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How to boost buy-in for transformational learning initiatives

By Gail Marshall
October 1, 2015
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When Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance rolled out the district’s strategic plan, he went all out to recruit buy-in on two initiatives: a digital conversion to put a personal computing device in the hands of every child and an elementary world language program to ensure that all students graduate fluent in a second language.

Creating a culture open to the innovations he was proposing starts at the top, so he set the example by leading meetings, hosting town halls, visiting schools and remaining active on social media.

“I’ve made myself accessible to colleagues, students, teachers, families and members of the community. And, by being accessible, I’ve opened the door to honest conversations that have benefited the school system as a whole,” says Dance, a member of the ISTE Board of Directors.

First steps

Dance’s district operates on a $1.6 billion budget, providing for 110,000 students, 18,783 employees, 173 schools, programs and centers, and 47 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

Dance and his team faced those numbers with some big numbers of their own. They held more than 200 gatherings, meeting with almost 2,000 people from across Baltimore County. Folks were asked what they wanted to see in the future for the schools and how best to achieve those goals, taking steps to ensure that everyone involved felt supported as they moved through the conversations.

“Through that kind of collaboration,” he says, “we not only brought awareness to why change was necessary, but also developed a plan that balanced the needs of the organization with the capacity of those who would help to carry out the changes.”

What is this powerful elixir called buy-in that can make or break the biggest dreams for ed tech advances?

Technology educators declare buy-in as oxygen for innovation. Nothing works well without it. That’s certainly the case with tech initiatives – especially sweeping changes like going to BYOD or 1:1 programs.

It requires a chain of collaboration among teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards, each communicating his or her goals for advancing learning. The stronger the links, the better the outcomes.

Tips from change agents

So how does an organization create a culture that is open and eager for change? How do folks who are good at it get people excited about the opportunities ahead and eager to learn? What calms their fears and inspires joy?

We talked to some of the most savvy education change agents to find out what works best. Priority No. 1 for all of them is to communicate a clear and robust answer to the “why?” questions. Why do we need to make this change and why must we do it now?

ISTE member Andrew Smith is a drum major for buy-in. He is director of digital innovation for Rowan Salisbury Schools in Salisbury, North Carolina, serving an urban district with roughly 20,000 students attending 35 schools and about 65 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. He’s held that title for just under two years.

Rowan Salisbury is famous at ISTE for its pure show of force. This year the district sent 225 team members to the ISTE Conference & Expo to gather ideas and collaborate on solutions. That’s an increase from 165 attendees last year. They’re already working on logistics for ISTE 2016 in Denver.

“It’s really a bonding experience for staff,” Smith told conference staffers. “The networking piece of ISTE is one they probably have never experienced before. Talking to someone across the country or across the world and learning what they are doing with technology is really powerful.”

The first big challenge he faced after joining the district was implementing a 1:1 program. His area is not the earliest adopter of this idea, but it just might be the fastest. The idea was approved by the board of trustees on June 4, 2014, teachers got their laptops at the end of the school year, and they rolled out 17,000 laptops to their students with less than eight weeks of preparation.

This district has a need for speed because their’s is a message of urgency. “We are saying, ‘We need to be doing this next year,’” Smith says. “We really want to have transformational change, and we can’t wait. We can look at our test scores, and we can tell you we have a problem. It doesn’t take any time. We’re going to basically put our problems out front. Everybody knows what they are. We’ve got to find a solution, so we created this sense of urgency that this needs to be done now.”

The pressure was on the technology team to carry out this aggressive timeline. “We knew we were going to have to capture our teachers and gain their trust,” says Smith. So they planned the teacher laptop deployment in a mere month, to take place before summer break. The plan was to bring in 1,400 people on buses from 35 different schools, on a schedule, to walk through the warehouse and receive their laptops.

Smith remembers hearing people anticipate spending a day at this procedure. He kept repeating the message, “Your entire school will be out in 15 minutes.” People sloughed it off, but the team stuck to its mantra.

“We had to make it happen,” he says, “because this was a taste for what the 1:1 development we were about to implement was going to look like. We went into this with this really big notion that we had to get this right. It had to be great, so we decided to do it differently.”

Different meant throwing a block party. This plan was to celebrate educators, treating teachers as professionals, giving them the resources they need to do really good work.

The day of the event, the buses started rolling in. “It was an absolutely beautiful thing,” says Smith. “We were ahead of schedule on it. It was great. They got all excited about it. They had pompoms and little kazoo things, and [the teachers] were running through, giving their old laptops back to us and getting those brand new laptops.” This time he heard compliments like, “We thought this was going to be the biggest catastrophe. We’ve been totally blown away.”

In the end, it was all about gaining trust.

“What I loved about it,” Smith says, “is when we went to deploy the actual student laptops, all 17,000 of the devices, they said, ‘We trust you can do this because we’ve seen you do it before.’

“If you actually do what you say you’re going to do, you really can capture their hearts and build that buy-in.”

Prepare for pushback

Ah, success. But even the best changes rarely come easily. Pushback is part of the process.

“Oftentimes, pushback stems from anxiety or nervousness,” says Dance. “When something new is introduced, the natural instinct is to revert back to what’s familiar. We all find comfort in what we know, but sometimes, a better approach or strategy exists. In those cases, it’s essential to build awareness – not only of the proposed change but, more importantly, of why the proposed change is needed.”

