Roland Barth – Framing an Era

When Roland Barth passed away on September 12th, my first thought was “Well, there’s the end of an era.” But I realized that Roland’s life and career were really the beginning of an era – an era in which the significance of the professional culture a principal creates in a school is of enormous importance. Here was a new lens for viewing good school leadership, and here was a leader amongst us who first carried the message forward to widespread recognition. 

In 1982 Roland started a Magazine Club with me, Kim Marshall and Bill Dandridge in which we’d each bring an article we thought was significant in some way and share why. We went on for many years. In the spring of ’82 he shared Judith Warren Little’s  groundbreaking finding that schools with high levels of Collegiality and experimentation did much better for students, regardless of the socio-economic conditions. (I capitalized Collegiality because she gave it an explicit, attributional definition.) Roland had already reached that conclusion on his own and been acting that way as a principal. 

“The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else. If the relationships between administrators and teachers are trusting, generous, helpful, and cooperative, then the relationships between teachers and students, between students and students, and between teachers and parents are likely to be trusting, generous, helpful, and cooperative. If, on the other hand, relationships between administrators and teachers are fearful, competitive, suspicious, and corrosive, then these qualities will disseminate throughout the school community.”

“A precondition for doing anything to strengthen our practice and improve a school is the existence of a collegial culture in which professionals talk about practice, share their craft knowledge, and observe and root for the success of one another. Without these in place, no meaningful improvement – no staff or curriculum development, no teacher leadership, no student appraisal, no team teaching, no parent involvement, and no sustained change – is possible.”

Throughout his career Roland advanced this message consistently - in the design and operation of the Harvard Principals Center, his teaching as a university professor, his travels and speaking engagement throughout the country. In all these places he lived out those messages. He also modeled them in his interactions with teachers and administrators in all the settings in which he interacted with educators. 

Over the years we saw the message of leader-as-culture-builder gaining ground. It was echoed in widely influential literature – Peter Senge 1995 in his term “the learning organization”, Michael Fullan in 2011 advocacy the principal making teacher learning job number one, Keith Leithwood’s 2010 findings on principals being the second most potent variable in student achievement, and Grissom et al's 2021 finding that principal effect size on student achievement was even greater than previously thought. 

We are now at the point where principal certification and development programs are acknowledging that successful principals make the school-as-workplace an engine of constant learning about high-expertise teaching broadly defined (that includes such areas of expertise as culturally proficient teaching, error analysis and relationships with families and community.) 

No one did more than Roland over the years to make this message about leadership’s pivotal role vivid and enduring. We will miss him.



Fullan, M. (2011, May). “Learning is the work.” Unpublished paper.

Grisson, Jason A., Anna Egalite, Constance A. Lindsay. (2021) “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research./ New Y ork. The Wallace Foundation

Leithwood, Kenneth, Alma Harris, Tiiu Struss. (2010) Leading School Turnaround: How Successful Leaders Transform Low Performing Schools Jossey Bass.

Little, J.W. (1982, Fall). “Norms of collegiality and experimentation: Workplace conditions and school success”. American Education Research Journal.

Senge, P., Ross, R., Smith, B., Roberts, C., and Kleiner, A. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. Currency Doubleday

Jon Saphier is the CEO and Founder of RBT.
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