kitchen table math, the sequel: Chester Finn on "stakeholder buy-in"

Friday, April 9, 2010

Chester Finn on "stakeholder buy-in"

The most dangerous word in the education-reform lexicon is “stakeholder” and the most problematic among the infinite theories that reformers espouse is that widespread “stakeholder buy-in” is essential if anything is actually to change.

My own experience these past zillion years is that demanding lots of buy-in is a reliable way to ensure that nothing much changes, at least nothing beyond enlarging the total pie so that every “stakeholder” gets a bigger slice.

The problem, of course, is that the “stakeholders” in K-12 education always turn out to be producers, not consumers. They are the grown-ups who earn their livings (or their members’ or shareholders’ livings) from the money spent by the education system. Remember that about three-fourths of the typical school-system budget goes for salaries and benefits—for grown-ups. And nearly all the rest goes to buy things that grown-ups benefit from selling, such as textbooks, teacher-education, in-service training, computers, football uniforms, building maintenance services, school buses, etc.


For big changes—in education, in foreign policy, in dietary practices, you name it—almost never occur because everybody affected by them agrees in advance that they should occur. People aren’t like that. The only kind of change that most people—and, heaven save us, most “associations”—will readily assent to amounts to “more of the same.” Real change occurs with duress, in response to leadership, in defiance of habit, resistance, inertia, and obduracy. Real change occurs because someone manages to place the needs and interests of children, parents, and taxpayers ahead of the interests of the putative stakeholders that normally prevail. (Among innumerable examples: Teach For America, charter schools, pay for performance, standards-based accountability.)

The "buy-in" paradox

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