA] What I found most extraordinary was the ability to focus on a problem of practice along with a dedicated team, away from distractions, and really dig into root causes and our reality while thinking about how we did the work and why, what made sense and didn’t, what was coherent and incoherent in how we approached problems. And then seeing other districts and leaders wrestle with some of the same problems we faced, and how they responded to those problems.

Districts come with diverse teams of eight, including the superintendent. We ask them to be very thoughtful about the composition of the teams in relation to the problem they are tackling. We try to stretch their thinking through cases that are sometimes outside of the sector. And then we take them through a problem-solving arc that includes receiving feedback from other peer districts at three different points during the institute. We later bring those peer districts together virtually twice more during the year, to discuss implementation and next steps.

What changes have you seen over the years in public education? What do you see on the horizon?

[AA] The policy environment has been shifting in the last decade, and districts are constantly adjusting to those external shifts, whether test-based accountability, or new standards, or the push toward evaluation frameworks and the call for effectiveness under NCLB, or the opening to competition in the sector and focus on race and culture of the more recent past. There is increasing awareness that schools are not doing what they can with the shifts in technology in the larger society. But what has been consistent and will become even more important is the need to close achievement gaps in every urban district. The transparency, moral mandate, and concern that the need outstrips the organization capacity of the participants are not going away unless we find solutions that work, together.

Designed for leaders from U.S.-based urban school systems, the PELP Summer Institute is held annually in July. To learn more about the program, visit the Public Education Leadership Project website.