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With Redesigned Master’s Program, HGSE Seeks to Meet 21st-Century Challenges

Ambitious curricular overhaul, to launch this summer, defines foundational competencies and elevates role of the education professional.
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Photo: Ryan Smith

At a Glance:
  • The revised Ed.M. is centered on three pillars: foundational learning experiences, role-specific expertise, and context-specific knowledge. 
  • It will empower a new generation of educators in a fast-changing world.
  • It is built on years of innovation, piloted coursework, and co-creation by faculty and current and former students.

When the Harvard Graduate School of Education welcomes its next cohort of master’s candidates — members of the Class of 2022 — it will do so with a reimagined, redesigned Master of Education degree that seeks to empower a new generation of educators to meet the emerging challenges of a complex, rapidly changing world.

The newly structured master’s degree builds on years of innovation, piloted coursework, collaboration with partners in the field, and co-creation by HGSE’s faculty and by current and former HGSE students. It will modernize and strengthen the preparation of education professionals by defining the critical knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that all educators — from teachers to school and district leaders, policymakers to entrepreneurs, and learning designers to nonprofit leaders, in settings around the world — should have. In so doing, the redesigned degree seeks to establish a new model of professional training for the field, similar to that offered in the fields of law, business, and medicine.   

The program, which will retain its current one-year structure and kick off with pre-term coursework in June, rests on three interconnected pillars: Foundations, Programs, and Concentrations. Each will be informed by HGSE’s groundbreaking research and scholarship and infused with field-based challenges.

>> Watch Dean Bridget Long and former Dean James Ryan discuss the reimagining HGSE’s master’s program

Students will launch their course of study with pre-term Foundations — ambitious and immersive coursework in learning and human development, evaluating evidence, organizational leadership, and equity. Each of these foundational learning experiences encompasses key competencies that transcend roles — competencies that are valuable for all educators, regardless of their particular setting or career path. Each includes in-depth cases that help students apply these foundational competencies in complex, real-world settings, and students can customize the experiences to align with particular interests and goals.

“Throughout our history, HGSE has worked to provide educators with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to bring about meaningful improvement in education. Today, we look out on an education landscape that is rapidly changing — with exciting advances in what we know about how people learn, with an untapped potential to harness data and technology in novel ways, and with demographic changes that are bringing unparalleled diversity to our schools." — Dean Bridget Long

Students will apply to and enroll in one of five Programs: Education Leadership, Organizations, and Entrepreneurship; Education Policy and Analysis; Human Development and Education; Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology; and Teaching and Teacher Leadership. Each program aims to develop students’ expertise in a specific area of education practice and deepen their understanding of a primary role or functional domain in the profession.

Finally, students will have the option to specialize in a particular context, area, or setting of education, by selecting one of a number of Concentrations, like early childhood education, arts and learning, higher education, or global education. And they’ll be able to personalize their pathways further by taking advantage of a customized set of enriching experiences from HGSE’s wealth of courses and co-curricular opportunities, building from the core knowledge gained through their Foundations and Program coursework.  

A Master’s Program to Meet the Needs of Today — and Tomorrow

“Throughout our history, HGSE has worked to provide educators with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to bring about meaningful improvement in education,” says Bridget Long, dean and Saris Professor of Education and Economics. “Today, we look out on an education landscape that is rapidly changing — with exciting advances in what we know about how people learn, with an untapped potential to harness data and technology in novel ways, and with demographic changes that are bringing unparalleled diversity to our schools. Even as we celebrate many of the opportunities these changes bring, we are constantly confronted with the unacceptable inequities that pervade our education systems, and with the unjust barriers that block too many learners from success.

“HGSE has engaged in this schoolwide process to reimagine our master’s program because it’s clear that today’s educators need a new kind of skill base,” Long continues, “one that’s grounded in what we know about learning development, how to assess what works, how to lead effective teams and organizations, and how to educate for equity.”

