Consultants can expand a district’s ability to enact change if leaders pay attention to issues of coherence, capacity, and commitment.
By John J. Hall
I have had the privilege of working with a range of schools and school districts where the sense of urgency is palpable and commitment to reform runs high. My efforts on behalf of these districts often have been under the guise of “consultant,” a class of individuals variously celebrated (e.g., Ouchi, 2003) and reviled (e.g., Russakoff, 2015).
Some of the things I’ve noticed: In Oakland, Calif., community members decried the 23-page list of consulting contracts up for approval at a single board meeting, demanding to know “Why isn’t this money going to the schools?” In Ferguson, Mo., tensions regularly arose around consultants’ conflicting theories of action and differential access to decision makers. In San Francisco, three consultants worked on projects that overlapped substantially, yet they were unaware of one another’s work and the potential to complement or conflict. And in Philadelphia, concerns abound regarding how consultant-led reforms can be sustained when consultants leave.
To be sure, a school district doesn’t need to work with consultants to experience a surfeit of reform projects. Many forces can contribute to the multiplication of initiatives in districts (Anderson, 2003; Meyer, Scott, & Strang, 1987). Often, school district employees identify a problem and then earnestly cast about for potential solutions. Districts recognize that there is a certain efficiency, as well as an inherent legitimacy, in adopting off-the-shelf packages, be they textbooks, programs, or consulting services. Many packaged solutions have a pedigree reflecting at least some success in some settings, perhaps even in the very district currently considering them; so reaching into what Cohen and his colleagues (1972) call the “garbage can” has strong appeal.
Enlisting external organizations to address persistent problems has led to the robust growth of what Brian Rowan (2002), among others, has described as the school improvement industry. Central to this industry is a legion of consultants who offer guidance and support to districts, broker the adoption and adaptation of programs and materials, and routinely advocate for new initiatives. Rare is the consultant who says a district should keep doing what it is already doing or do even less.
I was intrigued, therefore, to come across a recent advertisement in Education Week headlined, “Challenged by initiative fatigue?” The ad outlines a common refrain of school districts: the need for more time and more resources focused on priority areas. The proffered solution involves an inventory, analysis, and recommendations. Essentially a group of consultants is promising to clean up a mess that was likely caused by another group of consultants. This process may not differ from typical strategic planning, but its objective resonates with the former district employee in me.
This consulting firm has adroitly framed a problem that I hear in every school district I visit: an abundance of initiatives, each with its own champion, each with its own funding stream, each occupying a protected niche in the district ecosystem. Teachers and school leaders complain about complex and ill-supported initiatives handed down from above, and district officials complain about the unwieldy and uncoordinated nature of initiatives organized at the school level. Citizens wonder how the schools are spending their tax dollars, and school board members endeavor to balance fiduciary responsibility with investment in signature projects that will get them reelected.
Rare is the consultant who says a district should keep doing what it is already doing or do even less.
So, apart from hiring yet another consulting firm, what are districts to do about this? What internal capacity do districts have to attend to macrolevel reform issues and the microlevel needs of schools and teachers, while managing a host of consulting relationships and other partnerships?
Partnership promises and pitfalls
The School District of Philadelphia recently assembled a 14-page list of its partner organizations, which run the gamut from AmeriCorps to the Zoological Society, including several groups from my own institution, Temple University. No doubt, the adults who coordinate these partnerships cherish them, and children welcome the experiences they afford. However, the existence of a partnership does not de facto warrant its continuation.
Absent external partnerships, school districts may find it difficult to initiate and sustain reforms (Cuban & Usdan, 2003; Leithwood, 2010). At the same time, the relationship between school districts and external organizations is fraught (Farrell & Coburn, 2017). In the best situations, they are aligned around common values and goals, yet even then their accountabilities and their commitment to the project necessarily differ.
Many partner organizations are rooted in a district’s community and style themselves as providing an important and relevant service. They often see students or teachers or a particular school — and not the district — as their client. Though they may not interact much with district personnel, district decisions affect partner organizations. Thus, whether they characterize themselves as consultants per se, partner organizations have an interest in influencing (and benefiting from) a district’s initiatives. Districts must recognize that their interests and those of their partners likely differ. They must seek partnerships that primarily serve district goals while also attending to the partners’ interest in advocacy and consultation (Coburn, Bae, & Turner, 2008).
A common school district stance is that consultants are a necessary evil, valued for their expertise as well as for their effort: Consultants extend a district’s capacity to understand and accomplish new initiatives. Depending on the type of initiative, districts turn to different types of consultants. For example, Oakland launched a community engagement initiative that drew almost exclusively on local organizations for guidance and support; having community connections was a necessary condition for this work. In contrast, San Francisco redesigned its principal pipeline with the assistance of two national organizations; expertise in leadership development, not local roots, was the salient factor in selecting a consultant. In both cases, the districts developed substantial internal infrastructures to manage the initiatives and to sustain them once the consultants moved on.
To initiate. . .
To initiate means to begin something new — initiatives therefore represent new beginnings, an alluring idea for school systems that are frequently reminded of the failure of their current incarnations. It is natural, therefore, for a school district to engage in a continual process of renewal, exploiting existing programs and exploring the environment for new programs (Hatch, 2000; March, 1991). Some districts rely on internal personnel to manage the process of identifying or designing and then implementing initiatives. One challenge of this approach is that employees are constrained by the district’s culture and history and subject to internal district politics. Engaging external consultants who are immune to some of the forces within the district may bring fresh perspectives to the table. But that brings its own challenges. Consultants are often naïve to the district’s culture and history and unaware of local political circumstances.
