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Getting to the "Core" of Public Education

The Deanship of Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

After three years at the helm of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann will step down as dean at the end of this academic year. She will continue to serve as the Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Education. Her announcement marks the completion of a tenure notable for major changes to the School's academic programs and administrative structure, significant progress toward a case-based core curriculum, many faculty appointments, an important initiative to create "usable knowledge," and preparation for a potential campus move to Allston.

Warren Professor of the History of American Education (Photo: Rose Lincoln)

"Like a good teacher, Ellen consistently raised a valuable question for us all: How do we make the best use of HGSE to strengthen the profession of education?" says Meehan Professor Robert Kegan. "All the changes now underway at the School--the creation of a single doctoral program, the build-up of a non-departmental faculty collaborating across disciplines, the experiments toward a core course that captures the necessarily interdisciplinary character of education as a field--all of these have sprung from that single good question, which she patiently, insistently placed before us."

New Beginnings

Building on earlier work done by the Academic Cabinet, a faculty committee, Lagemann made the development of a case-based core curriculum one of her first priorities as dean. Noting that other professional schools--such as those in medicine and law--teach a set of core competencies that are shared across the profession, Lagemann led an effort to create a similar curriculum at HGSE.

The first step toward this core curriculum was the creation of a new course, Thinking Like an Educator (TLE), which utilizes the case method, an approach that has been successful in other professional schools, yet has remained largely untried in education.

"The core was first discussed in the Academic Cabinet during the two years preceding my appointment," says Lagemann. "After I arrived, [Shattuck Professor] Catherine Snow and Bob Kegan helped move the school from shared readings and a commitment to ‘multiperspectivality' to an actual course called Thinking Like an Educator. I think TLE is moving HGSE to a distinctive pedagogy that will help transform education into what I have been calling a ‘strong profession.'"

"I think Thinking Like an Educator is moving HGSE to a distinctive pedagogy that will help transform education into what I have been calling a ‘strong profession.'"–Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

Though the core curriculum remains a work in progress, much has been accomplished to foster the momentum needed for the eventual creation of additional core courses and a more comprehensive framework. Lagemann hopes HGSE can create a model curriculum that can serve as a standard for the profession. "If we can do this," says Lagemann, "we will be able to ensure that more and more children, from all walks of life, have the high-quality education they need and deserve."

HGSE as a Center for the Dissemination of ‘Usable Knowledge'

Another major area of change during Lagemann's tenure was the reorganization of HGSE's academic areas and degree programs. These changes, which include the move from "areas" in the academic programs to a school-wide approach, were designed to create the flexibility necessary for the changing educational landscape in the 21st century.

After her first year as dean, Lagemann reflected on the organizational shifts taking place at HGSE: "These and other innovations have increased our capacity to improve education through the preparation of educational leaders; the design of model education programs; the creation of knowledge that will inform policies that have local, national, and global impact; and the advancement and dissemination of usable knowledge that will enhance what teachers can do to promote learning."

Over the past three years, Lagemann has continually emphasized the need for the School to focus on translating the findings of research into tools (texts, toys, tests, and the like) that teachers and learners themselves can use--usable knowledge. During her first year, Lagemann launched a series of conferences under the Usable Knowledge theme. The first, "Scaling Up Success," was held in spring 2003 and focused on the importance of taking successful programs from the classroom level to the district and, ultimately, nationwide. A book with the same title, which drew on information presented at the conference, was published this past winter and a follow-up Askwith Forum was held in the spring. Another conference, held in the fall of 2004, was based on Bigelow Professor Kurt Fischer's work in the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, which links biology, neuroscience, and education. A third conference, centered on online professional development, is slated for fall 2005.

"In a relatively short period of time, Ellen set in motion important conversations at the school; for example, creating stronger links between research and practice," says Richard Chait, professor of higher education. "She encouraged the faculty to reconsider conventions and generate innovations. No doubt, some important seeds of change were sown in the process."

"In a relatively short period of time, Ellen set in motion important conversations at the school; for example, creating stronger links between research and practice," says Richard Chait, professor of higher education. "She encouraged the faculty to reconsider conventions and generate innovations. No doubt, some important seeds of change were sown in the process."

Lagemann's efforts have resulted in a school of education that is now more influential in the areas of policymaking and research, not only in Boston and Cambridge, but across the nation. Lagemann's commitment to strengthening the link between research and practice is exemplified by the invigoration of professional education under her leadership, ushering in a systematic approach to connecting the knowledge generated at the School with the work of education professionals in the field.

Lagemann recruited Mary Grassa O'Neill, a former superintendent and principal, to lead the combined operations of Programs in Professional Education and the Principals' Center creating a unified approach to professional education at HGSE. The professional development programs bring approximately 3,000 educators to the School each year, providing a unique opportunity for HGSE faculty and education professionals to work together on key challenges in teaching and learning. Lagemann's commitment to strengthening the education profession, and her vision for connecting theory to practice, will be a lasting contribution to both HGSE and the education profession.


Faculty appointments, a priority for any dean, have occupied a large segment of Lagemann's time. Since she arrived on Appian Way, Lagemann has focused on recruiting new talent to help enhance the Ed School's faculty. This commitment has resulted in four new faculty members: three who have already begun teaching, and one who will begin his service in the fall. "I'm particularly proud that two of these four appointments are people of color," says Lagemann. "Further diversifying HGSE has been one of my highest goals."

