Eliminate school debt. Add more charter schools. Increase governmental support of school resources. Require mental health classes and professionals in schools. Create federal interventions to address school segregation. Increase police presence on school campuses.
America’s defective education system has become a pandemic and everyone seems to have the solution. And while each proposed solution addresses a different educational concern, all of them employ the same technique to fix it. Staring in the face of a colorful, complicated, and heterogeneous nation, educational leaders and presidential candidates, alike, propose universal, top-down strategies to fix a flawed system. This myth of top-down reform has influenced education policy for many years. In fact, it’s all the American public knows. When Americans think of transformations in education, their minds make a small leap to No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds, and Race to the Top. But these widespread top-down policies haven’t always worked and are usually supplanted by the next educational fad or political party.
Silently standing on the other side of federal educational intervention is grassroots, community-based education reform. Here, educators, parents, community leaders and students alike have a voice in the structural changes at their schools. Here, standards, expectations, and resources don’t change based on who is in office. Here, power has no currency; instead, those who walk into classrooms, PTA meetings, and principals’ offices daily are heard. This movement continues to gain traction as those who interact with the education system see the shortcomings of governmental intervention. Scott Beauchamp’s article Grassroots and Astroturf School Reform aptly notes, “Across the country, parent and teacher groups are mobilizing to take back control of their schools.” He cites examples of grassroots reform organizations such as the Education for Liberation Network, which “addresses things that market-reform won’t touch, like social justice issues and the school-to-prison pipeline.” Other organizations such as Parents Across America address concerns too complicated for market-driven reform.
Average citizens taking an active role in their community should come as no surprise, considering a whopping 62% of Americans are not satisfied with the government’s operation (according to Gallup). Other citizens have been burned by seemingly concerned politicians with bright, shiny promises of educational change. “Education Review,” a multilingual journal of book reviews edited by Gustavo Fischman and Melissa Cast-Brede, cite a comparative study of a Newark and Camden, New Jersey, in which “relationships between sympathetic elected officials and deep-pocketed private donors presupposed impending urban collapse in order to advance political agendas for market-based educational reforms.”
Similarly, in 2018, the RAND Corporation published a report examining the effectiveness of The Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative. The report, funded by the Gates Foundation, deemed the initiative unsuccessful. “Across the years, few metrics in student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and dropout rate were improved at participating schools, while many saw negative dips when compared to similar schools who did not participate” (according to “Why top-down reform won’t save the education system”).
Contrastly, community-based education leads to successful, effective change. “Community-Based Education Reform— Increasing the Educational Level of Communities as an Integral Part of Education Reform” states, “Organizations that support school change through advocacy, technical assistance and parent engagement provide an important resource for schools in developing strategies and planning for school improvements.” A prime example of this all-hands-on-deck community support is The Grassroots Education Project based in Washington D.C. The organization’s goals are to “serve schools and improve outcomes.” They engage community partners and volunteers to tutor students and raise money for their partner school, Tubman Elementary. As a result, the school saw the “second highest gains in reading proficiency across as [Washington D.C. public schools]”. Another grassroots campaign, started in 2015, 50CAN noticed a severe lack of books available to low-income students in the southeast Washington D.C. area. In fact, one study found that there was just one book for every 830 children. Through grassroots efforts and crowdsourcing, they were able to raise $2,000 dollars for books and creating lending libraries within local barbershops (according to “How YOUCAN is Growing Grassroots Education Leaders to Improve Their Schools and Communities”).
Beauchamp rightly states, “There is no single catchall approach that will work for every school. Each community has different needs and goals.” Each school faces unique challenges because each student is unique. The notion that there is one band-aid that can fix every school across the nation is antiquated at best. As our nation grows and changes, so should education policy. We must respond to the voices directly affected by education policies instead of implementing generalized reforms that struggle to address all of the problems facing education. Grassroot campaigns stand the chance of tugging at the root of many education issues. America, it’s time to start gardening.