Consultants and other partners may provide much-needed expertise and capacity, but they also increase complexity at the program level, at the system level, and at the relationship level.
A case in point: Ferguson’s new superintendent engaged consultants and academics to prepare a transition plan. The final plan recommended 57 short-term actions and 29 long-term actions. To enact this ambitious agenda, the district drew on a combination of internal employees and external consultants who translated these recommendations into actual initiatives. Of course, with so many initiatives implemented in rapid succession, the effect of any individual project was eclipsed by a collective sense of being overwhelmed. This caused the district to step back and acknowledge, examine, and address the tensions among urgency, quality, efficiency, and sustainability.
. . . or not to initiate?
I appreciate the impulse to pursue multiple plausibly productive initiatives, yet on some level we all know that less is more. Add to that the understanding that only about one-third of new programs yield any benefit, and the importance of a sound decision-making process becomes clear (Konstantopoulos & Hedges, 2008; Lester, 2017). When considering the value of any given initiative — or whether to engage a consultant — district leaders would do well to ask six questions:
#1. Is the intended effect something that we value?
#2. What does the research tell us about the potential magnitude of the effect?
#3. What data will we collect to tell us about the actual effect?
#4. What costs are associated with attaining this effect — does this initiative represent the least expensive option for attaining these results?
#5. What are the opportunity costs, often obscured, associated with fostering and sustaining the internal and external relationships associated with the initiative?
#6. How does this initiative contribute to coherence around the district’s vision?
Substantial research supports the importance of coherence at the district and the school level (Augustine et al., 2009; Bryk et al., 2010; Madda, Halverson, & Gomez, 2007). When engaging with external partners, attaining coherence is complicated by different histories, values, and accountabilities. Honig and Hatch (2004) argue for ongoing negotiations and adaptation as each partnership evolves. The greater the number of partnerships, the more difficult this dynamic process becomes, pushing on the need for a broader collaboration across all partners. Models for this sort of collaboration can be found in efforts to engage school districts with entities from other sectors in service of what has been denoted “collective impact” (Henig et al., 2016; Kania & Kramer, 2011).
Districts, often guided by consultants, spend considerable time generating charts and diagrams demonstrating coherence among multiple initiatives. I myself crafted many an elegant slide presentation filled with boxes and arrows and contrasting colors designed to encourage my peers to recognize these connections. Yet, many of these connections were contrived and did not reflect the experiences of those working in schools. A number of consultants have developed tools for assessing coherence, including Richard Elmore and his collaborators (2014). However, coherence does not obviate the need to address the overall number of initiatives and the commitment necessary to nurture them.
A district is limited in its ability to adequately manage a variety of initiatives, but districts routinely exceed this limit (Malen et al., 2014). Siloed units within districts fiercely defend their domains, which leads to competition for attention and for resources (Farrell & Coburn, 2017; Hall, n.d.). If adoption of any initiative significantly increases organizational freneticism and fragmentation, the district’s overall ability to use resources productively is diminished (Malen & Rice, 2004). Recognizing that reform efforts both expand and intensify the roles of teachers and administrators, a colleague developed a tool to help schools assess their readiness for new initiatives (Baham, 2014). While testing the tool’s validity, she uncovered two primary contributors to overload: the absolute volume of initiatives and coherence among initiatives.
Consultants bear some but not most of the responsibility for accomplishing what they are engaged to do; results often depend on issues consultants can’t control, in particular, the commitment of district employees who are managing the initiative. Recognizing this, consulting organizations often require evidence of superintendent commitment or buy-in (note that consultants are perpetually selling something). Some extend this further, requiring that the superintendent or cabinet members participate in activities related to the initiative. This makes sense on its face, but can you imagine a major corporation where the CEO was even aware of, let alone participated in, all the activities involving consultants? A more significant action is to ensure alignment with core values and goals, from which coherence is more likely to emerge.
I once managed a multimillion-dollar district initiative funded by an external organization. The district did not have to contribute to this effort but saw it as free money. While the programs that grew out of this initiative were on the whole welcomed by my district colleagues, at several critical junctures, their commitment was tested. If the initiative veered too far from accepted practice or conflicted with other district efforts, commitment waned. A number of grants require that districts have “skin in the game,” ensuring that their own resources are also on the line as the initiative unfolds. Throughout the development process, the district’s commitment must be assessed and features of the initiative adjusted accordingly.
Managing a school district is an extraordinarily complex undertaking, and a district’s primary goal — the education of children — is stubbornly resistant to quick fixes. District leaders are consequently eager for advice and support regarding how best to organize their systems, manage their staffs, respond to their communities, and, most important, marshal limited resources in service of student learning. Consultants and other partners may provide much-needed expertise and capacity, but they also increase complexity at the program level, at the system level, and at the relationship level. School district leaders have a responsibility to organize these relationships so they avoid contributing to the overall inertia of the district without overloading the very people charged with implementation.
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JOHN J. HALL (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of policy, organizational, and leadership studies in the College of Education, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pa.
Originally published in December 2017/January 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 60-65. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.