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The 74 Interview: Harvard Education School Dean Jim Ryan Talks School Funding, Vergara and Ed Research

Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

September 14, 2016

Talking Points

Harvard @DeanJimRyan talks school funding lawsuits, the importance of schools of education, and new research

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See previous interviews: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, current U.S. Senator and Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and University of Michigan economist and New York Times contributor Susan Dynarski. Full 74 Interview archive here.

In an in-depth interview last month with The 74’s Matt Barnum, legal scholar and Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Jim Ryan made a case for the importance of education schools, praised the latest research from Harvard’s education experts, and discussed both the role of courts in driving education policy and the relationship between teacher tenure and school funding lawsuits.

Highlights from the conversation are below; the interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Also of note: The 74 talked to Ryan ahead of the groundbreaking Connecticut school funding ruling, which was handed down last week, after this conversation took place.)

The 74: I’m a fan of your blog, and I really enjoyed your piece on how pre-K is a school voucher program, which is something I’ve wanted to write, but you wrote it much better than I could have.

Jim Ryan: Thanks. I’ve thought that for a really long time. It’s just kind of funny that that doesn’t really raise the controversy you would imagine. It just shows how fluid people view what counts as “public.”

People think of public versus private as a binary, when I think it’s a spectrum.

It absolutely is.

I always find among the various debates about charter schools — the often repeated, but never fully explained, criticism that charters are an effort to privatize public education. I scratch my head when I read that. Besides board composition and in some states teachers don’t have to be unionized — what makes that private? The funding is public, they’re subject to state laws, they’re ultimately accountable to a public body, kids have to take the same test, they can’t be religiously affiliated … it’s an effective criticism, but it’s hard to see how it has a lot of merit.

Tell me a little bit about yourself — how you got involved in education, and what led you to become dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

It’s both personal and professional, really. I had an interest in education for a really long time. It started from my own experience. I grew up in a small blue-collar suburb in northern New Jersey. Neither of my parents went to college, but they both cared deeply about education. I went to public schools my whole life. I had some great teachers and was lucky enough to go to Yale as an undergraduate, and it totally changed my life. It opened up doors that I didn’t even know existed. It got me wondering, from that point on, why the system worked for me when it failed so many others. For me, it worked exactly like it’s supposed to — the way you read about public education in idealized narratives. It allows kids to experience opportunities they didn’t have at home and opens doors for them that they didn’t even realize existed.

I had this interest in education, and I went to law school expecting I would be a civil rights attorney. I worked for a while and then became a law professor with the idea that I would focus on law and education. At the time it was not really well known or a well-established field.

The opportunity to become a dean at Harvard — it really came out of the blue, to be honest. But the idea of being a dean at an education school, particularly Harvard, was attractive because the more I got to know about the school, the more I came to appreciate that it was heavily mission-oriented. Everyone who was there was there because they cared deeply about education and wanted to do something to improve it.

What was your specific area of legal scholarship?

I wrote about the way that law structures educational opportunity. I wrote about school desegregation, school finance, school choice, pre-K, standards and testing.

The last piece that I wrote before I became dean — which is an area that I hoped to explore more fully but have not really had time to — was on the intersection of special education and neuroscience. Because it seemed to me that special education law and policy — at least for certain disabilities and especially learning disabilities, but also for emotional disabilities — rests on suppositions about how the brain develops and functions, and it seems clear to me that neuroscience research was showing that a number of those suppositions were incorrect. The article I wrote was about the qualifications for the learning disability category. There’s this weird provision in the law that says you’re not eligible for special education if your learning problems stem from poverty, basically. Even at the same time there was all this research coming out showing that kids who suffer severe deprivation — think about the orphans in Romanian orphanages — had physical effects on their brain development.

I dug into it and discovered the reason for the exclusion was the sense that real learning disabilities were innate — that is, you were born with faulty wiring, and that poverty was an external circumstance that might influence your opportunity or your motivation, but it didn’t have any internal effects. Unlike lead poisoning, which actually does entitle you to special education. So I thought, wow, what neuroscience is showing is that in some instances poverty is acting a little bit like lead poisoning in that it’s actually altering the way your brain develops and functions.

There have been new lawsuits along the lines of the suits challenging tenure in California and New York* and the lawsuit challenging the charter cap in Massachusetts. Do you see these cases as an entirely new breed of lawsuit, or do they come out of some other tradition — and what do you make of them, broadly speaking?

