Feature

The Consulting Boom

School districts turn to outside help for reasons of economics, accountability and expertise by DONNA HARRINGTON-LUEKER


Like other small school districts, the Manville, N.J., Public Schools struggled with its school technology plan. "The district knew it wanted to secure technology for its schools, but it didn't know how to go about it. We were a small district, and we didn't have a technology expert on staff," recalls Dianne Mayberry-Hatt, former principal at Manville's Alexander Batcho Intermediate School.

 

After a districtwide committee met for nearly two years without developing an acceptable plan, the district's decision to hire an outside consultant finally broke the impasse. "She presented a grand plan for $1.5 million, which we couldn't afford," says Mayberry-Hatt. "But we liked the philosophy, and we worked out a plan to phase in technology one grade at a time."

School districts like Manville with its 1,300 students aren't the only ones turning to outside experts for help.

In Iowa, school districts are scurrying to adhere to a statewide initiative to network every school and provide on-line access in every building, says James Flikkema, director of technology for the Sioux City, Iowa, Community School District. That mandate, though, might as well be called the "Full-Time Consultants Employment Bill," he wryly observes.

"Ninety-nine percent of school districts don't have that expertise," says Flikkema, the district's first full-time technology director.

A Lucrative Market
Nationwide, the consulting industry as a whole is booming. According to Tom Rodenhauser, editor of Consultants News, a newsletter that tracks the $62-billion-a-year industry, the use of consultants will grow 13 percent overall this year. (Just four years ago, the industry dispensed $17 billion in advice.) In some of the hottest sectors--information technology, for example--Rodenhauser expects the increases to rocket along at twice that rate.

No figures exist to show how much of that outlay comes from school district budgets, and Rodenhauser and others are quick to point out that school systems undoubtedly account for only a sliver of the total expenditures. But as interviews, newspaper reports and anecdotal evidence suggest, schools seem to be increasingly following the business world's lead and buying expertise when they need it. And consultants in turn are keeping close watch on a potentially lucrative market--a market that includes more than the traditional superintendent searches, workshops on classroom discipline and the latest curriculum trend or help with finances:

  • School officials in Jefferson County, Colo., last year hired a consultant to help the district find corporate sponsors to underwrite the cost of building two new stadiums for school sports. Among the deals the district has since struck: Pepsi has pledged $2.1 million in return for the exclusive right to provide the district with soft drinks, and USWest has given $2 million to have a stadium named after the company.

    "We hired a consultant initially because we had no idea how to go about effecting these relationships with private industry," says Mike Mitchell, the district's director of purchasing and corporate sponsorships.

  • The Oakland, Calif., school board a year ago hired a public relations consultant to help it respond to questions about its controversial Ebonics proposal. The district was under "massive media scrutiny," says Crystal Rockwood, Oakland's current director of communications. (Rockwood joined the district last summer.) "It was completely inundated with calls, faxes, e-mail and media requests." The consultant was paid $100,000 for the work on Ebonics and other projects with the district.

  • The Florida Times-Union paid SchoolMatch, a consulting and database management firm in Westerville, Ohio, $125,000 to conduct a systemwide audit in 1996-97 of the effectiveness of the Duval County school system. Among the study's findings: Duval County's schools were "too big to be educationally effective," according to the newspaper, and schools needed to hold students to higher grading standards.

  • Consultants with BDM Federal of McLean, Va., will provide the Dayton, Ohio, Public Schools this year with information management services at a cost of $20 million to the district. According to The Education Industry Report, an industry newsletter, the consulting group plans to aggressively market its services to other K-12 school systems as well.

  • In the Carlsbad, Calif., Unified School District, Superintendent Cheryl Ernst credits the decision to work with a political consultant for voter approval last year of a $26.5 million bond by an 85.6 percent majority--the fifth-largest majority in the history of bond elections in the state. In California, where bonds must pass by a two-thirds majority, political consultants, who offer advice about campaign tactics, are fast becoming staples.
Some of the nation's biggest business consulting firms also have begun courting schools. "Schools are increasingly being asked to streamline the student data they collect, but most don't have the expertise for this kind of sophisticated information management," says John McLaughlin, president of the Education Industry Group, a publishing and consulting firm. Firms such as Arthur Andersen and Coopers and Lybrand have that expertise, though, and are interested in working with schools, McLaughlin says.

