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Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean’s Weekend – No Child Left Behind: The Challenges and the Promise, Remarks by Harvard University Lawrence H. Summers

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Let me, before I say anything else, just say a word about Kathy McCartney. She is doing a remarkable job as the acting Dean of the Education School.

We worry that acting deans won’t keep their schools together, we hope that acting deans will provide steady and strong leadership. We don’t actually dare to hope that acting deans will push their schools powerfully forward, as Dean Kathy McCartney is doing. Thank you, Kathy.

I also want to acknowledge the person in this room who has the hardest job – Sybil Knight, Principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and our host tonight. Thank you. Thank you for what you’ve done for the City of Cambridge as you have led this school, but as we thank you, let us thank you in the name of all of the people who are working in our nation’s school systems. All of us comment and criticize and analyze, and diagnose, and prescribe, and that work is profoundly important. And there is much to worry about. But none of us should lose sight of the enormous and largely unrecognized and unappreciated efforts of literally tens of thousands of teachers and principals working in the public schools of this country. Thank you, Sybil.

I should also recognize three people to whom I report, Chairman of the Board of Overseers Patti Saris, and members of the Board of Overseers Bruce Alberts and Alan Bersin, who have brought the passion and force of the governing boards to bear in ensuring that the University works in every way it can to support the vitally important work of the Harvard Education School.

I have been saying for four years now that if the Battle of Waterloo was, as Wellington famously said, “won on the playing fields of Eton,” the battle for the nation’s future will be won or lost in America’s public schools. The strength and the quality of the group of people here tonight reflect our common commitment to ensuring that the Harvard Graduate School of Education is at the forefront in that battle.

It is probably the case that the “No Child Left Behind Act” was, as Dan Koretz said, “the single most dramatic change in the landscape of teaching and learning in the United States, since Thomas Jefferson first imagined a system of general education in his dining room at Monticello.” With this act, with the commitment to measurement and accountability that it brings, with the growing recognition of just how important education is for our economic future and for our political future, I believe that we are at a crucial inflexion point in education debates in this country, and the steps that the Harvard Education School takes will make a great difference.

There is a great deal new in the education environment that we could talk about here tonight — businesses turning their attention to the public schools in ways they never have before; superintendents and leaders of schools coming from entirely non-standard backgrounds; the rise of home schooling and a two-billion-dollar tutoring industry; and the fact that hundreds of graduating seniors, nearly 10 percent on average of the classes of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, apply to join a program like Teach for America that brings them into urban schools. These developments, and the countless contributions of alumni of this School, are changing in very profound ways the educational landscape.

Rather than talk about all of these things, I would like to address a much more specific question tonight – the role of the research university, and especially the role of research in this University, and at this School, in public education.

This is an area in which I believe that we can make a great difference. William Butler Yeats once observed that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” He was saying, of course, that learning is not the inert transfer of material into the vessel of the mind, but more like a chemical reaction, it changes everyone involved. No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on accountability and standardized tests, is sometimes pegged as a reductionist or “fill the bucket” approach to education.

Yet whatever the precise merits of the legislation, when we look at the research and thinking that it has generated, when we look at the magnitude of public discussion of education in the wake of the results of No Child Left Behind, we find something quite to the contrary. I want to talk briefly about five ways in which fresh thinking from this University is helping to light the fire that Yeats talked about with respect to K to 12 education.

First, a university offers a place, I would argue the only place, in which there can be systematic and fresh thinking about assessment and evaluation, about diagnosing what works and does not work as we attempt to bring about change. If you look at the history of medicine in the last century, one of the half dozen most important innovations, an innovation that came out of academic centers, was surely the double-blind clinical trial, which permitted much sharper judgments than had ever been possible before of what worked and what did not work, and allowed the ending of what did not work and the rapid extension of what did.

What are the influences that make the greatest difference in educational outcomes? These are profound issues. And they are issues that cannot be addressed in ways that are as simple as those available in medicine; we don’t have the equivalent of placebos in education. We have to use the data we have, take advantage of what can be learned from the vast range of variation that a diverse school system like ours presents. We are fortunate in the faculty here, who have done much to advance methodologies that make this possible.

Judy Singer and John Willet have written a path-breaking book on two methods for analyzing longitudinal data, giving empirical researchers sophisticated ways of measuring not just snapshots on how students are doing, but sequences of snapshots that enable them to see how achievement is changing, and what it is that is making it change. Dan Koretz, a recent addition to this faculty, is helping us to understand the effects of individual teachers and accountability-oriented tests. He has analyzed the techniques that model the incremental value added by a given teacher or a given school in a given year.

