Top-down or bottom-up: Is it really a choice?


Carina Wong


Philanthropists and other organizations committed to social change are routinely faced with a fundamental choice: whether to invest in initiatives that come from the top down—in changes flowing from the system to the individual—or in those that percolate from the bottom up—from people working on the ground. Some argue that the former tends to scale faster than the latter, thus more efficiently producing broad social change. Others argue that bottom-up strategies, while sometimes more time-consuming and harder to control, are more sustainable because they provide grassroots ownership of proposed solutions. 

A False Choice
I recently asked a group of education funders to categorize each of the following investment strategies as either top-down or bottom-up:

  • Supporting new national or state policies
  • Supporting states and districts to implement strategies
  • Funding providers of technical assistance to support state or district change
  • Investing in formal and informal networks at national or regional levels
  • Engaging directly with target audiences

The funders unanimously agreed that the first three strategies were top-down and the last two were bottom-up. It was a reasonable response: The first three seem to start with the system or use an external force to effect change. The last two seem aimed more at mobilizing willing participants than at changing the system directly.

Yet I was asking these funders to make what was essentially a false choice. While the first three plays appear to be top-down, they could also be approached as bottom-up. It all depends on the way funders engage the people most affected by the investments. In the case of the U.S. K-12 education program here at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, those people are teachers.

Creating an Engagement Opportunity
So how does a funder invest directly in the people on the ground when the funder typically works at a level up, with organizations? In our case, the answer lies more in connecting with teachers than in funding them. Funders and social change organizations alike can benefit from approaching their challenges as an engagement opportunity rather than attacking them as a reform problem that requires swooping in and fixing. But to frame their work in this way, organizations must confront several tensions inherent in any effort to solve complex social problems:

Skill vs. will. Does an initiative try to improve performance by simply giving people tools, or does it aim to motivate people to take action? Taking an engagement opportunity approach means doing both. The Literacy Design Collaborative, which is a framework that helps teachers create and access lessons and other supports aligned to the Common Core State Standards, is a great example of a tool that addresses both skill and will. It allows teachers to tailor their instruction, but it also gives them clear direction for how to meet the new standards.

Growth vs. Engagement Mission-driven non-profits are obsessed with scale. How do they take their programs to the next level so they reach more people? At the Gates Foundation, we too want returns on investments, and we ask our partners to document how many teachers or students they are reaching. But targets for growth are equally as important as deep engagement and a learning agenda for what is driving that engagement. In our case, that means understanding what behaviors are changing and why.

One of the initiatives we support is a community, face-to-face and online, that connects teachers to other teachers so that they can share ideas, solve problems, and expand their own professional learning networks. We have found that in digital communities, we can reach large numbers of teachers and get them to deeply connect with the work if we allow the educators themselves to lead the conversation about what they care about most. We are seeing engagement rates online of 7 percent weekly (an industry standard is 1 or 2 percent). An engagement rate is a way to measure how people interact with your content. We are working to understand what’s driving those rates and how we can intensify their engagement even more. How, for instance, can we move a teacher from simply listening in a Twitter chat to actually contributing or leading a conversation?

Design vs. delivery. Approaching an investment as an engagement opportunity requires that the engagement occur early on, in the design phase, whether the design is developing a policy or deploying a new curriculum. By contrast, asking  teachers on the back end to review a tool or a policy, or to implement either, is a top-down strategy—and one not likely to engage them. We knew this when we launched some work in teacher professional development a few years ago, and so we ensured that teachers were on both the design and execution teams. This front-end engagement in design and delivery gave teachers ownership in the process—an important goal when so many teachers feel that they have lost a voice in the politics of public education. It also helps create sustainability.

Controlling vs. letting go.  Taking an engagement approach means being realistic about what you should try to control, creating a set of guiding principles for your strategy, and taking risks on the people doing the actual work. For us, it requires identifying teacher-leaders who can model behaviors, inspire new ideas, and pose problems for the community to solve. We established the following principles to make sure that we were letting go for the right reason—to create an engagement opportunity with teachers:

  • By teachers, for teachers: The communities will be shaped by the teachers who join them. What the program becomes is entirely in the hands of those who own it.
  • Elevating and celebrating the profession of teaching: The communities will allow teachers to come together to improve the teaching profession in unexpected and inspiring ways.
  • Authenticity and professionalism: Tools and resources should be created, refined, and shared by teachers in a way that reflects the real challenges of the profession.
  • Community and collaboration: The communities should be part of a seamless network of motivated teachers that will benefit from a space to connect and learn from each other.
  • Transparency: The Foundation will serve as a facilitator to help convene teachers and partners, not as the launcher of a new initiative.

Engagement vs. the rest. Teacher engagement can’t stand as a strategy by itself. It has to be part of a larger plan and a larger set of goals. It can’t be the responsibility of your communications and marketing people; it has to sit with those who design programs and propose solutions. At the Gates Foundation we are focused on improving student success through effective teaching. We are betting on high expectations, better observation and feedback systems, and more teacher collaboration during the school day, among other strategies. We are still trying to figure out what the engagement approach looks like in each of these areas. But we know that creating engagement opportunities is a crucial step toward changing outcomes for kids. After all, teachers are still the most significant factor in student success that we know of.

Whether you are funding education reform or any other social change, why not choose a strategy that sees engagement as an opportunity? The alternative is a ‘reform-oriented’ approach that gives you a false choice between top-down and bottom-up change – and which just might miss the biggest innovations your constituents have to offer.

Carina Wong is deputy director at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Comments (2)

Dan Rothstein

This is a nuanced argument. There's a lot here to consider and an analysis that challenges conventional wisdom. It makes clear that questions about "how" and "for what purpose" must be connected. This article also allows room for the "how" - teacher-engagement, teacher-led communications - to shape and strengthen the "for what purpose" the outcomes of better teaching and learning.

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