Boosting Teacher Training

Harvard Graduate School of Education receives a landmark gift in support of its new teaching master’s program.

Bridget Terry Long, Victor Pereira, and Heather Hill
Bridget Terry Long, Victor Pereira, and Heather HillPhotographs courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Education

Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE)—renowned for research spanning early-childhood learning and college accessibility, and for training education leaders and policymakers—is making major progress on its redesigned program to equip teachers for classroom careers. As it prepares to welcome the inaugural cohort of Teaching and Teacher Leadership (TTL) master’s degree candidates this fall, the school today announced a landmark fellowships gift to support those students’ professional development. Dean Bridget Terry Long hailed the gift for “enabl[ing] us not only to prepare the kind of equity-focused, effective teachers all students need and deserve, but also to develop and share knowledge about how to train and support high-quality teaching in the complex world of the twenty-first century.

The Gift

The $40-millon gift—the largest in its history—will support endowed scholarships for TTL students and, HGSE announced, “dramatically enhance the school’s ability to prepare educators to meet the challenges facing students and schools as they emerge from pandemic-related disruptions that have exacerbated existing inequities.”

If anything, that understates the gift’s impact. In an interview, Dean Long, who joined the HGSE faculty in 2000 after earning her doctorate in economics at Harvard, said of the school’s financial-aid resources, “It’s heartbreaking in many respects.” HGSE attracts outstanding students determined to work in education, but “They’re barely making it,” given the economics of their chosen profession. Most must be “willing to take on debt”—often a lot of it, atop any obligations from their undergraduate studies.

Some 42 percent of applicants, she said, are low-income earners who make less than $30,000 per year. Half of admitted students qualify for need-based aid, she continued, but the maximum grant is $19,000—applied to a current tuition bill of $51,904 for the one-year master’s program, and an estimated total cost of attendance (including living expenses and fees) of $85,060.

The faculty, she noted, had been working hard to bolster its academic programs (see discussion below), “to make meaningful changes in education.” But equivalent progress on access and affordability—the subject of her own scholarship—must accompany the academic enhancements, if HGSE is to fulfill its ambitions to attract outstanding candidates to education and equip them for success. Seen in that light, the gift announced today carries significance beyond its size.

The donors. Although the gift was made anonymously, HGSE identified the sources as “two Harvard Business School [HBS] alumni.” Training for service-oriented professions—education, government, public health—is every bit as expensive as that for business or law, but the former graduates usually earn far less than those in the latter fields, and so lack the giving capacity that could substantially strengthen their professional schools or meaningfully augment the financial-aid resources available to successor classes.

This sort of cross-school giving is not new; HBS alumni have shown increasing interest in supporting HGSE and education. In September 2014, when then-new dean James Ryan (Long’s predecessor) launched a $250-million fund drive, Ralph James, HBS’s executive director of external relations, co-chaired the effort (even as he had his own billion-dollar, business-school campaign to run). When Ryan unveiled the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program—an on-ramp to teaching for Harvard undergraduates, now melded into TTL (see below)—it was underpinned by an anonymous gift from today’s donors and additional support from Richard L. Menschel, M.B.A. ’59, a Goldman Sachs alumnus, and Ronay Menschel.

The incentive. To sustain the philanthropic momentum, the gift comes with a kicker. According to the announcement, it consists of $30 million in endowed scholarship funding, plus $10 million in matching funds: with gifts of $250,000 or more, interested donors can create additional TTL fellowships, on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis.

The impact. When fully funded, the gifts will support 40 TTL fellowships annually, beginning in the 2023-2024 academic year. Each covers 80 percent of the program tuition plus a $10,000 stipend toward living expenses. For students starting teaching careers, that lowers the debt hurdle significantly; for those already teaching, who are training to assume greater responsibilities, the fellowships reduce the cost of interrupting work to acquire an advanced degree. (TTL is designed to train novices and rising teacher leaders together, and so will admit both kinds of applicants.)

Perhaps 40 or so students are expected to enroll in the pioneering cohort arriving this fall, Victor Pereira Jr., lecturer on education and faculty co-chair of TTL, said in an interview. The program will likely grow in coming years. If the planned fellowships are fully funded, and then some, that means TTL would be in the enviable position, within HGSE, of being able to offer an unprecedented level of financial aid to nearly all its students. 

The larger goal. Not surprisingly, Dean Long said, “This gift is kickstarting a much larger campaign.” Potential supporters, she said, “can wrap their minds about what teachers do.” From “everything we’ve seen with the pandemic and before, teachers are just so critical” to their pupils’ academic success, social well-being and development, and in many cases basic nutrition and safety. Of the past two years, she said, “It’s been brutal.”

