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HGSE Remembers Roland Barth

An influential proponent of life-long learning for school leaders and the founder of The Principals' Center at HGSE, Barth passed away on September 12.
Roland Barth

Roland Barth in his early years at HGSE

Photo: Ivan Massar

Harvard Graduate School of Education is mourning the loss of former faculty member and director of The Principal’s Center Roland Barth, Ed.M.'62, Ed.D.'70. As a former teacher and principal, Barth dedicated his career to spreading the message that a great school leader is always first and foremost a learner.

“Throughout his storied career as a teacher, principal, writer, and developer of school leaders, Roland was foursquare for quality, equity, shared leadership, humor, and great metaphors,” wrote educator Kim Marshall, Ed.M.'81, as tribute to Barth in his weekly newsletter, The Marshall Memo.

Barth began his career in the classroom, working as a public-school teacher and principal for 15 years in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977 for his study of education and school leadership and soon after joined the HGSE faculty where he worked for 13 years.

A proponent of active engagement and learning, Barth felt that everybody in schools — from students to the principal — deserved the opportunity to grow, and he was committed to eliminating systemic barriers that stood in the way of that progress. He noticed that, often, principals were expected to have all the answers to a school’s problems, but he felt deeply that leaders could be more effective and more powerful if they engaged in learning alongside their school communities. 

“He was passionate about principals becoming the chief learner in schools,” says Senior Lecturer Mary Grassa-O’Neill, who worked closely with Barth on The Principals' Center. “As a result, he was focused on professional development and making sure that we had evidence that leaders were learning and changing their practice, too, and that their learning translated into improved opportunities for kids.”

Barth was the founder and original director of The Principals’ Center at HGSE — a portfolio of programs for school leaders that emphasized his belief that leaders needed to grow and change their practices, too. Now in its 40th year, The Principals’ Center continues to convene thousands of educators through their online and residential programs, offering valuable support for school leaders experiencing myriad challenges and space for educators to share ideas and learn from one another.

“Nothing is more important than learning,” said Barth, in highlighting the Center’s work as part of HGSE’s Centennial Celebration in 2020. “The Principals’ Center has helped shout from the mountaintop of our profession the message: In education, one is a learner and thereby a leader.”

Barth received HGSE’s Alumni Council Award in 2002 in recognition of his work advancing equitable and democratic leadership practices in schools. With his humble, democratic approach to leadership as well as his wit and talent as a writer, Barth authored many books over the course of his career that shaped the practice of education and the culture of schools, including Improving Schools from Within and Lessons Learned: Shaping Relationships and Culture of the Workplace

“If you met him, you couldn’t help but love him,” says Grassa-O’Neill. “He had a great sense of humor, was a wonderful speaker, and people loved what he stood for.”