Professor Higgins has taken the lead on four education research projects since joining Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2007. All four projects focus on leadership development and organizational change. The first focuses on learning and development within senior leadership district teams in Connecticut. The second and third focus on learning and accountability experienced by teachers in two large urban districts, Chicago and New York City, and how such organizational conditions relate to school performance and change. The fourth project focuses on whether and how Teach for America has played an influential role in developing entrepreneurial leaders in education.  

Described below are the origins of each project, the progress that has been made, and Professor Higgins' aspirations for these projects going forward. 


This project focuses on the role of senior leadership teams in implementing instructional improvement strategies district‐wide. The project originated in 2007 as part of the Harvard Leadership Institute for the Connecticut Superintendent’s Network, led by Professors Richard Elmore and Lee Teitel. Subsequent to teaching in this Institute, doctoral students Lissa Young and Jennie Weiner and Professor Higgins collected data on 26 senior leadership district teams. Superintendents and their teams took Richard Hackman’s Team Diagnostic Survey (TDS) instrument, which provides information on the quality of a team’s process, strategy, and structure, and on individuals’ engagement level with the team’s work, in 2008 and 2009. Professor Higgins and her team are now analyzing these data and writing articles for publication.   

The first paper from this project is called, "Leading Teams of Leaders: What Helps Team Member Learning?" is published in Phi Delta Kappan.  Professor Higgins' co‐authors on this paper are Lissa Young, Jennie Weiner, and Steven Wlodarczyk (from the Connecticut Center for School Change). This paper focuses on the extent to which coaching by superintendents and team members helps or hinders team member learning. Team member learning is one key indicator of team effectiveness. When individuals are learning, they are engaged in the work and so, much more likely to sustain and continue reform efforts. Multi‐level analyses of these data show that coaching that focuses on the team’s task fosters team member learning, whereas interpersonal coaching (e.g., that focuses on resolving interpersonal conflict) does not. Further, leader coaching (that of the superintendent) is less influential when compared to the powerful effects of peer coaching. Leader coaching contributes positively, but only when there is little peer coaching evident among team members. These results lend insight into both who should provide help to teams that are striving to implement an instructional improvement strategy and what kind of help they should provide.   

Professor Higgins, Lissa Young and Jennie Weiner are  also working on a second paper called "Implementation Teams in Education", for submission to a special issue on teams in an organizational behavior journal. This paper will focus on the composition and quality of these senior leadership teams. as it relates to team member learning Professor Higgins has presented the research team's findings for this paper at the Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership Roundtable Series, in the Harvard Psychology Department’s Groups’ Group Seminar Series, and at the University of Southern California.  Results show the conditions under which greater team diversity in terms of the positions held (e.g., principals and central office staff) reduces gaps in team members’ learning. This project opens the door for future research on teams in education by examining the conditions that enhance the probability for team effectiveness – here, indexed by team member learning. Professor Higgins and her doctoral students extend prior organizational research, such as that of Hackman, by examining a particular type of team – an implementation team – which has been under‐explored in extant research. Learning within teams may be critical to sustaining change efforts both within schools and school systems. They hope this work will inspire future research on the conditions that enhance the probability for team effectiveness in district teams and, in particular, on the ways in which sociostructural conditions such as positional diversity may enhance or detract from the likelihood of learning and sustainable organizational change.


Higgins, M.C., Young, L.V., Weiner, J., & Wlodarczyk, S., (2009), Leading teams of leaders: What helps team member learning?, Phi Delta Kappan, V. 91, No. 4, 41-45.

Higgins, M.C., Weiner, J., & Young, L.V. Implementation teams in education. (in preparation for submission).


