by Courtenay Singer
Dr. Maurice Harvey has changed as a principal since
adopting The Comer Process at Jordan Community School in Chicago.
More than half of school reform efforts fail, many as a result of poor implementation. Without buy-in from critical actors such as teachers, administrators and parents, any reform effort – no matter how well-intentioned and conceived – is sunk.
Faced with such crushing odds, all education reformers confront the same dilemma – how can they convince key players to implement their reforms correctly?
“You really can’t make people do very much,” points out James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University. “And if you do, they very often resist and rebel.”
Lauren Resnick of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh concurs. “If we just tell them what to do, they will either protest and walk away, or fight, or pretend to do it. And nobody’s mind will get changed.”
So if you can’t dictate, how do you ensure success? The key is buy-in, or ownership, from the participants. Orchestrators of different school models all rely on getting others excited about, and invested in, the success and implementation of the model, but they do it in different ways.
For instance, one proven reform model, Success for All (SFA), sets itself up for accomplishment by imposing tough terms. SFA requires that 80% of the teachers in any school agree to implement the program before SFA will even work with their school.
Another model, James Comer’s School Development Program, pushes its schools to adopt a team approach to school management, thereby demanding a significant shift from traditional top-down school management. In Comer schools, everyone has the opportunity to participate in decision-making, giving key players a greater feeling of ownership over important decisions.
To get everyone on the same page, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) requires that parents, teachers and students all sign a form called the “Commitment to Excellence.” Teachers commit to make themselves available to kids, and to teach to the best of their abilities. Parents commit to check their children’s homework, to provide a quiet place for them to get homework done, to provide the school uniform, and to keep their child on schedule and following the rules. And the students make an enriching but intense commitment of time, good behavior and hard work.
Getting buy-in is far from automatic.
Teachers at Centennial Elementary School in Washington State were hesitant before adopting Success for All’s stream-lined, scripted reading program. “I was a little bit reluctant because … I didn’t know for sure that this was the answer,” fourth grade teacher Nancy Rashko explains. “Having been in education a long time, we sometimes say ‘oh, there’s a pendulum. You try this…. and then you try this.’ So I wasn’t sure whether we were jumping on a pendulum or whether this was something that was really going to be effective. But I voted for it because we obviously needed to do a better job.”
The 80% vote is critical, because when teachers confront the hard realities of serious change, many want to back-out. The advance commitment helps teachers recognize that this is not just a flavor-of-the-month reform. Instead, they’re put on notice to prepare for significant and hopefully permanent change. Success for All “…can’t be imposed by a principal,” says founder Bob Slavin. “It can’t be imposed by a district mandate. Because we know that this is a very substantial change, we want the individual teachers and principals to be fully bought into that change and to feel as though they made a choice; that this was not something that they were forced to do.”
Teacher buy-in at Centennial Elementary School became crucial since instructors were forced to make drastic changes in their teaching methods. They had to follow scripts and schedules dictated by Success for All. It took awhile for them to see results. But over a year or two, the school achieved significant gains in reading, and now, according to Principal Alan McDonald, the teachers are enthusiastic. “They have bought into this program,” he affirms. “They get results and because of that, they’ve accepted it. Close to 100% believe that is a good program.”
In Chicago, similar problems confronted reform. When Principal Maurice Harvey opened the Jordan Community School, he adopted the Comer Process, seeking the benefits of involving parents and teachers in school management. But Harvey did not fully understand the implications for him personally. Neither did the teachers.
The Comer Process mandated parceling out power, in the form of shared decisions being made not by Harvey alone but by management teams such as the Student Staff Support Team (SSST) and the School Planning and Management Team (SPMT). And Harvey, trained as a dictatorial principal, struggled royally against the requirement for him to let go of some power.
In fact, third grade teacher Judy Owens remembers that Harvey “wanted to rule with an iron fist.”
