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Consulting in Education: Lessons Learned Along the Way

Note: Daniel Lautzenheiser, former program manager at AEI and currently in the education practice at the Boston Consulting Group, is guest blogging this week.  He is joined by his colleagues Lane McBride and Tyce Henry. 

On Monday, we offered an explanation of what exactly a consulting firm like ours does in K-12 education. As we said then, we typically are asked to help when an education organization is facing a difficult challenge or desires change. So, we spend a lot of our time thinking about and working with communities and leaders to make change happen. 

We've honed our views and approach over a decade working with dozens of U.S. districts and states and a host of school operators. Earlier this year, we took a step back to reflect on some of the lessons learned along the way. Today, we'll share a few of those lessons.

You'll note these lessons are focused especially on process, on what we've learned about how change is (and isn't) made in public education. This is in contrast to much of today's school reform conversations, which tend to be dominated by the "what" of change—specific policies and programs like teacher merit pay, extended learning time, or charter schooling. Of course, policies and programs are important, but we think it's time for the "how" of change to get its due. We're not the first to observe the frequent gulf between great ideas and reality on the ground. American education systems don't have a great track record of change. Consider our ideas today not as a fully-formed answer to this challenge, but as a few observations about what better days ahead might look like. 

1. Keep students at the center.  First off, let's be clear: this is not a question of intentions. 99.9 percent of those in education want what's best for students. But all too often we find that education leaders and stakeholders can spend hours upon hours in meetings where the potential impact on students is scarcely mentioned. And this trap presents itself to pretty much anyone involved in education who doesn't spend their days in the classroomlegislatures, school boards, administrators, even consultants. If little time is spent talking about students, that's a problem, at any level of the organization.

2.  Don't underestimate the value of a rigorous, inclusive process. Change in education doesn't have to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers. In contrast, we've seen in our work the extraordinary benefits of what can happen when stereotypically contrasting "pairs"teachers and administrators, union leaders and district leadership, business leaders and community activists, local and statework together, guided by a common set of principles and respect for everyone's voices. During our time working with Hillsborough County, Florida, for example, a new teacher evaluation and compensation systemthe product of six months of focused efforts with committees of teachers, principals, and district leadershipwas approved with 96 percent of the teacher union's vote. A transparent, inclusive process might not lead to perfect agreement, but is critical to long-term success.

3.  Success requires a deep level of engagement at all levels of the organization. Often public education leadership teams pay meticulous attention to their boards and external stakeholders but have less rigorous approaches to communicating within their organizations. Questions like "What does our new early literacy intervention program look like from the point-of-view of a second-grade teacher in one of our most challenging schools?" or "How do we coordinate across the five departments responsible for teacher development?" deserve serious attention.

Ensuring effective information flow from system leadership to the classroom and back as well as breaking down departmental silos are among the most common challenges we see education leaders grappling with. As with everything here, we do not have a silver bullet answer. However, this begins to get into a couple of our favorite topics: change management and continuous improvement. (Yes, if you're not familiar with these terms, they do sound like topics only a consultant could love!) We'll talk more about how these concepts apply in education as part of our next set of lessons learned on Friday. 

4.  Bold isn't always better. "Bold" is one of the more tired words in the ed reform lexicon. We're not sure exactly what it means, but at least at times, it seems to be a label correlated with the level of controversy. Merit pay, charter schools, school consolidationwe've probably all heard these (often controversial) strategies described as "bold." We would make two quick observations here: (1) As we shared in contrasting the New Orleans and Arkansas examples on Monday, different contexts call for different answers. More disruptive and controversial answers will be more appropriate in some contexts than others. (2) In evaluating potential plans, leaders should rightly consider both magnitude and likelihood of success. A gradual effort that gains broad support and is easier to implement may be worth more than a potentially high-impact but difficult and controversial proposal. 

5.  Resources without a plan are not enough. There are important, productive debates to be had about the adequacy and equity of resources allocated to schools and systems. But one mistake we've too often seen is when resources are viewed as an end rather than a means. At least since the advent of the personal computer, this has been a particular issue with technology in schools, with the latest device (be it PCs, smart boards, or tablets) ordained as the next revolution in instruction and an infusion of said devices hailed as transformational. Yet too often, this technology has not been deployed in support of a specific educational goal or accompanied by sufficient training, and results have been predictably poor. The rollout of iPads in Los Angeles is one of the more prominent recent examples of this, but by no means the only one. 

This phenomenon also applies much more broadly than in technology. It's one of the lessons from the Newark story. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to Newark schools back in 2010, a number of observers were eager to see just what kind of transformational change that influx of cash would bring to an oft-struggling school district. And yet as our colleague J. Puckett noted at the time, "unless Newark radically changes the way it spends money on education, Zuckerberg's generosity is unlikely to significantly improve test scores and graduation rates." Since then, Newark has remained in the spotlight, but more for what went wrong than for what went right.    

We'd love to hear if any of these lessons resonate with you all. Feel free to leave your comments belowwe'll be back Friday with some final thoughts.  

--Daniel Lautzenheiser, Lane McBride and Tyce Henry

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