Guest Column

Bridging Establishments: Opportunities and Caveats

by Michael D. Usdan

As a retirement flunky who continues to follow the seemingly endless cycles of education reform, I have long been bothered by the disconnects that exist between the “reformers’’ and the great majority of rank-and-file teachers and administrators who work at the building and district levels.

Indeed, back in the last century I wrote several commentaries for Education Week reflecting my concerns about the lack of communication or interaction between top-down reformers — notably prestigious business, political and foundation leaders and their education advisers — and the vast majority of practitioners in the field.

In one commentary in November 1994, “Top-Down or Bottom-Up? Goals 2000: Opportunities and Caveats,” I discussed how the new politics of education, driven in top-down fashion, might falter (as did Goals 2000) unless substantial buy-in came from local communities and school districts. Such grassroots backlash, of course, has been most evident in the widespread negativity over some central components of No Child Left Behind.

In November 1996, in another column (“Forging Successful Alliances in School Reform”), I addressed the rather bogus issue of whether education reform was a top-down or bottom-up process. I argued that such a simple dichotomy is false.

Bridging a Chasm
An interdependence operates between the top-downers and bottom-uppers. They desperately need each other to sustain any reforms. The top-downers commonly have the political clout and leverage to promulgate changes and project them onto the policy agenda while the bottom-uppers on the ground in schools and local districts are essential to sustaining reforms.

The need to bridge this dysfunctional chasm will be particularly important in the period immediately ahead as the No Child Left Behind legislation faces reauthorization. The Obama administration will almost certainly revamp the intergovernmental educational policy system. The federal system will again be under scrutiny as the respective roles of local, state and federal authorities in education policy will be reassessed.

Great opportunities are inherent in this situation and important new players are uniquely positioned to bridge the abyss between the top-downers and the bottom-uppers. These opportunities, however, will not be fulfilled unless bridges are built connecting these two largely noninteractive worlds.

I have been fortunate enough in my dotage to become a Washington-based think-tank vagabond. I frequently attend intellectually stimulating and informative sessions on education policy conducted by such ideologically diverse sponsors as the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute and the New America, Heritage and Fordham foundations. They provide an extraordinary bevy of informative speakers and pro-ject quite different ideas about education reform. Unfortunately, these gatherings rarely attract individuals from the mainstream education associations engaged in the frontline schooling enterprise.

While I substantially concur with the old saw that Washington, D.C., is a 26-square-mile political theme park surrounded by reality, the disconnect between the important activities of the policy-shaping think tanks and the practitioner groups is symptomatic of the historic “no-win” chasm between the top and bottom.

Emerging Players
What strategies can bridge this long-standing divide? Who are the new players with the potential to serve as bridges between these seemingly polarized worlds? How can bridging the divide help to bring promising new programs and practices to scale?

I would maintain that a new education establishment is emerging that has the potential to be that bridge — interwoven groups such as Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project and KIPP. These groups have attracted to education bright and dedicated young people. They have succeeded in securing resources from leading foundations and government.

These emerging players, however, as catalytic and as promising as they may be, can provide only a fraction of the talented professionals and strategies needed to improve the vast education enterprise. The key question is how can they be more effectively leveraged to interact with the traditional education groups that will continue to represent the overwhelming number of teachers and administrators nationwide?

Unlike most other reform agents, Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP, and a host of charter schools and education alternatives are working on the ground in schools, meaning they have much in common with mainstream educators. They have frontline practitioner perspectives on the realities of teaching and learning, which the top-down business, political and foundation leaders who are distant from the classroom cannot experience.

Common Goals
One cannot underestimate the substantive, cultural and professional disconnects that now exist between these relatively new and increasingly influential nontraditional grassroots reformers and traditional educators. They do, of course, share one transcendent goal: the all-important mission to improve student learning. (Admittedly, I have drawn a polarity that oversimplifies diverse and nuanced constituencies.)

Is it not time for the older traditional establishment and the emerging new establishment to communicate more effectively to achieve common objectives? The traditional establishment could benefit from such linkages to fresh approaches with groups that enjoy credibility with influential top-down political leaders and foundations. Conversely, the emerging establishment forces could benefit from the long-term experience of traditional practitioner groups that would provide leverage in scaling up their efforts.

It’s potentially a win-win for all parties — most importantly for raising the quality of teaching in our schools and breaking down the false dichotomy that exists between top-down reformers and so many practitioners. Many of the former may need somewhat less arrogance while many of the latter may need greater appetite for faster and wider change.

In other words, the old and new establishments must begin to communicate with each other regularly to achieve common goals. They must have greater respect for what each brings to the table both substantively and practically.

Michael Usdan is a senior fellow with the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C. E-mail: usdanm@iel.org