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Remarks at President’s Weekend Dinner

Graduate School of Education

Thank you very much for inviting me to join you tonight as you begin your program this weekend focused on early childhood education. Let me just say to everybody here that John Willett and Judy Singer are doing a super job for the Graduate School of Education. They build on the outstanding record of leadership by Pat Graham and Jerry Murphy.

I also want to thank Linda Mason for her groundbreaking work in the field of early childhood education through the creation of the Bright Horizons childcare centers and for the splendid venue she has provided for our dinner tonight. I have had the privilege this evening of sitting next to Professor Kathleen McCartney, and I have quizzed her fairly thoroughly on aspects of her work. It is pioneering and it is important, and it is exactly the kind of rigorous work on issues of great social importance that should be the hallmark of the School of Education.

We are fortunate to have as a friend and partner of our School of Education one of the great urban education superintendents in the United States. All of us who live in the Boston metropolitan area have a huge stake in what happens in the Boston schools, and we are very fortunate to have Tom Payzant at the helm.

Let me say a few things about the field of education and the School of Education. First, for a University like Harvard, the School of Education has to occupy a special place. We are not a medical institution. We are not a legal institution. We are not a dental institution. We are not a religious institution. We are an educational institution. The School of Education does what we are. That makes it particularly important that we focus on making sure that the School of Education be everything that it can be, that it be a leader within the University, and that it make as great a contribution as it possibly can. Even if I did not face the special imperative of searching for a new Dean, I would want to be very focused on the work of the School of Education, the contribution that it can make to the University, and the contribution that it can make to the broader society.

Education presents enormously important issues for our nation. If you think about what is distinctively American in the twenty-first century, it is not our capital stock, which is mobile and can come from everywhere. It is not even the production of new research ideas, which flow across international boundaries and come and go everywhere. It is the next generation of American people who will comprise our society, and they will be shaped by our educational system. So there is no more important work for us as a nation than the work of education.

And let me say, it is not easy work. I have learned this first hand for each of the past seven years in Washington, D.C. On Veteran’s Day, the federal government has a holiday, but the Bethesda, Maryland public schools have a regular day. I have therefore gone and watched my children’s classes and sat through a half a day or a whole day in a second grade classroom, and then a third grade classroom, and then a fourth grade classroom, and then a fifth grade classroom. Let me tell you, many of us here have hard and challenging jobs. The teachers in those classrooms have a very hard and very challenging job, and we should never forget the importance of what they do.

And it seems to me that it is incumbent on a university like this one to do everything it can to value, to honor, to support, and most important, to contribute to and strengthen the work of educators in the United States. We will depend, as a nation, on the people who teach in our schools; on the people who are principals in our schools; on the people who lead our school districts; on the people who set the education policy of our country. Indeed, I would dare to suggest that few things will matter more for what the United States looks like three decades or four decades from now, than how effective we are in educating our children over the next ten to twenty years. And so the future of the Harvard School of Education is an issue that has to be of paramount importance.

We come together at a time when we are very fortunate. Harvard has what is by most measures the leading School of Education in the United States. Scholars here at Harvard contribute to every aspect of educational thinking. Whether it is the application of new technology to the classroom; whether it is the application of a sophisticated statistical technique to measurement; whether it is the understanding of gender relations in education; whether it is education at the college level; whether it is child care before kindergarten; whether it is education in the United States; whether it is education in the Third World–scholars at Harvard are making important contributions.

Yet as proud as we should be of the fact that the School of Education at Harvard is at the top, we need also to recognize that there is widespread dissatisfaction, and, I think it is fair to say, warranted widespread dissatisfaction and concern with the performance of America’s public schools. The traditional model of schools of education is seen as part of the solution to the problem, but also as part of the problem. And so it will be very important in the years ahead that we set our standard, that we measure ourselves not just by asking how Harvard compares with other schools of education, but how the Harvard School of Education is measuring itself against the challenge of educating every American child.

This undertaking has many dimensions. One important dimension, of which I assure you I am acutely aware, is resources. Every tub may rest on its own bottom at Harvard. But there is, I would suggest to you, no moral or logical reason why the intellectual importance or the practical significance of a school in this University should be strictly proportional to the average income of its graduates. That is why I counseled in my installation speech that every tub may rest on its own bottom, but all draw on a common reservoir of Harvard’s strength and resources.

We are very proud of the fact that every student who is admitted to Harvard College is able to come to Harvard regardless of his or her financial circumstances. And we should be proud. Why shouldn’t we set a similar standard for every student who wants to come to Harvard to be a doctor, who wants to come to Harvard to be a public health professional, who wants to come to Harvard to serve in government, or who wants to come to Harvard to serve as a teacher or a principal, or work towards being a superintendent. We do not have enough financial aid and we need more.

We as a University will need to do more for the School of Education in the years ahead. But make no mistake, if we as a University are going to do more for the School of Education, we as a University are going to ask more of the School of Education. We are going to ask for the highest quality programs, the most rigorous standards, a willingness to work closely with colleagues across the University — statisticians on questions of program evaluation, economists on questions of incentives, psychologists on questions of cognitive processes and learning. We are going to ask that education attract scholars who work at the standard the problems deserve, and with the quality of attention they demand.

