Why school improvement should run bottom-up

School transformation relies on the expertise of the educators who are closest to students

National and districtwide school improvement and transformation plans can struggle when leadership doesn’t accommodate the needs of individual schools. So says Eric Kalenze, a former educator and author of What the Academy Taught Us: Improving Schools from the Bottom-up in a Top-down Transformation Era (John Catt Educational, 2019, DAmag.me/bottomup).

In an interview with DA, Kalenze shared his insights into why school transformations are often more successful when they begin at the classroom or building level, and are driven by the teachers and administrators who are most familiar with their students’ needs.

Why do you call this the “top-down” transformation era?

The book is about a school improvement experience I was part of as a teacher in the 2000s, when No Child Left Behind was in its infancy.

We had gotten to this point of focusing on data and scores to drive improvement, and we noticed our district became more aggressive and assertive in rolling out districtwide initiatives through all the schools.

When I left the classroom, I started seeing the same thing in rural, urban and suburban districts. Principals were less about marshaling the best possible improvements for their schools and more responsible for seeing that their districts’ centrally-imposed strategies were being worked on.

Why is bottom-up transformation so important?

Each school is its own ecosystem, so sometimes the district-led effort might not fit a school’s reality or its needs.

In one Minneapolis public school where I worked, they had a districtwide commitment to balanced literacy for early education that allowed certain kids in certain schools to soar because they had the right resources at home.

Other kids came to school and they couldn’t even decode, and balanced literacy doesn’t provide a lot of support around that. People looked at the results, and saw the schools we’re taking off in two different directions.

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A bottom-up approach would be a better way to truly understand the needs of your kids. A different approach to early literacy might be necessary but the district says ‘no, this is the best way, here are your resources.”

How does a school’s education team make bottom-up improvement work?

You have to be an expert at making sense of the data you have. Sometimes, we love to admire our data but we don’t know what it means. Another big piece is becoming much more evidence-informed in the solutions you choose.

Figure out how to genuinely bring your teaching staff into the improvement process. It’s about creating committees of folks to work on solutions.

How do you know a school improved initiative has succeeded?

I don’t think there’s any such thing as a fully transformed school. What I’m always looking for is: can you get a school that has a leader for a long enough time? And can you abide by a somewhat consistent way of improvement?

Ultimately, what you’re working toward is changing the culture. When you can say, ‘We’re going to get as good as we can at three things a year, and then those three things become how we do things around here.’ And next year, you’ll repeat the process, and there will be another three things that you’re going to get really good at.

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A school that is continuously doing that is truly building effective school improvement. It takes a while because you can never see some of the obstacles that are going to be put in front of you.

You know you’re truly transformed when the right people are sticking around and you are seeing that both kids and teachers understand the way we do things around here.

Why did you say relationships are so important? What kinds of relationships?

Everything I know about all of this was informed by a principal who was an incredible visionary.

In figuring out anything we were going to do as a school, it was remarkable how much time he invested in the relationship piece, and I don’t mean he threw a lot of donut parties or worked only on morale.

It was truly, ‘I need to find the best four people for this initiative, so I’m going to walk the building and talk to people and find out who they are.’

Matt Zalaznick is DA’s senior writer.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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