But looking across the sector, she said, “We’re really trying to improve education” by attracting and supporting talented people throughout the whole “ecosystem”: classroom teachers, principals, superintendents, after-school program leaders, policymakers, and entrepreneurs. There are major problems in contemporary education, she said, but “dedication, great ideas, and fantastic people can make changes.” HGSE’s redesigned master’s programs are meant to address that whole spectrum of challenges—and the hoped-for financial-aid support, to make it feasible for the best candidates to participate.

Teaching and Teacher Leadership in Context

Most members of the public probably think of education schools as focusing on teacher preparation. But the GSE is a Harvard graduate school of education, spanning basic research on learning, higher education, policy, and more—with K-12 teacher training just one part of the larger whole. At the time Dean Ryan unveiled Harvard Teacher Fellows (HTF), he said that about 20 students were enrolled in the master’s degree in teacher preparation offered then—one of 13 master’s tracks, yielding between 576 and 683 graduates annually during the period 2010-2011 through 2019-2020.

The faculty’s comprehensive redesign of HGSE’s master’s program—launched by Ryan, with Long as academic dean—resulted in the current academic year in a new suite of degrees focused on five program areas: education leadership, organizations, and entrepreneurship; policy and analysis; human development; learning design, innovation, and technology; and teaching and teacher leadership—TTL. They begin with students’ summer immersion in four core units that underpin all education professions (how people learn; evidence; leading change; and equity and opportunity)—all of which were piloted for entering students last summer, and will be required for fall 2022 master’s matriculants. The only program not begun this academic year was TTL, because the pandemic made it uncertain that students could have the required in-classroom experiences that are central to their training. Looking to the 2022-2023 academic year, TTL should be able to launch fully.

TTL in effect consolidates several strands of teacher training, and gives them equal weight, in the new master’s roster, to HGSE’s other degree offerings. One is the former Teacher Education master’s, which Pereira described as traditional internship immersion: learning by doing, in a field placement (a school classroom setting), with guidance from master teachers. Pereira himself spent 14 years teaching science in the Boston public schools and became an HGSE adjunct as a mentor and instructor in teaching methods in that master’s program. (He came aboard full-time as HTF master science teacher in residence.)

The second arose from the HTF model (described in depth here), in which would-be teachers take coursework their senior year and then, having graduated, spend a summer immersed in learning at HGSE, then gradually work into school placements, but receive continuous, intensive feedback and support, do further course work during a second summer, and go forward into their early careers with a structured program of mentoring and support in place. (They would also have the option of fulfilling additional course requirements to earn an HGSE master’s.) As originally envisioned, HTF was projected to have the capacity to train 100 teachers per year—but scaling up to that level depended, of course, on student interest, and on continuous funding (the program, begun as an experiment, had current-use funding for operations and fellowships, but not permanent, endowed support). 

In the TTL model, all students take HGSE’s new summer foundation programs. The academic-year TTL-specific courses, Pereira said, are practice-based, but informed by those basics derived from HGSE scholars’ research, so the teaching-specific instruction occurs in a larger context: “What does it mean to provide accessible learning opportunities for all students, on the path to developing academic independence?” A second, distinctive element of the program is bringing together novices, seeking Massachusetts secondary-school licensure, and experienced teachers interested in engaging in instructional leadership, coaching, and teacher development. The aim is to bring some of the HTF innovations into the classroom through the presence of fellow students who have already “been there,” having encountered teaching challenges, sought and applied solutions, and who now seek to do that work more systematically. For the degree candidates who have not yet begun or are early in their teaching careers, Pereira said, these more experienced TTL peers will “model what it means to continually reflect and push your own practice.”

As cohorts graduate, he said, they should form natural mentoring and support groups, like those organized within HTF, and, over time, distinctively trained alumni who can sustain that continual reflection, development, and improvement in practice. As he said in the news announcement, “The relationships among the aspiring teachers and leaders in our program, and the relationships they have with instructors and mentors, is a dynamic that creates a strong network of supported, confident learning. Our program will nurture the whole person, leading to the kind of preparation that fosters a highly skilled and well-structured pathway to the classroom”—and in the years beyond.

“If you really develop 50 great teachers,” Pereira said in the interview, “the impact is compounded very quickly.”

Learning What Works

Because HGSE is a research institution, the kinds of learning benefits Pereira described are not being left to chance personal contacts. TTL’s other faculty co-chair is Heather C. Hill, a member of the faculty since 2006 and recently appointed the initial Hazen-Nicoli professor in teacher learning and leadership. Her scholarship focuses on policies and practices that improve teacher effectiveness—including training and development. Alongside the TTL master’s program, at Dean Long’s request, she is creating a “laboratory for teacher education research,” as the news announcement put it: an evidence-based approach to determining how to train teachers most effectively.

In a conversation, Hill said TTL had two “highly unusual” features compared to programs at other education schools. First, she said, “It is highly coherent.” Rather than aggregating courses based on faculty members’ personal preferences and interests, TTL’s curriculum, in the context of HGSE’s redesigned master’s programs overall, proceeds from an initial understanding of “what do novice teachers need to know and do from day one on the job,” to create a safe, productive learning environment for children.