These are techniques that right now are very much frontiers of statistical and academic research, but that one day could be the basis for measuring and even possibly compensating those in our educational system on the basis of what they contribute directly to student performance. Tom Kane was talking years ago about how the current testing system is only, to use his phrase, “randomly accountable.” I am not sure exactly what that means, but it cannot be good if test data intended to help minority students can actually harm them, because the rules say you have a problem if every minority group within a school does not achieve adequate progress within a single year.

And so if you are a very diverse school with many different minority groups, just because of statistical fluctuation, it is going to be enormously difficult to achieve that particular benchmark. Last month, 66 percent of the eighth-graders who passed Tennessee’s math test failed the federal test required by No Child Left Behind. “Students Ace State Tests, But Earn ‘D’s’ from the United States” intoned the headline in Saturday’s New York Times. But Tom Kane and others had predicted that headline substantially in advance.

These are abstract areas in research, and, I confess, I myself have wondered, as someone who has committed a fair amount of econometrics in my time, how much econometrics really had the capacity to influence educational practice. We had a kind of answer from a different type of natural experiment a couple of years ago, when Dick Murnane took advantage of his sabbatical from the Education School to spend a year working in the Superintendent’s Office in the City of Boston on the ongoing problems that Superintendent Payzant and his team face. I have had a chance to hear about that interaction from both sides, the City of Boston’s side and Dick’s side. And I can tell you that on both sides, it was very, very rewarding.

Without this kind of data-based scholarship, which we take completely for granted when we talk about businesses, how could you talk about a company? How could you think for five minutes about a company, without thinking about its financials and its accounting practices, and its results, and all of that data? It is something that one day will be routine in education, and we will be at the forefront of that.

There is a second, very different kind of research that goes on in our School, and that we need very much to extend. And that is, how do you manage a school system in ways that work, and ways that produce results?

Let’s consider the case method for a second. Imagine yourself as an urban school superintendent. In five years, your school system has grown by 20 percent, your students speak 50 different languages, and the achievement gap between whites and minorities is 37 percent. Your stressed and valuable assistant superintendent has just resigned, your teaching staff suffers from weak recruitment and performance review, and budget cuts are making it impossible for you to fully develop your very dedicated teachers. What do you do? You probably want to learn what others have done in similar situations, get a sense of what best practice is, and benefit from the practical experience that many people have. That is what you probably want to do.

And that is what so many people are doing. This University has linked itself to superintendents in districts that serve one million schoolchildren across this country, through the Public Education Leadership project. Dick Elmore, Jim Honan, Bob Schwartz, and Bob Peterkin from the Education School have teamed up with Business School colleagues to work on these questions of management and change. I have had a chance to talk with superintendents who have participated in those programs, people like Alan Bersin, here with us tonight, who served as Superintendent in San Diego.

This research, this program, is meeting two very important tests. One is that very, very busy people keep coming back, and more of them want to come next year than came last year. That is one test. The other test, and what I believe if we are successful will ultimately be the more enduring contribution, is the research and the sharing of experience that comes out of that program.

For the first time, we are creating a body of cases on success and failure in educational leadership that will enable prospective superintendents and prospective educational leaders to hone and to develop their skills. Cases are finding their way into the Education School’s new core curriculum that I believe, over time, will find substantial use in education teaching, not just at Harvard, but across the country. These cases encompass basic research and statistical evaluation, practical, hands-on research in management and change.

The university also offers a place, and I do not think there is any other kind of institution that does offer such a place, for fresh thinking that links theory to practice. Take for example Catherine Snow, whose work on children’s literacy is nationally recognized. She gave the results of a program, which had been an experiment that a teacher named Gail Jordan had done on literacy for low-income kindergarteners in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, to a graduate student to analyze. Little did she know that the results of that analysis would produce not only an academic publication for that graduate student, but would result, when the paper was read, in the adoption of that very curriculum in over 700 school districts across this country. That is a powerful model.

Catherine thought very hard about how that model could be extended. Working closely with the head of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, she formulated the model of SERP, the Strategic Education Research Partnership. Bruce, with whom I feel a certain kinship, including a tendency to ambitious rhetoric, has likened SERP to the Human Genome Project. He explains that SERP, like the Genome Project, defines projects, and defines problems, from a central agenda and creates collaborations across groups of leading researchers.

Increasingly, in every area of knowledge and every area of social progress, we understand that the answer does not lie within economics, the answer does not lie within politics, the answer does not lie within psychology, and the answer does not even lie within school principals. It lies within teams of people working together around a common problem, with a commonly established infrastructure. And that is exactly the concept that enabled us to sequence the human genome with all the potential that it represents, and it is also the concept that is behind SERP.