I’ve found this development really fascinating, and I have to say I feel like I’ve been slightly vindicated, because the very first essay I wrote as a law professor was about Sheff v. O’Neill, which was a school desegregation case from Connecticut, out of Hartford. Everyone was trying to explain why this was a unique case because there’s some provision in the Connecticut constitution that prohibited segregation — but the Connecticut court relied a lot on the education clause in the Connecticut constitution. That’s a source of school finance litigation as well. Up until Sheff v. O’Neill everyone thought that the only way you could enforce the education clause was to make a claim about funding. The argument I made was there’s nothing in education clauses themselves, which guarantee a right to education, that says the only way you can violate this right is by underfunding schools. I argued that there’s no reason why you couldn’t, just like with the equal protection clause in the U.S. constitution, come up with all sorts of theories about why some students were receiving an inadequate or unequal education.

You could make an argument that it violates the education clause if kids are in high-poverty or racially homogenous schools, which was basically the lawsuit in Connecticut, the Sheff lawsuit. Similarly, you could make an argument akin to the argument that was made in Vergara about access to good teachers. Or you could make the argument like is being made in Massachusetts, about access, at least to the potential, for better schools by allowing kids to apply to lotteries for charter schools. I see it as an outgrowth of — and I don’t know if it’s the next generation of — school finance litigation.

One of the most fascinating things to me, just as an observer, is the court involvement stems from the same constitutional right but they do tend to vary depending on what the theory of the case is. I think there are a lot of fans of school finance litigation who are not fans of the Vergara litigation, and there are a lot of fans of the Vergara litigation who aren’t fans of the school finance litigation.

People can differ about their views on the basic policy issues, about whether they think more funding is needed or you think teacher tenure laws are the real problem, but a lot of the criticism goes to the proper role of the courts. There, I find it really hard to say that it’s appropriate for courts to be involved in school funding but not in personnel law, or it’s perfectly fine for courts to be involved in personnel law but not in funding.

Related to that point, there is significant literature at this point that the court-ordered school funding cases from the past few decades have driven improvements in student outcomes. I’m thinking of Kirabo Jackson and Rucker Johnson’s work. But I was just covering a school funding lawsuit in Connecticut, the CCJEF lawsuit, that has been going on for over a decade, and they just finished closing arguments actually. [Update: Since this conversation, the judge a made a sweeping rule in the Connecticut case.] I’m wondering if you could talk about the pros and cons of driving education policy through the courts.

That’s a great question. My view is that courts can be effective if they’re part of a broader strategy to effect change. I think this is true generally, but I think it is especially true in education litigation when you’re not enforcing negative rights; you’re enforcing positive rights. The reason that matters is that if you’re enforcing a positive right, you’re basically requiring the legislature to do something, and if the legislature really, really doesn’t want to do what the court is telling it to do, it has all sorts of ways to delay or to avoid a good-faith effort to implement what the court has required.

If the court is simply saying, “Look, you can’t enforce this law” — so it’s basically enforcing a negative right — that’s really easy to enforce. It’s really hard to enforce a mandate from a court that says you need to overhaul your funding system. What courts usually do is say: “We’re not going to tell you how to do it, because that’s not our job, that’s your job, and we’ll give you the first crack at it.” This creates some political momentum for reform — you see some court orders being translated pretty quickly into legislative reform. That happened in Massachusetts and Kentucky in the late ’80s and the early ’90s.

But in states where the legislature doesn’t really have an interest in doing what the court wants to do, you see endless delays and countless returns to court.

Washington State and the McCleary decision comes to mind.

Yeah. I don’t know that there’s a single state that has had just one school finance decision from a state supreme court. You end up going back to court. Sometimes there’s a big delay where the original order was enforced for a while, but obviously things change and need to change, and if the legislature is not complying with the principles from the first litigation, litigants will go back to court. Other times there’s just fighting from the very beginning and litigants have to go back to court repeatedly. That’s happened in New Jersey.

I worked in Newark for a couple years before I became a law professor, and I worked on school finance cases in New Jersey. It was Abbott 4. It was an incredibly ambitious ruling, and the court, I think, even included language in the opinion saying, this is our fourth opinion in the case and we expect it’s our last — we’ve covered everything, and we’ve made it very clear what the legislature needs to do. I think the last time I checked, the most recent opinion was Abbott 21 or 22.

So I think that if there is, concurrently with litigation, an effort to develop popular and political momentum that’s pushing in the same direction as the litigation, courts can act really effectively at pushing wide open a door that’s already ajar. They can also provide legislatures who are inclined to do what the court is suggesting some cover. If you think about school finance suits in particular, no legislator is going to be popular for raising taxes. If a legislator thinks our school funding system really does need to be overhauled, if the supreme court then comes down and says we’re ordering you to do this, that provides the legislator the opportunity to say, look, we have to abide by the court ruling, so basically don’t blame me, blame the court.