He remembers one teacher in particular resisting small-group instruction, which was a fundamental component of the initiatives in the strategic plan. So he set out to build a connection with the teacher.

“Her pushback stemmed from her fear that she wasn’t adequately trained on how to transition from large-group to small-group instruction. That feedback was helpful for me because, although the initiatives allow students to learn from a combination of small- and large-group instruction, I was able to ensure that the teacher received the additional training and resources she needed to incorporate this new style of instruction,” he says.

She was able to return to her classroom, feeling confident both in her ability as an educator and in the initiatives. And that’s why reflection and communication are key, this superintendent maintains, because “without them, it’s impossible to overcome the pushback.”

Barry Bachenheimer is director of curriculum construction and assessment in Pasack Valley Regional High School District in Montvale, New Jersey, and an ISTE member. The district consists of two high schools, Pasack Hills High with about 900 students and Pasack Valley High with about 1,300 students. It is an affluent area with fewer than 2 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, and about 99 percent of the students are college bound.

“I’m very fortunate,” he says. “I work in an amazing area with very motivated kids and supportive parents and financial resources to back it up.”

Bachenheimer is into his fifth year in the position, and he says that one of the things that attracted him to this district was its nationwide reputation for innovation.

“You come to work in Pasack Valley if you’re a person who likes to push the envelope and wants to innovate for the sake of kids. That culture was established long before I got here. I like to believe I helped foster it a little bit, but certainly, I have fabulous colleagues working with me.”

When the district asked for parent consent for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams, more than 50 percent of parents refused to have their students tested, which is part of a national movement. At the same time, the district was focused on an initiative to really look at student wellness for these mega-motivated kids.

“Having a large percentage of kids going off to college,” he says, “means they’re very driven, and they’re under a lot of pressure. So we said, ‘What can we do to remove unnecessary stress?’ Parents’ refusal [to take the test] told us that there’s community buy-in that high stakes testing maybe doesn’t have a full place in our district.” So for the 2015-16 school year, Pasack Valley eliminated traditional mid-terms and finals – no more final exams that take up a whole week with 200-question multiple choice tests.

Instead, they will have assessment, but it will look to a lot more project-based learning, problem-based learning and internal department assessments.

“This has been something we have been talking about with students, with parents, with teachers and really working hard for everyone to understand it. There are still a lot of people out there that think, ‘Oh my goodness, how am I ready for college if I don’t have mid-terms?’ This has been another exercise for us in making sure there is a buy-in, especially from our teachers and our students.”

Success through sustained effort

The district continues to educate students and parents, make changes in classrooms and ask teachers to think about how they assess kids, why they assess kids and most importantly, how that data can make instruction better.

So, how is it all going?

“You know, I won’t lie and say that it’s easy,” Bachenheimer says. But it’s been a sustained effort through summer and into the school year. The effort has included:

  • A presentation for the board of education
  • Letters and a videocast to parents
  • Meetings with constituent groups, including students and the students’ favorite universities
  • Working with teachers to find new ways to assess students that are more meaningful to them than multiple-choice tests

“Like anything new,” he says, “I don’t ever expect it to be easy because I think change is difficult, but we stay on the message, educate and get data to back up why we’re doing it. Every decision we make, we make with kids’ wellness and well-being in mind. To me, that’s the best thing; as long as you can justify that this is good for kids, you have a very strong message behind you.”

But Bachenheimer is not 100 percent sure what successful buy-in will look like for this project, although he has an educated guess.

“Success means that when you no longer are doing something you used to do, you don’t have people crying for it, saying ‘I want it back.’ If we suddenly made a decision tomorrow that we were getting rid of our laptop program, there would be rioting in our streets because it’s becoming integrated in the way we teach and the way we learn. The laptop program is 100 percent success because we couldn’t go back to the way things were.”

Messaging is critical

Liliana “Beatriz” Arnillas is director of information technology for Houston Independent School District, which is among America’s largest and most diverse districts. Arnillas’ first adventure in buy-in with the district was a big project called Power Up. Messaging was critical.

“Power Up had a very clear vision,” she remembers: providing equal access to technology so students are prepared for college and career, provide access 24/7 so students can figure out that technology can be used for productivity and learning, and prove technology’s innovation via personalization and student-based learning.

That message was widely disseminated, presented repeatedly in different ways and levels.

Part two was offering a very robust teacher-development program, providing thousands of hours of teacher development opportunities in hands-on workshops. “There was no lecturing,” she says, “no preaching.”

The communications department was integral in their success, maintaining a constant dialogue with the parents, board, communities, students and teachers. “They wrote blogs,” Arnillas says, “shot video, talked to the media. Every week there were four or five articles or blogs about Power Up. The whole city of Houston knew this was going on and they were hearing success stories, baby steps, little wins. You could hear the excitement from the kids and the teachers.”

And celebrating small wins is the most powerful booster rocket of all, Arnillas says.

“When children are trying to walk, what do we do? We just encourage them, encourage them, encourage them. And we laugh with them. When they fall and cry, we nurture them. We tell them, ‘It’s OK, you can try again.’”

We can buy into that.