Barbara Markle caps off unmatched career connecting research with real classrooms
By Nicole Geary
Barbara Markle has always believed in reaching for greater potential when it comes to young people.
She was the child who, at age 5, spent almost a year in a Detroit hospital recovering from polio.
She decided to become an educator at age 11 after helping teach grades 1 through 8 in a rural school.
She took the role of school leader when few women did, becoming not only one of the first female secondary principals in Utica Community Schools, but going on to oversee K-12 reform efforts across the state as the first female deputy superintendent in the Michigan Department of Education.
And when Markle came mid-career to Michigan State University, she kept reaching.
She is the founding director of the College of Education’s Office of K-12 Outreach and the embodiment of its mission—a person who connects the power of research knowledge with real change in schools.
Over 20 years in the job, Markle collaborated to create countless programs that facilitated learning for thousands of administrators, teachers and policymakers. While her office impacted hundreds of schools, arranged study trips around the globe and raised millions in grant dollars, colleagues say she never forgot who she was serving: the students of Michigan with the greatest needs.
“There was a need to use what’s learned at the university and translate it into real initiatives and work in schools,” said Linda Forward, director of the state Office of Education Improvement and Innovation and Markle’s former graduate school classmate. “She has not lost touch with the reality of the school district while situated in academia. She has a very clear view—and this is a quote from her—that [improving schools] is hard work. It takes time.”
THE RIGHT PERSON
Markle retired from MSU as assistant dean, with over 25 years on campus and 50 in education, in December 2017. Bryan Beverly has stepped in as acting director of the office (see sidebar).
A graduate of the college’s Ph.D. program in Education Policy, Beverly centered his dissertation on principles of successful university-school partnerships, and many of those insights were gained over the history of the MSU K-12 Outreach office.
The office was created in 1997 by then-Dean Carole Ames to strengthen and formalize the university’s service to schools.
Building on the land-grant spirit of MSU, K-12 Outreach became widely known across Michigan’s education community, and beyond, as a go-to place for professional development and partnerships between scholars and practitioners.
“A college of education should be about research, but it also must connect to practice and that’s more than preparing teachers and administrators,” Ames said. “Barbara is the one who really connected it.”
Markle was the right person for the job, agrees Professor Emeritus Philip Cusick, recalling her deep support for others and “bottomless capacity for work.” He was her advisor when she received her Ed.S. and Ph.D. in Educational Administration from MSU in 1984. He also taught alongside her in the Administrative Extern Program, a weekend training program for school leaders.
Markle came to MSU full-time, following her role in the Michigan Department of Education, to direct a component of the Michigan Partnership for New Education called the Collaborative Leadership Center. In that position, she brought together diverse teams of people from MSU’s Professional Development Schools—principals, teachers, parents, sometimes even secretaries—during intensive, two-week meetings together on Mackinac Island.
“We knew that if we were really going to change education, we really had to focus on leadership at every level,” she said. “The focus was on getting people to think differently.”
And that is what Markle and her team have done ever since. Whether training the state’s educational coaches, rolling out new curriculum standards or helping to transform a school’s teaching and assessment practices, the focus has been on building the capacity of each person involved.
“It takes a team. The superintendent can’t do it alone,” said Markle. “You need shared meaning across a team of people across the school or district, so that the work is coherent. It’s also the identification of the right issues.”
MSU was one of the first institutions to formally define and implement university outreach and engagement under the leadership of Associate Provost Hiram Fitzgerald. The College of Education is unique among schools of education nationwide for its record of providing direct technical assistance to schools.
The largest example was the $14.9 million MI Excel project, during which MSU K-12 Outreach partnered with the state to provide support to all of the state’s schools identified as low-performing or with large achievement gaps.
Most recently, the office has worked closely with Flint Community Schools educators and community partners to improve learning opportunities for students. The comprehensive partnership is funded by more than $5 million from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Over time and for each initiative, Markle has assembled qualified teams of people who have rich experience working in the field, knowledge about bridging current theory with practice, and a commitment to working hand-in-hand with the schools or districts.
“Our work has been, I think, a way to support K-12 education in a way that’s not really intrusive, but supportive,” she said. “That’s why we employ people with deep successful experience who understand, for example, urban education.”
