Editors’ Note: Alexander Russo continues the site’s ongoing discussion on philanthropy & education.
One of the main concerns about the current era of school reform is that its approach is “top-down” rather than “bottom-up.” That is, the methods and approaches that are used are designed and implemented by consultants and district administrators rather than community leaders or school-based educators.
The argument isn’t just that “bottom-up” reforms are more just and democratic. From Los Angeles to Newark (and Chicago and New Orleans in between), the critique is made that “bottom-up” efforts are likely to work better and last longer than those imposed from outside.
The latest example of this issue arises in Dale Russakoff’s book about Newark, The Prize, in which the author (and many of her sources) point out just how disconnected the efforts being made to improve Newark schools are from the parents and teachers and community members whose lives are affected most directly. The change in grantmaking approach towards more community involvement taken by Mark Zuckerberg following the Newark experience is treated as an obvious and likely beneficial one.
In the case of Newark and other similar examples, what often gets left out is that “bottom-up” school reform efforts have been tried — repeatedly — and haven’t done notably better than the top-down variety.
Perhaps the best example of the power and peril of the more decentralized, community-based approach was the Annenberg Challenge, an effort launched in 1993 serving nine major school districts that is in some ways the negative example that motivates so many of the current school reform efforts.
Way back in the first Clinton Administration, Walter Annenberg announced that he was donating $500 million to help improve education in a handful of big-city school districts. Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia were among them.
As they were winding down, I and a few others published case studies on those efforts.
A quick glance at the chapter headings gives a good sense of how things turned out: “A Small Footprint on the Nation’s Largest School System” (NYC), “Grant Brings High Hopes, Modest Gains” (Philadelphia), “From Frontline Leader to Rearguard Action” (Chicago).
“While students in some schools surely benefited from this unprecedented private generosity, the system as a whole was largely unresponsive,” notes the introduction to the collected case studies. “Walter Annenberg didn’t accomplish what he had hoped.”
One possible reason suggested was that the funder emphasized local and internal approaches over national and external ones: “The Annenberg Challenge asked local nonprofit groups, businesses, and other reform agencies to…negotiate change with the existing power structure of public education,” noted Ray Domanico in the overview. “The Annenberg Challenge assumed that outside reform groups could successfully work within and alongside large school systems and thereby bring about significant change.”
The case study of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which I authored, notes that 60 networks were created with nearly $50 million in Annenberg funding, each of which included a nonprofit intermediary and a group of schools. (Some focused on middle schools. Others focused on leadership development, or small schools.) But these networks had no direct authority over the schools they worked with. Nor were they closely integrated with the district.
To be sure, evaluating the impact of even the largest foundation grant is extremely difficult to do, and these case studies were commissioned by the right-leaning Fordham Institute and will be dismissed by some as advocacy rather than research or journalism.
And of course, top-down efforts like the Newark example aren’t always effective, either. And even when the reforms implemented may have worked, such as in New Orleans, there’s the issue of how to return the school system to the community that it serves.
However, few of those involved with the Annenberg Challenge — some of whom are critics of the current top-down model — bring it up as an example of what “bottom-up” reform might look like.
Looking ahead, perhaps someone will propose and implement a mixed approach that can bring to bear the advantages of each model and minimize the disadvantages.
A former staffer to two U.S. Senators (California’s Dianne Feinstein & New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman) and former NYC Schools Chancellor Ramon Cortines, Russo’s writing has been published in Slate, The Atlantic, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the Washington Monthly. His 2011 book, Stray Dogs, Saints, & Saviors, chronicles the attempt to rescue Locke High School in South Central LA. Russo has been involved in creating several successful sites such as This Week In Education, District 299, and LA School Report. His newest site, The Grade, examines the strengths and weaknesses of education journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @alexanderrusso.