Achieving Coherence in District Improvement

Achieving Coherence in District Improvement Managing the Relationship Between the Central Office and Schools

Susan Moore Johnson, Geoff Marietta, Monica C. Higgins, Karen L. Mapp, and Allen Grossman
paper, 256 Pages
Pub. Date: June 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1-61250-811-5
Price: 35.00

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Pub. Date: June 2014
ISBN-13: 978-1-61250-813-9
Achieving Coherence in District Improvement focuses on a problem of practice faced by educational leaders across the nation: how to effectively manage the relationship between the central office and schools. The book is based on a study of five large urban districts that have demonstrated improvement in student achievement. The authors—all members of Harvard University’s Public Education Leadership Project (PELP)—argue that there is no “one best way” to structure the central office-school relationship. Instead, they say, what matters is whether district leaders effectively select and implement their strategy by achieving coherence among key elements and actors—the district’s environment, resources, systems, structures, stakeholders, and culture.
The authors examine the five districts’ approaches in detail and point to a number of important findings. First, they emphasize that a clear, shared understanding of decision rights in key areas—academic programming, budgeting, and staffing—is essential to developing an effective central office-school relationship. Second, they stress the importance of building mutually supportive and trusting relationships between district leaders and principals. Third, they highlight the ways that culture and the external environment influence the relationship between the central office and schools. Each chapter also provides relevant “Lessons for Practice”—actionable takeaways—that educational leaders from any district can use successfully to improve the central office-school relationship.


This book makes an important contribution to a growing literature on urban school districts and the work of instructional improvement. Avoiding simplistic one-size-fits-all solutions, the authors capture the diversity of organizational approaches while at the same time extrapolating core commonalities among them. Rich, practice-based accounts from the field make for an engaging and inspiring read. — James P. Spillane, professor, Human Development and Social Policy, professor, Learning Sciences, Northwestern University

This thoroughly readable and readably thorough book examines high performing school districts within the US. What explains success in these systems is not centralization or decentralization; autonomy or alignment. The simple answer is coherence - getting everything to hang together and make sense. In a school reform debate that is too often dominated by ideology and extremes, Achieving Coherence in District Improvement makes incredibly good sense. — Andy Hargreaves, Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education, Boston College, Education Advisor to the Premier of Ontario

Achieving Coherence in District Improvement offers common-sense takeaways that should prove invaluable to our collective mission of ensuring that all of our children have the best opportunities for a high quality education. This timely and informative study is an important addition to any urban superintendent’s tool kit. — Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools

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About the Authors

Susan Moore Johnson is the Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she served as academic dean from 1993 to 1999. A former high school teacher and administrator, Johnson has a continuing research interest in the work of teachers and the reform of schools. She has studied the leadership of superintendents, the effects of collective bargaining on schools, priorities of local union leaders, teacher evaluation, use of incentive pay plans for teachers, and school as a context for adult work. Since 1998 she has directed the multiyear research study The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, which examines how best to recruit, support, and retain a strong teaching force. Johnson has published five books and many articles about these topics. She is a member of the National Academy of Education.

Geoff Marietta is an instructor in education and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has worked as a research associate with the Public Education Leadership Project since earning his master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School in 2007. Before Harvard, Marietta taught high school special education and was an assistant principal in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. He has written policy reports on labor management collaboration, early childhood education, and district leadership for foundations and research institutions and coauthored dozens of Harvard case studies. His research focuses on how social interactions and managerial decisions influence collaboration and learning.

Monica C. Higgins joined the Harvard faculty in 1995 and is the Kathleen McCartney Professor of Education Leadership at the Graduate School of Education (HGSE), where her research and teaching focus on the areas of leadership development and organizational change. Prior to joining HGSE, she spent eleven years as a member of the faculty at Harvard Business School in the Organizational Behavior Unit. Higgins’s teaching has focused on the areas of leadership and organizational behavior, teams, entrepreneurship, and strategic human resources management. She is studying the effectiveness of senior leadership teams in large urban school districts across the United States and the conditions that enhance organizational learning in public school systems. In addition, she has a study under way that examines entrepreneurship in education. Higgins currently holds an appointment as a consultant to the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Karen L. Mapp is a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the faculty director of the Education Policy and Management master’s program. Over the past twenty years, her research and practice focus has been on the cultivation of partnerships among families, community members, and educators that support student achievement and school improvement. She has served as the co-coordinator with Mark Warren of the Community Organizing and School Reform Research Project and as a core faculty member in the Doctorate in Educational Leadership Program at HGSE. Mapps is a founding member of the District Leaders Network on Family and Community Engagement, is a trustee of the Hyams Foundation in Boston, and is on the board of the Institute for Educational Leadership. From 2011 to 2013 she served as a consultant on family engagement to the U.S. Department of Education in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. Prior to joining HGSE in January 2005, she served for eighteen months as the deputy superintendent for family and community engagement for the Boston Public Schools.

Allen Grossman was appointed a Harvard Business School professor of management practice in July 2000. He joined that faculty in July 1998 with a concurrent appointment as a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Grossman served as president and chief executive officer of Outward Bound USA for six years before stepping down in 1997 to work on the challenges of creating high-performing, mission-focused organizations. He has authored or coauthored three books, forty case studies, and numerous articles. His current research focuses on how to lead and govern high-performing nonprofit organizations and on building effective leadership and management for urban public school districts.

Table of Contents

E-book available through online booksellers

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