Consensus vs. “Buy-In”
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.