Photo: Elio Pajares
100 Reasons to Love the Ed School: A Special Centennial Issue
#93: Because the Future of Education
Leading HGSE into its next 100 years, a dean reflects on change, growth, and the promise of education
The Harvard Graduate School of Education has been learning to change the world since 1920, and our Centennial year is the perfect time to celebrate, reflect, and, naturally, to wonder: What will the next 100 years bring? Since the school’s founding by Harvard’s first faculty member in education, Paul Henry Hanus, a mathematics teacher who worked with President Charles William Eliot to ensure that students would be properly prepared for college, HGSE’s faculty, students, and alumni have played key roles in shaping education practice, policy, and ultimately, outcomes for learners, from preschool through higher education and beyond. Rarely satisfied with the status quo, and often ambitiously pursuing goals to improve education beyond the walls of the classroom, the borders of the United States, and the supposed limits of human potential, HGSE now faces a new century that brings unique challenges and perhaps greater opportunity than ever before to ensure every learner can access high-quality education.
Recent decades have brought about changes in education that have shaped students’ and families’ experiences in important ways. We have seen new school models aimed at adding rigor, supports, and choice in K–12 schooling. There has also been a push for more transparent data on student achievement, fueled in part by a federal government recalibrating its influence on education. As college sticker prices and student debt burdens rise, public scrutiny and calls for increased accountability in higher education intensifies. The way that our students receive information continues to evolve; as technology advances, so, too, does pedagogy. Digital devices in homes and classrooms have created new options for student engagement and access to educational materials, but the uneven use and availability of such resources has also heightened gaps between some groups. And students themselves are changing, not only in terms of the demographic profile of American students and those in other countries as well, but also the needs, interests, and identities students highlight as being important.
Even with all this change, other aspects of education remain stagnant, often in deeply troubling ways. While education still holds great promise for many, the highly segregated U.S. education system is failing far too many students. Decades of education reform have had limited success in significantly reducing persistent achievement and opportunity gaps by race and income, and many wonder if we have an over reliance on standardized testing. Meanwhile, we continue to grapple with the best way to prepare the next generation for the demands of a 21st century economy — and populations around the world face shortages of teachers, schools, and capacity. Education is the key to opportunity and progress, but it must not also be what separates us and holds back students who too often come from certain demographic groups, income brackets, and zip codes.
Amidst the turbulence in education, I firmly believe we have continued reason for optimism. This is my second year as dean and my 20th year on the faculty, and I often feel that I have only begun to appreciate the vast — and outsized — influence and positive impact that our faculty, staff, students, and alumni continue to make not only on individual students, families, classrooms, and communities, but also on the field of education and the many hardworking education professionals who share our mission. We engage in rigorous research that informs practice and policy, like the Zaentz Education Initiative, which is conducting a seminal study of early learning while bringing together early childhood educators with faculty to identify which learning environments work best for which learners. We work with communities and leverage the expertise of our alumni leaders in the field to build robust child development systems that accelerate positive educational outcomes for low-income children, as the By All Means project has done. And we partner with schools across Harvard, across disciplines and traditional silos, to bring new perspectives to bear on key challenges like preparing school leaders — as we have done with our Certificate in School Management and Leadership, offered in partnership with the Harvard Business School. These are activities that are greater than the sum of their parts. I see this cross-boundary approach as key to having a meaningful impact. Regardless of the challenges before us, our school is well-positioned to be able to pivot, adapt, and partner in new ways to meet the needs of 21st-century learners. In this way, we are truly a unique change agent in education.
Education changes lives, and indeed, it can change the world. I hope you will take every opportunity to join us in this work.
Bridget Terry Long is Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Saris Professor of Education and Economics. Explore HGSE's Centennial website, a central resource for events, stories, ways to get involved, and more.