This project was initiated by the Project for Policy Innovation in Education, with support from the Chicago Public Education Fund. Professor Higgins was asked to join as an expert on leadership. She worked closely with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and doctoral students Rebecca Holcombe and Ann Ishimaru to design a teacher survey to assess principal effectiveness in CPS. Based upon their shared view that leadership is about building capacity in organizational systems so that individuals can do their best work, they incorporated measures of organizational learning into this survey of leader effectiveness. In this context, a highly effective organizational learning environment is one in which teachers engage in learning behaviors such as speaking up, asking for help, admitting errors, and trying out new ideas that incorporate new knowledge to change their instructional practice. Last spring, the team gathered pilot data from approximately 60 schools distributed across the district and from approximately 1,000 teachers. Due to the transitional state of CPS at the present time, given Arne Duncan’s move to President Obama’s cabinet, the rollout of this project has been put on hold. The team is hopeful that the survey can rollout district‐wide sometime in 2010.

In the meantime, Professor Higgins, Ann Ishimaru, and Rebecca Holcombe have written a paper from these pilot data called, "Exploring the Building Blocks of Learning in Schools". In this paper, they provide insights into the ways in which schools and principal leadership support teacher learning. The organizational learning measures that they modified and incorporated into this teacher survey were based upon measures used extensively in organizational learning studies in organizational behavior research in other sectors, such as healthcare (e.g., by organizational scholar Amy Edmondson). Just as prior studies in other sectors have demonstrated that improving conditions for organizational learning within units leads to enhanced performance, the research team expects that improving organizational learning within schools will yield evidence of positive change. Their goals for this first paper are threefold: first, to extend organizational theory on organizational learning to the education literature; second, to introduce an organizational learning tool used extensively in organizational theory and to report on the reliability of the instrument in this context; and three, to explore how certain dimensions of organizational learning relate to performance indicators in schools such as enhanced teacher collaboration around instructional practice.

Their findings from these pilot data suggest two particular avenues worthy of future research. First, their findings suggest that future studies examine the role that psychological safety –  that is, as scholar Amy Edmondson suggests, the ability to speak up and ask for help – plays in creating positive conditions for teachers to improve their instructional practice. Second, their findings suggest that future research examine the role of principal behaviors such as encouraging multiple views and listening attentively in school improvement efforts.  They also report on some ancillary analyses regarding accountability in this study; their findings suggest that when teachers experience high external accountability, they also report feeling less psychologically safe to speak up, to ask questions, and to collaborate to improve their practice. This paper foreshadows the larger research project the team has launched in New York City Schools that examines in depth teacher perceptions of their work environment and how conducive school climate is to learning behaviors (e.g., experimenting with new teaching practices) and, at the same time, to retaining high standards for accountability. Their first paper from the CPS Principal Leadership Project is currently under review at an academic education journal. 


Higgins, M.C., Ishimaru, A., & Holcombe, R. (2009). Exploring the building blocks of learning in schools.(under review).


This research responds to a call from practitioners to better understand how to create work environments that hold teachers accountable without undermining their ability and motivation to innovate on the job. Stacey Childress (senior lecturer, HBS) and Professor Higgins launched this project following some recurring patterns of interest they found among executives in education programs both inside and outside of Harvard. Education leaders in these programs reported feeling as though they were working in environments that demanded high levels of accountability yet offered low levels of psychological safety, and they were yearning for opportunities to lead and manage change efforts in environments that were high on both dimensions. Although organizational scholars such as Edmondson have suggested that balancing organizational learning and accountability yields high performance in organizations, no research has directly examined this proposition. With this in mind and with particular interest from the Chief of Accountability in NYCDOE, Professor Higgins and Stacy Childress set out to design a survey to study teacher responses along both of these dimensions in NYC Public Schools. 

The measures they developed for this project were based upon prior research on organizational learning and accountability. First, drawing from Professor Higgins' work with CPS, they incorporated organizational learning measures used in the CPS Principal Leadership Project on psychological safety and experimentation.  Second, with doctoral students, Ann Ishimaru and Rebecca Holcombe, they built upon the conceptual work of education scholars (e.g., Elmore and O’Day) to develop survey questions on accountability.  From their pilot testing, two core dimensions of accountability emerged – one that they currently associate with “professional accountability” (e.g., feeling responsible for doing high‐quality work) and one that they currently associate with “performance‐based accountability” (e.g., feeling accountable for reaching certain targets). After months of pilot‐testing and negotiating with the NYCDOE, they received permission to add survey questions to their on‐line annual teacher learning survey. This survey was launched in February of 2009 to approximately 55,000 teachers; 33,000 teachers responded. The research team was given access to these data and to all other data on their survey this fall, 2009. They are currently analyzing these data and expect to produce a draft of a first paper from the results for circulation in 2010.

