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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Top-Down, Bottom-Up, Or Both/Neither?

One of the talks I gave up in Buffalo was about Boys and Reading, and my belle example was the Guys Read club a wonderful Florida media specialist named Deb Hanson had created. It was a great success in its first year — with boys focusing on handicapping sports events, reading all sorts of materials to evaluate players and predict winners (not for betting, just to be right and feel smart). The mentors were local cops, firemen, coaches, and everyone got a lot out of it. Some in the audience asked how it went after the first year, so I emailed Deb to check. The results were disappointing: it was harder to get the mentors the second year and, more to the point, a new school administration selected different scheduling which made it more difficult to have the club at all. Hearing that matched muttering that I heard often in Buffalo: everything you are saying about the CC is great, but how can we do all of that when the administrators severely limit our time with students, or have us on scripted plans where we are all to be at exactly the same place at the same time?

Why are schools so top-down, I wondered? So I emailed a friend who studies leadership in schools, and he said that is not quite right. In fact the administrators are frustrated because often enough they have nice plans, but do not get buy-in from their staff. His view is that schools are these “loosely-coupled” fiefdoms — where top-down mixes and matches with “when I close the door I do it my way” in some schools, and where, in others there are real efforts of teams of librarians, teachers, and supervisors to work together to craft programs.

The challenge for the CC, then, will be implementation in an environment where nothing is cookie-cutter. The net effect is that, in all likelihood, the fate of CC will depend on individual teachers and school cultures — which is precisely what the CC idea is meant to change. A great teacher will be a great teacher in any system. A poor teacher will stumble in any system. But the question is what is the best practice that will get more, better, results from more teachers, librarians, and students? I am impressed by what I see when I read the CC plans of, say, the New York City Public School System: but it remains to be seen how this actually takes shape in schools.

I was sad to hear how Deb’s great experiment foundered, but there is a lesson even in that: no school innovation works unless all the responsible parties are committed to it. As I have said here before, the third C in the Common Core is “collaboration” — and we will all be tested on how well we can accomplish that.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    When administrators say they are frustrated because often enough they have nice plans, but do not get buy-in from their staff, ” they are demonstrating the top down syndrome. Classroom teachers are the foot soldiers who are often excluded from decision making; That is why they are little Napoleons who close their doors and try to achieve some independence of thought and action. How many times in a school year do teachers meet without administrators controlling the agenda? How many times have administrators consulted with teachers or a teacher without preplanning the conversation?

    And, aren’t many administrators expatriates or escapees from the classroom? And, haven’t many of them forgotten, overlooked, or minimized teachers’ concerns and abilities?

    And, when outsiders visit, whom do they meet? Schools are small kingdoms or factories, and the teachers are the last to know about anything, because schedules, room assignments, class size, even supplies, and certainly curriculum are dictated from above. As for college specialists, have they worked as classroom teachers?
    I recommend that everybody does that before moving on or moving in! It’s quite an experience in feeling powerless and coerced.

    It is regrettable that a successful endeavor was destroyed by a new ambitious administrator, but it is not news! It’s a hierarchy, and teachers are at the bottom, Marc.