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Consensus vs. “Buy-In”

October 13, 2010
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On Tuesday night, I attended a heated public meeting to discuss a planned overhaul of many of the schools in Far Northeast Denver. The meeting’s organizers– Denver Public Schools and their related civic organization, A+ Denver– billed the event as a way to roll out their proposed plans for six area schools, and “get community input” regarding those plans. The current proposal would mean big changes for the area’s schools, which you can read more about here.

I won’t delve deeply into the pros and cons of the different school options here. Though I generally like what I’ve heard about DCIS, and was quite impressed when I visited SOAR I a few weeks ago, there is a history of serious problems with school turnarounds in Denver and nationwide. The process by which these decisions are made is of great concern to many, and I think it’s dangerous and disrespectful to casually dismiss those concerns as unproductive “carping.”

The proposal was purportedly developed by a committee of parents, teachers, principals, and at-large community members. I say “purportedly” because many community members seemed unaware of the committee or how to participate until very late in the process. Though they did advertise and disseminate information their website, this is a predominantly working-class to low-income community where many people don’t have regular access to the Internet. It’s an open question, too, how many would feel comfortable participating in this kind of process, especially those who have less education, are non-native English speakers, and/or are unaccustomed to the culture of processes like these.

Class and cultural distinctions weigh heavily in these situations, and DPS’ largely White, overwhelmingly middle-to-upper class leadership is not exactly notable for their ability to recognize and deal with the implications of their privilege. The district has earned a bad reputation for ignoring community concerns and doing what it wants, which could make the time commitment seem wasteful to people who already have a lot of concerns competing for their attention.

In other words, people are justifiably skeptical of A+ Denver’s claims that the committee was truly representative of the community as a whole. I say that not to be critical of the committee itself– several good friends of mine served on it, and I know that they have only the best intentions for children. But we all (myself included) need to be aware of how our own perspectives may systematically differ from those who are absent from these discussions, as should Denver Public Schools.

Additionally, I’ve heard from a few members of that committee who felt that the process itself was largely for show. One committee member even remarked last night that the proposal now on the table includes details she didn’t remember voting on or discussing. Though initially hopeful that their input might matter, some later said that the way information was presented, and the manner in which the final decision was voted upon (by a keypad polling process that offered only either/or choices of certain prescribed options), suggested that the actual decisions had already been made, and that they were there to lend an aura of legitimacy to the district’s decisions.

That sounds familiar, given what I saw at last night’s public meeting. Though billed as an opportunity to get input from the community, the organizers spent the overwhelming majority of the time talking at the attendees. There was very little time for substantive input, and there was no scheduled time for unstructured public comment. During the one hour-long block when community members broke into smaller groups (by school site) and were allowed to ask questions and offer free-response feedback, their time was limited to one minute per comment. After that, the group was required to choose just two of their questions or concerns to bring back to the larger group.

(I attended the Oakland/Ford group, and kept a rough record of who spoke, for how long, and what was said. Of that hour, two DPS officials and the two incoming school leaders spent around 44 minutes speaking, compared to 16 minutes for all of the community members. Nine out of the 16 questions/comments challenged key aspects of the plan, and all of those were left unsettled.)

When the larger group reconvened, each group’s two questions were shared, and different representatives from the new schools and the district answered them. Then, they distributed remote controls for keypad polling, and began asking the audience to respond to their questions. When it became clear that there would be no time for comments, or any ability to offer input aside from the survey questions the organizers created, members of the Black Education Advisory Council and the Northeast Community Congress for Education* initiated a protest that was joined by others in attendance, including a group who gathered petitions in opposition to the proposed changes. The electronic votes on the survey questions indicated that the large majority of people in the room had little confidence that the proposed changes would improve the neighborhood’s schools.

So why does this all matter?

Well, even if we assume that all of the proposed changes will be for the better (which local and national history has shown us is not a safe bet), it is not a good idea to allow momentous changes to be made without genuine input from all stakeholders. (I’ve written about the connections between democratic decision-making and checks and balances before.) The powers that be might make a good decision on everyone’s behalf this time, but what happens if/when they want to make bad decisions on our behalf in the future? Will we be able to stop them? Process matters; we can’t always trust that people will do the right thing. There needs to be a legitimate way for people to push back against ideas that can’t or won’t serve everyone’s interests. If there isn’t, people will be forced to create their own ways– as we saw on Tuesday.

Moreover, I see a big difference between gaining consensus around an issue and getting “buy-in,” which is what is happening here. A truly consensus-oriented approach would have begun with engaging all stakeholders– district officials, community members and affected educators– in a substantive conversation about our perceptions of the problems in the schools, and working toward mutually agreed-upon solutions from there. The district’s “buy-in” approach, by contrast, consists of coming up with a plan they think will work (even if there’s little hard evidence to suggest it will) and then figuring out a way to get people to go along with it (in this case, by repeatedly highlighting the schools’ perceived failings and then pretending that community members have had more say in the proposal than they actually have).

