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Cross-Boundary Leader: Dr. Robert Barr (DC EPFP 69-70)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Thursday, July 16, 2015


Cross-Boundary Leader: Dr. Robert Barr
(DC EPFP 69-70)

Dr. Robert Barr is an author and education consultant for Boise State University, and is one of the nation’s leading experts on teaching minority and low-income students and improving high-poverty schools. He has served as dean of the Boise State University College of Education and the Oregon State University College of Education, and professor and Director of Teacher Education at Indiana University. Dr. Barr has authored or co-authored 12 books, including Building a Culture of Hope: Enriching Schools with Optimism and Opportunity, which he co-wrote with Emily Gibson and was selected as Learning Magazine’s 2015 Teacher’s Choice Award for Professional Development and as a finalist for the REVERE Distinguished Book Award.

Career Challenges

My entire career has been in colleges of education at universities, and throughout the decades I’ve been working in this area, not much has changed in our teacher education programs. This is a great disappointment. I spent a lot of my time trying to make teacher education more effective, and I found working with state legislators had the greatest positive impact. I think that the most effective way to change teacher education is to change policy. For example, a simple but powerful idea I support is that no one should be certified as a teacher who has not worked in a classroom with a teacher and students over a period of time and document their impact on student achievement.

When I was dean of the Oregon State University College of Education, I went about trying to improve teacher education in a different way. In an effort to ensure our graduates would be effective teachers, we introduced a value-added teaching program. With the help of the Teaching Research Development at Western Oregon University, we developed a list of knowledge and skills that were essential to effective teaching. We developed this checklist of outcomes as a quality assurance component: We promised schools that, if you hire our graduates, we guarantee they can do what is on the checklist. This “warranty program” gained us national attention and led to important transformations in our programs. It became clear to our faculty that there wasn’t a way to offer that guarantee for all of the students in their classes, so we raised the admission standards for teacher education programs. The end result was stronger students coming into our programs, a stronger instructional program, and better screening of students as they passed through the programs.

Leadership Lessons

The biggest leadership lesson I learned was from my experience as an EPFP Fellow. While in the program, a group of us were traveling in San Antonio, Texas, and heard about the need for poll workers at a school board election in a nearby city. There was a slate of Latino candidates in a small community who were trying to make positive changes, but they were met with a lot of resistance from their neighbors: a candidate’s home was burned, families and voters were threatened, and federal marshals were at voting locations for fear of further violence. The Latino candidates won the election, but when asked what they planned to do, they had goals like paving school parking lots. They had gained power but had limited knowledge about what they could do in their new roles. Later they secured funding to visit effective schools and school districts to learn what their potential for improvement could be. The lesson I took from the experience was that it is critically important to see the context of people across all agencies, organizations, and communities—public and private—and use those experiences to expand our perspective.

EPFP Experience

My year in EPFP changed my life and my family’s life. When I participated, it was called Washington Internships in Education (WIE) and Fellows from across the country would move to Washington, DC, for a year and intern at an education organization or agency. I had started my career as a high school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, and loved it, and after five years I thought the natural progression was to become a school administrator, but I was then offered a fellowship at Purdue University, which I took and moved there to finish my doctorate. I focused on social studies education and was considering a career in teacher education when I saw an advertisement for the WIE program and sent in a form for more information. Soon after a rigorous interview progress, I was selected as one of 20 Fellows in the program.

Being a Fellow changed my cultural world. Our cohort included an incredible, diverse group from all around the country, and many became my closest friends. The program was a transforming experience for all of us, and we were able to travel around the country visiting schools and talking to policy makers.

For me, my EPFP network remained strong after my year in Washington. I maintained contact with a number of Fellows for several years, and after I moved out of Washington, I relied on my contacts at the U.S. Department of Education to stay informed of federal policy.

Leading Across Boundaries

It’s important to work across boundaries and engage multiple groups to affect change. My work has focused on supporting low-income students and a big part of helping them is involving the community to better understand poverty. Poverty doesn’t only exist in urban cities; it is present in places we wouldn’t think of, like Boise and Salt Lake City. Harnessing the power of the neighborhood school and the involvement of parents and the community is key to helping low-income students. You have to realize that public education is not an island and that you have to reach out to different audiences and groups to make a positive change.


School Culture

Early in my career, I did research on alternative schools and why students and teachers were so committed to them. We interviewed thousands of students about why they liked these smaller alternative schools more than big schools with lots of amenities. They said that at larger schools, they felt like no one cared about them and they felt invisible. At the alternative schools, they said, they felt that people really cared for each other and were like a family. The single concept that seemed to emerge out of these schools where poor students succeeded was the idea of a surrogate family. Many of these students live in rough neighborhoods with struggling families, and the concept of a school where teachers and students care about each other makes a huge difference to them.

Developing a school culture focused on caring also changes the sense of helplessness many poor students seem to acquire. They often feel that no matter how hard they work in life, things won’t get better, and they enter school far behind their peers and believe they cannot learn. Schools that foster a strong, positive culture understand that high-poverty schools can also be high-performing schools when they build a family atmosphere, and support and high expectations can have a transformative effect on kids. Effective school culture can transform despair into hope and have a powerful positive impact on our schools’ neediest students.

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