Understanding the Importance of Teacher Buy-In for School Improvement

This installment of the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on gaining teachers’ support when beginning new educational initiatives.

Christy Murray, Middle School Matters Institute Principal Investigator and Project Director (Research Perspective)
Earnest Brooks, Assistant Principal, Baytown Junior School in Baytown, Texas (Practice Perspective)

The Research Perspective

This past year, the Middle School Matters Institute (MSMI) was fortunate to work with eight outstanding schools that serve middle grade students, and we’ve just begun the journey with eight additional schools. MSMI supports and works collaboratively with these schools to implement research-based practices that prepare students for high school and postsecondary success. These schools endured a lengthy application and selection process to receive our “Tier II” targeted support. Schools were invited to attend the annual MSMI Summer Conference with a six-person leadership team to learn from national education experts (e.g., Dr. Sharon Vaughn, Dr. Robert Balfanz, Dr. Mark Dynarski, Dr. David Chard); attend informative breakout sessions; and engage in focused planning time to assess their current level of implementation for a variety of research-based practices, determine needs, and set specific goals.
After 3 intensive learning days in Austin, schools traveled home, invigorated and full of excitement. There was an abundance of positive feedback, including the following:

  • “I feel that this conference was the most useful of my teaching career—very informative, interesting, inspiring, and motivating!”
  • “So excited to design and work with our plan. Very rarely do I leave a conference with an actual design for a plan in place.”

The summer break had just begun, but our schools were already focused on the coming school year and putting research-based practices in action. However, schools were warned that the really hard work was still ahead.

“Just because your leadership team is excited today, don’t assume that the rest of your staff will feel the same way,” I told them on the final day of the conference. “One of the most critical elements of your school’s success in the coming year is the way in which you introduce your participation in Middle School Matters to the rest of your staff. How will you convey to educators that instructional adjustments can and need to be made? How will you achieve buy-in that supports effective implementation of practices?”

These days, education reform initiatives are a dime a dozen and come and go more quickly than we like to admit. Who can blame educators for thinking (and hoping) that “This too shall pass”? But Middle School Matters is different. Our national education experts compiled the most effective practices (as proven by rigorous research) to enhance the performance of middle grade students into the Middle School Matters Field Guide. MSMI then translates this research into practice by providing resources and support for schools’ implementation of these practices. Therefore, Middle School Matters is not an “initiative of the day,” but instead reinforces implementation of sound practice that will not “go out of style.” Schools can be assured that their participation is indeed worthwhile.

Schools are often anxious to reap the benefits of participation in a new program and begin without proper training or consideration of their ability to implement the program in a meaningful way. Schools may introduce a new program with a staff development day or “kickoff” celebration, achieving immediate (short-term) buy-in. However, sustainable, long-term buy-in is not achieved in 1 day, 1 week, or even in 1 month or year. It is an ongoing process, achieved over time, and involves focusing on factors that research demonstrates can lead to teacher buy-in of school improvement efforts.

Christy Murray
Christy Murray

Teacher Participation and Shared Decision Making

An assumption exists that school improvement models that incorporate teacher participation in school-level decision making have a greater chance of success. The belief is that teachers have “bought in” before implementation begins. But there is disagreement among researchers on how effective this practice is.

Participatory decision making—or shared decision making, as it is sometimes called—has been linked to an increase in job satisfaction (Imber, Neidt, & Reyes, 1990; Smylie, Lazarus, & Brownlee-Conyers, 1996; White, 1992), goal commitment (Bacharach, Bamberger, Conley, & Bauer, 1990; Turnbull, 1999; Weiss, 1993), and teacher attendance (Griffin, 1995; Hart, 1990; Taylor & Bogotch, 1994; Weiss & Cambone, 1994).

In contrast to these positive findings, other research indicates that teacher participation in school-level decision making may have negative side effects. While acknowledging that it is not exactly clear why, Turnbull (2002) found that teacher participation in program selection was not a strong predictor of either immediate or long-term buy-in. The demands of participation can detract from teacher time spent on classroom work and decrease commitment and motivation to take action (Griffin, 1995; Weiss & Cambone, 1994; Weiss, Cambone, & Wyeth, 1992).

Removing teachers’ ability to participate in school-level decision making could be interpreted as undermining teacher professionalism. After all, teachers can provide valuable insight to improve schools. The key is not whether schools should use participatory decision making but when and in what areas it is most beneficial. Turnbull recommends administrators and small groups of teachers (e.g., a leadership team) lead efforts in actual selection of school reform programs. Schools can then focus more time and resources on the factors described below.

