“Why’d you go to school?” Katherine K. Merseth, senior lecturer on education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, asks. It takes me a second to realize that this is not a rhetorical question. “You didn’t think I was going to ask you a question did you?” she says, smiling, in response to my silence.
“I’m fascinated by that question because no one ever asks it,” Merseth continues. “We’re all swimming in this water but nobody knows what water is.”
She sits across the table from me in her office in Longfellow Hall, tucked behind Cambridge Common, speaking openly as she turns what could have been a straightforward interview into a conversation, asking about my story throughout our chat: “Where did you go to high school? What are you studying?”
Merseth notes that people see education as having all kinds of different purposes: to build professional skills, to empower students who are otherwise powerless, to enable students to become the inherently better people that education makes them. “That’s what makes education hard in this country,” she explains. “We don’t have a fundamental agreement across the populace about why we have schools.”
It’s a question Merseth pursues in her incredibly popular course, USW 35: “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education.” This past semester, several hundred students lotteried for the class, which has just 75 spaces. Merseth casually slips into the conversation the fact that it has a score of 4.8 on the Q Guide.
“Teaching [this course] has completely and totally restored my faith in education and the potential of young people to make a difference in the world,” she says. “It just fills me up every day.
Merseth majored in math at Cornell University, and after she graduated, decided between pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics or a teaching degree. She chose teaching.
“Personality-wise it was a great decision because I am very much of an extrovert, [an] outgoing person who likes to engage with people,” she explains. “Being a math Ph.D. you sit in an office by yourself and think weird thoughts that you can’t share with anyone.”
Merseth got a master’s degree in education from GSE and, after spending ten years working in schools, first as a high school math teacher and then a curriculum coordinator, she returned to Harvard, where she earned her doctorate and joined the Harvard faculty.
Early in her career, she says that she thought a lot about “content knowledge”—how to improve teaching techniques. “Being kind of an analytical puzzle-solver type of person,” she says, “I’m just driven to figure out how to [teach] better.” But as she got older, her focus evolved. Her current research looks mostly at charter schools, a movement that Merseth supports.
“[Charter schools] are a wedge into a rather complacent monopolistic education system that has not changed or responded to the needs of children,” she says.
Though there has been tremendous political pushback on charters, she is optimistic about the success of the system. She does note, however, that she sees charters as somewhat of a “missed opportunity.” Given a blank canvas on which to reimagine school systems, Merseth says, she wishes that the educators and administrators behind charters had designed more innovative schools.
When I ask about her opinions of teachers unions, Merseth does not hold back. “I’d get rid of them,” she declares bluntly. “I think they have seriously hampered educational progress in this country because they are so focused on job protection.” Merseth had the option to join a union when she first started teaching, but chose not to do so: “I don’t see the leadership,” she explains. “I don’t see the enlightenment.”
On the topic of Teach for America, Merseth’s criticisms are even more severe. Though she applauds TFA for the program’s recruitment and branding strategies, she believes TFA should be “harshly criticized” for their inadequate training and their lack of support for young teachers. Though TFA wants people to think that they’re in it for the kids, she says, in reality they are “in it for themselves,” and are simply using the students “as guinea pigs.”
With that, Merseth—who labels herself an “academic entrepreneur”—launches into an explanation of her response to TFA’s problematic structure: the Harvard Teacher Fellowship. Her initiative, which will be in place for seniors in the Class of 2016 to apply to, is aimed at getting Harvard students excited about teaching while also providing the training and support that Merseth says is absent in TFA. The fellowship will involve six months of coursework and training before placement in a school, and will have a strong support system during the year, with coaching and webinars. At the end of the two years, students can earn a master’s degree by taking just two courses.
“We intend it to be this great way to get into teaching, but to do it right,” Merseth says.
She’s also working on implementing an Education Studies secondary field for undergraduates, as well as an Institute of Education modelled after the IOP. The IOE will be a “funnel of education opportunities,” with internships, public service groups, and fellows.
Merseth explains that though Harvard students won’t all become teachers, they should all understand the issues. Since she became interested in education practice and policy, Merseth has seen firsthand how pressing its problems are. “Some of the scales have fallen off my eyes and I can see the tremendous inequities that exist in our society today,” she tells me. Education, Merseth believes, is “the civil rights issue of our time.”