Management Principles and the Washington, D.C. Public Schools wins 2011 EFMD Case Writing Competition award

MIT Sloan case chosen from a record number of submissions

On Friday, April 8, 2011, it was announced that Management Principles and the Washington, D.C. Public Schools was the winner of the 2011 EFMD Case Writing Competition in the Public Sector Innovations category. Professor Leigh Hafrey says that he and co-author Cate Reavis are very pleased that the topic resonated as well as it did, not just in this country, but overseas as well. He explains, “I think that we tapped an area of concern to a lot of people, and that is the intersection of the private and public sectors and the degree to which, at an operational level, you can build partnerships that work across sectors.”

Hafrey hopes the case will raise awareness of both the positive and the negative sides of applying private sector management principles in the public sphere. And he hopes that students who read it will better understand the important underlying complexities of all managerial decisions.

“Writing the cases confirmed for me a line that I have taken pretty consistently in my instruction at MIT Sloan over the past few years, and that is even the most apparently simple of managerial challenges in fact have all kinds of dimensions that you have an obligation to consider when you are taking steps to resolve what appears to be a short term and relatively local problem. You need to think about what you are doing at the operational level; you need to think about it in principle, and you need to think about where the business implications play out in society as a whole.”

To learn more about the case, please see the original story below.

Management Principles and the Washington, D.C. Public Schools: A Case Study

On Monday, August 30, first-year MIT Sloan MBAs were given an opportunity to study the ongoing overhaul of the Washington, D.C., public school system (DCPS). Using two cases written by Leigh Hafrey, Senior Lecturer in Behavioral and Policy Sciences, and Cate Reavis, Project Manager for MSTIR, the class examined the often-controversial leadership of D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, MBA ’97, and Chancellor of the D.C. public school system Michelle Rhee, as they worked to ensure quality education for the children of Washington, D.C.

Deputy Deans Richard Locke, JoAnne Yates, and faculty members Scott Keating (Accounting), Ray Reagans (Organizational Processes), Chris Kelly (Communication), and Leigh Hafrey moderated the case discussions. A subsequent plenary forum with Reinoso and Rhee allowed students to engage with a complex, real-world management problem.

The intersection of business and society

Known for his ability to turn around struggling businesses in the private sector, Victor Reinoso was tapped by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2006 to bring his hands-on, data-driven approach to what was then one of the nation’s worst urban public schools, which is exactly what he did. Drafting legislation that placed the school system under mayoral control, Reinoso then nominated outsider Michelle Rhee to serve as chancellor. The founder of The New Teacher Project, an organization dedicated to reforming teacher recruitment, training, and accountability, Rhee brought to DCPS not only an understanding of educational reform, but also a strong belief that change was possible. In partnership with Fenty and Reinoso, she quickly implemented sweeping structural reforms, including large-scale teacher lay-offs, school closings, and a reclassification of non-union DCPS staff as at-will employees.

Though Reinoso and Rhee’s work led to a number of improvements in school facilities, teacher accountability, and student performance, their no-nonsense approach has made them unpopular with unions, parents and teachers alike, a fact which allowed students to reflect on the complicated nature of effective leadership. Class discussions were filled with debate about where the true bottom-line in cases like this lies, and what it means to apply managerial methods usually reserved for the private sphere to public education.

Professor Hafrey says it was exactly the kind of response he was hoping for when he chose the case. “My interest at MIT Sloan over the years has increasingly focused on the interface between the business community and the rest of society, and the degree to which business practices affect what happens in the society at large. This was a perfect opportunity to explore that relationship.”

Professor Hafrey also says that Reinoso’s story makes clear to students the flexibility of the MIT Sloan MBA degree. Drawn to the challenge of solving complicated problems, Reinoso allowed his career path to take him to new places in both the public and private sectors. Hafrey hopes this case will remind students of the wide array of career options their degree makes available to them.

Unambiguous commitment

A plenary session with Reinoso and Rhee followed the lectures, and it was here that the students’ engagement with the case—as well as their admiration for both Rhee and Reinoso’s leadership—was most palpably felt. Invited to ask questions of the two speakers, a long line of students addressed topics ranging from data-gathering methods, to what it feels like to face a room filled with angry parents. Honest, to-the-point, and often quite funny, Rhee and Reinoso discussed their successes and the many challenges they faced. By the end, their expressed dedication to the children of DCPS, and a bottom line of student achievement, clearly won the admiration of the entire room.

Professor Hafrey explains: “They got a very warm round of applause at the end, and I found that heartening, frankly, because the enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that it is nice to see a couple of people committed the way Victor and Michelle are to something like satisfactory education for children. I am sure the warmth of the response came from their unambiguous commitment to that goal. That is leadership, and I think the students responded to that.”

*On September 14, 2010, Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian M. Fenty lost the Democratic primary. His leaving the mayoral office is expected to greatly impact the situation in the school system. Read more >>