Work on the master’s redesign started long before the global pandemic revealed new and ugly truths about those perennial equity challenges. But those same challenges — achievement gaps that are at risk of widening, school and student access to necessary resources that is even more limited or unjustly constrained, and existing school models that are fraying — add a new urgency to the redesign’s overarching project: to elevate the profession of education, and to define the skills and knowledge that the profession encompasses. Given the diverse learning needs, learning opportunities, and learning challenges around the globe, the educator’s role is more essential than it has ever been, Long says, and preparation programs in the field of education must reflect that.

"This major effort stems from HGSE’s commitment to continuous improvement, to preparing our students as comprehensively as possible for their roles and their work, and to being responsive to the changing needs of the education sector, especially amidst ongoing worldwide challenges. Our fundamental educational mission is to train new generations of educators who will lead for improvement around the world." – Academic Dean Nonie Lesaux

“This major effort stems from HGSE’s commitment to continuous improvement, to preparing our students as comprehensively as possible for their roles and their work, and to being responsive to the changing needs of the education sector, especially amidst ongoing worldwide challenges. Our fundamental educational mission is to train new generations of educators who will lead for improvement around the world,” says HGSE Academic Dean Nonie Lesaux. “As we’ve piloted many of the elements of the new program, it’s been exciting to see this mission really take root. And the events of the last year have shown us that the work is even more critical now. This is a moment in time that demands our innovation and inspiration.”

According to Meira Levinson, the faculty co-lead of the Equity and Opportunity Foundation, foundational competency in education is just as important as it is in law, medicine, and other professions. “Everyone who goes to medical school takes courses in anatomy and bio-chemistry, for example, because foundational knowledge is thought to be important whether you become a psychiatrist or an oncologist or a primary care doctor,” Levinson says. “And people who go to law school take a common first-year curriculum that covers criminal law, civil procedure, torts, and contracts — whether you're becoming a divorce lawyer or the head of a nonprofit. In education, we think it’s crucial that we equip all of our graduates in that same way — as education professionals ready to support powerful and equitable learning opportunities for diverse learners in diverse contexts. And to do that, it’s important to establish a foundational base of knowledge, skills and dispositions.”

The redesigned program creates an architecture “where students will acquire general skills that they’ll need in any role, and specialized skills that they can apply in exactly the ways they choose,” says Matt Miller, one of the faculty leads of the Foundations course, How People Learn, and a key contributor to the overall redesign effort as associate dean for learning and teaching. “You’ll get deep learning that’s related to the role you want to play in education, and then you’ll get context-specific knowledge on top of it. So for example, if you wanted to be a learning designer in higher education, we’re going to put you in a community of people who are all working on learning design and innovation, and you’re going to be a part of the core group of students and faculty who are interested in higher education today and its future. So in that sense, you’re getting a major and a minor” — preparation that’s deep and wide, Miller says.

A Learning Institution that Learns

HGSE has a long history of curricular innovation and improvement, building from areas of strength to align with emerging needs in the field and the wider society.

Over the years, the school has introduced the Urban Superintendents Program, the Doctor of Education Leadership degree, the Ph.D. in education, and the Harvard Teacher Fellows — all innovations to prepare education leaders for the predominant challenges of their time. The first redesign of the HGSE master’s program came just six years after the school was founded in 1920, and over time, it added courses in subjects ranging from equity and diversity and the rise of new school models, to the evolving use of technology and the growing applications of neuroscience. It built stronger pathways for entrepreneurial interests, as well as smoother access to the resources of other schools at the university. The current configuration of HGSE's master’s program was mostly established in 2004. 

“We’ve always done a great job of preparing our master’s students to make a transformational impact,” says Miller. “Today, we’re at a time of such tremendous societal change, including dramatic changes in the way we work, in our political systems and sense of civic participation, our reckoning with our deep-seated inequities. Leaders in education deserve the best preparation we can give them. And they deserve to have the professional schools that are training them engage in ongoing reflection and examination of what they do. I think when we do that, our programs can remain best matched to the needs of our future graduates, and we’ll earn a seat at the table when it comes to influencing the systems of education with the work that we do.”