Markle herself kept a pulse on Michigan’s classrooms by being out there—in schools, at events like the regular President’s Education Forums for policymakers and bringing leaders of professional organizations together through the Education Alliance.
Leaders know Markle, and they trust her, says Christopher Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators and a longtime superintendent.
“Barbara built a very good bridge between the university and K-12,” said Wigent. “All of her experiences gave her credibility with the field and brought credibility to her office. She was definitely the person for Michigan State that connected with practitioners.”
Wigent recalls, for example, Markle’s vision for training future leaders through the Superintendent’s Institute held each summer, and her role in realizing the largest grant project in the College of Education’s history, Promoting Rigorous Outcomes in Mathematics and Science Education, or PROM/SE.
University Distinguished Professor William Schmidt, who was a principal investigator of the project, recalls how Markle laid the groundwork for PROM/SE, a partnership with close to 70 school districts, as well as other research endeavors through her knowledge of what needs existed in the districts, and whom would be interested.
“If I needed a connection, she provided it. She opens the door to all of this possibility,” Schmidt said. “She has the intuition to know when something is really important. And then she just goes after it.”
BROADENING THE VIEW
Markle recognized that K-12 educators could draw from research insights at MSU, from other scholars around the country and beyond to the best practices of other nations.
Her office held statewide conferences on internationalizing education and, over time, collaborated on projects in Egypt, the Netherlands, Azerbaijan, China and the United Kingdom. The ties were particularly deep in China and the U.K., where Markle led study tours for educators to explore different educational models and success stories.
She also assisted the college’s international office in hosting annual delegations of students from Chongqing, China’s Southwest University. The success of that exchange program and others initiated by the K-12 Outreach office spurred additional programs in the College of Education and in the school districts of participating educators.
“Barbara’s work on the international scene helps broaden the view of what public education is about, and the importance of learning perspectives beyond the borders of this country,” Ames said.
Adds Cusick: “We engaged her to do outreach, and she gave new and expanded meaning to the term.”
This semester, College of Education Dean Robert E. Floden charged a set of faculty members with exploring how the college can integrate outreach with priority areas such as enhancing urban education, promoting well-being and improving life for people with intellectual disabilities. That process could yield changes for the future.
“No one will ever replace Barbara. She’s one of a kind,” Floden said. “A unique combination of knowledge about how to improve education, an appreciation of contributions from research, and comprehensive understanding of perspectives of the many organizations that deliver or influence education in Michigan.”
Meet Bryan Beverly
Bryan Beverly has spent his career working at the intersections of K-12 schools, higher education and policy in various roles.
“Recognizing the quality education I was afforded and wanting to provide similar opportunities to other students has been one of my driving forces,” he said.
A graduate of Lansing School District, Beverly received his master’s in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education from Michigan State University in 2009. He started working in the MSU Office of K-12 Outreach when he became a doctoral student in 2012. Since then, he has been involved in research, grant writing, training and materials development across all of the programs offered by the office.
In particular, he served as coordinator of the Fellowship of Instructional Leaders, which brings together principals and teacher-leaders in a collaborative learning process to improve student achievement. He also completed and co-coordinates the Michigan Education Policy Fellowship Program.
Dean Robert E. Floden appointed Beverly as acting director of the office, asking him to step in for longtime leader Barbara Markle following her retirement in December 2017.
“I am excited about carrying this work that I care so much about forward and thinking about the potential for additional and new collaboration,” said Beverly, who also serves on the Lansing Board of Education.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Beverly is humbled to be “carrying such a weighty torch.” Markle became Beverly’s advisor—and mentor—when he returned to MSU to complete his Ph.D. in Education Policy. But she actually met him long before then, when Beverly came to Erickson Hall as an eighth grader picked to share his voice about making learning more engaging.
He was interviewed by now Associate Dean Sonya Gunnings-Moton for that project in collaboration with Markle and others, which resulted in a video that was used with educators and shown to autoworkers across the country.
Ironically, when Beverly defended his dissertation in December, he was in the same seat in the same room in Erickson as when he appeared in the video.
He is now working alongside Acting Associate Director Brian Boggs, also a Ph.D. graduate of the college (2014, Education Policy and K-12 Administration), to continue the K-12 Outreach office’s commitment to Flint Community Schools. They are also pursuing potential projects and cultivating new and existing relationships with educational leaders and researchers.