Professor Katherine K. Merseth
Professor Katherine K. Merseth

Katherine Merseth

"I would say the big issue in education today is both equity and excellence," says Katherine Merseth. " I’m working to see if we can raise both excellence and equity. That is my life’s work."
By David H. Xiang

Katherine K. Merseth, a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that teaching is her lifeblood. Even though she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, Merseth has devoted her life’s work to studying and reforming education. Merseth is the creator of Harvard’s Teacher Education Program and the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. Additionally, she teaches the wildly popular undergraduate course USW 35: “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education,” which hundreds of Harvard students lottery for each semester. Currently, Merseth is in the midst of creating an Education Studies secondary. FM sat down with her to learn more about her work and life, her view on the American education system, and more. Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: How has your background in math influenced your current work?

KM: In trying to come up with a solution for things, I think I learned as a mathematician to analyze the space. It gave me an opportunity to think about challenges in education, perhaps in a new way, in a creative way. It gives you another perspective, different ways of solving problems

FM: Do you think education as whole in our country is going to undergo change with the arrival of the Trump administration?

KM: What Trump’s presidency has taught us is that we have failed as an education system to teach our children how to think, how to ask questions, how to probe behind the 20-second sound bites. We have been so smitten by the testing movement and standardized tests. I feel that we have failed many of our young people in their ability to analyze and criticize and understand policies. When I look at what people do with kids today in schools, all I see is, “What was your test score?” or, “What was your SAT score?” instead of, “Can you think?”

FM: Do you think that the standardized testing movement will continue?

KM: I’m working hard to make sure it isn’t! We have high standards now with the Common Core, but we have tests that pale in the face of analyzing critical thinking or problem solving ability. It’s so hard to figure out thinking, that we don’t measure it. We measure the easy things.

FM: Are there any major factors that you think contributed to the inequality in the education system that exists today?

KM: There’s a huge correlation, not causal, between income and academic achievement. The income disparity in this country is driving the academic disparity we see between children in schools. A child from a low-income family enters kindergarten having heard 30 million fewer words. We have huge social problems in this country that I’m hoping education can begin to address.

FM: Would you say income disparity is the most pressing issue in education right now?

KM: Yes. It is one of the influences that creates this academic gap. I would say the big issue in education today is both equity and excellence. We do well in excellence for some students, but not all students. I’m working to see if we can raise both excellence and equity. That is my life’s work.

FM: Imagine that you have complete power over reforming the education system. What would you start with?

KM: There are so many things. I would focus on very young children, ages 3,4, and 5. I think if we can give all children a better start, nutritionally, socially, economically, in all aspects of their lives, then they will do better in schools. So, early childhood education would be a focus. I would focus on age 3 to grade 3, because we know if a child is not reading on grade level at grade 3, their outcomes are horrible—they’ll likely not graduate, get pregnant early, or be on welfare. So, that simple six years, from age 3 to grade 3, or from age 3 to age 9, we need to put our resources there, so everyone gets a solid start. The second thing I can’t not mention is teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of schooling. But they’re not respected, they’re not paid well, they’re not treated well in schools, so I would elevate the teaching profession, I would help teachers teach more effectively, and throw myself, which I have, into the preparation of teachers and their support.

FM: What are some of your favorite hobbies or pastimes?

KM: I have a farm tractor, and I have a farm up in Maine. I work on the tractor myself, I fix the valves, change the oil. I love being up there, out in the country. I also used to hike a lot; I’ve hiked all over the world. I’ve hiked in Patagonia, in Chile, in Guatemala, Yosemite, the White Mountains, in Montana, in Colorado. I’m an outdoor person; I love when I’m outside.

FM: If you could be any vegetable what would you be and why?

KM: Here’s one that the math people will get. I’d like to be an ear of corn, because they have multiple kernels.

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