The research team's primary objective in this first phase of the project is to introduce the idea of creating organizational conditions in which teachers feel highly accountable in their work while, at the same time, free to innovate and improve upon their teaching practice. To do so, the team will first validate measures of accountability and organizational learning used in the survey, building from the CPS project. Second, they will show if and whether there is variance across and within these two dimensions in this large urban school district. Their hope is that they will indeed find schools that fall into the “high organizational learning/high accountability” quadrant and that they will be able to examine these schools’ performance, practices, and organizational change initiatives in follow‐up qualitative research. Given the scope of the data the team has collected and to which they have access, they anticipate publishing several papers from this research project that address the twin roles of organizational learning and accountability in urban school reform.


The purpose of this research is to explore the extent to which educational reform initiatives, such as Teach for America (TFA), have played a significant role in influencing the trajectory of entrepreneurship in K‐12 Education. This project is supported by The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the National Research Institute. With doctoral students Jennie Weiner and Wendy Robison, Professor Higgins is studying the ways in which TFA’s alumni network, now 14,000 strong, has influenced the development of entrepreneurial leaders in education. As others have noted, TFA alumni have become a powerful force for change in education. Examples of TFA entrepreneurial leadership in education include the founding of organizations such as KIPP, Yes College Prep, and the New Teacher Project. These kinds of visible examples have led to the perception that TFA’s influence is a central force in entrepreneurship in education.

Despite such perceptions, there is actually little empirical evidence to show that this is the case – that TFA has played an influential role in developing entrepreneurs in education. Professor Higgins' study investigates this assertion directly in two phases: first, the project examines the extent to which TFA alumni do, indeed, take on a disproportionate number of entrepreneurial roles in the nation’s leading entrepreneurial organizations. Much like Professor Higgins' prior work on the influential role that certain healthcare firms took in spawning entrepreneurial leaders in biotechnology, she addresses the question of whether TFA breeds entrepreneurial leaders in education. Her team is engaged in this work presently, drawing primarily upon archival data collection and analyses. Their preliminary analyses suggest that they will find support for TFA as an entrepreneurial spawner in education. However, they expect that the story will be somewhat more complex than originally anticipated (e.g., depending upon how one defines “entrepreneur,” as founder or as top management team member). 

In the second phase of the project, they will explore the conditions that enhance the likelihood that TFA alumni decide to become entrepreneurs in education and, in particular, the role that TFA, as an organization, plays in that influence chain. TFA has taken considerable steps toward increasing its potential for influence – for example, through alumni leadership programs, professional development programs, and a publication (“One Day”), along with webinars. Thus, TFA is actively engaging in taking an ecosystem perspective toward its alumni in which they remain in touch with their alumni in an active and proactive way. In other sectors, such as consulting, where alumni may become future clients of firms, this is common practice. In education, however, this kind of strategic organizational behavior is rare. Further, this kind of alumni engagement has not been studied in education. In the second phase of the project, Professor Higgins and her doctoral students will ask, how do TFA’s alumni connections and practices enhance the probability that its alumni will decide to enter entrepreneurial roles in education?

This research on TFA alumni will help pave the way for future research that lends insight into the ways in which entrepreneurial leaders are developed in the education sector. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of new education ventures and with it increased public and political support as well as scrutiny. While many of these organizations thrive, many others are unsuccessful. Moreover, reasons for these variable outcomes remain unclear. By focusing this research on those organizations that have been able to launch in this sector and the individuals responsible for the organizations’ inception, Professor Higgins hopes to develop insight into the connections between these organizations’ early entrance into the field and their founders’ prior career and leadership experiences. Such insights may have implications for how entrepreneurial leaders in education are socialized, trained, mentored, and developed.