Educating Educators

Bridget Terry LongPhotograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Bridget Terry Long had the good timing to become dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) on July 1, 2018—the same day that the education-minded Lawrence S. Bacow assumed the University presidency, making for a powerful potential partnership. In fact, her timing was dually deft: she assumed her new responsibilities 18 months before the school’s centennial year, in 2020. That presents a natural occasion to celebrate its past and reflect on its future in an era, she said in a late-April conversation, when people are “desperate to improve education, address achievement gaps, and make better policy.” Educating the professionals who can help effect such changes lies at the core of HGSE’s mission. Enhancements in how it does so are likely to be at the core of her tenure.

Long, who earned her Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 2000 and joined HGSE’s faculty then, helped lay the foundation for her deanship by serving as academic dean for her predecessor, James E. Ryan (now president of the University of Virginia), from 2013 to 2017 (when she returned to research for a year).

During that period, a wave of retirements led to significant hirings: a generational renewal, with the arrival of 16 new core faculty members within HGSE’s cohort of 70 to 80 scholars and professors of practice. The pace has abated somewhat, Long indicated, but the school remains in the market, bolstering its practitioner-professor ranks this academic year and filling gaps created by the retirement of such senior colleagues as Pascucci professor of practice in learning differences Tom Hehir, an expert on special education and students with disabilities.

Just before Ryan stepped down, he and current academic dean Nonie Lesaux wrote that the faculty had voted to approve a “new framework” for HGSE’s master of education (Ed.M.) program, in part by “elevat[ing] the status of the education profession by defining its key aspects, including core knowledge and skills that all educators should have.” That suggested no small project: identifying the “core skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking that are central to the profession of education,” and embedding them in 13 separate Ed.M. tracks that range from arts in education and education policy and management to human development, language and literacy, learning and teaching, and more. [Revised and corrected June 20, 2019, 9:15 a.m. The part of the prior sentence following the material in quotation marks is based on a misunderstanding. As part of revisiting its Ed.M. program, the HGSE faculty is focusing on core competencies it considers essential for all degree candidates to prepare them for diverse careers in education. Students would also apparently choose areas of special, focal interest, within their courses of study—but the number of such areas, how they are defined, and how students’ one-year degree programs (a limiting constraint, as opposed to the multiyear courses of study in other professional schools) will be reshaped are all in the process of being determined by the faculty during the coming academic year.] In effect, faculty members were committing themselves to rethinking education and teacher preparation as a profession. The Ryan-Lesaux memo said the school would “move forward with designing, piloting, and evaluating the components of this redesigned master’s program.”

By “reinventing” its teaching, HGSE can deliver “what educators need to be most effective.”

That crucial work, Long indicated—a “commitment to getting better” atop current program strengths—is now under way, based on her colleagues’ commitment to a “shared mission to think seriously about how we can contribute to the state of education.” She accordingly listed “the education we give our own students” as her first academic priority: “reinventing professional learning” in the field to assure that HGSE is delivering “what educators need to be most effective.”

As the faculty reaches decisions and prepares to begin piloting changes perhaps a year hence, she will oversee the work with an eye on the centennial: thinking about what HGSE people have historically effected, and the challenges of its second century. Conferring with colleagues, Long said, had taught her more about the school’s foundational contributions in fields ranging from human development, moral and social development, and leadership to the role of the arts in education: evidence of “our history as a launching pad” and as a source of expertise and practice for constituencies across the nation and worldwide who are “interested in engaging with these ideas.”

In operating terms, she is emphasizing ways to augment “our impact beyond Harvard Square.” Her own work, on access to higher education, financial aid, and outcomes for lower-income and underprepared students (read more here) resulted in changes in policy and practice, she recalled, and “many people at the school do that” through their work.

She is using her new office to elevate such outreach through multiple channels: professional education for practitioners and policymakers (online and in person); dissemination of colleagues’ research; and the “collective impact” of networks of graduates working in a school system together, faculty members collaborating, and research ties being enhanced across the University. Long is especially interested in entrepreneurial faculty members’ partnerships with other local institutions, on at least a couple of dimensions. One is viewing education as a pipeline, with “better hand-offs” from early-childhood education to proficient learning to higher-level skills. Another is reaching out to the presidents of Roxbury and Bunker Hill Community Colleges and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, to learn about their challenges, as well as to other area schools of education to explore opportunities to cooperate.

As for the substance of the work, Long said, “so much of our history of K-12 education” in the United States has been a search for “silver bullets”—single solutions to perceived problems. That has rarely worked, and seems ever less likely to succeed as the student population becomes more diverse, and as the differences among local communities (their resources, their populations’ socioeconomic status) become ever more profound. But faculty members know “ways we can actually improve literacy, or improve supports for teachers in their professional development.” HGSE, she said, is regularly engaged in helping communities to understand the trade-offs inherent in the decisions they make to try to close achievement gaps, she said, or to collect and assess data in order to evaluate outcomes. This is fine-grained, expert work, she suggested, “not plug and play.”

Clearly, Long is aiming for an HGSE centennial year of community reflection, outward extension, and campus curricular change. Along the way, during her first months as dean, she has found that the school’s people and programs “exceeded my expectations in really positive ways.” Looking forward, she hopes to “expand, double down, and deepen our impact.”

At a time when President Bacow has emphasized the University’s role in serving society, not only in the environs of Harvard Square or across the world but in the American heartland, Long and HGSE might have an additional opportunity within the larger institution. She joined him last September during his visit to Pontiac and Detroit, Michigan, underscoring Harvard’s engagement with communities far from the coast. By its very nature, HGSE is training graduates who are already on the ground in such places (Detroit’s new school superintendent is an alumnus and, Long noted, “one of my students”).

“You could pick almost any place,” she continued. For example, alumni are at work in school systems in rural America, a new focus of interest, analyzing how students in relatively isolated, small communities, with limited resources, can succeed as learners. “Hey, we’re there,” she said. “This is what we could build from. We’d love to do more.” 

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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