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Just how to improve the education standards of pupils in the state or public sector, particularly those growing up in urban environments, is a priority for every industrialised country. That said, the education sector on both sides of the Atlantic is littered with failed ideas about how to improve standards.

“There’s just no end of people who have the quick fix on public education,” says Allen Grossman, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.

He points to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which spent more than $1bn creating smaller schools in more than 400 cities across the US, based on the theory that the large size of urban schools was the problem. Student performance barely improved.

So in 2003 Prof Grossman got together with colleagues at the business school and at Harvard’s department of graduate education to investigate what could be done.

Harvard was not alone. The same year, the Darden business school and the Curry school of education at the University of Virginia had reached a similar conclusion. They, too, decided to work together to try to find a way of improving standards in public sector schools in the US.

Both initiatives were funded by alumni: in Harvard’s case the MBA class of 1963; in the University of Virginia’s case by Mark Templeton, a Darden graduate and chief executive of Citrix, a Florida-based specialist in remote working technologies.

The timing may have been just coincidence, but, says LeAnn Buntrock, director of communications with the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, the No Child Left Behind federal initiative announced in 2001 was beginning to change the landscape. “Suddenly there was a huge focus on accountability and standards.”

At Harvard, 12 faculty members from Harvard Business School and Harvard Graduate School of Education launched the Public Education Leadership Programme (Pelp). The aim was to improve the administrative management and the educational results of nine urban school systems, including Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

The three-year programme had two principle components: a one-week executive education project for leadership teams from each district and a schedule of research to develop ways of helping district leadership teams operate efficiently.

In Virginia the Darden/Curry partnership set about developing a series of executive leadership programmes, comparable to the courses offered to corporate executives but specifically designed for members of school boards, district leadership teams and district superintendents – the fall guys when things go wrong.

For many district superintendents the job involves managing budgets and employee numbers on the scale of a Fortune 500 company, hence the need to develop leadership training for them, says Ms Buntrock. “We have some of the best business schools in the world. Why not offer the [education] administration the same kind of training?”

Ms Buntrock uses the numbers to make her point. Seven out of 10 schools involved in the school turnround programme – a programme intended for those in charge of failing schools – reached adequate yearly progress after their staff went on the programme. None of them had achieved this in the two previous years.

Though the Harvard team introduced some leadership training, its research indicates that this is not the whole answer. The differences between public school districts and businesses are greater than the similarities, according to the research, which was published in the Harvard Business Review* last November.

The conclusion: that big-city school systems are not businesses and cannot be managed as if they were. “Achieving excellence on a broad scale requires a districtwide strategy for improving instruction in the classroom and an organisation that can implement it,” according to the authors.

This points to one of the problems with approaches to date, says Stacey Childress, lecturer at Harvard Business School. “The easiest thing is to make structural changes,” she says. Every 20 years or so US school superintendents fundamentally change the way their schools operate, be it a change in funding, a change in school management or a change in curriculum. The hard thing, she says, is to improve the interaction between teacher and pupil.

Concentrating on teaching and learning in every school in an urban environment can bring considerable improvements, says the Harvard team. One example cited is that of Chicago, where performance in both maths and reading between 2001 and 2005 improved more in each age group that that for public schools in Illinois as a whole.

The business school is now considering introducing an MBA course on effective management of public schools to sit alongside Ms Childress’s fully subscribed course on Entrepreneurship in Public Education. HBS is also considering an executive short course for academics who want to teach Harvard cases in other schools of education or business.

“I think we can make a significant contribution,” says Prof Grossman. Ms Childress agrees. “We think there’s a huge hunger for this material.”

*Harvard Business Review: How to Manage Urban School Districts, November 2006

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