SERP’s first field site places researchers from six area universities in six Boston public middle schools, working closely with teachers and administrators who describe how their students read or do not read, how some understand the words but can not draw inferences, how others do not have the stamina, and how still others can read, but hardly ever do. Enter an interdisciplinary committee of high-level experts from around the nation on every aspect of reading instruction, assessment, and intervention. Using all available resources, they design prototype classroom tools. Teachers try the prototype tools, researchers evaluate them, learning from classroom practice. At this point, SERP, like the Human Genome Project, has the potential for broad application.

There may yet be no educational DNA to map, but with the promise of collaborative research, replication, and the application of the scientific method, we have the chance to do things in new ways that work. On one level, this is enormously sophisticated, and on another level, it is not all that complicated. Catherine explained something to me that, once she said it, seemed completely obvious, but had never occurred to me, and apparently it had never occurred to vast numbers of other people. If you cannot read and you are 8 years old, it is probably because you did not learn phonics and you did not learn some basic techniques for learning reading.

If you cannot read and you are 13 years old, and they have tried to teach you to read six different times in six different grades, it is probably not going to work if you do the same thing a seventh time. And so the nature of the obstacle and the nature of the barrier that has to be overcome is very different when you are dealing with different programs, and different populations. The approach we take has to be very different, and that idea is proving to be a very powerful one as we look at middle school literacy, and literacy beyond that point.

Universities also offer a chance for out-of-the-box thinking about a particular problem in ways that nobody else is thinking about it. Or perhaps a few people are thinking about it, or large numbers of people would frankly find to be offensive, but you need to look at data and decide what you think.

We have a brilliant young scholar in our Economics Department, Roland Fryer, who has done some quite challenging experiments that I suspect some of you will find to be outrageous, and others of you will find to be intriguing, but they are the kinds of things people ought to be thinking about. Roland had a quite simple idea, really, an amazingly simple idea; it is just the kind of way economists think. We want kids to do better in school. Kids like money. If we pay people who do well, maybe they will try harder and do better.

He has done a set of experiments, though the results are still too preliminary to base any policy on. But it actually goes one better than that. He compares two approaches. In one approach, students are given a test each month, and if they do well, the students who either do well absolutely or show a significant improvement are given a pizza party, or given some other prize. In the other group – and there is a control group, where nothing happens – students are formed into groups of five, and their performance is evaluated on the basis of how all five do.

And if the group does well, then all the students get the pizza party. And if the group does poorly, none of the students get the pizza party. So the students all have a common stake in teaching and instructing each other, and he finds that the latter works by far the best. Incentives matter, and incentives on a group basis work even better. Now, this is not ready for primetime, it is a long way from being ready for primetime. But if it is really true that spending $75 a student over the course of a year on pizza parties can have a substantial impact on how much third- graders advance in a year, that is something that is potentially very important.

It may go nowhere, but it is the kind of thing that somebody somewhere should be experimenting with, and if not at a great university, then where should that kind of research take place? In a similar vein, Caroline Hoxby, in our Economics Department, has done a number of studies that try to explore very closely whether the mechanism of competition that is so powerful and effective in making other parts of our economy work, and spurring efficiency in everything from restaurants to the production of steel, works or does not work in education. Her research suggests that it does, but it is highly controversial. Hopefully, the experiments will ultimately be done that will tell us the answer. Again, this studying the effects of incentives, this thinking outside of the box, if it is not taken up at a great university, then where will it be pursued?

Finally, and it may be that, in the longest run, it will be this last area that is most important. That is, fresh thinking about new technologies, and what their impact will be. Thirty-five years ago, Sesame Street was a product of this institution.

There are millions of people whose lives were profoundly changed because a few people sat around and dreamed together about something that could be, and that was, because educational television was an available technology. Think about how much more potential there is for technology today. As Howard Gardner has put it, “The individual-centered education is only a matter of time. We will within a decade see computers that cost $100.” Think about what these things together could possibly mean for helping students learn.

None of us knows what the potential will be in this country, and beyond this country, where resources are much scarcer, what kind of difference those $100 computers with the right kind of software can make. Al Merck, who has been such a wonderful supporter of this school for a long time, continues to challenge us by saying that we need to look for things that touch not 100 people, not 1,000 people, not 10,000 people, but have the chance to touch millions of people. Today, with the power of the Internet, we have the opportunity for the first time in the history of education to innovate approaches that are both customized to the individual, and massive in the scale of people that they reach.

That is an enormously powerful idea, and we are only at the beginning. Nobody has made a success of this yet on the scale to which we aspire. There are a million barriers to overcome, from intellectual property protections to the parochial interests of textbook producers, to the engrained habits of school systems. But think about what a difference an individualized Sesame Street, which responds to your needs, which is rigorously and carefully evaluated, could make to so very many children in this country and beyond. That is the challenge of this great school.

Thank you very much.