Preserving a common good”
Harvard faculty speak on challenges facing education
by Katie Gibson, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
What’s next for education under the Trump administration? That was the central question addressed at a one-day conference for education reporters at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) on April 26.
“We’re living in a time where we are divided, often bitterly,” noted Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer on education at HGSE and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), in his opening remarks. He hoped, he said, that the conference would provide a way for attendees to make connections with one another, and think about how to facilitate conversations in the field.
The day began with a panel discussion on the role of education in preparing constructive, ethical citizens. Meira Levinson, professor of education at HGSE, expressed her concern about the decline of civics education in the U.S. “We need a sense that life is about other people,” she said. “We need a recognition that democracy is hard.” She spoke of the failings of American government K-12 courses, and added, “We don’t know how to socialize our children into the messy, sometimes boring work of democracy.” Levinson also emphasized the need for parents and teachers to model everyday civic engagement.
“Part of living in the United States is making sense of race and racial inequality—or not,” added Natasha Warikoo, associate professor of education at HGSE. “We need a discussion of inequality to help us make sense of diversity.”
The day’s second session comprised a series of “speed dating” segments, allowing participants to sit down with HGSE and HKS faculty in 10-minute segments and ask questions. Faculty members spoke on their areas of expertise and the implications for those areas under the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The news isn’t all bad—though it is complicated, said Mandy Savitz-Romer, senior lecturer on education, speaking on career and college readiness. “We’re seeing a pendulum swing back away from the ‘college for all’ spirit of the Obama administration,” she noted, adding, “That’s distressing for a number of reasons. I’m worried that students will move away from higher education before they’re really sure what they’re choosing, and that funding cuts will make it harder for students to get financial aid and work-study jobs.”
However, Savitz-Romer pointed out, a business-minded administration in Washington might spark conversations about vocational training and other alternative career paths. “We could use a broader and deeper conversation about vocational training in this country,” she said.
Lee Teitel, lecturer on education at HGSE, spoke about his work as faculty director of Reimagining Integration: The Diverse and Equitable Schools Project (RIDES) at HGSE, which focuses on providing tools and resources to increase integration in schools. “Desegregation often means you have the bodies in the building,” Teitel noted. “But real integration comes when different kinds of people are truly interacting with and learning from one another.”
At the federal level, much of the education discussion under DeVos has so far focused on school choice, including vouchers and charter schools. Paul Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, and Marty West, associate professor of education, discussed the implications of increased options for school choice and the pressures that may create for districts whose public schools depend on per-pupil funding. The two are co-editors of Education Next, a journal produced through the Program on Education Policy and Governance at HKS.
Later in the day, attendees participated in a case study session, working in two groups facilitated by Levinson and by Nancy Hill, the Charles Bigelow Professor of Education at HGSE. The interactive format allowed participants to discuss the nuances of two sensitive issues: school choice in various forms (Hill) and the boundaries of hate speech, freedom of speech and a chance to teach children about participating in democracy (Levinson).
The conference wrapped up with a faculty panel facilitated by Deborah Jewell-Sherman, professor of practice at HGSE. Participants asked faculty members and other panelists about their teaching and research, in light of current fraught political realities in the U.S. Jewell-Sherman spoke about the need to be proactive rather than reactive: “How can we effect change in our field, rather than change happening to us?” she asked.
Her colleagues had varying answers, but one common theme emerged: it’s a long project.
“I think one of the keys is providing hope in the possible,” Jewell-Sherman said. “That’s what I tell my HGSE students.”
Hill agreed. “I believe public education can be saved because I have to believe it,” she said. “Our democracy depends on public education. It is a common good.”