What are some of the most important questions ahead for our educational system? There are many and I am a very long way from being an expert. But let me highlight four aspects of the Education School’s mission that seem to me to be of particular importance.

First, identifying, measuring, and sharing broadly best practices in education. I have spoken with a number of people about the history of medical innovation in the United States. And I have asserted a number of times at gatherings like this that if you ask what the ten most important medical innovations in the last century were, one of them is surely the double blind trial. I’ve now been corrected and told that actually it was one of the five most important medical innovations of the last century. One of the five most important medical innovations in the last century. If the double blind trial can make such a large contribution to medicine, I would suggest that careful randomized experiments based on appropriate controls and rigorous statistical evaluation could have a similar impact on education. Debates in the field could go beyond competing dogmas hurling platitudes and clichés at each other, and instead be based on a rigorous assessment of facts about what works. A University like this one should be at the center of that effort.

Evaluation is one part of this. President Clinton always used to say that there was no problem in American education that hadn’t been solved somewhere. But there are two problems. One is figuring out where that was and who had it right. And the other, and the even more fundamental problem in a way, was bringing it to scale and achieving effective emulation.

This is a problem that Linda Mason has solved at Bright Horizons, which has common standards that operate successfully all across the country. It is a problem that in a rather different and far simpler sphere, McDonald’s has solved with great effectiveness. But the vast majority of times that people attempt to extrapolate and expand success in the private sector, they fail. McDonald’s is the exception rather than the rule. Bright Horizons is the exception rather than the rule. It is far more difficult with something as fundamental and complex as education, but is a challenge we cannot shrink from. Identify and evaluate what works best. Find the ways to take it to scale based on the best management techniques. This is the first challenge for the School of Education.

The second large challenge for this School of Education is drawing on, expanding, and converting from theory to practice the revolutions that are underway in cognitive science, in neuroscience, in our understanding the nature of human thinking. This is a very fundamental problem in professional education of all sorts. Medical schools have not yet fully bridged the gap between the laboratory and the bedside. It’s an area where schools of education have been more effective at bridging that fundamental gap in some ways than schools of medicine.

But I’m convinced, as a layman informed by reading Howard Gardner’s books and talking to a number of others, that we are now in a period in which our understanding of the nature of human thinking and the nature of human learning processes is going to expand much more rapidly in the next ten years than it has in the last thirty or forty. Maybe none of this will have anything to do with how people learn best, but that seems to me unlikely. It is likely that as we understand learning better, we will also be able to develop better and more effective ways of teaching. And we will, of course, be aided in this regard by the revolution in technology that is making it possible to provide far more customized instruction to students than has ever been the case before. Best practices, finding them and spreading them, making and improving our understanding of cognitive science, and finding application with technology for that understanding.

Third, not really quite parallel to what I’ve said, but I think very important, is making teaching and administering and educating the valued and honored profession in the United States that it needs to be. We will need to find the right balance between doctoral programs and masters programs, between educating teachers and educating potential administrators. And I don’t know what that right balance is precisely. That will be an important task for the new Dean. But I do know this: if we are to get where we want to be in education, educating needs to see much higher status in the United States over the next two decades. And I know as well that a University like this one, with its reputation, can make a very great contribution to achieving this objective. Through its teaching programs, through its continuing education programs, through its convening power, and through the signals that it sends. We owe it not just to our students, but to our country to find the best ways, as the Harvard School of Education, to stand behind the profession of education.

Fourth, and finally — and here I do not know what the right answers are – in addition to finding the best practices and spreading them, drawing on science, developing the best and most effective inputs to the system through our training programs, we need to be at the center of thinking about how to make our educational system work in the most effective way. This is a question of incentives. This is a question of accountability. This is a question of management. I don’t know what the right answers are. I don’t know what the right answers are in terms of standards. I don’t know what the right answers are in terms of competition. The only thing I really know is that anybody who speaks with total certainty on these matters is almost certainly speaking foolishly.

I do know, however, that these questions are at the center of what is probably the most important domestic policy debate that will play out in the United States over the next ten years. If serious rigorous thinking is going to guide that debate, I can’t think of a better place for it to come from than the Harvard School of Education. Continuing to work and develop and strengthen ourselves in these areas will be extraordinarily important in the years ahead. Making the system work. Supporting the cause of teaching and educating as a valued profession. Building on progress in cognitive science. Figuring out rigorously what works, and spreading it. These are profoundly important missions.

In the world there is a great deal of careful, serious, and rigorous thinking. In the world and in our country there is a great deal of compassion, caring, and social commitment to making the country better. But what we now know, I believe, is that in many areas, and perhaps especially in education, neither alone is sufficient. Caring and being committed doesn’t make schools better without careful thought about what works and what doesn’t. Rigorous analysis, unless directed at socially important objectives, doesn’t ultimately make a difference. It is the role of the University; it is the role of the Harvard School of Education, to bring these things together. It has in the past, and I’m convinced that it will do so with even greater resources, and even greater effectiveness, in the future.

Thank you very much.