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Consulting in Education: More Lessons Learned

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 Wednesday, we offered a few lessons we've learned over the past decade of working in U.S. pre-K-12 education. Those lessons all focused on how to help schools and systems make the changes necessary to serve students better. At the time, we noted that the "how" often gets short shrift in today's school reform conversations, which instead tend to focus on the "what" of school reform—specific policies and initiatives.  We'll pick up where we left off Wednesday and close out the week with a few more lessons on the "how" that we've learned along the way.

6.  Change is hard, and managing it requires attention to both its "hard" and "soft" sides. As we lamented Wednesday, school systems do not have a great track record of managing change efforts. They sometimes move too fast, without gaining the buy-in of key stakeholders, or they lack follow-through, piling up half-finished academic initiatives, organizational restructurings, IT projects and so on, without ever taking much off the plate. Or they move too quickly, following the new thing and abandoning efforts before they have a chance to really take hold. 

But education leaders should take solace in one unassailable fact: change is hard. In fact, across all industries, most major change efforts fail. As several of our BCG colleagues observed in the Harvard Business Review back in 2005, "For over three decades, academics, managers, and consultants, realizing that transforming organizations is difficult, have dissected the subject [of change management]...[Despite this] studies show that in most organizations, two out of three transformation initiatives fail. The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Our colleagues were writing about what they called the "hard" side of change. These are the technical or process elements of change, which are often addressed by having project managers, project plans, and milestones. Equally important is the "soft" side of change, or how the change impacts employee engagement and organizational culture. Viewing change as a combination of both the hard and soft side illustrates why the implementation of new teacher evaluation systems has been such a difficult process for many states and districts. Teacher evaluation reforms have combined major "hard-side" technical challenges (e.g., training hundreds of administrators and thousands of teachers on a new rubric; drastically increasing the total number of teacher observations) with equally formidable "soft-side" cultural challenges (e.g., building teacher-administrator trust). 

While change will continue to be hard, we believe that managing it successfully starts with acknowledging this reality and preparing for the hard and soft sides with equal rigor.   

7.  "Data-driven decision-making"...with an emphasis on the "decision-making." There has been an explosion of data in education, enabled by ever more sophisticated and powerful tools. Data can be available in real-time, and at almost zero cost. Yet we find that true "data-driven decision-making," particularly when it comes to programmatic decisions, is in its nascent stages.  "Is this working?" is often a question met, at best, by anecdotes and opinions assembled in an ad hoc fashion.

We see a growing potential for more education organizations to become "learning organizations" that harness data for continuous improvement over time. Instead of living from budget cycle to budget cycle, smart organizations first set academic priorities and then make strategic decisions to support those objectives.

Over the past several years, we've had the opportunity to work with the school district in Lake County, Florida. As an article here in Education Week put it, the district "faced flat-funding, a growing student population, and a state mandate to implement more rigorous academic standards." In response, the district first spent four months identifying their core priorities, which included a new talent-development strategy and new programs for ELL; analyzed how much each would cost over a three-year time frame; and took a hard look at their current budget to find savings they could make each year to redirect limited resources towards their top goals. While it is still early, we believe this approach shows significant promise. The Government Finance Officers Association recently announced a cohort of 35 districts who are pursuing similar strategies

8.  Everything will take longer than you expect, and true change must outlast the tenure of any single leader. There is an understandable urgency to school reform; after all, the future of a child is at stake. But hurried implementation or haphazard changes often do more harm than good. 

Rick wrote persuasively about this himself in his first book, Spinning Wheels, where he makes the point that "much of what ails urban education is actually the result of continuous or fragmentary reform."  Many superintendents, especially in large urban districts, historically have come in with bold visions for change that merely get layered on top of their predecessor's agenda. Over time, this lack of coherence drives confusion and frustration (or worse) among educators, parents, and students. In contrast, many of the most successful large school districtsfor example, Gwinnett County, Georgia, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolinahave benefited from a period of stability at the top that enabled sustained focus on a consistent strategy.

Because not all superintendent tenures will be long, and even a decade may not be long enough to bring about the kind of change change needed in some systems, we see promise in collective impact models that build broader community ownership of an education agenda.

9.  We all do well to listen to teachers and school leaders. Ask any teacher and they can tell you what it's like to work for an effective principal versus the frustrations of working under a hapless one, or how different it is to work with talented, hard-working colleagues versus the poorly trained teacher next door who sent in her 4th grade students woefully unprepared for your 5th grade class. The best research confirms this: teacher and leader quality are the most important factors for student achievement within the control of school systems.

Major changes in K-12 will not happen without strong leaders and teachers. Yet all too often reform efforts have failed to heed their well-founded guidance and reservations. For instance, states and districts have attached career and financial consequences to test-score results before they had reliable value-added measures in place. Likewise, much of the blowback we've seen over Common Core and standardized testing in New York and elsewhere can be attributed to beating up school systems and teachers over assessment results before they've had the opportunity to learn the new standards and adjust their classroom practices. 

To be clear, policy should not be a popularity contest.  But our hope is that the next wave of reform will give greater voice to the professionals who lead schools and teach our children. 

10.  School reform isn't black and white. We'll close with a quick reminder that can often get lost in today's school reform discussions: few policy and program decisions are a black-white choice. We see this in policy debates and in districts all the time:

  • "Charter schools are good/bad." 
  • "More money will/won't fix K-12 schools."
  • "Smaller classes will/won't improve student achievement."

In truth, both sides miss the point. Charter schools can make a difference, when their growth is well managed and they are held accountable by their authorizers. Greater financial resources can improve student learning, depending on how the money is spent. Smaller classes may improve student achievement, if there are enough strong teachers to expand the teacher workforce.  Reforms need to be focused on what is most likely to work in a particular context, at a particular time, and with careful attention to how change occurs in complex organizations like K-12 schools and districts. Hopefully this week offered a few insights into that. 

That's it from us! It's been a great week. Many thanks for reading, and to Rick and his team for the opportunity. We hope to do it again soon.

--Daniel Lautzenheiser, Lane McBride and Tyce Henry

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