How do you run a large school district?

The newly appointed superintendent of New Haven Public Schools talked with Yale Insights about what kind of leadership is needed in education.

Trying to improve a large urban school district is a classic complex leadership challenge. You are overseeing a huge system with thousands of employees, students, parents, and other interested stakeholders. You operate under resource constraints and have complex interactions with other parts of government and civil society. The problems you seek to solve have consistently defied earlier attempts at improvement. Given these parameters, any progress is going to be hard-won, but can mean improving many lives.

Garth Harries, recently appointed superintendent of New Haven Public Schools after four years heading up reform initiatives in New Haven, says there is a need for leaders in education who can approach system-level problems with both a strategic view and a knowledge of context.

"What most matters is the leadership and vision and coherence at a school level," he says. "There are many additional programs that can be successful if they're implemented well—and implementation is not a mechanistic process. Implementation in the school context is much more about an aligned vision, a culture, a system, a structure that all reinforces that vision."

Harries argues that the best leaders in education don't come exclusively from the private sector or the public sector, but have an understanding of both: "I've found acutely in my educational career, both in New York and in New Haven, that success in education takes a blend of skills and perspectives and orientation."

This interview was recorded at the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference, April 5, 2013.



Q: How do you know when a new initiative isn’t working?

Garth Harries: Bottom-line performance measures in education are pretty clear. That’s what we need to measure success on, and frankly, failure. That includes standardized test scores, but we don’t think, and I don’t think, that’s sufficient. We look at graduation rates, long-term results, a whole range of things. What are the outcomes that we’re producing for students? The goal of every school, every education system, is to prepare kids for success after they leave, and that’s what, frankly, we don’t pay enough attention to in education. All too often, we focus just on the immediate measures rather than those long-term outcome measures.

Beneath that, I think, those outcome measures, there’re a layer of indicators that can give us a sense of, is this school, or is this educational program, on a trajectory to be successful? And a lot of that, for me, boils down to engagement issues of different kinds. And really, the most successful schools, be they charter, be they district, what you typically see is a very engaged student population, a very engaged teaching population, a very engaged family community. And those are all things that you could measure and keep track of, whether it’s through survey results, or just individually tracking of what’s happening. So, those are the sorts of things that we tend to focus on.

Part of the question is, how long do you give initiatives? And I don’t think there’s—there’s not a magic answer to that. It depends on the initiative. I think one thing that is clearly a problem in education is the swings of the pendulum from one initiative to another initiative. And if you talk to people in classrooms in public districts around the country, they will tell you it’s a joke. It’s the flavor of the month in terms of what the next educational initiative is. And I think that reflects both a lack of patience in seeing ideas and programs develop, and it also reflects a lack of understanding of the system level of the problem. What most matters, and I was just on a panel here at the conference talking about this, is the leadership and the vision and the coherence at a school level.

There are many different educational programs that can be successful if they’re implemented well. And implementation is not a mechanistic process. It’s a—implementation in the school context is much more about an aligned vision, a culture, a system, a structure that all reinforces that vision.

Q: Are there differences of scale between New York City and New Haven?

Harries: So, I think actually this— and again, we were just talking about this on the panel that I was on—I think scaling is the wrong mental model here. And one way to say that is when I came to New Haven from New York City, I was joining a district that was 1/50 the size. And one of the things I say all the time is the problems— I’m amazed at how similar the problems are and amazed at how similar the challenges are between the two circumstances.

The primary difference is one of relationship, in a smaller context. You have more—the relationship more colors the management and the interactions. And that can be both a good thing and a bad thing. That’s a net neutral, I would say.

You know, I think the language of scaling in education tends to imply that we have a industrial or a mechanistic process and that we’re going to replicate schools to achieve scale. And I think that’s a mistake to think that way. I think we do want to grow. We want to grow success, but I think the language of growth tends to imply some of the organizational coherence and the understanding that different contexts between even different schools in the same community are different, and there may be principles or values or vision that you want to grow towards, but not to assume that you’re going to cookie cutter one approach to another, or downsize a set of programs or policies that worked in New York now to New Haven.

So, I think that’s part of the challenge of the sector right now. We have lots of existence proofs of successful schools serving high-poverty communities. But I say all the time, we don’t have any models of success at scale across a geography. There are people who are replicating and scaling across geographies, but we have nowhere where we can say that any student who’s born in New Haven, or in any other major urban community, that no matter what school they go to, they’re likely to be successful. And I think those challenges are not ones of scale but of growth, of successful practice and successful organizations.

Q: What lessons can you bring from the private sector in running a large public school system?

Harries: I’ve found, acutely, in my educational career, both in New York and in New Haven, that success in education takes a blend of skills and perspectives and orientation. I think the ability—many of the problems in education are system-level problems, and the ability to frame problems and lead strategically and systemically and structurally is incredibly important. And it explains why, three years at McKinsey before I went to the New York City Department of Education, and within a year I was part of the senior cabinet, and that’s because—in New York—and that’s because I had the ability to think systemically, think across silos of the organization. And I would also add, and importantly, and the ability to listen and understand the business system, i.e. education, that I was starting to interact with. And I think that other second part is important. I’ve seen lots of private-sector folks come through education who’ve never really managed to understand, whether that’s— for whatever reason, the fundamental dynamics of schools and classrooms. And I think it’s incredibly important that leaders can do that.

At the same time, I’ve also seen many people come from within education who understand classrooms very well, who can’t think at the system and the scale and the organizational and structural level that— and those folks, they’re great in the classroom; they’re great in the school. But they’re also not the right people to be in educational leadership. So, really, it’s the two skills—the two skill sets together, the strategic and the ability to understand educational systems.