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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Rethinking Education

November-December 2003

Harvard's chief pedagogues are going back to class. The Graduate School of Education (GSE) is pursuing changes in its curriculum and internal organization, motivated by a fundamental need bluntly summarized by Dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann: "How do you make schools places where children learn? They aren't currently."

Educators Catherine Snow, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, and Judith D. Singer
Photograph by Stu Rosner

The Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" program makes formal what has been an evolving commitment to educate all children to a certain standard, says Judith D. Singer, academic dean and Conant professor of education. Along with what she calls "the notion that education needs to be accessible to everyone" has come a rising demand to assess students' preparation, measured by batteries of high-stakes tests (a basic Bush plank). But "education is a more complex enterprise than just testable knowledge," as Lagemann puts it. Nevertheless, as pressure on the public fisc drains resources from schools, she says, the desire for accountability shoves aside teaching about citizenship and other countries and civilizations.

More is also expected of schools of education, adds Lagemann, who became dean in mid 2002, but it is "not self-evident what more" they should be doing. The absence of agreed-upon courses of study to groom educators—comparable, say, to the fundamentals of legal or medical training—poses an unsettling challenge to teacher-preparation colleges and research-based schools of education, like Harvard's, nationwide. The GSE hopes to help fill this vacuum, she says, by "creating a model so good that it will be emulated by other schools of education and will strengthen the profession."

The hallmark might be a shared way of thinking in which GSE alumni naturally bring to bear on educational problems a variety of disciplinary viewpoints and skills. "The one thing all educators need to know," says Shattuck professor of education Catherine Snow, "is that there are no right solutions—that any educational problem requires multiple perspectives in order to be understood."

Snow and a group of colleagues have been charged with designing GSE's first core course, aimed at introducing all master's and doctoral degree candidates to educational practice. For example, Snow says, "Do you see the problem of math achievement at one school as a problem of student learning, or of curriculum, or of resources, or of teacher expertise, or of insufficient research knowledge?" A plan for improving math mastery would encompass each of those elements. That's easier said than done, according to Judith Singer, because "traditional preparation programs don't cross those boundaries—in fact, they reify them."

"Multiple Perspectives on Educational Problems," the core course being created, will model a small to medium-sized city (not Cambridge or Boston) with some degree of ethnic diversity where non-English-speaking children are not learning English quickly. Snow, herself a developmental psychologist who has studied parent-child interaction in language acquisition and second-language acquisition, says the course will cover approaches ranging from the basics of language acquisition to demographic analysis of how and when English is used in the ethnic community—"the sort of thing principals don't like to think about but need to." The GSE students will have to ask: Do teachers have adequate books and materials? Can they deliver the curriculum? What is known about how children learn such subjects? What cultural and organizational obstacles might the school need to remove to effect successful learning? Their answers will necessarily involve the roles of teacher, principal, student, parents, language and curriculum specialists, and perhaps social workers.

Although the course will not be offered until spring (and then on a trial basis), Snow believes its evolution has already brought faculty members in discrete fields together to an unprecedented degree. They are also learning new things about instruction: the course will rely not only on traditional lectures and readings, but also on case-method teaching. Snow believes that technique will help GSE students understand how institutions work and engage them in "the inevitability of looking at these problems from multiple perspectives." David A. Garvin, Christensen professor of business administration and a specialist in the case method (see "Making the Case," September-October, page 56), is advising on the case development, and the president's office has granted GSE $1 million to support the work, Lagemann reports.

 

At the same time the faculty began rethinking the curriculum during the 2002-2003 academic year, Lagemann charged a group chaired by Singer to examine GSE's structure, seeking more integrated approaches to education problems and services to the school's own students. (A third group, chaired by Thompson professor of education and society Richard J. Murnane, looked at faculty appointments and the school's scholarly needs.)

From Singer's group has come a wholesale restructuring of GSE. Since the 1960s, she says, the faculty and teaching have been organized by substantive "areas": currently, Administration, Planning, and Social Policy; Human Development and Psychology; and Learning and Teaching. As a result, she says, although the GSE faculty is "uniquely interdisciplinary," economists, political scientists, and sociologists are clustered in the first area, psychologists in the second, and curriculum specialists in the third. This makes sense for doctoral training. But at the master's level—where GSE is preparing principals, reading specialists, counselors, and other "school leaders [who] need to know about organization, curriculum and instruction, and about how children and adults learn"—it impedes effective practice.

In its place, GSE will operate this year as a "faculty of the whole" (as do the faculties of government and of law). Professors will staff five standing committees, responsible for faculty affairs (hiring and mentoring, for example); curriculum and instruction (teaching resources); doctoral study; master's programs; and a category called "research, innovation, and outreach," which will oversee GSE's many independent research centers, continuing education, and other activities in an effort to create synergies among them and between them and the school's core faculty and degree programs.

"Individual faculty members need not be multidisciplinary," says Singer, "but they need to interact on behalf of our degree programs, research programs, and professional programs." Snow's curriculum-development effort is an early example of what the new structure intends to support. Within the master's program, says Singer, the number of study tracks is being reduced. An "individualized" degree, in which students assemble diverse, unrelated courses, has been de-emphasized. This fall, each matriculating student selected a program (in school leadership, say, or higher education), to promote better substantive learning during the master's year.

For students and professors alike, Singer says, focusing faculty attention on the master's program and making its purposes clearer are important steps in "acknowledging that we are a professional school." Course development in the past principally reflected professors' research interests; in the new system, she hopes, the faculty as a whole will agree coherently on what students should learn. Until now, she says, "We have not had those conversations."

She imagines a similar effect, over time, on research collaborations. No Child Left Behind, for example, places huge emphasis on program evaluation. Eliot professor of education John B. Willett (her longtime academic collaborator) and Gale professor of education Richard J. Light, both trained statisticians, would seem ideally suited to expand that field with new tools for use of statistical evidence and performance measures. Their new interactions as members of a common faculty, Singer says, could prompt that kind of pursuit.

 

As GSE's faculty tries on its new organization and introduces the core course this year, Lagemann will no doubt have more to say about the research and teaching opportunities she envisions. Her own writing, like the recent An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, focuses on the rigor, quality, and applicability of education scholarship. Teaching, she says, "should be more of an evidence-based practice than it is." That evidence requires knowledge of human development, the history of education, and education research itself. Accordingly, Catherine Snow's initial study team examined two other possible GSE core courses: on analysis and use of data in decision-making and on the intellectual history of education. Depending on how the faculty wants to proceed, such offerings could reach the curriculum later in the decade.

Realizing those ambitions will not be easy. GSE remains among the most constrained of Harvard's schools in terms of space, faculty positions, and endowment. More fundamental is the continuing problem of tenuring a professoriate to teach about practice on the basis of their ability to conduct and publish what Richard Murnane calls "very high-quality disciplinary research." Although Murnane (unusually) voluntarily spent a year helping Boston public-school administrators and principals gain access to Massachusetts performance-test results so teachers could improve their classroom work, he concedes that scholarship remains his first love. Echoing that sentiment even as she focuses on practitioner training, Catherine Snow says, "It's not like I've ever taught anyone to read."

In an era of troubled and hard-pressed public schools, "There are lots of people who think education schools are not the solution to problems of educational achievement," Snow says. "We are vulnerable and our students are vulnerable." That makes it imperative that as a faculty, "what we do is thought through, is justified, has a rationale." Echoing the pressures on public education generally, she says of GSE's self-assessment, "This is a very high-stakes exercise in deciding what's important about what we know."