CONSENSUS DOES NOT MEAN UNANIMITY
Updated: Mar 20, 2018
Building consensus for spending decisions across multiple stakeholder groups is among the greatest challenges education leaders face today. Yet that is exactly what is expected in the process of creating an annual Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) since Governor Jerry Brown dramatically reformed school funding in 2013. Districts are required to engage in an open, transparent, and public budgeting and planning process.
To frame this discussion let’s build a consensus on what consensus means in the context of creating an LCAP that truly reflects the entire school community. I define consensus as overwhelming agreement, not unanimity. I seek unanimity, but settle for an overwhelming support. Consensus is the product of a good-faith effort to address the concerns and interests of every stakeholder group. I am satisfied with the process if in the end everyone can live with the decision. In my experiences, that successful conclusion occurred only if every effort had been made to meet any outstanding interests through the vetting process. As a Chief Negotiator sitting around the table with teacher leaders I have taken a similar approach.
In the negotiation arena it’s referred to as interest-based bargaining (compared to positional bargaining). Interests are far different from positions or demands. Interests are the needs and reasons that underlie positions and demands.
Given a functional definition of consensus that we can all live with, let's frame a proposal. For example, take School Climate, Priority #6 of eight priorities in your school district’s LCAP. It is measured primarily by suspension and expulsion rates, but also by other local measures, including surveys of pupils, parents, and teachers on the sense of safety and school connectedness. School Climate is one of three priorities under the Engagement umbrella that also includes Student Engagement (as measured by graduation and dropout rates, chronic absenteeism and attendance), and Parent involvement (as measured by the extent to which parents participate in key school decisions). A common proposal in this case could be identifying strategies to make all students feel safe, welcome, and supported (invariably leading to a reduction in suspensions and expulsion). As an aside, there is not consensus on school climate. In an unprecedented examination of school discipline policy by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, school climate refers to the entire quality and character of school life. Furthermore, they define conditions for learning as those elements of school climate that students experience personally and that directly affect academic outcomes. In the LCAP, Conditions of Learning is its own category and does not include School Climate (see the entire report here).
The linchpin in consenus building is examining data together. In our example, it is wise to collect suspension and expulsion data and other school climate indicators such as stakeholder surveys (If experts are brought in to the process too a Delphi technique is an accepted method for gathering data on their expert opinions).
To effectively integrate the distinct objectives and perspectives of the variety of stakeholders, perception data is critical. Victoria Bernhardt, whose Data System for Continuous School Improvement is among the models I examine in my Methods of Data Collection course at CSU, Fullerton, counts perception data among her four pillars of data sets (read about the model here). Productive data related to climate should demonstrate the correlation between discipline and learning, not simply the number of suspensions, expulsions, days absent, etc…. An expert facilitator can ensure that the dialogue has an informal tone to allow everyone to express themselves without the formality of Robert’s Rules or other formal consensus building processes.
Assuming that meaningful discussions have been had related to understanding everyone’s interests and perspectives, next comes the challenge of generating agreement in the interest of taking action to remedy the problem. A teacher might feel strongly that his or her responsibility is to teach and that students who choose to disrupt that process should be suspended or even expelled if their behavior becomes chronic. That child’s parents, however, may be equally passionate in the other direction, and feel strongly that a teacher’s responsibility includes introducing a variety of appropriate teaching styles that are more likely to engage students and address their different learning styles. A school administrator falls somewhere in between those two perspectives, recognizing that high levels of differentiation and student engagement and respectful interaction promote good behavior, but that self-discipline is part of the same equation.
Consensus building in an environment of passionate and contentious discourse amounts essentially to mediation and conflict resolution, calling upon even more complex skills on the part of the facilitator. At this point in the process, the narrative focuses on the original proposal of identifying strategies to make all students feel safe, welcome, and supported.
A Force Field Analysis process is a common practice of mine at this point in the consensus-building process. Groups identify the strengths and weaknesses of programs and practices that support the goal (in this example the goal is making students feel safe, welcome, and supported). After identifying strengths and weaknesses the groups create a list of next steps, or action items. A WordWall could easily be created based on action items from each group. The WordWall becomes a visual consensus (see steps to create a WordWall here).
Collaborative groups, in contrast to hierarchical conditions common in school districts, are structured horizontally. Many school and district leaders that I know and even teach have very little experience with horizontal structures. Flattening vertical structures is germane only to the most gifted and learned school and district leaders. Communication is a perfect example of a common vertical structure in education organizations. Communication flourishes in organizations when it is personal, conversational, and exploratory (and safe). Successful collaborative groups are guided by agreed upon norms of trust and reciprocity. In our example, the team of stakeholders tasked with developing the LCAP and advancing a shared vision for the future of its children must set aside positions of authority, expertise, or influence they may hold outside of the group to foster openness, dialogue, and deliberation within the group, effectively flattening the structure.
Barbara Gray, the author of Collaborating: Finding common ground for multiparty problems argues that, "many well-intentioned efforts to involve the public in government decisions, for example, are exercises in frustration and often exacerbate rather than improve the situation because careful attention to the process of managing differences is neglected."
Therein lies the importance of an education leader who can facilitate a successful process that builds consensus through not only recognizing differences, but by appreciating and celebrating them.
Noted education writer Mike Schmoker is among a consortium of critics who argue that school districts have an unexamined addiction to complex, labor-intensive, over-hyped strategic plans and improvement models that rarely bare any fruit. This condition is common despite all the evidence and consensus of expert opinion that generally agree that school improvement is directly proportional to whether or not a high functioning culture of collaboration exist throughout every level of the organization.
An education leader's job in consensus building is to faciliate a meaningful process to ensure a good-faith effort effectively addresses the concerns and interests of every stakeholder group.