Factors That Contribute to Buy-In

Rigorous research is limited, but Turnbull (2002) indicates that teachers are more likely to buy in to a school reform program when they receive the following:

  • Adequate training and resources: Have teachers had enough training to know how to implement in their classroom? Is there an opportunity for ongoing training? Do teachers have the necessary resources to implement with fidelity?
  • Support from program developers: Is the program’s field staff helpful to teachers?
  • Support from staff members: Does the school leadership team address teacher concerns related to implementation? Do colleagues help each other when questions or challenges arise? Does the staff meet periodically to discuss classroom issues?
  • Administrator buy-in: Do administrators believe that the program is a good choice for the school?
  • Teacher influence over classroom implementation: Can teachers decide what changes are needed and how those changes can be made? (Note: Teachers cannot make changes that compromise fidelity of implementation.)

Guidance for Achieving Buy-In for Middle School Matters

Predictors of Buy-In
(Turnbull, 2002)
Application to Middle School Matters
Adequate  training and resources
  • Ensure that staff members understand the purpose of Middle School Matters, why the school chose to participate, and how this participation will affect them and their instruction in the coming year.
  • Provide staff members with Middle School Matters materials (booklets, practice briefs, etc.) to supplement the information they receive orally from administrators and the leadership team.
  • Deliver ongoing professional development related to implementation plans. Contact MSMI for assistance.
  • Provide ongoing coaching and feedback to teachers on instructional practices during professional learning communities or individually during teachers’ planning time.
Support from program developers
  • Participate in MSMI ongoing support (community-of-practice calls, booster sessions) and ask for assistance with implementation when it is needed.
  • Download the free implementation tools and resources from our website.
Support from school staff members
  • Engage in frequent meetings with various groups of teachers to understand their concerns, misunderstandings, and celebrations.
  • Allow teachers to meet in small groups (professional learning communities) and observe one another’s instruction as a way to share and scale up successful implementation.
Administrator buy-in
  • Demonstrate your commitment and enthusiasm for Middle School Matters not only during a kickoff meeting, but also throughout the year. Participate in all planning and problem-solving meetings, provide clear expectations to the staff, and follow up on all planned activities and timelines to ensure that work is being accomplished.
  • Involve the superintendent or other district staff members in the school improvement efforts.
Teacher influence over classroom implementation
  • Use student data to select and implement practices from the Middle School Matters Research Platform and Field Guide. (Because the practices are research based, teachers cannot modify the actual instructional practices; doing so will compromise the fidelity of implementation and may result in undesirable student outcomes.)
  • Assure teachers that practices are not meant to add to their workload but instead align with existing school improvement efforts and enhance the instruction already occurring.
  • Allow flexibility in terms of scheduling, student grouping, and materials and topics that align with district adoption and state standards.

Below, Earnest Brooks, the assistant principal at Baytown Junior School, one of the schools receiving MSMI Tier II support, offers insight into the experience of introducing Middle School Matters to the school staff.

Reflections From the Field

The Baytown Junior School leadership team
The Baytown Junior School leadership team

Our Background

Baytown Junior is a Title I school in the older section of Baytown, Texas. Nearly 80% of our students are economically disadvantaged and are served by the free or reduced-price lunch program. Baytown Junior is home to the New Arrival Center, which serves students who are new to the United States and are identified as non-English-speaking students. Our student breakdown is approximately 14% African American, 13% white, 70% Hispanic, and 3% other. These details form a general picture of our campus, but they don’t provide the full picture. Our students, faculty, and staff are “Baytown Junior proud” and strive to achieve greatness. We continue to build upon the strong academic and social foundation that our students bring with them from elementary school. Our faculty and staff are committed to providing our students with the tools they need for a successful future.

School Improvement Goals

The leadership team at Baytown Junior felt that support and professional development from MSMI would build our capacity to improve student performance and achievement. The support received to this point has allowed the leadership team to effectively lead our core academic teams. The research-based strategies build on the instruction our teachers provide on a daily basis. The “Tier II” support helps teachers increase the rigor and relevance of their instruction. These measures are designed to give each student the opportunity to grow academically and achieve levels II and III on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

Over the past few years, administrative leadership has experienced a great deal of turnover. As a second-year administrator, I am the veteran of our administrative team. The turnover has caused a fragile overall campus culture and climate. In assessing our campus needs of support from MSMI, our school’s climate and culture were quickly identified as areas in need of honest and forthright attention. Positive school climate and culture are fundamental to student academic success. To continue to see measurable growth in our most important stakeholder, our students, we must build our capacity to have the best school climate and culture possible. The end result will be the most nurturing climate for our Baytown Junior students to attain a well-rounded middle school education.