“It’s very difficult to relinquish power,” Harvey agrees. “It’s very difficult. As Dr. Comer says, ‘consensus, no fault, collaboration’. Those are very easy words to say… but very hard to do.”
But Owens also recalls disbelief and discomfort among the teachers who suddenly had more clout. She remembers thinking about Harvey, “You really care about what we think? Our suggestions are worthwhile? You are listening? It was … unbelievable.”
The teachers quickly learned to participate in informed decisions. In fact, they eventually overturned one of Harvey’s major curricular initiatives. Over one summer, Jordan received a grant from the Chicago Board of Education, which Harvey directed into teaching Spanish. This aggravated teachers who felt the students still needed more help mastering basic math and science. They brought their concerns to the School Planning and Management Team (SPMT). As a group, the SPMT voted to redirect the funds to enhanced math study for kindergarten through third grade, through an innovative program called “Everyday Math.” Now steeped in the Comer Process, Harvey accepted being overruled by his faculty.
In inner city schools like Jordan, running a parents’ organization is much harder than running the P.T.A. in a suburban community where many parents take involvement at school for granted. But the Comer Process pushes schools like Jordan to get parents involved in decision-making and improving the school culture.
Rhonda Jones is a prime example of the challenge and the potential. At the time Rhonda’s daughter, Shequeta, started school at Jordan, Rhonda was addicted to “uzis” – a potent blend of marijuana and crack. Nonetheless, when she insisted on watching over her child and evinced an interest in helping out at the school, the Comer social worker drew her in as a volunteer. Rhonda began with small office tasks, answering phones, and helping out as a teacher aide. As she felt supported and useful, and her sense of self-worth emerged, she quit doing drugs.
In time, Rhonda became a key leader among parents. Given responsibility, she “bought-in” to the school and began involving other parents, and the school became like a community center, run by its many members, working in the best interests of the children.
James Comer asserts that without buy-in, reform faces failure. Of the schools currently seeking to pursue the Comer Process, he says about two-thirds are making headway and about one-third are showing little improvement. “The reason that’s so is the degree to which they buy in to these ideas, and the degree to which they really apply them,” he says. “There are many people who say they are using the process but they are not really using it, and we have done studies to demonstrate that. The studies show that the schools that buy-in and implement best have the best outcomes.”
Like Success for All and the Comer Process, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) holds that ongoing achievement necessitates getting everyone on board up front. Success, explains Diana Soliz, Assistant Principal at KIPP 3D Academy in Houston, “takes three entities working together – the parents, the students and the teachers.”
Having buy-in from all three parties is essential, she points out, because KIPP
middle schools have the high ambition of putting children from high
poverty neighborhoods on a track toward college. As a charter program,
KIPP schools can demand more of the fifth through eighth graders than normal public
schools: longer school days, school on Saturdays, hours of homework every night,
and significant parental involvement. So parents, teachers and students must all
sign KIPP’s “Commitment to Excellence” to insure that everyone is prepared for the long road ahead, as the
students “climb the mountain to college.”
These commitments come in handy when the going gets tough – something KIPP is very up-front about. “We look in everyone’s eyes and make sure that everyone agrees that they’re up for it, they’re up for the challenge,” says Dan Caesar, Principal of KIPP 3D in Houston. “We let them know it’s a sacrifice. We look at the kids, a little fourth grader, nine-year-olds and say, ‘your life is going to change. You’re going to have homework.’ We let them know how it’s going to be. We don’t sugar coat it. We look at the parent and the child and say ‘but it’s worth it. We’re going to work with you as hard as we can. Our teachers are going to put in 100% effort to make sure that for the next four years you’re going to get the best education you can and we’re going to talk about getting into a great high school and getting into a great college four years later.’”
Success for All gets buy-in by a pre-emptive vote. Comer achieves it with joint management. And KIPP obtains it through an up-front commitment from all players. These models are succeeding – and the buy-in makes all the difference.