Last year, Coopers and Lybrand began marketing a software program that helps schools use business accounting methods to keep better track of their spending. And as more schools begin using the program, it could "give Coopers a competitive advantage" in the market for consulting contracts, concedes Bill Herzog, a director of the firm's K-12 education division. Already, the accounting firm has contracted with three districts to provide performance reviews of the data the schools have uncovered.

McLaughlin also has entered the business. A professor and editor of The Education Industry Report newsletter, McLaughlin consults with districts and state commissioners of education on how to contract with private firms.

Other hot areas for consultants are emerging as well. Desegregation consultants, who advise school districts seeking unitary status in federal desegregation cases, continue to be in demand, McLaughlin and others say. And in their quest for fairness in their policies and practices, some school districts are turning to specialists in gender and socioeconomic equity. Staff development experts, specialists in school technology and equity finance consultants round out the list.

What’s Behind the Trend
Why the interest in consultants? In some cases, schools are simply responding to calls that they become more accountable, many say. "Schools are under real pressure to demonstrate that they're using public dollars effectively," says McLaughlin. Hiring an outsider with significant expertise and no ties to the district is one way to assure taxpayers and state officials that schools are indeed achieving, many say.

Economics comes into play as well. Administrators say schools often need special expertise but don't have the money to hire someone full-time at the salary that person might command in the outside world. (As Flikkema notes: "I can't afford to keep a UNIX guru on staff.") Often, though, schools can afford to bring that expert on board several times a year on a daily rate.

Mayberry-Hatt, who now serves on the Plainfield, N.J., board of education, cites tight budgets as a reason for turning to consultants. When resources are scarce, she says, it's often easier to ask for temporary funding than it is to get the OK for a full-time permanent position. Downsizing often forces schools to go outside for help as well, says Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council.

Sparks cites another reason: the availability of federal and state funds. "There's an ebb and flow to this," says Sparks, "and today there are resources [for outside consultants] because federal and state governments have invested in reform."

Still others note that school districts that see themselves as entrepreneurial organizations tend to make consultants a normal part of the way they do business, just as their counterparts in the business world do.

Finally, there's the laundry list of reforms that today's schools face. Electronic portfolios, performance-based assessments, total quality management, chaos theory, whole language, Reading Recovery, learning styles, brain research, school-to-work--the list can be endless and the topics can seem arcane. "There's just no way today's administrators can be experts in all these areas," says Francis Duffy, a consultant in Highland, Md. "They don't have the time to develop the expertise."

Small school districts can especially feel the pinch. "The complexity of running a school district is just getting greater and greater ... and in small districts there's often just not enough expertise," observes James Tice, superintendent of the 960-student Strafford, Mo., School District. (To bolster his point, Tice observes that he does double-duty as the district's substitute bus driver.)

This year, state officials are asking Missouri schools to begin using performance-based assessments. But no one in the Strafford School District has a background in the new assessments, so Tice plans to hire an outside consultant to work with teachers and principals.

"We try to grow our own experts," says Tice. "But there are limits to what you can do. My teachers need to be in their classrooms."

Friendly Critics
While schools have begun to turn to consultants for help with everything from computer networks to risk management, it's consultants who can help with school reform efforts who are perhaps most likely to get the call. Increasingly, too, schools are asking consultants to play the role of a "critical friend"--an expert who returns to the district several times or more during the school year to help with specific reform efforts.

The Newport News, Va., Public Schools uses a variety of consultants in its bid to boost student achievement. "We describe it as ‘importing intelligence,'" says Susan Piland, the district's director of staff development. The district, for example, has teachers working with consultants on Reading Recovery programs, early childhood education and preparing students for the SAT.

A major effort in the last two years has focused on connecting the district's teacher evaluation program to its reform efforts. And as part of that effort, the district has worked with the Louisville, Ky.-based Center for Leadership in School Reform, an educational consulting firm, as well as with a consultant who specializes in performance-based assessments.

"The new evaluation program ... emphasizes that teaching is a complex process, not a stand-and-deliver model," says Piland. It also emphasizes the planning teachers do ("which is immense and needs to be part of any evaluation process," she says) as well as their use of technology, their leadership skills and their ability to work with parents. "An administrator can't expect to get all that visiting the classroom twice a year for 15 minutes at a time," says Piland.

