Standards Reform in High-Poverty Schools: Managing Conflict and Building Capacity
reviewed by Tonya R. Moon - 2004
Title: Standards Reform in High-Poverty Schools: Managing Conflict and Building Capacity
Author(s): Carol A. Barnes
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807742627, Pages: 159, Year: 2002
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This book is part of the series on school reform and is organized into seven chapters with a forward by David K. Cohen. The intent of the book according to the author is to “illustrate something about the nature of education reform in America using the experience of people in schools as they struggled to both maintain and transform their professional responsibilities” (p. xiii). The book clearly communicates that change is difficult at best and requires the support of all stakeholders in order to make schools a better place for both our students and those responsible for their education.
The book is situated in one high-poverty elementary school (
The book is based on Barnes’ observations and interviews with the Mission school staff over a two-year period and focuses specifically on six individuals in the school: a first-grade bilingual teacher, a second-grade teacher, two third-grade teachers, a bilingual Title I teacher, and the school’s principal. Contained in each section of the book are vignettes and actual interview transcripts that highlight the experiences of these six individuals in attempting to leave no child behind.
Chapter 1 of the book describes Mission Elementary in the first year of Barnes’ research and in particular focuses on the school and its staff prior to their decision to restructure to address low test scores and California’s curriculum and Title I reform efforts. Barnes helps the reader develop a clear understanding of how attempts to reduce inequality and raise academic expectations, while seemingly laudable endeavors, can create paradoxical circumstances that come from mixing new ideas with traditional conceptions of school.
Chapter 2 focuses on the school level and examines the influences of both policy or program goals and a principal’s professional identify. The chapter identifies and describes how lack of opportunities to “relearn” conceptions of leading, teaching, and learning interferes with the ability of school staff to transform reform ideas into actual practice.
Chapters 3 and 4 illustrate variations on the themes of conflict and capacity by focusing on classrooms and the interactions between students and Title I teachers. Chapter 3 highlights the realities of managing conflicting commitments in classrooms, and in particular, a second-grade classroom and how teachers’ professional identifies contribute to the instructional program. Chapter 4 is continuation of chapter 3 with the Title I students entering third grade with teachers who have very different professional identifies and understanding of policy goals. The teachers’ differing opinions and disagreements are as Barnes indicates “a microcosm for some of the national, state, and historical arguments about educating American children” (p.19). The chapter highlights the obstacles that reforms face: deeply engrained practices of teachers, limited social resources, and mixed messages from leadership.
Chapters 5 and 6 continue the story on the school, classrooms, and the Title I students after the implementation of a newly, restructured school improvement plan. Chapter 5 presents the social conflicts that emerge as staff members begin to collaborate closely on goals and in particular highlights that the more teachers clarified the meaning of the goals, the more they disagreed over what to do about them. Their work also began to result in a narrower definition of achievement, something that was in direct conflict with their curriculum reforms. Chapter 6 focuses on the tensions that result between levels of reform activities and the gains and losses of such tensions. For example, “improvement of achievement” for Title I students was conceptualized as increasing the speed and accuracy of sight words or pieces of text (one might consider a “gain”). But for this type instruction, students were pulled out of the classroom. Some research indicates that this is a loss for this group of students in terms of educating disadvantaged students.
Chapter 7, the concluding chapter, synthesizes the macro and micro themes explored throughout the book, identifies problems with reforms in general, and offers possibilities for sustaining reform efforts.
Overall the book is an in-depth, reality situated examination of an attempt to implement policy and those responsible for the implementation–principals and teachers. The book is an excellent story on how the capacity to undertake reform efforts successfully is most likely lacking in the schools that the reforms are intended to improve in the first place. It highlights the importance of conversations among reform designers, policy planners, school and district leaders, and teachers rather than the typical didactic, one-sided approach is that commonly seen across American educational systems.