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Using Usable Knowledge

Disseminating Knowledge to Improve Educational Practice

Even though Mary Grassa O'Neill, managing director of the newly merged Principals' Center and Programs in Professional Education, has years of hands-on experience as a school leader in urban and suburban settings, she adamantly claims that she is "only a practitioner working among a genius faculty of researchers." She plays a unique role at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, focused on strengthening the bridge between a major university's research and the dissemination of "usable knowledge" for practitioners working in schools.

Faculty Member Mary Grassa O'Neill (photo by Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures, Inc.)

Last summer Grassa O'Neill came to HGSE from the Milton (Mass.) Public Schools, where she spent 10 years as superintendent. Prior to that, she was a zone superintendent, principal, curriculum advisor, and classroom teacher for the Boston Public Schools. Her myriad experiences only fuel her passion for "advancing education for students, not just in this country, but all over the world."

Their findings suggest that students in remedial courses are more likely to graduate, or transfer from two-year schools to four-year schools, than students with similar educational backgrounds who did not take remedial classes. The problem is that remedial courses can also prolong the time it takes for a student to get a degree--which can be a source of discouragement for many.

In December 2004, HGSE combined the administrative operations of the Principals' Center and Programs in Professional Education (PPE) to form a new entity (whose name has not been determined as of press time), which is part of HGSE's Research, Innovation, and Outreach (RIO) unit. Grassa O'Neill originally came to HGSE to direct the Principals' Center, but her deep knowledge across a wide spectrum of school leadership made her the perfect choice to lead the merged group. She also holds a faculty appointment and teaches in the School Leadership Program; sits on the Committee on Schooling; and chairs the cross-role cohort program, which matches HGSE students with multidisciplinary opportunities in three Boston public schools. Her collaborative spirit includes engagement with other RIO initiatives, which connect the knowledge generated at the School to education professionals, with an aim to improve educational practice and raise student achievement.

Having worked in so many education roles outside of the Ed School, Grassa O'Neill brings a unique perspective to her collaborations with other faculty members. Susan Moore Johnson, Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning, explains, "We study issues, but Mary has lived them. She visited my class on unions and helped the students better understand the opportunities and challenges of working with collective bargaining from a superintendent's perspective, which certainly enriched the students' perspective on the issue."

"By bringing these efforts together under a single initiative, we can act more strategically to advance the School's goal of strengthening the education profession and contributing to educational improvement."

Grassa O'Neill stresses that the continuum of education doesn't end with commencement, and her new group strives to establish lifelong learning opportunities for Ed School alumni through its programs, which address a growing need in the field of education.Their institutes attract leaders of pre-K–12 schools and districts and higher education institutions from all over the world. Programs include institutes with several decades of history and serve a range of education professionals, ranging from new presidents of colleges and universities to district leaders. Last year, a large group of principals from Detroit attended the summer institutes; more than 50 educators from the Miami–Dade Public Schools are expected this summer. About 1,500 national and international education leaders will attend this summer's programs, which will include professional development institutes for educators across the pre-K–16 continuum. "We want educators from all settings to consider participation in our institutes a necessary part of their professional development as instructional leaders," said Grassa O'Neill. "By bringing these efforts together under a single initiative, we can act more strategically to advance the School's goal of strengthening the education profession and contributing to educational improvement," she continues.

Grassa O'Neill has had an impressive impact in a short amount of time at the Ed School. She is working closely with the faculty and administrators to explore innovative new opportunities for developing and delivering outstanding programs for educators beyond its traditional capacity. This past spring, she collaborated with faculty members James Honan and Richard Chait to pilot a custom institute for leaders of independent schools. Grassa O'Neill explains, "We are concerned about children and their learning opportunities, no matter the governance structure; we will work with leaders from any area of education who share our commitment to strong leadership, instructional improvement, and student learning."

When asked about her time at HGSE and the future, Grassa O'Neill is humble about her own experiences and how they translate at an institution that focuses heavily on rigorous research. "Dean Lagemann told me I'd have some fun amidst the intellectual firepower of this brilliant faculty, and it's been all that, and more."