Untangling Urban Middle School Reform: Clashing Agendas for Literacy Standards and Student Success
reviewed by Penny B. Howell, Margaret Rintamaa & Jean Wolph - November 28, 2016
Title: Untangling Urban Middle School Reform: Clashing Agendas for Literacy Standards and Student Success
Author(s): Cynthia D. Urbanski
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757713, Pages: 131, Year: 2016
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Living, learning, and teaching in the era of high-stakes accountability is the norm for schools, teachers, administrators, and families. Within this context, Cynthia D. Urbanski provides a cautionary tale of funded professional development in a climate dominated by mistrust, bureaucracy, and power dynamics. In Untangling Urban Middle School Reform: Clashing Agendas for Literacy Standards and Student Success, readers step inside Rosa Parks Middle School to experience the work of consultants, teachers, administrators, and students working to improve reading and writing practices to increase standardized test scores in a low-performing school. This book details the work of Urbanski and her colleagues, consultants from the National Writing Project (NWP). They were tasked to change the culture of writing in an urban middle school through a grant that was funded nationally. Several clear examples of the struggles for change in a system where improvement was expected are detailed. Ideal audiences for this text include policymakers who are contemplating mandates that affect teaching and learning or investigating the context of school reform initiatives. It would also appeal to school administrators, professional developers, and teachers who are embarking on school change initiatives.
The book consists of two parts. In Part One, "Mapping Conflicting Narratives," Urbanski describes several factors that are significant barriers to her work and school success. Issues of bureaucracy and power struggles create a climate of mistrust among teachers, students, administrators, and consultants. The author argues that the testing and accountability narrative that dominates the decisions and actions of the stakeholders in this reform effort is responsible for social reproduction. This keeps impoverished students at a disadvantage. It also relegates their teachers to a deficit position while denying them the professional freedom to make reasoned choices in curriculum, methodology, and even to talk to colleagues about the work. The NWP consultants are contracted to provide professional development and find themselves squeezed out of the agenda and their vision; as a result, their operation becomes almost clandestine at one point. Attempts to merge Writing Project approaches with the schools purchased writing program are mostly met with resistance.
Urbanski details the struggle by administrators and consultants for teacher time and focus. This underscores how essential it is for all stakeholders to forge a reform plan together rather than separately developing conflicting mandates that are handed to teachers for implementation. The Writing Project focuses on supporting teachers as professionals and members of a professional community. Undergirding NWP is the model of teachers-teaching-teachers. This philosophy holds that teachers should research in their own classrooms for best practices and share with other educators in a professional community. Teachers also need to develop both as writers themselves and teachers of writing (see NWP, 2016). This is a highly professional view of teaching that is contrary to the power narratives the author describes. At the heart of the professional community are the relationships built between the consultants and teachers in the school. While Urbanski clearly articulates the central tenets of the Writing Project and discusses difficulties in implementing it fully, it is unclear how relationships are built and sustained over the time necessary to engage in this work. More detail on how the relationships with teachers are established and maintained would help readers better understand the school community and its interactions with the consultants.
Part Two, "How to 'Be' Writing Teachers and Students," illustrates the competing narratives highlighted by Urbanskis work at Rosa Parks Middle School. The author describes data from observations, interviews, and document reviews from two teachers and four students. Although these descriptions provide rich detail regarding these competing narratives, the selected participants also limit the understanding that can be drawn. First, the teachers are chosen because they experimented with a strategy introduced during the Writing Project professional development. Second, the students are chosen because they volunteered to share their work. As it happens, the teachers are both male and the students are all female. The author discusses the limits in the sample of students, including that the learners from one classroom are exclusively girls. For the other teacher, the only students that choose to share their writing were female. For future research, it would be beneficial to extend the work to other teachers and students to achieve a more representative group.
Finally, while the books title draws attention to middle school, we find that nothing in the text prevents this story from being viewed from across K12 perspectives. Had Urbanski drawn from the research and literature on middle school philosophy and tenets of middle school education, it is possible she could have leveraged the critical nature of the foundational organizational structures to bolster her work within Rosa Parks Middle School. Additionally, within the current climate of education reform and high-stakes accountability, the struggles described by the author could easily play out in a suburban or rural school. This story is not specific to an urban school like the one studied in the book. Perhaps the subtitle, Clashing Agendas for Literacy Standards and Student Success, is most illustrative of the central message of this text.
National Writing Project (2016). Work of a site. Retrieved from http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/nwpsites/work_of_a_site.csp