Let me ask you to put your dean hat on now, rather than legal scholar. As you know, the national and often local education debate is very polarized, and I’m wondering how, if at all, that manifests at the graduate school. Do you see evidence of that? Do you work to avoid that political polarization that we see in the education debates?

One of the things that I admire the most about our faculty and our students is that they’re both passionate but also open to persuasion. I would characterize the faculty in particular as being less interested in politicized debate. There are obviously disagreements, but the disagreements are about what the research shows or what the evidence shows. It’s not a place where you can’t have a debate about some topics because they’re just off the table for political reasons. It’s kind of a refreshing place to be, especially in the world of education, which as you say is remarkably polarized and politicized and where some participants in the debate don’t really want to know — or don’t seem that interested in knowing — what the research shows about a particular policy, because their priors are completely against or completely for a particular policy. That’s not the attitude at the GSE.

In some ways that shouldn’t be remarkable; that’s what an academic institution should be about. Our contribution to education policy debates should be, really, to provide evidence and research about which policies are more effective at achieving the goals that legislation is designed to achieve, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Do you feel like research is used well to inform education policy?

[Laughs]

OK, that’s a broad answer! But go ahead and answer it as best you can or just pass.

Yes and no. I think in general, not nearly enough. I think that it — and it’s not just policy, it’s also practice, the two are related but they are distinct — I don’t think that it influences either as much as it ought to. There are some notable exceptions. I think about the research on the effects of pre-K. I think that that research was hugely influential in the decision among states to provide more funding for publicly available pre-K, and I don’t think it’s exactly the exception that proves the rules, but there aren’t a lot of other examples of research really driving policy, at least in a direct way.

It feels like there’s a trickle-down effect, and maybe this is just my impression, and maybe because we were just talking about it. But it does seem like there is more of a consensus on the impacts of school funding now and there is more research than there was a decade ago showing that school funding matters, but I don’t know if that’s actually driven policy. My impression is that there’s something more of a consensus, but maybe that’s wrong and maybe that’s not driving policy whatsoever.

The reality of education policy is that it’s part of the political process, so there are also sorts of pressures and consideration beyond “what the research says” that can end up driving policy. It is not an instance where if you have a proven idea and you’ve got a good deal of research to show that this is a real smart thing to do — there is just not a guarantee that a legislature or a local school board is necessarily going to follow that. For better or for worse, sometimes they have other priorities or other considerations.

Can you talk about some of the most interesting research that you see coming from GSE scholars?

There is a ton of great work coming out.

We have an associate professor, Meredith Rowe, who focuses on early literacy, and her focus has been on the use of language between parents and kids. Everyone knows the study about the disparity between the number of words that kids of middle-income and upper-income families hear by the time they’re 3 or 5 as compared to kids from poor families and working-class families. But what Meredith has focused on is that it’s not just or even primarily the quantity of words but the kind of language that’s used and the kind of back and forth that happens between parents and kids. It’s not just quantity but quality as well.

Another interesting new paper was done by Roland Fryer, who’s in the econ department but has a joint appointment at the ed school. He has a paper about the specialization of teachers of younger kids. I thought it was really fascinating.

We have a huge project starting by Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones on early childhood. There have been a good number of studies on early childhood, but a lot of them are now quite old and a lot of them are quite limited. We just got a really generous gift from the Saul Zaentz Foundation to make a big investment in early childhood education, and a chunk of that gift is going to support this early learning study that’s going to track a group of 3-to-5-year-olds through pre-K and longitudinally along the lines of Perry preschool and Abecedarian studies, which are now decades old. The study will try to identify what aspects of early childhood education seem to have the longest impact in a kid’s development.

Another piece is this report that Rick Weissbourd spearheaded called “Turning the Tide,” and it is about the college application process and what’s emphasized and what’s not and how you can use that process to incentivize good behavior rather than behaviors that are of questionable value.

Anything you wanted to add?

The only other point I would make is that I have become convinced in my time at GSE that any education reform, any education improvement, has to have a theory about the development of human capital and a theory about the development of knowledge — about what works. I know that there is a segment of those involved in education reform who think that education schools are at best besides the point, or at worst part of the problem. I’m obviously biased, because I’m the dean of an ed school, but I think it’s remarkably short-sighted.

No matter what your plan is, you need great people to carry it out, and you need people who have been prepared well by people who know what they’re talking about and who know what the evidence and research say. I’m really convinced that for those who are curious about education reform, they should be really interested in what’s happening at education schools, because that’s where the people who are going to carry out those reforms are being prepared.

*Disclosure: The New York tenure lawsuit was brought by the Partnership for Educational Justice, which was founded by The 74’s Editor-in-Chief Campbell Brown.