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STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

MICHAEL BARNES

It is with great enthusiasm that I submit my application for the doctoral program in Education Policy and Planning. If I were to design my own academic program, it would be hard to achieve a better balance between my career as an education change agent, and my lifelong desire to positively impact public policy. This program is an improbably perfect fit. I have steeped myself in policy contexts, beginning with my undergraduate education in 2002-2006, enjoying an amalgam of experiential learning opportunities, as well as participating in substantial coursework as part of my political science major. However, it was my tour of seven years as a teacher in rural South Texas that firmly grounded me in the day-by-day struggle that constitutes actual, incremental social change. My goal in pursuing a PhD through the top-ranked University of Texas program is to let my richly textured experience inform my research, and to honor the challenges I have endured and witnessed first-hand with actionable policy prescriptions. My fellow teachers, the near one thousand students I taught, their extensive families, and the community at large embrace me now as an adopted son. Somos familia, as we say in Edcouch-Elsa. Yet, despite the ever-growing bonds, I have never been able to walk side by side with my colleagues without also growing cognizant of a difference in our purpose. As a Teach for America trainer of new teachers in 2012, I made this implicit divide between the ordinary teacher and the change agent explicit. We are like secret agents, I explained, who appear in every respect like the ordinary teacher, but carry within a hidden agenda. My personal agenda has been surprisingly consistent. I was not ever so much a teacher, as an experimental actor attempting to prove what I believed to be a testable hypothesis: Was it possible to be a highly effective teacher in a worst-case public school campus, without resorting to sweeping changes in the fundamental structures of our education system? If so, I might be able to convert my experiences into a scalable model for other teachers to follow. The severity of the challenges I faced, moreover, would guarantee that my approach could not be dismissed as an unfair comparison to others struggles, and thereby deemed not universally applicable. And 1

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

MICHAEL BARNES

with 99 percent Hispanic students, 99 percent of whom are Economically Disadvantaged1, 53 percent categorized as Limited-English Proficient, and 73 percent determined to be At-Risk, I can make a strong claim that I have immersed myself in a near worst-case scenario. In this environment I thrived for years, acquiring titles and responsibilities, but also expanding my reach. Today, I command almost every structure I encounter, including possessing autonomy over curriculum, instructional strategies, classroom management, and student behavior interventions. While to some teachers this might evince a tragic lack of administrative leadership, to me it has been an energizing opportunity. As Department Head, I introduced an ambitious pacing guide, created self-designed supplemental curricula, and encouraged my History teachers to steal my resources gratuitously. With these adjustments, we saw testing scores rise by an average of 15 points over three years. As a Team Leader, I introduced key innovations, such as a free Twitter-based text message system that significantly increased homework completion rates. Gradually, I began to turn my actual classroom, my teaching team, and my department into an experimental space into which new ideas could be field-tested immediately to assess the practicality of a given approach. In 2011, I messaged this directly to students, sharing with them my now life goal of creating a more-perfect school. As I explain to students, this more-perfect school, which we always pursue but never quite attain, need not be newly constructed. It may be the very same space we presently inhabit, yet simply transformed to provide an excellent education for all participants. As an example of transformation in the local space, my team this year dropped the generic designation, Team 8-1 for our group of 135+ students, and instead adopted ACHIEVE Academy as our moniker. We publicly posted our team mission, that Anything Can Happen If Everyone Values Excellence, and I led students in setting ambitious but achievable academic and personal goals. Within a traditional K-12 district, complete with all of the standard obstacles, we were able to effectively
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According to 2011-2012 AEIS (state) data for Carlos F. Truan Jr. High, EEISD

