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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Education Executive

September-October 2006

Kathleen McCartney, Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE) new dean, has already shown she can handle controversy with poise. Three years ago, when she and other researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development published a study showing a correlation between day care and bad behavior, McCartney found herself amid a highly politicized debate infused with moralization and parental guilt. In magazine, newspaper, and radio interviews, McCartney pointed out reporters’ oversimplifications: Many accounts had omitted the findings that childcare had less effect on children’s behavior than did other variables, such as family income, and that the quality of childcare—caregiver attentiveness and the child-caregiver ratio—also made a difference. But McCartney stood by the overall finding that children who spent more hours in childcare also displayed disobedient and aggressive behavior more frequently.

Kathleen McCartney
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Such fortitude will undoubtedly serve her well in her new post as dean, to which she was appointed on May 16 by President Lawrence H. Summers. She had already tried on the position and found it a good fit, having served as acting dean from July 1, 2005.

McCartney, 51, brings an uncommon perspective to the job. Where educational research naturally tends to focus on the school years, her expertise is in early childhood, the years preceding kindergarten, and specifically, the relationship among childcare, poverty, parenting, and educational achievement. She has served on the editorial board of the journal Child Development, coedited the recently published Handbook of Child Development, and directed the Child Study and Development Center at the University of New Hampshire.

That expertise is in international demand. In March, McCartney traveled to Mexico with a handful of other HGSE faculty members to meet Mexican colleagues and government officials and observe the country’s preschools; she will return in November to deliver policy recommendations for that system. In July she helped lead a conference in Chile on implementing preschool programs there, and a trip to Ireland to consult on the same subject is in the works. Back in Cambridge, HGSE held its first early childhood education institute in June; nearly 100 educators from across Massachusetts attended, free of charge.

McCartney succeeds Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Warren professor of the history of American education, who stepped down a year ago, citing her desire to devote time to a book project and then return to the classroom. (Lagemann was Summers’s first decanal appointment as president, in April 2002; McCartney, Lesser professor in early childhood development, was his last.)

One of Lagemann’s priorities was to remake the HGSE curriculum into a national standard, in light of the enormous variation among peer institutions and the lack of consensus about what graduate studies in education should comprise. HGSE master’s and doctoral candidates now take certain core courses that are common to all students across the school’s various tracks of study. The school is also contemplating making its one-year master’s program longer, perhaps by two months. “Two semesters is not a long time to prepare people for the careers in practice and policy that most of them aspire to,” McCartney says.

As academic dean during the 2004-05 year, she worked closely with Lagemann on these and other goals, including pursuing partnerships with other Harvard schools. Such partnerships are critical, McCartney explains, because education no longer exists in a vacuum, if it ever did. One partnership will pair HGSE with the Harvard School of Public Health to create a University center on children. Given that children may arrive at school with health problems or difficult family situations, she says, approaches to education “have to be multifaceted.”

Another collaboration will pool the resources of HGSE, Harvard Business School, and the Kennedy School of Government, on the premise that, in an era when teachers and administrators must cope with government pressure and policy on issues ranging from high-stakes testing to central budget issues, it’s imperative to give school superintendents and state-level education chiefs the same top-flight training corporate executives and government officials get at HBS and the KSG. Kentucky and Ohio education officials, and leaders of urban school districts within those states, have already been selected for the first round, which began this summer with support from the Wallace Foundation. (One of McCartney’s goals is to increase the amount of financial aid available to HGSE applicants. The school has already announced a new fellowship program for this academic year: the first 10 Urban Scholars, chosen in part based on a demonstrated commitment to working in urban schools, will receive a full-tuition fellowship for the master’s program.)

Beyond such partnerships, HGSE is adapting its own pedagogy—for example, by adopting the case method, long in use at the business school. The method allows students to connect theory with practice by working through problems, instead of merely reading about and discussing them. For instance, they may practice implementing a literacy program, interacting with a school committee, or integrating parents into the classroom.

In time, HGSE may move physically closer to the business school, as well. McCartney gets downright excited when she speaks about the possible relocation across the Charles River to the University’s new campus in Allston. In its current quarters off Brattle Street, she notes, HGSE is spread across several buildings. Beyond the benefits of consolidation, she says, “[The move] actually offers opportunities for us to redesign our campus to allow us to teach in different ways,” by building technology into the classrooms and including larger rooms more conducive to case-method teaching.

McCartney grew up in Medford, Mas-sachusetts, one of five children of a factory worker and a homemaker. She attended public schools, then Tufts University, and earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Yale. She came to Harvard in 1982 as an assistant professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, then left five years later for the University of New Hampshire. She returned in 2000 to join the HGSE faculty.

Education is a common thread in her family. Three of her four siblings workin the field: one sister is an occupational therapist, another a school librarian, and their brother became a high-school math teacher. Continuing the theme, McCartney is married to a high-school English teacher, William Hagen, with whom she lives in Cambridge. They have four grown children; one daughter, Kaitlin,is a high-school English teacher, too.

In remarks the day of her appointment, McCartney spoke of the simple but powerful tenet that inspired her own vocation, and today serves to unify the faculty she leads. “Education,” she said, “is the single most important ingredient for a just society.”

~Elizabeth Gudrais