Campus & Community

Making a difference in American education:

5 min read

GSE Dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann addresses challenges of GSE and nation’s schools

Ellen Condliffe
‘Education schools traditionally have been isolated,’ says Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE). She looks to build bridges between the GSE and the other schools of Harvard, fostering interfaculty initiatives and looking for opportunities to share GSE-based research and projects with Harvard¹s other ‘tubs.’ (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

As he conducted a search for a new dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE), President Lawrence H. Summers was fond of describing the School as uniquely central to the mission of the University: Although Harvard trains doctors and lawyers and managers, the business of the University is not medicine or law or business. Harvard exists for education.

Summers’ search ended in April 2002 with Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, who stepped into the role of dean in July. Lagemann, a historian of education and author of five books, had been president of the Spencer Foundation, a Chicago-based philanthropy that supports research in education. She shared her thoughts with the Gazette about how the GSE can improve education nationwide.

GSE’s challenges

Echoing Summers, Lagemann said that moving the School and its students and faculty even more toward the center of the University is one significant way to bring teaching as a profession in from the margins. The low morale among teachers resulting from this marginalization, combined with low pay and poor preparation, has led to a dramatic shortage of qualified teachers.

“Education schools traditionally have been isolated,” said Lagemann, a historian and expert on education research. Harvard is better situated in this regard than some other schools.

“At Columbia, 120th Street, which is the street that separates Teachers College from the university proper, is said to be the widest street in the world,” said Lagemann, who earned an M.A. from Teachers College and a Ph.D. from Columbia.

Lagemann looks to build bridges between the GSE and the other schools of Harvard, fostering interfaculty initiatives and looking for opportunities to share GSE-based research and projects with Harvard’s other “tubs.” She offered the School’s extensive resources in technology for teaching as an example of innovation incubated at the GSE that could be effective throughout the University.

In turn, Lagemann will ask for other schools’ assistance in what she deems the GSE’s most pressing need: raising money for student financial aid.

The economics of a GSE degree is daunting to students: paying relatively high tuition and the Cambridge area’s high cost of living, they carry significant debts into their careers, which are traditionally low-paying. The average teacher’s salary, said Lagemann, is $43,000 per year.

“We hope they’re going to go into urban areas or disadvantaged areas and make a real difference. But how they’re going to pay off their loans is a huge, huge problem,” she said.

With major financial and strategic support from Summers, Lagemann is hopeful that the School will successfully tap alumni of some of Harvard’s other schools to raise funds for financial aid.

“Many of them realize that education is a challenging domestic problem, and they want the Ed School to be connected to improving American education,” she said.

Making a difference in American education

Improving American education is no small task, Lagemann admits. She cited a number of concerns – from developing more powerful systems for instruction to retaining well-educated teachers, particularly in math and science, to developing a stronger knowledge base for educational administration – as competing for attention.

“Obviously, finding ways to improve student outcomes is the No. 1 problem across the country, particularly for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she said, noting that the GSE can draw on its research as well as its training for teachers, principals, and other practitioners to effect positive change.

Standards – the rallying cry in the nation’s public schools – have a place in schools of education, she said.

“My guess is that there would probably be more similarity across history departments or chemistry departments than across education schools,” she said. “We need a curriculum and a set of pedagogies that could be commonly developed at schools of education across the United States.”

Education research, too, would benefit from a common set of standards, she said, as well as a stronger connection to practice.

Lagemann, who has always juggled teaching with her research, is eager to move beyond the practice-versus-research discussion to explore ways the GSE can connect the two.

“Education research has tended to have much too little an impact on education practice,” she said. “What we need to do is take findings and translate them one more step into actual things that teachers need and can use.”

Lagemann had not been looking to leave the Spencer Foundation, but the opportunity to make the GSE a model for improving education schools, and thus education, nationwide drew her to Harvard.

“Larry really persuaded me to take this job by convincing me that he is really deeply interested in education and deeply committed to helping the Ed School reach a whole new level of excellence,” said Lagemann of Summers’ support. “At the end of the day, Larry convinced me that we could really make a difference in American education.”