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

MICHAEL BARNES

create a school within a school without requesting any extra support. Yet, despite sustained achievement, I believe that my experiment has reached a terminal point. While I might be able to create a single instance of a more-perfect school through continued efforts within EEISD, I am no longer confident that I will be able to translate my individual efforts into a generalized model for others to follow. This is mostly due to the time constraints required to overcome substantial organizational inertia as an isolated teacher. Given unlimited time in each day, I might guide a given teacher to transform any school and classroom significantly enough. Yet that is not a practical proposal. In pursuing a PhD, therefore, I am attempting to move past the actual worst-case classroom, which I currently aspire to turn into a theoretical best-case space, and to move into the theoretical sphere full-time. I ultimately hope to translate the more-perfect classroom I envision into a set of concrete, actionable policies, reinforced by meaningful research. This pursuit begins with two key questions: 1. What does an excellent education look like in the 21st century? 2. How can we ensure that this excellent education is available to all participants? What does an excellent education look like in the 21st century? My ability to respond to this first question is strengthened by my Computer Science graduate experience. The MSCS program left me well versed in multiple forms of technology, from hardware to software, to the all-controlling algorithm. While some researchers may be able to study how changing technology impacts education, I can implement new systems of technology as part of a research program. Most importantly, my graduate research introduced entirely new ways of viewing the modern world, making it easier to determine what skills and knowledge will be deemed essential. The language of algorithmic design and analysis can give us some insight into the type of vision we must impart to students so they can first see the world clearly, and then navigate a personally-satisfactory path through the complex system.

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

MICHAEL BARNES

An algorithm, which is simply a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem, is not just a buzzword. Today, it is the driving force behind our most resilient, new economic engines: Google, Facebook, Apple, and even established brands like IBMs business consulting division. The term is now included in the kindergarten math standards for Texas (TEKS). If you cannot define algorithm, then by Texas state standards you are not even prepared to teach kindergarten math. The term is mentioned 23 times in the elementary math TEKS alone. In one example of the application of algorithmic reasoning, if students are asked not to solve a single instance of a particular math problem, but must first design a computer algorithm to solve every possible instance of the math problem, they will discover the power and necessity of a step-by-step approach to problem solving. You cannot simply instruct a computer to calculate the total surface area of a shape, for instance. You have to designate a class of shape, say rectangular prism and then input its unique parameters, and then pair the shape with its corresponding formula, before plugging in and solving. A student who can effectively teach a computer software program to solve a math problem will have attained an exceptional understanding of the math, and gained real-world skill sets. I dont mean to overstate the influence of an algorithmic approach to educational excellence as part of my research program, but it does provide a powerful example of the need to consider objectively what constitutes an excellent education, given the emerging, evolving paradigms of the 21st century. How can we ensure that this excellent education is available to all participants? If we set the bar for educational excellence even higher, it seems to follow that the challenge to provide an excellent education to all participants will also grow more obstinate. However, my actual experience in a low-performing, Title I school shows that students are not broken, and that they are extremely resilient and capable of attaining the accelerated growth necessary to catch up to and even overtake their more affluent peers. That my faith in all

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

MICHAEL BARNES

students capacity for educational excellence is increased since I began teaching, not in spite of but in light of my experience, is a powerful testament to the potential I plan to prove empirically. To achieve this growth in low-performing education environments, it is vital to consider academic achievement in the context of the learners life path. Teach for America refers to this goal as one of transformational teaching, defined by Chief Knowledge Officer Steve Farr as, pursuing and attaining outcomes with our students that give us confidence that they are leaving us on an enduring path to broadened opportunities in life. I became aware of the phrase in Summer 2012 when I was reintroduced to Teach for Americas educational paradigms after a six-year hiatus. However, this term echoed my own journaling, in which I wrote that the ultimate assessment for each student is to ask, once theyve completed their education, whether they choose their life path, or are forced onto a path by circumstance. To further compound a growing sense of synchronicity, the work of Jack Mezirow (2000) of Columbia Teachers College, echoing German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, emphasizes the concept of emancipatory knowledge, which is described as, knowledge that helps us gain greater control over our lives. Whether we discuss this idea using the terminology of choice versus force, transformational teaching, or emancipatory knowledge, it is key particularly when dealing with disadvantaged populations to guarantee, in addition to a standard base of knowledge in core areas, the development of structures that will enable these individuals to escape the grip of poverty in their lifetime. Designing programs that embed emancipatory knowledge into the practices of low-performing schools might offer a profoundly positive long-term impact. To conclude, I believe that these two foundational questions will allow me to pose and research countless sub-questions whose conclusions may yield rich insights for the education community. For this reason, I humbly submit my credentials and ask to join the UT research team and to pursue a PhD in Education Policy and Planning.