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The Letter From: Management Consulting Firms are the Real Education “Think Tanks”

Over the last week, I’ve posted a lengthy series on the so-called education think tanks – the many nonprofit organizations inside the Washington Beltway that engage in public education policy. These include relatively small standalone outfits like the Center on Education Policy and the Center for Education Reform; and programs in larger organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution. They range across the political spectrum and quasi-academic respectability from New Democrat Education Sector to the new conservative Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities. They provide people, papers, commentary and fora - the fodder for the education policy debate.

In three essays (here, here and here) I examined these organizations in the context of what we expect think tanks to do – supply policy innovations for government to implement; how they compare to the organization that the term was coined to describe – the RAND Corporation and its relationship to the Department of Defense in nuclear weapons policy; and how they spend their time and money. The three perspectives yield the same conclusion. These organizations are not think tanks. They have played a minor role in the origination and sale of education policy innovations to government. Their relationship to the Department of Education bears very little resemblance to RAND’s with the Air Force. They spend their time and money on activities that amount to marketing. Hence, my term “policy marketing shops.” It might be taken as an insult, but it’s simply intended to be accurate. Marketing is important too, it’s just not the description of a think tank, and to accept the description is to misappropriate the term and its meaning.

In the first essay of this series, I suggested that the last and most recent of six material innovations in education policy is the application of the “value chain” analytical techniques first developed by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter to public education operations by management consulting firms.

What they’ve brought to the table is not merely a process for “fact-based decisions” but detailed analysis that closely relates inputs to operational process to outcomes. The Parthenon Group, Alvarez and Marsal, and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) now have active public education practice groups, with core staff and more than several years of experience with district and state education agency clients. In each case, the client may not have paid the full cost of service, but they paid enough to have “skin in the game,” and the other payors made up enough of the difference for the firms to provide the level of attention they’d devote to a corporate client. I have summarized or excerpted much of their work in School Improvement Industry Week. The consultants have not fully internalized the culture of public education, nor have they fully adjusted the analytical tools around business processes to education activities, but what’s more important is that they know this and are constantly improving on both. They have been close enough to the mark to see Boston, St. Louis, the Louisiana Recover District and the District of Columbia, among others, implement their recommendations.

If you’ve read the second essay on the relationship of RAND to the Air Force that inspired the term “think tank,” you’ll recognize the similarity to that of the management consulting firm and the education agency. But three outside comments drove the point home to me.

First, a description from Wikipedia’s reference on the management consulting firm Bain and Company:

“Notably, Bain would only work with one client per industry to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Partners did not carry business cards… And the company preferred to win work by boardroom referrals rather than marketing itself.... The firm specialized in bringing rigorous fact-based analysis directly to CEOs, and its consultants preferred to work on increasing a company’s market value rather than simply handing clients a list of recommendations…”

(Bain’s education consulting practice is conducted through The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit affiliate.)

Second, the comment of a colleague I put into the third essay on how the education policy marketing shops spend their time and money:

“Another big difference between RAND and say AEI is RAND's insistence on very detailed research, significant time and money for analysis, and high standards of evidence…. Most of what are now called think tanks engage in research-assisted punditry, not research.”

Third, a recent conversation with J. Puckett, who leads BCG’s education consulting practice. I don’t have a direct quote, but I was struck with his keen interest in the larger context of education agency decision making as a challenge to the implementation of strategy. The specific issues he raised were the "fishbowl" of the district boardroom and the relative privacy of its corporate counterpart, and the lack of the Sword of Damocles Wall Street holds over all stakeholders in situations of corporate distress. But the specifics are less important than how the conversation reminded me of the difference between discussions at RAND over the best "most likely" program for the Air Force given all the non-technical constraints on policy, and the "correct" answer in education research.

Management consulting is becoming the new think tank in education policy, and for those interested an emerging school improvement market, learning more about their work is probably more important than following the education policy marketing shops.

Listen to this here.

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