Nation & World

Q&A with new HGSE dean

long read

James Ryan explains his longtime interest in innovating, while expanding educational opportunity

James E. Ryan, a leading scholar of education law and policy, will become the new dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) this fall. His work focuses on educational opportunity, and he has taught and written on such topics as school finance, school desegregation, school choice, school governance, a right to preschool, teacher compensation reform, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He is currently the Matheson and Morgenthau Distinguished Professor of Law and the Weber Research Professor of Civil Liberties and Human Rights at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he served for five years as academic associate dean and is founding director of the public service program.

Ryan talked with the Harvard Gazette about his passion for education and his new role at HGSE:

GAZETTE: What drew you to education as the focus of your scholarly work?

RYAN: My interest in education stems from personal experience. I grew up in a blue-collar suburb in northern New Jersey, and neither of my parents went to college. My dad barely made it through high school. My mom finished near the top of her class. But her family didn’t have any money, and her parents didn’t think at the time that women needed to go to college. But both my parents during the entirety of my childhood stressed the importance of education. I attended the public schools in my hometown and was lucky enough to go to a great university. That experience literally changed my life and got me thinking as early as college about how lucky I was that the system worked for me, and wondering why it has failed so many others. And that really was the impetus for the questions that I’ve been asking in almost all of my scholarly work since. I’ve been trying to figure out, basically, how law and policy might expand educational opportunities and also strengthen supports outside of school, so that more students have an honest chance to fulfill their potential.

Education is really the driving force behind social mobility and living a fulfilling life. Schools can’t do everything on their own, obviously, but education remains the key mechanism by which the American dream of reaching your full potential can be realized. For many students, the education system isn’t working as well as it ought to, and figuring out ways to improve it is what I’m most passionate about, and why I’m so eager — and honored — to take on the role of dean at HGSE.

(Ryan discusses his vision for HGSE here.)

GAZETTE: Could you talk about the range of education topics that you’ve been exploring in your scholarship and teaching?

RYAN: The question I have been asking is simple to state, mainly: “How can law and policy work to expand educational opportunities?” But the answer is complicated; there is no simple answer. Which means I’ve explored a number of different topics, including school finance, school desegregation, school choice, a right to preschool, educational governance, education and religion, special education, and neuroscience and education. The biggest project I took on was writing a book called “Five Miles Away, A World Apart,” which tried to examine how law and policy have shaped educational opportunity beginning with Brown v. Board of Education to the present. I looked at topics including desegregation, finance, school choice, and standards and testing, including the No Child Left Behind Act. To bring the story to life, I focused on two schools, one in the city of Richmond, Va., and one nearby, five miles away, in a suburb of Richmond. I tried to use the examples of those schools to paint a more vivid picture of how law and policy affect actual schools, students, teachers, principals, and families.

GAZETTE: With your background in the law, what led you to be interested in being the dean of the HGSE?

RYAN: I’ve been writing about law and education for 15 years with an eye toward trying to influence policy. And I’m drawn to HGSE because I’d like to be part of an institution that’s committed both to the very best scholarship and to having a more direct impact on practice and policy, more than I can have on my own by writing books and articles. In some ways it might seem like a big change, and in some ways it is. But it’s also a continuation and natural extension of what I’ve been doing and what I’m most deeply interested in. It’s all about how what we do in universities, including what we do together with others, can help change education for the better.

GAZETTE: How do you see the role of education schools, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s role in particular, in addressing big challenges facing the education sector? Can you talk about the achievement gap?

RYAN: Different education schools have different missions and take on different challenges. I think HGSE under Dean [Kathleen] McCartney’s excellent leadership has focused on preparing leaders in the field and producing research that both influences practice and is informed by practice. That dual mission, of preparing leaders and producing research and ideas that have a real impact, addresses two of the biggest challenges facing education: the need for bold, motivated, imaginative leaders, and the need for clear, unbiased research on what works and what doesn’t. I think that working on those two challenges together can help close the achievement gap, which is currently at an intolerably high level.

GAZETTE: There seem to be a great many different, sometimes conflicting perspectives on how to reform education in the United States. How do you see the HGSE’s role in regard to education reform?

RYAN: I view HGSE as playing the role of honest broker in a field that is too often beset by partisanship and ideology. It too often seems that people are talking past each other instead of talking to each other and figuring out together how to make education work the way it needs to work for students. HGSE has a great tradition of producing high-quality research about what works, and that’s needed now more than ever. I also think that HGSE can and should continue to exhibit what I’d call a spirit of fearless inquiry — to follow the research where it leads and to prepare students to pursue their own passions within a wide and diverse field. I think the status quo in the field is not acceptable, and I don’t think anyone would say that it is. At the same time, I think people within the School and other people knowledgeable about education recognize there’s no panacea. There’s no single reform that on its own will solve all the various challenges confronting schools and school districts, which means there’s still a great deal to learn. And I think education schools, and HGSE in particular, have a vital role to play in generating research and ideas that can and should inform, even transform, practice.

