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Welcoming the Challenge

Welcoming the Challenge

A Q&A with Lesser Professor and Dean Kathleen McCartney

Q: What has the transition from academic dean to acting dean been like?

A: It's been a very smooth transition, for several reasons. First, Ellen Lagemann was very helpful in getting me up to speed on major issues facing the School. I've also been very fortunate to have strong support from students, faculty, staff, and alumni. This community has come together and is looking forward to this year.

Lesser Professor and Dean Kathleen McCartney (Photo by Dina Konovalov, A Dream Picture)

The transition has also been made easier because I'm surrounded by talented people in leadership roles at the school, including the administrative dean, Bob Fogel, and the associate deans--Jack Jennings for finance; Daphne Layton for curriculum and faculty appointments; Bill McKersie for development; and Jim Stiles, for degree programs. This great group has been strengthened immeasurably by the addition of [Thompson Professor] Dick Murnane, who is now serving as academic dean. Dick is a good friend and colleague, and I value his wise counsel.

Q: How do you see the School evolving over the next year?

A: We're moving forward on a number of key issues, perhaps the most important being new faculty appointments. We recently announced that Hiro Yoshikawa will be joining our senior faculty next year. Hiro is an outstanding scholar who has done groundbreaking work in child poverty and education. This year, we have three searches underway for junior faculty in the areas of international education, language and literacy, and learning and instructions. As always, we are searching for strong members of the senior faculty. We will be working with Evelynn Hammonds, the newly appointed senior vice provost of faculty development and diversity, to recruit a more diverse faculty.

Q: How have you been measuring the progress of ReadBoston?

A: We look at standardized test scores in the district, and we also had an evaluation done of some of the models that [Lecturer on Education and Director of the Human Development and Psychology Program] Terry Tivnan did here at HGSE along with Lowry Hemphill, who's now at Wheelock College in Boston. The evaluation looked at four different literacy models in the district that were trying to improve reading scores. ReadBoston was involved in bringing these models to the district. Again, it shows some progress, more in certain areas of reading than in others.

On the curriculum front, we're piloting a second core course this year under the leadership of [Senior Lecturer] Jim Honan and [Ford Foundation Professor] Fernando Reimers. This course will build on the work of the successful first core course, Thinking Like an Educator, now in its third year. The new course, Thinking and Acting Like an Education Reformer, will use the case method to understand leadership and policy challenges in high schools. We are expecting great work from the team of faculty working on these two courses.

We are also working to create more interschool initiatives across Harvard. We already have an impressive joint project with the Business School, the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), which is an executive education program that unites the faculty resources of both schools to address the specific challenges faced by nine urban school districts from across the country. In the future, I hope we can create innovative partnerships with other schools, especially the School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government.

Q: As acting dean, you have the opportunity to work with faculty members in a way that you haven't before. What is exciting to you about those possibilities?

"I believe a dean's most important job is to support the work of the faculty, which will be easy because the HGSE faculty is an incredibly talented group."

A: I believe a dean's most important job is to support the work of the faculty, which will be easy because the HGSE faculty is an incredibly talented group. Our faculty is studying the most pressing issues facing our educational system today--the achievement gap, language and literacy, urban school reform, new leadership models, testing and accountability, to name just a few. As part of my job, I will be sharing the cutting-edge work of the faculty when I meet with alumni, donors, and visitors to the School--they will be amazed by the impact of this work on schools and children.

Q: There are those who say that schools of education are failing students and families. Is this a fair criticism?

A: While it is true that there are pressing problems facing educators, the problem does not reside exclusively in schools or schools of education. It is important to consider the times we live in. For example, children today are more likely to be in unsupervised care after school, more likely to live in poverty, and more likely to be exposed to violence and to drugs than ever before. Schools need to partner with families and communities to identify strategies that promote student achievement--it will be hard, if not impossible, for schools to do this alone. The relevance of schools of education has never been greater.

At HGSE, we view our task this way--to prepare education leaders in practice, policy, and research. We share a bold vision with our students, namely a world in which all people have access to an education that enables them to reach their full potential as learners. The value-added of HGSE is twofold. First, by bringing together scholars from across disciplines and from varying perspectives, we promote synergies that lead to new solutions. Second, by providing incentives for practice-based research, our faculty generates usable knowledge to help practitioners.

Q: Are you going to miss teaching in the classroom this year?

A: I love teaching, and I do miss being in a classroom setting. But leading this school is a great challenge that I welcome. In a way, I will be teaching when I speak to various groups about the great work going on at HGSE. We have a proud history. We have been at the forefront of education reform since our founding. I look forward to sharing with others the ways in which we continue to innovate through our degree programs, through our professional programs, through our work with schools, and through our research.

Q: Let's talk a little bit about your research as a principal investigator with the National Institute of Child Heath and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a longitudinal study going back 15 years. Will you be continuing that work while you're acting dean?

A: Yes. In fact, I just received a three-year grant to extend this work. My colleagues and I have been studying a cohort of 1,350 children since they were born in 1991. We're going into the field in January for another round of data collection. Although this study began with a focus on child care, it has evolved to a natural history study of children. We are studying the contexts that shape development, from child care to school to family to neighborhood. Happily, five outstanding HGSE doctoral students are working with me on this project, and they are helping me keep my research program on track.

"A primary problem is the high turnover among the child care workforce, due to low wages and the fact that parents can't afford to pay more. The end result is a system that has serious resource challenges."

Q: What have your findings shown to this point?

A: Our findings show that child care in this country is mediocre at best. A primary problem is the high turnover among the child care workforce, due to low wages and the fact that parents can't afford to pay more. The end result is a system that has serious resource challenges. The effect of child care quality is apparent on a range of child outcomes, from vocabulary to reading to math to behavior problems. We know, too, that better state regulations for staff education and staff-child ratios result in better quality and thereby better child outcomes. Thus, the policy implications from our data are clear.

Q: Is there any way to untangle questions about what's best for children amidst changing societal issues such as the rise of two-income families?

A: I think we need to deploy a range of methods to address this, from rich ethnographic studies of families, to large-scale survey studies, to experimental interventions.

Q: On a lighter note, what sort of books are you reading in your free time?

A: I have very eclectic tastes when it comes to books. I will confess that I bought Harry Potter and the Half- Blood Prince the day it went on sale. More recently, I also enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, a master of magical realism. Finally, I am in the midst of reading How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by [Meehan Professor] Bob Kegan, my colleague here at HGSE, and Lisa Lahey; this book is helping me think about the challenges ahead this year.

A version of this story appeared in the 2004–2005 Annual Report.