Skip to main content

The Next Phase of Ed.L.D.

HGSE alum Frank Barnes takes over as the program’s new director
Frank Barnes
Frank Barnes
Photo: Jill Anderson

Tucked into a pocket in his wallet, Frank Barnes, Ed.M.'95, Ed.M.'07, Ed.D.'15, carries two Harvard IDs: The one he got back in 1994, when he came to Appian Way for the first of his three HGSE degrees, and the one he got about a month ago, when he became the new director of the Ed.L.D. Program. Looking at the IDs side-by-side, this full circle moment, he says, is right where he wants to be. “As a thinker, it was humbling to think that such an opportunity to come back was presented to me,” he says. “Ed.L.D. is one of the top educational leadership doctoral programs in the country. To be able to be a part of this program’s story, to help build on the foundation that is here, and take the program to the next step in its evolution, is a great opportunity. Who wouldn't be interested in such a thing?”

Recently, Barnes talked about that opportunity, how his past impacts his leadership, and what it means to be a die-hard Chicago sports fan.

The Ed.L.D. Program has been around for more than a decade. Where do you want to make changes?
Right now, this is my fourth week on campus, so I’m still in a place where I’m listening and learning. My first step has been to hear from students and to get to know the students who are in the program. My next step will be to spend more time with the program faculty and alumni. I’ll learn through those different conversations and then be able to say where it could go.

What likely won’t change?
There are some things that are novel to the Ed.L.D. Program that we do that no matter what happens, we'll preserve. For example, the third-year residency is a hallmark of our program that makes it special. I also think our ability to bring in students as part of a cohort is something that's unique that not all programs get a chance to do. But I really have a lot of listening to do. And so, to say what kind of direction we should go would be premature. Certainly, we're not going to make any sudden shifts or any sudden changes, but there's just a lot I have to learn about where we are. And it starts with seeing where our students are, seeing what their experience is like, and connecting with students who have been through the program.

What is special about the Ed.L.D. Program?
Ed.L.D.’s greatest assets are our practice-based focus and the strength of our faculty. In the Ed.L.D. Program, we provide a mix of the theoretical and practical, creating spaces for our students to learn theoretical frameworks and leadership approaches, accompanied by immediate opportunities to put them into practice. Students, in their first year of the program, take the course Workplace Lab, in which they have a fellowship in a local school district serving alongside seasoned leaders to support that district’s improvement efforts. Several of these experiences had led to ongoing leadership opportunities and certainly deepen students’ learning. In the third year, students are engaged in a paid residency for the academic year, getting both practical experience and exposure to new leadership opportunities. Collectively, these experiential learning opportunities make our program a good fit for students seeking to be proximal to ongoing system-level leadership.  

You’ve also mentioned the importance of the faculty.
Alongside our practice-based focus is the strength of our teaching faculty. We have faculty that have served in senior levels of state government, led school districts, spearheaded major national initiatives for prominent foundations, and are some of the most prominent thinkers in their respective fields. They advise and consult corporations, national nonprofits, school districts, and state leaders, and that is just here at the Ed. School. During the second year of the program, our students also take classes at the Business School, Kennedy School of Government, at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, and occasionally at the Law School. Our faculty breathe life into our program. They’re an impressive yet approachable group.

Also impressive are Ed.L.D. alumni. Will you be able to connect with them at the big Ed.L.D. convening on campus this week?
Yes. We’re trying to embed within the program a time for me to speak with them. I'll also be doing follow-up calls with alumni because I know that it’s cost prohibitive for some graduates to come to the convening. And I'll look for other opportunities to go where they are, talk with them, and get a different perspective.

What impact did COVID play on the program?
The K–12 and higher ed space overall was jolted by COVID and we had a year where HGSE did not admit doctoral candidates. We're still in a place of recovery from that. Usually, we have three cohorts of students that we're working with at one time. Right now, we only have two with that gap year from COVID. We're still recovering from that in some ways.

With the next round of program applicants, will you still look for educators who can make an impact in the field at a very high level?
Very much so. We all want to be able to see our program produce graduates who are ready to lead and who will be system leaders in different types of systems, whether it be state systems of education, local schools of education, or large national nonprofits. We want to be able to produce people who are going to change the education space. And that’s what this investment of time, energy, and money that our donors and the university give us an opportunity to do, starting with taking away the obstacle of financing a higher education degree and making it practice based. You can walk out after three years and begin applying the degree immediately for the benefit of students and families. We want big dreamers, big thinkers, people with experience who want to take the last step of preparation to help them make a big step in their leadership journeys so that they can impact larger numbers of students and families.

Speaking of leadership, how does your experience as the chief accountability officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, and in a number of roles in Boston Public Schools, including as chief accountability officer, special assistant to the superintendent, and teacher, impact you as a leader?
Both of those districts are different and alike at the same time. I think both have allowed me to have a perspective of what it looks like to be part of a larger ecosystem of educational organizations, particularly here in the Boston area. Both of those opportunities have given me the ability to understand: how do you take something from a concept to implementation? How do you navigate the various interests, diversity of opinions, and the changing tides of a local community’s politics in order to implement something that would tangibly impact the experience of students in a classroom? 

And as a compliment to that, my nearly decade at Brown University at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform also helped me think about that space. How do you create momentum in a field to be able to try out new ideas, to push new thinking? How do you inspire leaders and leadership teams and communities to try to do something that they haven't done previously but have within their agency to do? I think the collection of experience that I’ve had has put me in a position to think about, how do we prepare leaders to go into those types of spaces and be effective in leading and transforming organizations?

What was it like for you growing up?
I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. Not born on the north side, and then driven to the south side — born and raised on the south side of Chicago. So, a humble beginning. My mother was a schoolteacher. My dad only had a high school diploma, but they always let me know that education was a pathway to greater advancement. That was instilled in me. My education was always primarily important for my parents, sometimes to my chagrin, because it wasn’t always my first priority. But I got to see, literally, when I looked to my left or my right, classmates who didn't make it, whether it was incarceration or drive-by shootings, whether it was just getting caught up in life. But I was very well nurtured, taken care of, and protected by my community. And I think it was only after I left adolescence that I got to see how many people were trying to make sure that I had a pathway that would be different than what the norm might’ve been for my neighborhood. My story is not one of individual exceptionalism. It’s really a tale of a community putting their arms around me.

Who is Frank Barnes, of Harvard ID #2, outside of work? 
I have three kids. They're 23, 24, and 28. I have a wife and a mother who’s in Charlotte, who I love dearly. Like I said, I'm from Chicago, so I am a diehard Chicago sports fan, which means I suffer a lot of pain and humiliation. I like to eat way too much and I’m a bit of a foodie. But overall, and I hate to say it, for the past 15 years, it’s pretty much been work and family. So, this is the first time, in a very long time, that I've had something that’s not all encompassing and absorbing, and the seven-day-a-week press of life. I’m having to rediscover who am I outside of work and what do I like to do. I’m excited about that opportunity. And I’m equally as excited to be back at HGSE to be part of a program that has such a strong history. I want to help and see that this program thrives in the future.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles