Graduate School of Education Launches $250-Million Campaign

Harvard aims to “learn to change the world” at a moment of crisis and promise in schooling.

Dean James Ryan speaks to the more than 1,300 attendees at the HGSE campaign launch, held under a tent in Radcliffe Yard.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ’86 led off the day with a short address, followed by a dialogue with McCartney professor in education leadership Monica Higgins.
President Drew Faust lauded the HGSE community for its "grit" and spirit of exploration.
Geoffrey Canada delivered the keynote address.
Yo-Yo Ma ’76, D.Mus. ’91, performed with his group, the Silk Road Project.
A quartet of instrumentalists and trio of singers from Conservatory Lab Charter School performed arrangements of “Amazing Grace” and “Feelin’ Good” before President Faust spoke.
Ma strikes a pose with the student musicians.

On the crisp autumn Friday of September 19, the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) canceled classes and closed off Appian Way for the launch of its $250-million capital campaign, part of the University’s $6.5-billion fundraising drive. Students, faculty members, alumni, and other supporters gathered on the lawn of Radcliffe Yard for a day of talks and panels themed around “Critical Conversations and Bold Ideas.” Featuring speeches by Dean James E. Ryan and President Drew Faust, and musical performances by students from the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood and by Yo-Yo Ma ’76, D.Mus. ’91, and the Silk Road Project, the kickoff concluded with a block party—and the announcement that the school had already raised $111 million: 44 percent of the total goal. (The Graduate School of Design began its public campaign a week earlier, leaving only the Medical School and Law School to have their formal debuts.)

Charged with urgency and optimism, the conversations at the kickoff were laced with the dual rhetoric of crisis and promise. Rumblings about the achievement gap and the prison pipeline duetted with talk of the new opportunities discovered by research. Collectively, the discussions expressed what Ryan, in his afternoon address, called “a unique confluence of need, opportunity, and interest.”

The event aimed to celebrate the accomplishments of the HGSE community, and to demonstrate what organizers called the school’s “convening power.” This was amply proven by the more than 1,300 attendees, and a roster of speakers that began, at 9 a.m., with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ’86 (whose presence drew a small crowd of polite protestors opposed to high-stakes testing), and included a lunchtime keynote address by Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M. ’75, L.H.D. ’01.

The launch was also an occasion for Ryan, just a year into his tenure, to formally introduce his vision for the school. He described HGSE as a small institution that already has a large impact—and that now wants to expand. The campaign will fund initiatives to attract talent to education, develop faculty members and their research projects, and strengthen the impact of the academy on the field (see “Three Cs for Change”).

In an education sector ever more crowded with competing and often conflicting players—tech disruptors, charter groups, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofits of all shapes and stripes—the campaign needed to communicate not only “why now,” but “why HGSE.” The school emphasizes its position as a center for rigorous research, free of the desire to conform to ideology or party line. As academic dean Bridget Terry Long put it, an interview before the event: “A university doesn’t owe anyone a point of view.”

Ryan phrased the school’s mission this way: “We aim to be the place that people think of first when they want honest answers and bold ideas. We can become the very brightest beacon in the sometimes foggy world of education.”


“This Work Is Not for the Faint of Heart”

The morning’s first conversation was held on-stage, between Duncan and Monica Higgins, McCartney professor of education leadership. Duncan told the story of how he had become interested in education—his mother had run a tutoring program on Chicago’s South Side —and answered audience questions, drawn from a Red Sox lunch box, on topics ranging from universal preschool to summer learning loss during students' summer vacations.

Duncan also had a response to HGSE’s proposed new undergraduate teacher-training program. The program needed to be rigorous, making its expectations for student outcomes clear to the young teachers, and holding them accountable.

“And I would ask you to try and make sure your teachers reflect the tremendous diversity of our nation's children,” Duncan added. “I worry about the growing disconnect between what our teachers and our administrators look like, and what our students look like. Harvard can be part of the solution there.”

When Higgins asked the education secretary for his final words for the HGSE community, he spoke of children’s need for adults who inspire them, who create opportunities, and have high expectations. Then he reminded the audience: “This work is not for the faint of heart.”

