The "buy-in" paradox

The most dangerous word in the education-reform lexicon is “stakeholder” and the most problematic among the infinite theories that reformers espouse is that widespread “stakeholder buy-in” is essential if anything is actually to change.

My own experience these past zillion years is that demanding lots of buy-in is a reliable way to ensure that nothing much changes, at least nothing beyond enlarging the total pie so that every “stakeholder” gets a bigger slice.

The problem, of course, is that the “stakeholders” in K-12 education always turn out to be producers, not consumers. They are the grown-ups who earn their livings (or their members’ or shareholders’ livings) from the money spent by the education system. Remember that about three-fourths of the typical school-system budget goes for salaries and benefits—for grown-ups. And nearly all the rest goes to buy things that grown-ups benefit from selling, such as textbooks, teacher-education, in-service training, computers, football uniforms, building maintenance services, school buses, etc.

Those self-interested grown-ups turn out to be the “stakeholders.” It’s never kids, parents or taxpayers. And those stakeholders are vigilant, to say the least, in defending their interests. They hire lobbyists, campaign for candidates, appear at school board meetings and legislative hearings, and “bargain” not only for pay and benefits but also for hours, guaranteed free time, you name it. Hence a meeting of stakeholders in K-12 education typically produces a room full of teacher-union representatives, ed-school deans, state bureaucrats, textbook publishers, agents of the principals and superintendents—and sometimes of bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers. You won’t find any students or parents or the hard-working nurses, taxi drivers, accountants, and grocers whose own pay is reduced by tax withholding so that the “stakeholders’” interests can be sustained.

Sure, a case can be made for obtaining stakeholder “buy-in” when some sort of change or reform is contemplated—and that’s the case that Secretary Duncan and his team have been making in connection with states’ Race to the Top applications. It boils down to this: Nothing will actually change on the ground—or behind the classroom door—unless those who must implement the reform agree to support it. Absent such support, the governor or state superintendent can promise, the legislature can mandate, the mayor can announce, but it’s only hopeful persiflage and lip service until and unless those who do the actual work assent to do things differently.

That’s not totally wrong. But neither is it exactly right. For big changes—in education, in foreign policy, in dietary practices, you name it—almost never occur because everybody affected by them agrees in advance that they should occur. People aren’t like that. The only kind of change that most people—and, heaven save us, most “associations”—will readily assent to amounts to “more of the same.” Real change occurs with duress, in response to leadership, in defiance of habit, resistance, inertia, and obduracy. Real change occurs because someone manages to place the needs and interests of children, parents, and taxpayers ahead of the interests of the putative stakeholders that normally prevail. (Among innumerable examples: Teach For America, charter schools, pay for performance, standards-based accountability.)

Once in a while, in response to uncommonly good fortune, ingenious leadership, or other rare circumstances, the stars line up in such a way that the customary stakeholders can be persuaded to agree to do things differently. Of course, this almost always hinges on more money flowing to them, which is what has happened—and is happening today—in connection with Race to the Top. That probably accounts for Delaware’s success in persuading Duncan’s reviewers that “the First State” had sufficient “buy-in” from its school districts and teacher unions. That may be what happened in Tennessee, too (though one is heartened by reports of extraordinary gubernatorial leadership in the Volunteer State).

Most of the time, however, it’s folly to demand universal stakeholder “buy-in,” to expect it to come attached to serious education reform, or to ding states for obtaining only partial buy-in. Else the reforms will simply be watered down to a sufficiently diluted level that the stakeholders (in return for more money) will tolerate. To demand such buy-in in most states, moreover, is self-defeating. In Florida, for example, Race to the Top would be a stunning success if about five major urban districts “bought in” to its precepts.(Youcan name them, too.) Same with Pennsylvania and Ohio and…well, most places. Who really cares if Alachua County signs on? Or Burgettstown (PA)? Or Mt. Vernon (north of Columbus, OH)? The more buy-in that’s required, the greater the risk of pallid “least-common-denominator” reform. And the more certain that whatever reforms do occur in response to federal money will go away when that money stops flowing.

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