Lagemann's first faculty appointment was Nonie Lesaux, assistant professor in education.Though she has only been on the faculty for two years, Lesaux has already made a large impact both on campus and off. Her research in reading development, especially for bilingual learners, has drawn attention nationwide. For example, she recently was asked to conduct research in the San Diego City Schools public district on how to create the best tools for English language learners.

This year, John Diamond joined the HGSE faculty as an assistant professor of education. An expert on the educational effects of race and ethnicity, Diamond's research has helped shed light on problems in both urban and suburban school systems. Lagemann recruited Diamond from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee where he taught in the department of educational policy and community studies. Diamond has also been on the faculty at Northwestern University.

The most recent faculty addition is Karen Mapp, who started teaching at the Ed School this spring. Mapp, a lecturer on education, brings solid practitioner experience from her recent role as the deputy superintendent for communities and schools for the Boston Public Schools. She has also served as president of the Institute for Responsive Education (IRE), a research, policy, and advocacy organization in Boston that explores how school, family, and community partnerships effectively support children's learning.

Lagemann's final faculty hire is Tom Kane, who will arrive in September 2005. Recruited from UCLA where he was a professor of policy studies and economics, Kane will bring a tremendous amount of experience in education policy and evaluation.Among his chief responsibilities at HGSE will be to help build and shape a new University-wide center for urban school research.

This new center will be part of the Harvard Institute for Educational Excellence and Equity (HIEE), which Lagemann worked closely with the University to design. HIEE will bring together faculty-led education-related programs from across the University and create new connections--and, ideally, new knowledge--that will improve education across the globe. A key element of the Institute, which will be led jointly by the Ed School and the University, is the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI). Established by Lagemann and now led by Kennedy School lecturer Ronald Ferguson, the AGI is an interdisciplinary effort to mobilize researchers to help understand and narrow the achievement gap that seems to correlate strongly with race and class.

In addition to broadening the faculty and the reach of the school, Lagemann has strengthened the school's leadership team. Among her major administrative appointments are Bob Fogel, administrative dean; James Stiles, Ed.M.'93, Ed.D,'03, associate dean for degree programs; Daphne Layton, Ed.M.'89, Ed.D,'92, associate dean for curriculum and faculty appointments; and William McKersie, Ed.M.'86, associate dean for development and alumni relations.

This strength has been extended from these high-level appointments throughout the school's administrative staff. "Ellen has transformed the administration of the School through the fabulous appointments she has made on the administrative side," says Ellen Carpenter, director of human resources. "We are now a school with the administrative staff we need to operate as one of the nation's premier graduate schools of education."

Preparing for Allston

"Ellen has been a consistently constructive voice in discussions among the deans about key University priorities, including planning for Allston and for HGSE's eventual new home there."–Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Another major challenge of Lagemann's deanship concerned the planning for a potential move of HGSE from its current home in Cambridge to a future location in Allston. In his letter to the University community regarding Lagemann's decision to step down, Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers noted Lagemann's work on Allston planning: "Ellen has been a consistently constructive voice in discussions among the deans about key University priorities, including planning for Allston and for HGSE's eventual new home there."

Lagemann has consistently viewed the move as an opportunity to connect more effectively with the other schools that likely will be clustered across the river in Allston, including the School of Public Health and the Business School (which is already located there). While the issue of moving the Ed School to Allston is a complex one, some view Lagemann's approach of communicating a vision of what possibilities the move may hold as one of her lasting legacies at HGSE.

"Dean Lagemann skillfully guided the School on many fronts, including establishing the foundation for a developing vision of our future in Allston," says John Collins, librarian of HGSE's Gutman Library and member of the faculty, who chaired a committee on Allston planning during the 2003–04 academic year. "She encouraged a collaborative approach to Allston planning that fostered thoughtful discussion about the School's physical plant among faculty, staff, and students."

Like the core curriculum, the plans for HGSE's eventual move to Allston will continue to be developed after Lagemann's departure. In the tone she has set--seeking faculty, staff, and student input; encouraging feedback even in the nascent stage of the process; and ultimately, looking to the potential for interschool collaboration across the Charles River--Lagemann's determination to place HGSE closer to the center of the larger Harvard community will continue to be felt in the years to come.

Writing Education History
Lagemann leaves her Ed School deanship with many projects successfully underway and ready for continued growth. Now, with HGSE's future as a leader in education policy and research even more secure--and after many years in administrative roles in both academe and related organizations--she has decided to return to her first loves: teaching, researching, and writing history.

"Even as discussion continues regarding how we can best address the challenges of public education, we should celebrate how far we have come as an institution," says Lagemann. "I see change as a process and not as an event; and, while I would say that the process is not finished, I am pleased that it is well launched at HGSE."

Like her predecessors at the Ed School, Lagemann gave many speeches on a variety of subjects and to a range of audiences while serving as dean. When speaking of HGSE's role in promoting education and education research on a national level, she often spoke of the School as a "small institution with a large footprint." This is also an apt description of Ellen Condliffe Lagemann's own accomplishments over the past three years. During what may be termed a brief yet imaginative chapter in the history of HGSE, Lagemann's season of well-launched plans and collaborative innovation has left a lasting imprint.

About the Article
A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.