Canada spoke along similar lines during his lunch-hour keynote. “Changing public policy is a full-contact sport,” Canada said, and those who aren’t cut out for it should do something easier:  “Go sell stocks and bonds or something, maybe make some money.”

Education is a singular field, Canada continued: “If you try to do something, the system is determined to stop you.” In other lines of work, people guard their innovations jealously. Education reform has no patents system, and yet “Nobody wants to steal a great idea from someone else,” he declared, speaking to school districts’ reluctance to try new approaches. “It’s crazy.” Although education can be just as science-minded and data-driven as the tech industry, he pointed out, other businesses have a higher tolerance for risk, and are patient with initial setbacks while a product is being perfected: no one gave up on smartphones when the prototypes had bugs.

Throughout, Canada returned to his enduring respect for and fond memories of HGSE: “This is literally the scene of the crime for me.” Harvard taught him about bridging the theoretical and the practical, and he had professors and mentors who challenged him to go into the field and prove his ideas:

“Why not go for it? That's what I think, when I think of the Ed School. That's what it means to me. That's what the people I met, who taught me—that's what they taught me. ‘Go out and really do it.’”


Bold Ideas: Eight for Eight 

Before the event, Dean Long described the launch as a chance to “make visible a number of things we’ve been doing,” including faculty and alumni work. Smaller panel discussions convened in Longfellow Hall’s Askwith Hall and the Gutman Conference Center on topics ranging from global education, and the role of superintendents, to technology in higher education, and early learning and the brain. The afternoon also included a brisk showcase of faculty research: eight professors giving eight-minute talks about their recent work, in what the moderator, Meehan professor in adult learning and professional development Robert Kegan joked was “a tapas bar of academics.”

Keppel professor of practice of educational policy and administration Paul Reville started things off with the explanation that since the 1980s, the United States had undergone an intense period of education reforms and experimentation in an effort to effect a nationwide rise in excellence and equity outcomes. His initial pronouncement was dire. “The quest for ‘all means all’ thus far has failed,” he declared, “but we have now an opportunity to learn from our failure,” namely the continuation of a model of schooling that produces a bell curve of student achievement. An industrial economy could accept this result—with lesser-skilled jobs available for those with less education or educational achievement—he said, but a new era would require a redesign.

The speakers following Reville covered a broad range of topics. Some introduced simple interventions with broad consequences: how simplifying the college- application process had made big differences in college access and in students’ continued enrollment afterward; how schools might engage more deeply with families, to aid classroom learning; how teachers might use complex vocabulary in their classroom “talk” to improve student literacy. Other talks introduced paradigm shifts in how to conceive of teachers and learners: one discussed how teaching programming in schools requires a more collaborative model of learning, easing the pressure for teachers to behave as if they have all the answers. Another introduced the new “science of the individual,” which eschews trying to describe the average brain, body, or learner and instead uses principles from a mathematical field called “dynamical systems” to accurately describe individuals. With these insights in mind, education innovators could design more effective teaching methods to meet students’ diverse needs.

Thomas Kane, director of the University’s Center for Education Policy Research, presented his vision for implementing new ideas in education. He diagrammed how school districts could volunteer to serve in experimental and control groups for research, and argued that Harvard  should take the lead in establishing this system. The University’s network and concentration of data analysis and other expertise, Kane said, uniquely qualified it for a major role in building such a network. “It would have an historic impact,” Kane added. “And if we don’t do it, I have no idea who will.”


“The Grittiest Place at Harvard”

The launch’s talks culminated in a planned Community Celebration featuring President Faust and Ryan, who spoke between the musical performances. The president’s keynote took the audience back in time, to the Ed School’s founding in 1920. She described the event they held for the occasion, a gathering of University figures for a dinner that, prolonged by manifold debates about education at Harvard, wore on until midnight. Though this kickoff would move less ponderously, Faust said, today’s HGSE continued to embrace debate.