Second, and perhaps even more challenging for a research institution like HGSE, “We train teachers using a practice-based orientation,” Hill said. Compared to traditional curriculums that are heavily theoretical or historical in nature, the practical and practice-focused TTL sequence is “a huge leap forward for education schools.” Thus, there are the core units, instruction on the kinds of students entering K-12 schools today (including special-education cohorts and English-language learners), and field experiences, all structured in a productive way. 

Hill characterized the resulting curriculum and pedagogy—with residential and internship (in-classroom) elements, and the presence of more senior teacher leaders alongside beginners—as almost “shocking and amazing to see.” Colleagues at other education schools around the country, she said, have been impressed with the result. 

Hill comes to those views about the program from her own work on “teacher-learning broadly,” including years of research on teaching and learning in mathematics. For example, she said, teachers working today have many in-service, professional-development programs, but their utility varies widely. “Teachers are more successful at raising students’ learning outcomes,” she said, “when professional education is tied to what they are doing and the curriculum they are teaching.” That might seem obvious, but much in-service education instead focuses on abstractions, like new “frameworks” that teachers might consider. Because such instruction, no matter how well intentioned, is remote from the work they are doing every day, teachers find that it makes their jobs harder, and don’t apply it to their classrooms. Solid research from the past 20 years demonstrates what works in such “teacher professional learning” contexts, Hill said.

The state of the art is less advanced for basic teacher education—the focus of Hill’s new inquiries as TTL begins. But work is under way to find out how teacher education could be improved. For example, she and doctoral student Zid Mancenido are looking at how teaching practices are taught. For example, is it more effective for pre-service teachers to learn about a new classroom technique in the abstract, versus having them rehearse it in front of peers? Such situations can be designed, tested, and rigorously evaluated (presumably along with an assessment of the costs associated with each technique for instructing the teachers-to-be).

TTL presents an unusual opportunity to undertake such research with a new teacher-education program and cohort of learners. As Hill put it in the news announcement, “Teacher educators rarely have the time and resources to identify the impact of different approaches to novice teacher learning.” The research program will “generat[e] new evidence about the best ways to effectively prepare and support teachers to address the many challenges that our K-12 students are facing today.” If the work proceeds as planned, such findings could be shared with other teacher-education programs and institutions nationwide.

Her scholarly discipline aside, Hill shares the passion that Pereira brings to TTL from his years teaching science in classrooms. Noting that she has studied the labor markets for teachers, she said that many young candidates, just out of college, are not yet thinking in terms of lifelong careers in education. Many Harvard College graduates, and those from comparable institutions, are academically equipped to be wonderful teachers, and attracting them to the profession would be socially beneficial, she observed. But a year-long, $85,000 master’s degree is a major hurdle when they may then be thinking of only the first few years of their work lives. The TTL fellowship gift, she continued, can eliminate that barrier for such prospective teachers, enriching the pool of candidates for a profession that could surely benefit from attracting them.

And more directly, she said, the gift “ensures that Harvard trains teachers in perpetuity,” after such experiments as HTF. “Teachers are at the center of what we’re about. I’m just floored by this gift.”

 

Dean Long put the gift, and HGSE’s TTL program, in a University context. “President [Lawrence] Bacow has been extremely supportive,” she said—and not just because he knew the school as president in residence between his Tufts and Harvard presidencies. (Bacow’s first academic trip as president, in 2018, was an education-related visit to his hometown of Pontiac, Michigan, where he and newly appointed Dean Long met with high-school students and teachers, followed by education-focused meetings in Detroit.) His recurrent message to the community about the work of “Harvard for the good of the world,” from basic research that led to the coronavirus vaccines to applying public-health expertise to the pandemic, applies equally to his view of Harvard’s role in education. Among the school deans and more broadly, she continued, “You do see many more conversations about what we as a university can do to address these problems.”

Within her school, she said, students piloting the new master’s programs this academic year have applied what they learned in one of the core programs (say, human development) to others (like the unit on evidence). They were better prepared for formal course work when the fall semester began, and more students took statistics to apply those tools to their field experiences. Finally, although the master’s sequence involves 32 course credits, students are “voting with their feet,” Long reported, often registering for as many as 40 credits. With the summer foundation material required for all students this coming summer, she said, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

In the longer term, of course, what matters is improving education. HGSE, like the rest of Harvard, aims to train leaders. It will number its graduates entering secondary education in the dozens per year, not the hundreds. But they should be equipped to teach many more pupils in turn—and the associated teacher-education research may help enhance the field at large.

“The compounding interest of this gift is really mind-boggling,” Long concluded. “I’m incredibly grateful for the gift and what it will empower us to do going forward, from our HGSE students to the thousands of students they will serve.”

Read the HGSE announcement here.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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