Skip to main content

Remarks of President Lawrence H. Summers, ‘Learning With Excitement’ Conference

Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I’m really glad to be here with the Mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, and to welcome him to Harvard and to the City of Cambridge. You know, we are all very fortunate in the kind of Mayor we have.

I was very struck a couple of months ago. Tom and I were participants in an event around summer youth programs at a park in South Boston. And we got there and it was a few minutes before the event started and I was kind of standing there, waiting for it to start. You could see the Mayor. He was looking over. There was a shard of glass sitting somewhere in that park, and he mentioned it to somebody. Didn’t look like things had quite been cleaned up in another area. And he was mentioning that. Another part of the park was really set up in a perfect way, and he commented on that.

It was obvious that the basic quality of the environment on every square foot of the City of Boston was of profound concern to him. And that attitude has a great deal to do with why people in Boston are living better than they were 10 years ago. It is a real example of an important aspect of leadership, Mr. Mayor. It’s one that I’ve tried to learn from, and a lot of people who don’t have a chance to see it don’t appreciate how much of a difference you make. Thank you, Mr. Mayor.

Gil Noam, I’ll say a little more about what you’re involved in, in a few moments. But thank you very much for your leadership with respect to this conference. Without the generosity of the Kargmans, this event would not be possible. And we at Harvard are grateful for your vision and, yes, I don’t shrink from saying we’re grateful for your tangible support as well. Thank you very much to the Kargmans.

The Duke of Wellington famously observed that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. That was an elitist age. The battle for America’s future will be won or lost in the next century in America’s urban public schools. It will be won or lost in American public schools because they are the crucible in which the young people who will comprise the largest part of our population a quarter century from now will be formed.

If those schools succeed in their mission, ours will be a country of greater democracy, greater civility, greater prosperity, greater humaneness, and greater inclusion. It will truly be an even greater beacon to the world. If those schools do not succeed in their mission, our country risks being a country that is increasingly divided between rich and poor, between black and white. It risks being a country whose capacity to compete internationally and maintain our prosperity will be diminished. And it risks being a country whose values and civility will be less of a model to the world. There is, therefore, no more important issue than what happens in the schools.

There are many, many parts of that issue and of the challenges facing the schools. But I am convinced that, as central and as crucial as what happens in the school day during the regular school experience is, when somebody looks back at the history of American education and writes the definitive history 50 years from now, a significant part of it will be about the evolutionary changes that took place, not in what happened during the traditional 6 hours a day, 180 days a year, 13 years from kindergarten to 12th grade. It will be about the things we did or did not do before children went to school at the age of five. It will be about the things we did or did not do during the 180 days out of the year they are not in school, particularly in the summer, and will be about the things that they did or did not do with the other 10 hours a day outside of those 6 hours that children were not in school.

And if the battle for America’s future is going to be won, it is not going to be won only within that 6-hour school day. And that is why the subject that we’re discussing today is so profoundly important. That’s why the Mayor’s strategies for the schools and the strategies for the young people of Boston have put such emphasis on each of those margins: early childhood, the summer, and our subject today, afterschool education. Because those are the fronts on which this battle is going to be won or is going to be lost.

The stakes here are very, very high. And that’s why, in addition to highlighting the importance of this, in addition to celebrating the fact that we are cooperating, in addition to the fact that I’m proud that Harvard has been able to make a significant resource contribution to the Mayor’s efforts, in addition to the fact that we are pleased with the sense of partnership and well-being that is around this, there is another aspect that I want to highlight, and it comes out of something that the Mayor emphasized.

Tom, when you spoke powerfully, as you did, about the importance of evaluation, I am sure that you wrapped up the vote of every econometrician in the City of Boston in the next election. I’m not entirely sure that there are a lot of other people for whom that message is a political winner. But let me tell you something. If we had the same commitment, or lack of commitment, to evaluation in medicine that we have traditionally had in many spheres of education, we would still be leeching people to make them better.

If you look at the history of medicine over the last century, I would submit to you that the invention of the controlled experiment as a tool of rigorous evaluation was surely among the 10 most important medical innovations of that century. And it is madness to spend tens of billions of dollars in literally hundreds if not thousands of different school districts in different ways without devising methodologies that rigorously evaluate what works and what does not work, and growing what works and shrinking what does not.

The failure to evaluate what works and the allowance of children to continue year after year in programs that we don’t know whether they do work or do not work, is leaving our children behind in every bit as real a way as leaving them in classrooms that are not fully painted, or not providing them with modern textbooks.

If the medical profession was prescribing drugs whose efficacy nobody had tested, the people who ran the FDA would be strung up. And there has been too much of that for too long in education. And that is why the evaluation of what we do – and the Mayor said something very important – he said sometimes when you evaluate things, you find that they do not work. And then you stop doing them and you do other things.

The adoption of that idea in education is something that is of profound importance. That is why I think the significance of this conference lies not just in the significance of afterschool education, not just in the importance of partnership, but in the idea that I think needs to be ever more central in the way we approach social problems in this country.

And that is this: The more morally important something is, the more important it is that we think rigorously, carefully, and logically about it. And we don’t simply allow the fact that we care a lot, and the fact that we have compassion, to blind us to the need to evaluate with rigor. And if we are able to do that in this city, we will do better, and in this country we will do better.

And if Harvard is able to contribute in some small way to bringing about that approach in our country, we will have made an enormous contribution. Because, after all, it is the place of great institutions like this one, of great schools like the School of Education, of great new leaders, like your Dean, Ellen Lagemann, who can’t be here today, to show the way towards ways of thinking that will make us that much more effective.

This will not be an easy challenge. It will not be an easy challenge for many reasons. There is much more enthusiasm for reporting success than for reporting failure. There are many who want to do what they are doing and want to believe that it works, but aren’t fully willing to put the proposition to a test.

There is a great challenge also. And it is a challenge for the scholars in this room. And that is this: There are some things that are easy to measure. You can give a kid a math test. There are some things that are hard to measure. Does the kid have the self-confidence to go forward effectively in life? A question the Mayor raised.

The things that are hard to measure are every bit as important – in some cases they’re more important – than things that are easy to measure. And if we’re going to succeed, which I think we must, in finding ways to evaluate what we do, we’re going to have to devise the means and the methods to assure that evaluation is about not just what is quantifiable, but also about what is important. And how we are going to evaluate in ways that get at what is important, and also maintain the kind of objectivity that is central for it to be real, is a very great question, that I hope you will all ponder today.

In this conference you are part of something that is very important to this University. But, much more significantly, very important to the future of our country. And I am very, very grateful to everyone who is here and is part of this conference, for what they have contributed and what they are going to contribute. And, Mr. Mayor, we look forward to working with you very closely on these questions for a very long time.

Thank you very much.