Robert Barr Would Be Our Instructional Coach . . .

Barr, R., Yates, D. (2009). Turning your school around: A self-guided audit for school improvement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Barr, R., Yates, D. (2010). The kids left behind: Catching up the underachieving children of poverty. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Robert Barr directs the Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies and Boise State University. If you have seen him speak, you know he lends a powerful voice to his work which focuses on practical strategies to help schools actualize the conviction that we must maintain high expectations for children of poverty. His books bridge the gap between the established belief that we must have high expectations for poor kids (a core belief that a writer like Jonathan Kozol has done a great job compelling us to embrace) and the inevitable next question of We are working as hard as we can, but what can we change about what we are doing to help increase the success of our students from poverty? The gap between believing we can accelerate the learning of poor students and actually taking real next actions to achieving this growth can be daunting. Barr is a great voice for coaching us through this knowing-doing gap.

There are two books Barr wrote along with Debra Yates that together really provide a practical roadmap fro optimizing your school’s efforts to best maintain high expectations for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the first book, The Kids Left Behind, Barr and Yates provide a meta-analysis of 18 published studies of diverse types of schools from across the country which identifies “eight specific strategies and practices found in successful high-poverty, high-performing schools” (p.9). I found their analysis compelling in its integration of a data set that was more diverse than previous studies pursuing this same insight into the persistent nationwide achievement gap between poor students and students of means, such as Doug Reeves’ acclaimed but relatively narrow research on 90/90/90 schools. It also buttresses large meta-analyses such as the one I discussed by John Hattie, which demonstrate some factors we can control (such as effective feedback) can have a greater impact on student learning than major outside factors such as poverty which we can only hope to mitigate.

The 8 significant strategies and practices they found in their metaanalysis were efforts to “1. Ensure effective district and school leadership 2. Align, monitor, and manage the curriculum. 3. Engage parents, communities, and schools to work as partners. 4. Understand and hold high expectations for children of poverty and culturally diverse students. 5.Target low-performing students and schools, starting with reading. 6. Create a culture of data and assessment literacy. 7. Build and sustain instructional capacity. 8.Reorganize time, space, and transitions.” (p.9)

The second book, Turning Your School Around, makes this great research actionable by providing self-audits that a school determined to take on these challenges can conduct in order to self-assess their progress towards embracing these strategies, as well as real next actions they can take to improve their support of staff and allocation of instructional resources to accelerate the learning of students from poverty.

As someone who has seen Barr speak, I can attest that these research conclusions and self audits only really come to life when accompanied by Barr’s truly authentic personal voice and riveting stories about his own experiences as a child of poverty. His compelling arguments for maintaining high expectations for students from poverty, when accompanied by the practical action plans of the second book, are more likely to fire up administrators such as myself than I to leave them discouraged by the deficits to be overcome.

It is also encouraging that the key practices identified as critical to realizing results for poor students are resonant with some of the most prominent reform efforts being adopted widely by schools recently. These include efforts to “create a culture of data and assessment literacy”, which is key to the work of professional learning communities . Also, the emphasis on literacy skills as a high leverage topic for professional development and additional resources aligns with a widespread trend towards embedding reading instruction across the curriculum as an accelerator of student growth.

It should be said that in a perfect school, we would hire the younger Robert Barr of 20 years ago, as this senior fellow may be too senior of a fellow to really connect with a median age teacher. But that’s not a dealbreaker, as in a perfect school we would have a time machine right?

In any case, whether we hired the 70 year-old Robert Barr or his 1990 vintage younger self, he would be one of our instructional coaches in a perfect school because his compelling authentic voice for maintaining high expectations for students of poverty would not be delivered with a side of righteousness, but with a healthy serving of pragmatic action planning.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Ken O’Connor Would Design Our Report Card . . .