The “Buy-In” Tar Pit

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

The “buy-in” tar pit is located adjacent to other similar geographical oddities, like the “consensus-seeking” sinkhole and the “capacity-building” briar patch. These are all easy ways to blame process rather than substance when the complaint is really about substance. So efforts to close lousy schools, trim benefits, or toughen up evaluation are inevitably attacked for a lack of buy-in or stakeholder support, no matter how much time was spent on just those things. (Meanwhile, you hardly ever hear any complaints that across-the-board pay raises were decided with insufficient input.)

Right now, the Washington Teachers Union (the AFT’s D.C. local) is throwing everything it has behind D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray in a push to unseat Mayor Adrian Fenty. The media have reported mass mailings, nightly phone banks, and big bucks, in addition to the hard-to-miss radio ads. This all follows, by just a few months, the groundbreaking collective bargaining deal between the WTU and Fenty’s schools chief Michelle Rhee, which included generous across-the-board raises along with a new evaluation and performance pay system.

No one should be surprised that the WTU is charging Fenty and Rhee with inadequate efforts to build trust, forge consensus, or win buy-in. The surprising thing, for me, is that perfectly sensible observers so frequently seem to take these complaints at face value.

I’ll be blunt. Given Fenty and Rhee’s determination to move forcefully to improve a district with no functioning personnel system, abysmal levels of achievement, schools in need of closure, a lethargic central administration, too many overmatched principals, and too many teachers who weren’t up to snuff, there was no way they could make real progress without angering powerful constituencies and hurting a lot of feelings.

Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County (a D.C. neighbor), just announced his impending retirement. As fond as I am of Jerry and as much as I respect his 12-year track record, the recent spate of comparisons between him and Rhee typically ignore the fact that Jerry was hired to tone up an admired district and Michelle to clean up a disaster zone. You can do the first with a fair bit of buy-in, since most everyone will come out okay. You can’t do the second without making a lot of enemies–in communities who are seeing schools closed, among fired principals and central office staff… and in the teachers union.

The problem is we’ve a sector full of educational experts who claim to love kids, are sure that everyone wants to do the right thing, and can’t imagine that buy-in and consensus won’t yield solutions. Unfortunately, the kumbaya approach only works in schools or systems that are already doing fairly well–and where, therefore, change won’t involve too much disruption or produce too many losers. When it comes to troubled systems, even a thousand meetings, get-to-know-me sessions, and stakeholder buy-in roundtables won’t suffice. Rhee can testify to this, because she held scores of community conversations in 2007-08 as she planned a series of desperately needed school closings–and then was slammed for inadequate efforts to secure buy-in.

If the WTU wants to attack Fenty because they don’t like what he did, that’s their business (though it shows the problems that result when public employee unions play an outsized role in selecting their boss). But no one should imagine that a kinder, gentler Fenty-Rhee effort would have assuaged the WTU–not unless “kinder and gentler” is code for business as usual.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College