“The GSE is not Harvard’s most well-resourced school,” Faust acknowledged. “Though we’re here today to change that.” Throughout its history, she said, the Ed School has prevailed in producing “explorers” who changed their field. Today, “The work of education is more scrutinized and sometimes downright assailed than ever before,” making the Ed School “quite possibly—and some would say unexpectedly—the grittiest place at Harvard.”

Her introduction of Ryan as “explorer-in-chief” was followed by his introduction of himself as an unusual prospect for the deanship: he was a law student and professor, and continues to be a Yankee fan and Yale alumnus. But growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in New Jersey, his experience with education committed him to the field for life: he saw that his success was the result of the dedicated efforts of his teachers and mentors. He also saw, he said, that the system had failed others.

Although it lacks the abundance of space and resources of its sister schools, Ryan said, the GSE had “something invaluable—a mission that is critical to all of our futures.” He continued, to general laughter, “I should hasten to add that more resources would not be incompatible to our mission.”

Ryan kept the tone light as he also introduced the campaign’s motto, joking about the others that had been proposed and discarded during the planning stages: “Embrace disruption”; “We have both qualitative and quantitative methodologists who work across a range of important and interesting intellectual disciplines”; “Who says we’re the problem?” Ultimately, he and his colleagues hit upon “Learn to Change the World”—in his words, a triple-entendre concise enough to fit on a banner or a tote bag.

The tagline expresses what Ryan termed the school’s “fundamental identity,” via a three-fold belief: that education was “the only sure path” for world change; that, at HGSE, anyone could learn about making a difference through education; and finally, that the school’s community would change the world of education itself.


Three Cs for Change

As part of its strategy to expand its impact, the school sorts its goals and priorities into three broad categories, the “three Cs”:

1. Cultivate world leaders and innovators. The HGSE seeks to draw top talent to Harvard, and to education more generally. The school prides itself on preparing students not just to operate within current school systems, but to change them. To that end, HGSE seeks to: 

  • Increase financial aid, through fellowships and other funding, for both doctoral and master’s candidates.

In recent years the school has established new degree programs: the Ed.L.D, or doctorate in education leadership, and the Ph.D., a University-wide doctorate in education, whose first cohort arrived on campus this fall. Many candidates are five or 10 years into promising careers, Ryan explained in an interview before the launch, and taking out time for further education involves an opportunity cost. Living expenses can further deter prospective students even from these tuition-free programs. Increased financial aid may be even more crucial to master’s students, whose programs are not free.

  • Recruit Harvard undergraduates to teaching, through a new Harvard Teachers Fellows program.

According to Daphne Layton Ed.D. ’92, senior associate dean for development and alumni relations, this proposal has already generated a lot of excitement among potential donors. In an interview before the launch, she outlined its possible design: an application during senior fall, then moving into the certification program in the spring, followed by an intensive summer with courses and practice teaching at the Crimson Summer Academy with local high-school students. Fellows would be placed in partner districts in September (with an approximate 80 percent teaching load), and take HGSE distance courses, before returning to Cambridge the following summer for a capstone experience. Interested students could earn a master’s degree, specifically designed for the fellows program. All would receive on-call coaching and support for their next few years in the profession. The program would be free of charge.

A small certification program is already available to undergraduates, but they have often found its demands difficult to balance with their regular coursework. The new program emerges in response to a perceived surge in interest in education at the College. When senior lecturer Katherine Merseth, M.A.T. ’69, Ed.D. ’82, first offered an undergraduate general education course, “Dilemmas in Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education,” in 2011, it garnered so much interest—90 applicants vying for 47 seats—that she had to choose students by lottery. In 2013, she decided to offer it during both semesters, and still, the spring term saw 300 students entering the lottery for 60 spots.

  • Expand online and hybrid learning.

HGSE’s first HarvardX course drew 70,000 students, Faust said in her address. The school seeks to make more investments in digital learning, and is particularly interested in offering professional development to principals and superintendents who cannot access a residential degree program.

  • Fuel innovation with fellowships and expertise.

