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Forging Successful Alliances In School Reform

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Oversimplification of the reform process has fostered a dysfunctional debate in this country that could cripple public education.

The somewhat bogus argument of whether education reform is a top-down or bottom-up process continues to rage. At one end of the continuum are those who claim that only top-down pressure by political and corporate leaders can coerce an intransigent educational system to implement the comprehensive reform needed to make our public schools work better. Advocates of this position support such nationally visible activities as the summit of the nation's governors and business leaders last March in Pallisades, N.Y.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who contend that only bottom-up reform initiatives will work. They say that education improvement depends on the "buy in" of the teachers and administrators who know firsthand the problems confronting schools today. And to them, the education summit, which only minimally involved practitioners, reeked of elitism and ignored the possible contributions of the very people who must implement reforms.

As is the case with most polarizations in our complex intergovernmental system, however, the top-down, bottom-up dichotomy is a false one. Our fragmented education-governance system is neither top-down nor bottom-up. Important decisions about education are made at all levels--in 50 state capitals, in 15,000 local school systems, and in more than 110,000 individual school buildings. In fact, a compelling case can be made that this oversimplification of the reform process has fostered a dysfunctional debate in this country that could cripple public education.

The top-downers and bottom-uppers are in fact interdependent. They desperately need each other. Advocates of bottom-up strategies have to recognize, for example, that public education is in an increasingly vulnerable position politically, as the growth of school choice programs and the hot rhetoric of this year's national elections illustrate. As the baby boomers age, the percentage of adults with children in school is shrinking in many communities. At the same time, the school population in many of our largest states is becoming more and more low-income and minority. Political and demographic realities, then, will compel advocates for public education to build broader coalitions than they have in the past. If we make the logical assumption that elected officials will respond more readily to the demands of the wealthier and more politically influential segments of this aging population, then the roles of the business community and of the retired population (many of whom are grandparents and great-grandparents) as supporters of public education will become particularly important.

What bridges might help both grassroots educators and business leaders better understand each other?

How then might successful alliances be created at the school and district levels--for example, between skeptical business leaders and practitioners--that lead to meaningful change in what schools do and how well they do it? How can business leaders used to corporate environments and accountability for a quantifiable bottom line better understand the political complexities and seemingly irrational decisionmaking which often occurs in the public sector? What mechanisms exist that might more effectively connect these two worlds? What bridges might help both grassroots educators and business leaders better understand each other and their mutual need to work together synergistically to achieve their common objective, namely, the improvement of schools? What can convince business leaders that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, there are many teachers and administrators committed to educational change and improvement?

A number of initiatives have surfaced in recent years that could not only help answer these questions in positive ways but also potentially serve as connecting links between the private and public sectors. Programs like New American Schools, the New Standards project, the Coalition of Essential Schools, Roots and Wings, Accelerated Schools, the Comer Process, and others have unique bridging capacities between the top-down and bottom-up approaches to reform. While these endeavors operate under the aegis of nationally known leadership and possess some top-down features, they are fundamentally practitioner- or school-site-driven programs.

These growing top-down, bottom-up linkages have received too little attention. They merit wider and more explicit recognition for their political as well as their substantive value as connecting mechanisms between grassroots reform efforts and prestigious national but locally creditable programs that are little understood by the majority of mainstream educators and the general public alike. While education reformers and some involved political and business leaders may be aware of this emphasis on locally based reform, it is fair to contend that the overwhelming number of educators and the general public either know nothing or very little about how growing numbers of programs reflect top-down and bottom-up synergistic approaches; approaches which do not bypass the practitioners who toil in the classrooms every day.

These programs are well positioned to help redirect the dysfunctional and oversimplified arguments about whether to promote "top down" or "bottom up" educational reform to a more productive discussion. The reality is that institutionalized change in our highly fragmented and decentralized education-policy system (or nonsystem, if you will) must include both "top down" and "bottom up" strategies and partnerships. Ours is an inherently sloppy system that requires not only the political leverage of top-down leadership but also bottom-up commitment and buy-in.

If one agrees that it is important to sustain the involvement of a wide range of private-sector as well as public-sector leaders who at times become frustrated with the bureaucratic rigidities and inefficiencies of the education policymaking process, these grassroots reform initiatives have special importance as tangible manifestations of the "buy in" of on-the-ground teachers and administrators to education reform. As discussed earlier, changing demographics and the growth of poor and minority populations among schoolchildren make the maintenance of private-sector interest and belief in the credibility and viability of the reform movement of particular political importance.


Michael D. Usdan is the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, based in Washington.

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