Arts & Culture

In pursuit of everyday excellence

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HBS professors offer advice for struggling school districts

What are two Harvard Business School professors doing writing a book on education?

Stacey M. Childress and David A. Thomas helped create the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) with the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2003 — an initiative that creates and disseminates knowledge about how to manage urban school districts — which eventually led them, of all places, to Montgomery County, Maryland.

“The Montgomery County Public Schools [MCPS] was one of our founding districts, so we’ve been following their work for a number of years,” said Childress, one of the Business School authors of “Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools.” Thomas is the other, and Denis P. Doyle, the third co-author, is a recognized authority on education policy.

The MCPS — located in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the 16th-largest school system in the United States — needed help. The disparities between white students and African-American and Hispanic students were stunning, and the statistics illustrated a wide achievement gap between “rich and poor, immigrant and nonimmigrant, native English speaker and nonnative English speaker,” according to the book.

Something had to be done.

The authors dub the MCPS’s Jerry Weast a “visionary superintendent.” Drafted from Greensboro, N.C., in 1999, Weast helped engage the Montgomery County community in analyzing the educational discrepancies and vying for a solution.

In writing the book, recalled Thomas, “Weast made us an offer that was hard to refuse”: providing the authors “full access to the schools’ data and materials.”

“We knew the MCPS story was an important story to share,” said Thomas.

Detailing the story of MCPS’s strategy for change and how, as years passed, the school system was able to turn itself around, “Leading for Equity” also offers an invaluable framework for other struggling districts.

Both Childress and Thomas agree that education reform is at a critical mass, but find a glimmer of hope with the appointment of new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ’87, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO whom Childress and Thomas advised in PELP.

“As did the MCPS leadership team, we must create a common set of very high standards for students, ensure that teachers have the skills and motivation they need to help students meet those standards, and create the kinds of organizations that effectively support the work of students and teachers every day,” said Childress.

“We have a long way to go, but momentum is building.”