Bottom-up or Top-down: Why not choose teachers?

Recently I met with some funders from a state where there is an achievement (or should I say ‘opportunity’) gap. This state has impressive graduation rates (>80%) and some of the highest college readiness rates in the country. Yet its 4th and 8th grade NAEP data show stubborn and persistent gaps between its African-American (>30%), Hispanic (>30%) and white students; including college remediation rates for African-American and Hispanic students are more than double their white classmates.   We were gathered to talk about the role a bottom-up strategy might play in closing this opportunity gap. I think there was a healthy amount of skepticism about one strategy I put on the table that seemed the most bottom-up—“word of mouth” and some head nodding when I talked about teacher leaders as a strategy. But all were in agreement that reform strategies like new policies and state/district implementation plays seemed top-down. It was really a false choice I was giving them, and I would argue that all of the strategies I mentioned could become bottom-up. I was trying to help reframe their reform problem (something that has to be fixed) as an engagement opportunity regardless of the strategies they chose.

Framing your work as an engagement opportunity requires confronting several tensions that are inherent in any effort to solve a complex social problem. First, there is “skill vs. will.” Is this about improving their skills or about motivating teachers to lean in? Real engagement is about both. It’s not just about giving teachers the curriculum to implement but also supporting them. It’s about engaging them in ways that recognize they aren’t robots and giving them tools that are well designed and adaptable so they can make the changes they need to meet the needs of their students. The second tension is between “volume (reaching large numbers of teachers) and growth” or what I would call deep engagement. We have seen within the Teacher2Teacher community that you can both reach large numbers and get deep engagement if you allow teachers to lead and guide the conversation about what matters most. Where is that kind of engagement opportunity in current policy discussions in the state or during PD discussions at the school? A third tension is about controlling what happens and letting it go. I think that frightens people most—not wanting to always control the outcome so tightly that you miss the innovation, the opportunity that could not be foreseen. It’s not that anything goes—it’s still possible to be strategic in how you use your dollars as a funder but the key is actually in who you choose to partner with. I would argue that a network of really passionate, creative and experienced teacher leaders is the best place to start. I met many of them at ECET2. So why not choose teachers when you are thinking bottom-up versus top-down and consider how to create an engagement opportunity. I’m not sure how many points it will close on the opportunity gap among black and white students, but I am quite certain you won’t get very far if teachers are not on board.