Creative leadership lies between top-down and bottom-up

August 22, 2013

Merrill Vargo

Whenever I say that “neither top-down nor bottom-up approaches to change work in public education,” educators nod in agreement. But when it comes to acting on this insight, agreement is nowhere in sight. Private sector leaders tend to think that top-down strategies fail because public education leaders do something wrong. This is understandable: top-down approaches to change actually do work pretty well in a business environment. But private sector organizations are closed systems; they are generally clear on the problem to be solved, the goals and metric to be used, and who is responsible to do what by when and with what resources. You can put pressure from the top on this kind of a system and be pretty confident of what will happen next because the number of players and the number of variables is known.

Public education, in contrast, is an open system, constantly interacting with the environment. People come and go, elections are held, agreement about goals fades in and out of focus, labor markets are volatile, rules and demographics change, and policies churn. No wonder the leadership challenges are different. Public sector leaders who want to get anything done must be constantly building and rebuilding consensus. It isn’t that public education leaders are less capable or that someone is doing something wrong. It is the nature of the beast. The public sector is different.

Our decade-long experiment with No Child Left Behind reinforces the idea that an overemphasis on top-down strategies is problematic, and that the breakdown is predictable. Basically, the teachers, parents, kids, and voters whose support is essential for implementing any change either refuse outright to play along, opt to simply go through the motions, or sometimes make a well-meaning effort to implement change without deep understanding and end up “dumbing down” what might have been promising strategies.

Yet despite lots of data that says this is what happens, much of what is called “education reform” these days is a series of efforts to make public education more amenable to top-down leadership strategies. That is the overarching goal that ties together apparently disparate ideas like emphasizing testing, making it easier to fire weak teachers and expanding parent choice, just to give three examples.

We’ve handicapped public education leaders by pointing them exclusively toward private sector leadership models. The alternative to top-down leadership is emphatically not laissez-faire or “let a thousand flowers bloom,” but there are options. In an open system, leader-driven approaches to change matter, but they must be balanced with more inclusive strategies to engage the people who are the customers, but also the objects and the energy behind any change effort. Public education has invested heavily in teaching leaders only half of the tools they need to succeed. Anyone who doubts this need only ask a principal or superintendent about how prepared he or she feels to engage local communities in helping make resource allocation decisions. Yet this is exactly what the supporters of the Local Control Funding Formula hope they will do – and soon.

What are the tools for leadership of an open system? Finding and testing these is important new work. Places to look include community engagement, community organizing and, interestingly, what folks at design firms like IDEO call “design thinking.” Though it comes from the private sector, design thinking is the opposite of top down: it is a highly inclusive process which aims to systematize creativity and innovation. Originally used to design consumer products, design thinking has spread widely. With the adoption of the Common Core it is starting to be used by teachers in classrooms, and teachers immediately grasp the motivational power of inviting students to engage in designing some of their own learning experiences. Inviting leaders to embrace design along with their teachers is a new frontier. But if we expand our search for leadership strategies beyond those used at the top of our largest corporations, there is a lot out there.


Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.

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