Speaking from Experience: Top-Down Initiatives

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PM

This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

During my 20+ years of teaching, I have been required to implement more initiatives that I can count. Most of these have been based on research that has shown that “good schools do ___” or “good teachers do ___” or “high achieving students do ___”. In short, they are based on the “what works” mentality. Researchers gather evidence that correlate a certain set of actions with a certain set of positive school qualities. Then, a school system, state, or even entire country decides to implement this action in a broad stroke. Many of these may have begun as good ideas, but eventually almost all top-down initiatives have had limited success because of poor implementation.

Usually the policy-makers who design the initiatives have little to no real experience in schools or classrooms, so perhaps they just don’t know how schools work. They may not understand how much actual teaching we are trying to muddle our way through in spite of the bureaucratic obstacles thrown in our way. They may also not accept that the administrators and teachers who must implement these initiatives have professional objectives of our own and must prioritize duties based on those we find most valued and pressing. In our schools, there are so many forms to complete and checkboxes to fill to satisfy the powers-that-be that most of these top-down initiatives fall into the category of requirements-with-which-we-must-comply. The mentality of compliance will never generate meaningful reform.

My experience with teacher mentoring is a good example. I believe that new teachers need peer mentoring and that many great young teachers leave the profession too soon because they haven’t been given the support they need. I also believe quality support can best be provided by an experienced teacher. About 10 years ago, I first came to my school system as a preschool special education teacher working in an early childhood program that was housed in our large high school building. The principal had been given a directive by our school system to implement a mentoring program for new teachers, requiring that each new teacher be paired with an experienced teacher. So, I was paired with a high school History teacher with many years experience. We were both given an initial mentoring form to complete and directions to meet on a regular basis to document that we covered a pre-set list of topics.

My mentor was a nice enough woman, and during our first meeting she showed me how to find the teacher mail room and all of the bathrooms in the building, which was certainly appreciated. After that, our interactions became a routine of ticking off boxes. She was to explain procedures for entering and reporting grades, but since preschool did not report grades, that information didn’t apply to me. She was required to show me the forms for discipline, which had been designed for high school students and didn’t apply to the types of behaviors I was likely to encounter from 3 – 4 year-olds. She was required to show me the forms to submit to the bookkeeping department for purchases, but since my program was funded through a different budget from hers, that information didn’t apply to me either. Though we were working in the same school, under the same principal, we had such different jobs that her mentoring didn’t meet my needs.

I did have many questions and many training needs, though, so I turned to Cheryl, the experienced preschool teacher who taught next door to me. Cheryl told me how to fax changes in my IEP’s to the main office, how to submit purchase requests for preschool funds, who and how to ask for specialist services when little ones were struggling, and where I could find appropriate teaching resources. During our school-wide time dedicated to teacher mentoring, though, Cheryl wasn’t available to help me because she had been assigned a new high school English teacher to mentor.

The situation seemed absurd, but that’s how schools work. There was no buy-in at the school level for the teacher mentoring program so we were simply expected to comply with the requirement by completing and submitting the requisite paperwork. The mentoring program was dropped after a year or two because it didn’t produce positive effects in our school.

When top-down initiatives have failed because of a lack of buy-in at the school level, some administrators respond by hiring consultants to push the initiative through with either a jazzy training session or heavy-handed classroom oversight. Effective buy-in cannot be forced on us or sold to us through hype. And it’s not enough to just consult us or give us token representation in decision-making.

If school reforms are to be successful, teachers and administrators must first have access to the information necessary for decision making. Too often, reformers have given us their interpretations of the data instead of the original sources of information that we can apply to our settings to make reforms that meet the unique needs of our schools. Then we must be given the time and authority to to develop initiatives that will work for us.

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