Reflecting on Its Past, Graduate School of Education Celebrates Centennial


As longtime Education professor Howard E. Gardner ’65 recalls it, around 50 years ago, Harvard's Graduate School of Education found itself in a tenuous position.

“There was a while in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where there was no tenure at the Ed School, because the Corporation felt that the school wasn’t financially — what word shall we use — viable,” Gardner said.

Today, however, the school is one of the preeminent institutions for training leaders in education. It boasts master’s, doctoral, and professional education programs; produces high volumes of research; and consistently ranks first among education schools across the nation in national indexes like U.S. News and World Report's.

“I don’t think anybody nowadays would seriously consider getting rid of it," Gardner said.


This year — as celebrations and new initiatives mark the Graduate School of Education’s 100th anniversary — faculty, alumni, and educators reflected in interviews on the collective work and impact of the school throughout the past century.

A Storied History

The Graduate School of Education was founded in 1920, after then-University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, decided the College should not include vocational training in its offerings. In response, Henry W. Holmes, Class of 1903 — then chair of the Division of Education, which had previously been affiliated with the Faculty of Art and Sciences — spearheaded fundraising for the establishment of a separate school.

In the 1940s, with a temporary home in Lawrence Hall and no set mission, the Graduate School of Education struggled to fit in with the rest of the University. The Harvard Corporation and then-University President James B. Conant Class of 1914 considered shutting the school down.

But instead, Conant took a risk and hired a dean who lacked a doctorate, but would change the course of the school: Francis Keppel ’38.

Keppel recruited renowned scholars who shared an interest in education, such as the historian Bernard Bailyn and the philosopher Israel Scheffler. By hiring psychologist Robert R. Sears, who set up the Laboratory of Human Development, Keppel solidified the Graduate School of Education as a research institution in line with the research mission of the broader University.

The Laboratory of Human Development hosted many researchers at the forefront of the field of psychology. For instance, Gerald S. Lesser, one of the first scholars to study the effect of television on children, conducted his work through the lab as a member of the Ed School’s faculty.

Lesser’s research and affiliation with NBC led to development of the popular children’s show “Sesame Street.” According to The New York Times, Lesser “poured the pedagogy” into the show, ensuring it would be both instructive and enjoyable for children. From then on, Lesser worked closely with the Children’s Television Workshop to ensure pedagogy and research would be included in television scripts.

While the Ed School continued to attract experts in the 1970s, many ultimately left because the school could not offer them tenure-track positions, according to Gardner. It was not until the 1980s that faculty members received tenure, after then-Ed School Dean Patricia A. Graham — the first female dean of a Harvard faculty — successfully negotiated with former University President Derek C. Bok ’71 to grant them the distinction.

Many scholars have since joined the tenured ranks of the school — including Gardner, who said offering tenure-track positions at a professional school was a significant move for an arts and sciences university at the time.

“I think that actually gives you some insight into the school, because in a university that's dedicated to arts and sciences, the place of professional schools is always a bit questionable,” he said.

Gardner said Graham’s work gave the Ed School a specific mission, finally setting it apart from its former place as a Faculty of Arts and Sciences division.

“The Ed School now tries to really be a bridge between serious disciplines and the needs of education,” Gardner said.

Celebrating a Century of Accomplishments

To commemorate the centennial, the Ed School has launched several projects aimed at collecting stories and reflections from its affiliates.

One such initiative, entitled “100 Years, 100 Stories,” highlights different programs and anecdotes about the Ed School. The tone of these articles vary from lighthearted accounts such as “Transformational Teaching — With Muppets,” to serious topics like “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.”

With over fifty articles already published, “100 years, 100 stories” has archived much of the Ed School’s storied past by focusing on its leaders, innovations, and experiences with diversity and inclusion.

Another initiative called “Voices of Appian Way” allows members of the Ed School to informally share their thoughts on the centennial to the community via social media.

Additionally, with the novel coronavirus outbreak, the project has evolved to be a platform “for the HGSE community to share how [they] are coping and finding solutions during this time,” according to its website.

Necessary Today, More Than Ever

Gardner said the Ed School has undergone major changes during his 53 years at the school, including an increase in the diversity of the student population.

“One very major change is the diversity of the student body,” Gardner said. “A sizable percentage of our domestic students are people of color and people with sexual identities that are non-cis. But we also have a very large foreign student contingent, and speaking just for myself some of my best students come from Asia, China, India, Singapore, Korea.”

Gardner also said the influence of the Ed School within the University has increased in recent years.

“I think the ties to the Ed School are much stronger, and I think it’s really the first time in the last ten to fifteen years where other parts of Harvard actually look to the Ed School for insights about how to teach,” he said.

Bridget Terry Long, who was appointed as Dean of the Graduate School of Education in 2018, said that despite the Ed School’s work over the past century, many problems in educational equity remain.

“Despite advances in policy, principles for leadership, approaches to teaching, and technology — many of which were significantly shaped by HGSE faculty and alumni — other aspects of education remain stagnant, including persistent opportunity and achievement gaps by income, race, and gender,” Long said.

Hannalore B. Rodriguez-Farrar, chair of the Graduate School of Education’s Alumni Council, noted the centennial comes at an important period in history, as the world experiences the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“This is a crucial time for education, with the world responding to the vast challenges of COVID-19. HGSE’s leadership role and its potential to make an impact are incredibly important right now,” Rodriguez-Farrar said.

Part-time student Hillary R. Casavant, who is set to graduate from the Ed School this year, said she appreciated the Ed School continuing dedication to its mission amid the interruptions caused by COVID-19.

“I think that the tradition has been as good as it can be under the circumstances,” Casavant said. “There’s been a lot of extra outreach from our program director and lots of opportunities to check in remotely, so that even though we’re not on campus, I feel like that community still feels like it’s there.”

Long said the global situation has only affirmed the importance of the Ed School’s work.

“This situation has only cemented our commitment to our mission: to improve outcomes for all learners, to prepare outstanding educators and scholars, and to advance the field of education,” Long said. “This work has never been more critical.”

Long emphasized that regardless of the pandemic, the centennial is timely with respect to the need for education reform.

“It’s appropriate, in some ways, that our 100th anniversary is occurring during a time when dramatic transformation is not just needed, but required,” Long said. “It has never been clearer that we need a revolution in education—one that prioritizes equity and opportunity for all.”

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.

—Staff writer Kavya M. Shah can be reached at