GAZETTE: HGSE has made a concerted effort in recent years to focus on what it calls “the nexus of practice, policy, and research.” One example would be its new doctor of education leadership program (Ed.L.D). What’s your sense of the interplay of academic research with education policy and practice?

RYAN: The Ed.L.D. program is absolutely terrific, and I am excited to help that program move forward. As for the interplay of research with policy and practice, I think the link is crucial and ought to keep getting stronger. Each should inform the other. Research should inform policy and practice. And policy and practice should inform the sort of research that goes on in schools like HGSE. The link doesn’t always happen the way it should, in part because education policy isn’t simply informed by research on best practices; it’s also shaped by politics. That said, I think the stronger the research about the wisdom and benefits of different policy choices, and the more the research draws on actual experience in the field, the more likely there will be a positive impact on practice. I think the research about the benefits of pre-K is a great example.

GAZETTE: If you were talking with a group of incoming HGSE students, what would you most want them to know about you and your hopes for their experience at the School?

RYAN: I guess I would want them to know that I am here for one reason, which is that I care deeply about education and I believe that it’s the most important and compelling issue facing society. That’s what draws me to the School, and I assume that’s what draws them to the School as well. As for my hopes for them, I was told by many people that students come to HGSE because they want to change the world, whether they’re here for a yearlong master’s degree or for a doctorate. My hope for them is that they leave feeling prepared and inspired to do just that.

GAZETTE: What opportunities do you see for HGSE in its relationships with other parts of Harvard?

RYAN: I think in addition to the Ed.L.D. program, which has strong ties to the Kennedy School and the Business School, the new Ph.D. program will forge closer ties between HGSE and other parts of the University, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. And I think forging those ties, across all the Schools, is crucial to the success of HGSE and is an incredible opportunity as we take on some of the challenges that are facing education. There’s remarkable insight and wisdom about different aspects of education across the whole University, and there’s enormous potential to make that insight work for the benefit of everyone. One of the things that excited me most during the search was hearing the level of interest and enthusiasm not only among faculty within HGSE but those outside HGSE who served on the faculty advisory committee. And I had great meetings with the dean of the Business School, Nitin Nohria, the dean of the Kennedy School, David Ellwood, and the dean of the Law School, Martha Minow. All of them expressed deep interest and enthusiasm in the mission of HGSE, and I think that’s an excellent development and represents a tremendous opportunity for the School.

GAZETTE: Can you talk about your own approach to teaching and how it might inform your work as the dean at HGSE?

RYAN: In every class I teach, I think it’s really important to develop a sense of trust among the students. And by that I mean not just getting the students to trust that I have at least some idea of what I’m talking about, but, just as importantly, getting them to trust that I have their best interests at heart. When that level of trust is established, I think students feel comfortable taking risks, I think they feel comfortable disagreeing with one another, and I think they feel comfortable in my disagreeing with them. Real exchanges begin to happen, and so do real advances in understanding. I tried to bring that same approach to being an associate dean at U.Va., and I’d expect to bring a similar approach to being dean here. And by that I mean I would hope to demonstrate not just competence but that I always have the best interests of the School at heart. From what I’ve seen and learned, the community at HGSE is strong and tight-knit, with a high level of trust and a real sense of mission among those who work there. I’m really delighted to be joining that kind of community, and I have to say my first priority is to earn the trust of the people who are already part of the community.

GAZETTE: How do you envision the impact of technology on education?

RYAN: I think that the impact is going to be enormous, along different dimensions. Technology enables the collection and strategic use of data for schools and by schools, work that many at HGSE are already conducting. It also offers the chance to bring excellent teachers to remote and understaffed schools and classrooms, and for college and university professors to reach a vastly broader audience. And, obviously, it has great potential to enhance aspects of on-campus learning. We’re just at the beginning of what could be a revolution in technology and education, and I think the full potential as well as some of the risks of how we use technology aren’t completely apparent yet. But technology, and how it’s used in K-12 schools, colleges, and universities, is clearly among the most important questions facing education today at all levels.

GAZETTE: How do you envision the advances in cognitive science influencing the work of HGSE?

RYAN: The developments in neuroscience and cognitive science have enormous potential for helping us understand how students learn, and great work is already being done in that area at HGSE. The more we know about how the brain works and about how children learn, obviously, the better we can be at educating them and at targeting interventions toward those who are struggling. So I think that, together, technology and neuroscience are two of the most potentially transformative developments affecting the whole field of education.

GAZETTE: What do you like to do for fun, when you’re not being a professor?

RYAN: I have a lot of interests, maybe too many. I’d say the thing I love most is to spend time outside with my family and friends doing something active. It could be hiking, or mountain biking, or sea kayaking, or skiing, or fly fishing, or surfing. My kids are really active, and it’s both a treat and a challenge to try to keep up with them. I also love to read, both fiction and nonfiction, follow politics, play just about any sport under the sun, and train for marathons with my wife, Katie. And I like to cook, coach my kids in youth soccer, volunteer with Special Olympics, and garden with my daughter.

GAZETTE: What are you currently reading?

RYAN: I am actually reading [Daniel Kahneman’s] “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which is like the big book of everything for adults. It’s one of those books that helps you see the world in a new way.