With a consensus approach, there is a chance to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges that the schools and the broader community face, and thus a better chance to actually solve some problems. With buy-in, you’re hemmed in by the assumptions, biases, and interests of the people making the decisions, which is incredibly problematic when those people are so different from the community they’re supposed to serve.

One parent asked a question last night, along the lines of “They’ve been changing everything all the time, every year. Has anything been given a chance to work, and why should we believe this will?” The district representative who responded simply repeated how bad the schools’ performance has been, and that “something” needs to be done. It seems to me that if there had been an emphasis on consensus rather than buy-in in this process, that question wouldn’t still be unaddressed.

*Disclosure: Though I live outside of the area, I work with BEAC and NCCE, because I’m a Black educator who used to teach in Montbello (and am still gravely concerned for the kids there). I also participated in a panel hosted by DeFENSE last month, and continue to work with them, though I no longer belong to the Democratic Party.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2010 5:55 am

    What we have here is a microcosm replication of what is happening at the national level. Astounding!

    The “Reforms” also mirror what is being pitched by the Federal-Corporate “Partnership:”

    * Ford Elementary would be replaced by a campus of the Denver Center for International Studies magnet program.
    * Green Valley Elementary would undergo “turnaround,” meaning a new principal would be hired and teachers would have to reapply for their jobs.
    * McGlone Elementary also would undergo “turnaround,” though their recently-hired principal would stay.
    * Oakland Elementary would be replaced by a campus of the SOAR charter school.
    * Noel Middle School would be replaced by a 6-12 arts program with 100 students per grade; a KIPP charter school would be co-located at the school.
    * Montbello High School would be replaced by a 9-12 Collegiate Prep Academy with 150 to 200 students per grade. A Denver Center for International Studies 6-12 magnet program would open at the school as would a High Tech Early College.

    The local polling figures:

    Selected questions and responses about DPS proposal

    The number of respondents to each question varied slightly but about 190 people were on hand when polling began. FNE refers to Far Northeast Denver.

    Question: Where do you live?

    * 80239 (Montbello) – 46%
    * 80249 (Green Valley Ranch) – 28%
    * Other – 26%

    Question: Are you a parent?

    * Yes – 48%
    * No – 51%

    Question: Are you a committee member or a community member?

    * Committee member – 13%
    * Community member – 87%

    Question: To what degree do you think this scenario will provide FNE students better choices closer to home?

    * Significantly worse choices – 45%
    * Worse choices– 11%
    * No change in choices– 17%
    * Better choices– 13%
    * Significantly better choices – 14%

    Question: To what degree will this scenario improve student achievement in the FNE?

    * Significantly lower student achievement – 44%
    * Lower student achievement – 12%
    * No impact on student achievement – 21%
    * Improve student achievement – 14%
    * Significantly improve student achievement – 9%

    The money to finance A+ is also coming from the Federal-Corporate partnership

    Follow the money. This is an important story. I can hardly wait to hear what happens next.

    • October 14, 2010 3:54 pm

      Yeah, it’s getting tense. The district & people who support their brand of reform continue to push things on people, instead of finding out what they want and trying to provide it. I don’t understand how they think they can continue to impose their will on others, and not suffer a backlash.

  2. carolinesf permalink
    October 14, 2010 7:50 pm

    Is Envision Schools still in line to get one or more schools there? This is a San Francisco-based chain with two low-performing high schools in our city and a couple more scattered around the East Bay. I know they were making a pitch in Colorado with flat-out lies about their supposed success here (a few notches above the usual charter school *hype* — this was active undeniable lying). I lost track of the story sometime along the way.

    Envision is like Green Dot in that it has extraordinary success in hoodwinking the press into promoting its lies unquestioned. That certainly is a skill.

  3. Cal permalink
    October 14, 2010 8:36 pm

    Sabrina,

    You may wish to investigate Sociocracy. You can find a good brief first book at http://www.sociocracy.info or contact sharonvillines@sharonvillines.com. The motto is fairness, effectiveness transparency. Sociocracy is a method for broad involvement in public dicision making for any size public.

    Cal

  4. November 12, 2010 9:12 pm

    I like the title of this post and agree with the earlier commenter that it is a national trend. I had a principal who constantly talked about getting buy-in and for a year attempted to shove a pseudo consensus process down our throats at faculty meetings. It worked like this: she came up with the issues, the choices and the limits of discussion. No one had the right to block the decision or to dissent, but we were given the chance to ask questions and express concerns. In the end, the decision was always a forgone conclusion and the meetings a narcissistic charade that allowed her to feel like she was winning us over.

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