Why We Need to Move Beyond Buy-in

Why did I title my blog “Beyond Buy-in”?  I have spent years in public schools, in higher education, and at the U.S. Department of Education hearing education leaders who believe the last stop on their way to a new policy is teacher buy-in.

Their conception of teacher buy-in is extremely problematic. To me, “buy-in” connotes the need to buy something that is being sold.

Why are we selling education reform policies to teachers? Aren’t teachers are the professionals and experts who are supposed to be educating our children? Then, why don’t policymakers look to them as the creators of solutions that teachers can spread and scale?

Most education reform initiatives fail because they are impractical. In many cases this is because teachers are brought into the process as the final stamp of approval so that initiators of the reform can claim that teachers have provided input.

Take the implementation of the Common Core State Standards as an example. Indiana has decided to pause implementaton of the standards. Michigan has pulled funding. Florida is having second and third thoughts. Louisiana’s governor is equivocating. Arizona is changing the name of the standards to appease certain political factions.

Regardless of your views on standards and assessment, many states have descended into an educational quagmire of arguments between reformers and politicians. Where are the teacher leaders upon whom these initiatives success depends?

Kris Kohl and I wrote an article in the October Kappan, entitled “Beyond Buy-in” based on our work with outstanding teacher leaders. We conclude the piece with the following:

“More than 11,000 school districts in 45 states and the District of Columbia will be implementing the Common Core. Even the most cynical policymaker will acknowledge that learning outcomes will not improve without the cooperation of those charged with the standards’ daily implementation: classroom teachers.

“However, moving beyond mere cooperation and buy-in requires a shift toward identifying and elevating the very best educators to lead their colleagues in making this important change.

We know where to begin that search, with accomplished teachers who are already demonstrating results with their students. It is time to stop selling teachers on the Common Core. It is time to acknowledge and spread teachers’ expertise. It is time to invite teachers to own this promising shift in teaching and learning.”

Many of you reading this are the teachers who are leading and spreading your ideas. You and your students are the reason we need to move beyond buy-in.

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  • LoriNazareno

    Ownership not Buy-In

    Thanks so much for speaking my mind every time I hear the phrase “buy-in”. I have always found it condescending and demeaning. Buy-in, in my experience, has always meant exactly what you said…let’s get some teachers to sign off on the work that someone else did, but that teachers are expected to implement.

    Meg Wheatley in her book Leadership and the New Science, talks about how people will own what they help to create. She goes on to say “…it simply doesn’t work to ask people to sign on whne they haven’t been involved in the planning process….We cannot talk people into our version of reality because nothing is truly real for them if they haven’t created it”.

    So, not only is it time for those higher up in the hierarchy of schools and schooling to stop trying to get us to “buy-in”. It is time for teachers to stop accepting this as a practice by those “in charge”.

    • JonEckert

      You live out your advice


      Thanks for the exhortation. I love interacting with teachers like you because you inspire others to take leadership and own our expertise through your words and example. 

      I work with pre-service teachers, and it is so hard to help them understand what our profession can be when they see so little trust on display in education. It is my hope that in the years to come that these teachers will follow the lead of teachers like you and transform our work into a profession that is owned by professionals.

  • JustinMinkel

    The Implementation Gap

    Amen, Jon.  The more I work with policymakers, the more I see the main gap in reform as the implementation gap, not an ideological gap.  There are definitely fundamental differences in beliefs about ed reform, but I see less harm being done by nefarious power players than I do by reforms failing for practical reasons that could have been avoided.

    One of the most troubling of these, to me, is the NCLB-era focus on “bubble kids” just below proficiency at the expense of kids who are either above grade-level (who will make proficiency even if they go backwards) and, worse, kids who are so far below grade-level they don’t seem like a “good bet” for catching up in one year.

    I don’t think that George Bush and Margaret Spellings were twirling their evil mustaches as they designed a system to harm kids, but I do believe a common-sense emphasis on a system that measures growth would have been built in if more teachers had been involved with NCLB. 

    Once we got a system (albeit an imperfect one) to count growth, I saw a shift in our school–suddenly kids far below grade-level, who could move from below basic to basic, were getting at least as much pre-testing attention as the “bubble kids.”

    What have you found to be the most effective arguments to “the powers that be” on involving teachers as genuine partners in co-creating policy, not either giving a rubber stamp or giving minor feedback on tweaks to a policy that’s pretty much done?




  • JonEckert

    The Knowing-Doing Gap

    Great question and great points, Justin. I worked for Secretary Spelling for about 6 months, and I know she thought she was doing what was best for kids. You comment about considering growth is absolutely correct – teacher recognize the need to move all students – not just the “bubble kids” and would have been more likely to build it in to NCLB. More importantly, they likely would have had strategies for how this could have been attempted.

    In my time at Vanderbilt, we read a book, The Knowing-Doing Gap by Pfeffer and Sutton which addresses your implementation issue. The authors address what keeps organizations from using what they know from improving what they do. This may need to be a longer post, but the take-away for me was that teachers need to be constantly providing feedback in teams with administrators to identify what is and is not working so that change becomes an interative process.

    This is what I have seen working with policymakers because trust gets built over time. When policies improve and work gets done better, policymakers and teachers alike see the benefit of collaboration which perpetuates the collaboration.