CEO, National Association of State Boards of Education
Bottom-up versus top-down is not an either-or proposition.
Forty years ago at the outset of my career in education, I had two very different experiences that have shaped my professional outlook since. The first was as a US Teacher Corps intern in Salinas, California where our group of 45 wild-eyed, idealistic college graduates was plopped into a beleaguered polarized school system and urged by the superintendent “to innovate the school system classroom by classroom.” It was a classic case of bottom-up reform: successful some of the time for some students in a few classrooms.
Then came my two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Malaysia where I worked as an inspector for the national government enforcing the mandated transformation of the country’s entire school system. Yes, a classic case of top-down reform: successful some of the time for some students in a few schools.
These two contrasting experiences helped me understand a central dilemma that confounds education reformers to this day: whether to trigger and sustain change from the bottom up or from the top down. The simple answer is “both”: create a strong, state level, standards-based framework within which continuous improvement and innovation can be sustained at the classroom level over time.
Education reform in the USA needs democracy.
Countless times I've seen state boards of education say, "Wait a minute," when politicians or bureaucrats have handed them flawed proposals that are rife with unintended consequences or otherwise removed from reality. Board members rely not only on their own experience, but the experiences of parents, teachers, and administrators back home, and boards are often the first to ask, 'who else do we need to hear from before moving forward?' Of course, true to Winston Churchill's observation (“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”), I've also seen boards -- just like legislatures—get derailed by partisan, ideological, or personal agendas, or become a governor's or a superintendent's rubber stamp. NASBE's mission of helping boards be the best they can be is one of the reasons I was drawn to leading this organization. Indeed, ensuring citizen voice in policy making at the local and state levels is an essential component of our democratic way of life.
It’s time to use evidence for a change.
The Data Quality Campaign has admirably led the way since 2005 in shining a bright light on the importance of student performance data in shaping policy and practice, but education's push into data-driven decision making is still only in its infancy and the analytic capacity to actually use data is only just beginning to be built.
Key decision makers on the front lines of reform need help in organizing the avalanche of data now smothering them and then translating data into evidentiary knowledge about what works under what conditions moving forward. Reform-minded organizations such as NASBE, then, can and should play a key role in this next phase of in the education reform continuum as reliable and honest brokers of information and knowledge so education policies are established on a foundation of evidence rather than hyperbole. The time has arrived for education to transform itself into an evidence-based field much like we see in medicine, energy, or agriculture.
The new normal is doing more and doing it differently.
Anyone who has been around for the last 60 years (as admittedly I have) has seen enormous increases in productivity in most sectors. But it's often struck me that school systems have somehow been immune to this trend. Secretary Duncan’s now-famous speech last year about education’s “new normal” emphasized how the dismal, long-term budgetary outlook for public education will require educators to do more with less. But as we are beginning to see in school systems around the country, crisis can be the mother of innovation. New uses of technology, new conceptions of schooling, and new approaches to the teaching profession suggest that the new normal is really all about finding new and very different ways to increase productivity.
Equality is a derivative of quality.
After the release of the Nation’s at Risk Report almost 30 years ago, there were ongoing debates between reformers emphasizing equity and others promoting excellence. Yet I—and many others—saw too many schools that had gotten more resources but still weren't educating students to high standards. So as we moved into the 1990’s there was a growing recognition of the false equity-excellence dichotomy; that is, you can’t have one without the other. In moving forward with transformative reform initiatives, we should always be mindful that equality is derived from quality.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Jim Kohlmoos is the CEO of National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), a non-partisan non-profit membership association in Washington DC dedicated to serving and strengthening State Boards of Education in their pursuit of high levels of academic achievement for all students. With almost four decades of experience in education leadership, Kohlmoos is leading a national effort to promote informed and active lay citizen participation in state level education policy making.
Prior to joining NASBE in 2012, Kohlmoos served as the president and CEO of the Knowledge Alliance for over a decade. Kohlmoos led an advocacy program to expand support for evidence-based education and knowledge-based solutions in school improvement. Prior to joining the Alliance in 2001, Kohlmoos was a vice president of Implementation Group, where over a two- year period as vice president he built an extensive bi-partisan government relations practice in elementary and secondary education. From 1993 to 2000 Kohlmoos served at the U.S. Department of Education as both a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education and as a Senior Adviser and Special Assistant. He also served on the Presidential Transition Team in 1992. From 1977 to 1993, he worked at the Close Up Foundation first as an instructor and director and then as vice president. Kohlmoos began his professional career in education 1971 with the U.S. Teacher Corps in Salinas, CA. He subsequently served as a teacher trainer with the Peace Corps, which took him to Malaysia for three years.
Kohlmoos holds a baccalaureate in history from Stanford University (1971), plus teacher credentials from the University of California. He has completed graduate courses at Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz. A native of California, Kohlmoos has two adult children and resides in Arlington, VA, with his wife.