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Conference Examines Leadership in Education

"What greater challenge is there, when you think about it, than educating the next generation?" asked Kenneth Bartels during Harvard Graduate School of Education's annual Dean's Leadership Conference. About 180 people gathered to examine the definition of leadership in education at the conference which took place March 6-7.

Bartels, a Dean's Council member who cohosted with his wife, standup comedian Jane Condon, Ed.M.'74, convened the conference by repeating HGSE's mission statement three times, emphasizing the clause about preparing "leaders in education to improve student opportunity, achievement, and success." Harvard, said Bartels, is one of the few institutions that can "fundamentally address and then alter some of the world's biggest problems."

"This conference is about leadership," Bartels continued. "When you think about the question of making a difference on really big challenges -- that's one of the ways, at least, [that] I define leadership."

The participants' investigation of leadership began with an interactive session led by Senior Lecturer James Honan, Ed.M.'85, Ed.D.'89, in which he led the group through a case study about the challenges Vicki Phillips faced when she became superintendent of the Portland, Ore. public schools in 2004, including a huge budget deficit and declining enrollment.

Honan then asked the group to consider the implications of the Phillips case for schools of education. Conference guest Al Merck said that education schools should lead "a university approach" where they utilize the skills and perspectives of other schools and disciplines to create imaginative and effective leaders. The idea of cross-sector leadership was also stressed by Academic Dean Robert Schwartz. "How much of what we know about good leaders is specific to a sector?" he asked. "Are effective education leaders different from effective leaders in other governmental institutions? Are they different from private sector leaders?"

David Gergen, professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), further addressed the cross-sector question in his talk about his experience with public leadership and how effective leadership models in the corporate, nonprofit, and civic fields are beginning to look more and more alike.

Gergen also spoke about the need to increase student funding and financial aid at Harvard's public-service schools in order to attract the best students and lessen the burden of education debt. He said that he has every confidence in Harvard's ability to train excellent public leaders -- but that ability won't help students who can't afford tuition or take private sector jobs to pay off loans. "The scholarship part is an essential part," he said. "You can't get this done without the scholarship part. We've got to be creative as well as caring about where these kids go."

According to Gergen, education leadership presents an attractive challenge to many incoming Harvard students. He cited the growing statistics on Harvard alumni joining Teach for America after graduation and his experience on a field trip to Washington, D.C., during which students met Michelle Rhee, the new chancellor of the D.C. public schools and a graduate of HKS. According to Gergen, although the students were impressed by the several notable government officials whom they met, "the person they wanted to be was Michelle Rhee."

The first day's sessions were concluded with a reception and dinner featuring a keynote address by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust in which she spoke about leadership and the responsibility of leaders to inspire followers. In her speech, Faust praised Dean Kathleen McCartney as being a leader who is determined, visionary, and able to reach across the schools at Harvard to [help] create one unified university.

The conference's second day began with an alumni panel moderated by Professor Robert Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents Program (USP). The panel -- which consisted of Andres Alonso, Ed.M.'99, Ed.D.'06, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools; Seth Andrew, Ed.M.'02, head of Democracy Prep Charter School in New York City; Debbie Bial, Ed.M.'96, Ed.D.'04, president and founder of the Posse Foundation and winner of a 2007 MacArthur Fellowship; and Kira Orange-Jones, Ed.M.'06, executive director of Teach for America-Greater New Orleans -- discussed practicing leadership from their individual perspectives and their different approaches to effecting change. They also debated the merits of the federal government's role in leading school reform.

When asked what led them to the Ed School and to their current positions, all of the alums agreed that they approached education from a nontraditional viewpoint. Orange-Jones, in particular, whose teaching position with Teach for America (TFA) first introduced her to the challenges facing education, said that her decision to teach -- and her subsequent enrollment in HGSE's School Leadership Program -- changed her life. "Teaching is just a transformative experience," she said. "There's no way I could have done what I was trying to do with my students for two years and not be fundamentally transformed. And it literally changed everything that I wanted to go on to do from that point."

Orange-Jones continued to say that "the Ed School, really challenged me to find out what that best point of engagement is." After graduation, Orange-Jones returned to New Orleans to lead and manage TFA's work there. From this new leadership perspective, she said she is struck by the number of conversations on the achievement gap going on in education organizations around the country. While Orange-Jones finds the rate of progress disappointing, she said she is inspired by the number of leaders eager to make a difference on this issue. Alonso agreed and said that having an impact "is driven by frustration. Frustration still fuels the day, but it's a good thing."

Although frustration is still a factor in education leadership, Dean McCartney considered this year's conference a big step in the right direction. "We are ambitious," she said. "We're very ambitious here at the Ed School. We're doing so much, but there's so much more we want to do. We're beginning to envision exactly what we could do with the right partners and the right resources.

"I think it's clear that we're making leadership a priority for this school," McCartney said. "It's right there in our mission statement. It's not all we do, but it's an important part of what we do."