I have been an education consultant and continue to offer support in a consultative role every now and then. Certainly there is a place for consultants in education, especially if there is a need for technical assistance or specialized skills such as configuring technology networks or converting district operations to a new financial platform. Consultants can also be helpful in some specific and limited professional development to train trainers or to improve capacity. The use of these types of consultants should be specific and limited because school leaders cannot effectively implement new initiatives or manage change systemically through consultants.
When I was conducting a lot of professional development for school and district administrators in New Jersey years ago, I knew that I was providing great strategies and processes to improve the quality of instruction and systemic alignment. But I also understood that I had no control over whether my strategies and guidance would be followed, nor (on the plus side) could I be held accountable for the outcomes of any implementation related to my training.
Consultants should not be on the field coaching players. Ensuring successful execution of plays should be left to the people hired to lead and coach. And the leaders and actual coaches should be the ones held accountable for effective implementation and for getting results.
Can you imagine a football coach blaming a consultant for losing a game? And yet, placing consultants on the field and blaming them for poor outcomes happens all the time in our profession. Take the chronically failing school district in Colorado, Adams 14, for example. The State Board of Education ordered the District to choose an operator to run the schools and turn them around. Not wanting to give up control and also not wanting too much change, the District chose a consulting group to operate the schools – yeah, they put consultants on the field to try to win games. Two years and over $7 million dollars later, the consultants took their ball and went home, leaving the District in no better shape than when they assumed control. Then . . . well, you know . . . finger-pointing, no accountability, no outcomes, no change, and, worse of all, kids even further behind.
There are numerous examples of this same phenomena: relying on consultants to actually conduct operations in schools and improve student achievement. And it almost always ends up the same: the district and school leaders get to avoid accountability when there is little progress, and they don’t have to change anything – just let the consultants conduct professional development and implement some new program. So let me do a little finger-pointing of my own: district leaders, stop over-relying on consultants to do the work. Hire people who can improve the quality of instruction and raise student achievement. Hold yourselves accountable for success and make or own the tough decisions that few others are prepared to make – that’s the job.