The first academic content dimension we felt needed to be addressed was math. The math department has shown tremendous growth over the 2013-2014 school year as compared to the previous year. Data from assessments informed our instruction in all classes, including the intervention classes. We provided training and assistance to our co-teach teams to maximize the working relationship between the teacher and co-teacher. The campus established Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol teams to concentrate on meeting the needs of our limited-English-proficient students and structured professional learning communities to provide training and allow for team discussion.

We will continue these strategies in the upcoming year with more focus on the seventh-grade team. The math department will work on establishing schoolwide practices for enhancing mathematics understanding within content areas, use our universal screener to guide intervention, and discontinue practices that are not associated with improved outcomes for students. We are striving for a 10% increase in all grade levels on the 2014-2015 STAAR Math test.

We have begun to address literacy by increasing reading and writing strategies across all content areas. We began this process in April 2014 with a cross-curricular reading response strategy used in all classes, including electives. We plan to continue this strategy, increasing the rigor of questions asked and increasing the complexity and clarity of students’ answers. We have new personnel in our department for the 2014-2015 school year, particularly in seventh grade. The instructional specialist/coach will work closely with new hires and returning faculty to discontinue ineffective practices, replace ineffective practices with research-based strategies and practices, and continue to make data-informed decisions that have positive impacts on student achievement.

Initial Staff Buy-In

Once areas of need were identified, the focus turned to getting our staff on board and sharing information effectively. This effort began by discussing the honor of being selected by the Bush Institute for inclusion in MSMI. We simply described the process of being selected and the nearing conference the leadership team was to attend. Once we concluded the summer conference and returned to school, the real work began and the pieces of the puzzle began to take shape. The leadership team structured and framed our back-to-school meeting as a celebration of the return of faculty and staff, the beginning of a new school year, and the initial rollout of our MSMI Implementation Plans. We served cake, decorated our building with balloons, and played Cool and the Gang’s “Celebrate” over the PA system. The leadership team provided a brief overview, emphasizing the Middle School Matters Clearinghouse and research-based strategies. We provided the faculty with details in terms of the overall selection process and the plans moving forward. Teachers were open and inquisitive to the information. The day was a success.

Next Steps: Achieving Sustained Buy-In

At Baytown Junior, we are open, honest, and transparent with our teachers. Moving forward, we will continue to achieve buy-in and work collaboratively with our staff by doing the following:

  • Aligning all school improvement efforts: The administrative and leadership teams worked hard to align the Campus Improvement Plan, the Campus Action Plan and the MSMI Implementation Plans. The alignment has made the process a bit more palatable for teachers, as the strategies are implemented as part of their teaching—not as something new.
  • Implementing slowly and deliberately: We will continue to implement our MSMI plans in small chunks, provide instructional support, and keep morale high.
  • Displaying administrative support for MSMI: By continually celebrating our successes and assessing and addressing areas of need related to our MSMI Implementation Plans, we intend to convey how important this initiative is to our administrative team and our entire school.
  • Emphasizing the longevity and effectiveness of the research-based practices we implement: Educational trends come and go, but research-based strategies, those that are “battle tested,” improve instruction. These strategies improve the learning environment and “stick” in the brain of the students. The end result is growth and achievement of our students!
    A special thanks goes to Ms. Leslie Garcia, Ms. Margaret Parker, Ms. Judy Mackyeon, Mr. Jerry Shafer, Ms. Janie West, and Dr. Donna Woodstellman for their continued work to assess, review, and implement MSMI plans. I would also like to thank and encourage our faculty and staff for their continued efforts to strive to be the very best!


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Hart, A. W. (1990). Work redesign: A review of literature for education reform. In S. B.
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Weiss, C. H., Cambone, J., & Wyeth, A. (1992). Trouble in paradise: Teacher conflicts in shared decision making. Educational Leadership, 28, 350-367.

White, P. A. (1992). Teacher empowerment under ‘ideal’ school-site autonomy. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 14, 69-82.