HGSE wants to create more fellowships at the Harvard iLab, and also seeks support for its Scaling Up Project, intended to help reformers expand educational ventures that have demonstrated success locally. The 15,000 school districts in the United States present a significant barrier to wide adoption of promising local ventures, which must struggle to adjust for, and overcome, this vast and daunting diversity. The Scaling Up Project will give conferences and workshops, and will eventually establish a professional education institute to improve the situation.

2. Collaborate on questions that matter. The school will encourage interdisciplinary approaches—among its own concentrations, but also across all of Harvard’s schools—to pursue research that will help practitioners. HGSE wants to:

  • Shape its future with faculty hiring.  

The next few years look to be a time of generational change for the education school, Ryan recently told the Harvard Gazette. Although it is a “poignant moment” for the school as its senior faculty moves into retirement, that shift also presents the opportunity to change the future of the school. A number of searches are already planned for the coming year, focusing on experts in quantitative methods, and researchers studying education equity.

The school also wishes to expand in promising fields like neuroscience and learning technologies. “Rather than conduct a specific search,” Ryan said, “we are educating ourselves about what, exactly, within those broad fields is the most promising and is the most exciting, so that when we do a search we'll be sure that we're searching for the right person in the right area.” Attracting experts in those areas, said Long, may require that HGSE find a way to create opportunities outside the traditional tenure track: “It may involve partnerships and exchanges with industry.”

  • Fund research projects.

The school wants to establish a Dean’s Venture Fund, which will provide seed funding to teams of faculty working across disciplines. Examples include the Education Redesign lab, led by Reville, and a joint effort between HGSE and Harvard Business School to improve career and technical training, smoothing young adults’ transition from high school to their post-secondary paths.

  • Increase support for existing research centers.

HGSE wants to bolster its organizations, such as the Center for Education Policy Research and the Center on the Developing Child, to encourage their efforts to generate research with partners in the field, such as school districts. 

3. Communicate with the field. With its institutional mission to foster leaders in education, and the change they will bring to their field, HGSE wants to bridge the gap between academia and practice. It seeks funding to:

  • Make research more accessible.

Two weeks ago, HGSE launched its Usable Knowledge project, an online collection of faculty and student work translated into summaries, illustrations, and videos. To share the school’s findings with the outside world, Usable Knowledge will disseminate these materials through a new website, newsletter, and social media presence. Ryan hopes that it will become “the most trusted place where people can come to get answers to real questions”—not just for education professionals but for parents who want advice, or reporters who want a trustworthy source of information.

  • Convene stakeholders in modern facilities.

The school wants to make “strategic investments in HGSE’s facilities” in order to gather groups of advocates, philanthropists, and practitioners. There are currently no explicit, concrete plans to physically expand (beyond the current upper-floor addition to Longfellow Hall), Layton said, but currently the school “is incredibly space-constrained,” which hampers its ability to host large conferences or provide office space to visiting scholars.


Education’s Moment

To meet these goals, the school will need to speak to an audience larger than its immediate community of alumni.

“We do not have a naturally affluent alumni base, because the field of education is not especially lucrative,” said Ryan in his interview. “We have to appeal to those who may not have any formal connection to the Ed School or even any formal connection to Harvard, but are interested in education, and would invest in us if they believe in our ideas and our programs.”

But the school is energized, and optimistic about what a more outward-looking campaign may yield. HGSE had recently announced that its campaign would be co-chaired by Ralph James, M.B.A. ’82, the executive director of external relations at Harvard Business School (and chair of the Joslin Diabetes Center board). Layton said that she feels “really encouraged” by the support of people across the University—the president, business school leadership, and others—and by what seems an unprecedented interest in education exhibited by society at large, because, “There's no question—we can't do this on our own.”

At the launch, Ryan told the attendees, “The details matter less than this question: if not us, who? If you believe that education in this country and abroad needs improvement, perhaps dramatic improvement, who else is in a better position to make that happen? What other institution or organization has the range, the reach, the access to world-class talent and the independence needed to make a real difference?” And then: “Who else has all of you?”

We are experiencing “education’s moment,” he said. HGSE’s needs are great, but so are its ambitions. With support, it can meet both.

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