The Center for Leadership in School Reform, which has worked with other districts to develop teacher academies for ongoing professional development, helped field-test Newport News's new evaluation system while another consultant helped train staff members who will be using the new model.

"You want a catalyst for change, someone who sees things differently," says Piland of the district's work with the center. "It just can really help you jump-start things."

The Chicago Public Schools is using consultants in its own way. The district will spend $9 million this year to hire outsiders to work with its lowest-achieving schools. (Seven Chicago high schools have been reconstituted and 108 other schools have been put on probation because of their chronically poor test scores.)

According to Phil Hansen, the district's chief accountability officer, each of the high schools has been paired with a team of professors from local colleges or universities that will provide the troubled schools with intensive assistance. These teams work on-site at least three days a week throughout the school year, Hansen says, and they receive between $50,000 and $100,000 for their work.

In addition, Hansen says, the school district has hired retired principals and administrators to work as probation managers who monitor the schools' progress and work with staff members. Probation managers are paid $10,000 a year and work as needed. ("It's almost a full-time job in reconstituted schools," says Hansen.)

To ensure the funds are well spent, Hansen says the district judges the consultants' performance in part on their schools' scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Probation managers also are evaluated according to ITBS scores and monthly reports of their schools' progress. This year, too, Hansen says, the district expects to hire an outside group to evaluate the consultants' performance.

"Many of these schools were in serious crisis and had tried various things over the years," says Hansen of the district's decision to use consultants in its failing schools. "Our idea was that a new perspective might make a difference."

In reconstituted schools, where as many as 150 teachers might be new, outside consultants may be especially important. (When a school is reconstituted, all teachers at a school must reapply for their jobs, and many aren't rehired.)

"It takes awhile for leadership to emerge in a situation like that," says Hansen. Some Chicago schools in fact have hired consultants who are experts in team-building because of this, the accountability officer says.

Potential Shortcomings
But is the reliance on outside experts good for education? As the use of consultants increases, so do the cautions.

Too often, school systems use consultants for the wrong reasons, superintendents and consultants say. Some use consultants to check the work of staff members who are incompetent; others hire consultants to make politically unpopular recommendations so that they can shield themselves from the heat. ("I've had to move in some shark-infested waters," says one consultant.) Still other school systems work with consultants to give the public appearance of reform, then shelve the consultant's report once the study is finished.

McLaughlin, who is a consultant himself, concedes the industry does have "a Dilbertesque quality about it"--a reference to the popular Dilbert comic strip with its scathing indictment of managerial waste and incompetence. "It's a highly paid activity ... done by someone who'd like to keep himself employed," McLaughlin admits.

Rodenhauser, who tracks the industry for his newsletter, offers a similar caution. "Consulting is a high-profit, high-revenue business," he says, contending consultants can be guilty of "not knowing when to turn the meter off."

He adds: "It's like going to the doctor when your knee hurts and the doctor says, ‘What about your elbow?' The next thing you know, you're on the table with a knife pointing at you."

The dynamics of the marketplace concerns others. Consulting is a difficult business that relies on networking, word-of-mouth and sometimes savvy marketing. Web pages, newsletters, speeches at major education conventions, even a presence on an Internet listserv are ways consultants increase both their visibility and their client base. And having a special niche they can fill, whether it be technology integration, chaos theory or total quality management, is simply a smart business strategy.

Still, some argue, the entrepreneur's need to build a business has flooded the market with niche products and programs that have undermined sound educational practice.

Rodenhauser agrees. Many times consultants develop a product first and then look for clients who will buy it. It’s called "the hammer looking for a nail," the newsletter editor says.

Outside or Inside View?
Finally, some observers suggest, the outsider may not bring that different perspective so many schools say they're seeking. "Consultants are hired with an agenda in mind," says Laurence Cohen, executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy Studies in Glastonbury, Conn. "And given their need to be hired--and stay hired--their findings can drift toward the conclusion that school districts are looking for." What that results in, Cohen continues, "is year after year of giddy good news."

Many outside experts are also former insiders--superintendents, principals, technology directors and others. And some are wary of the closeness of their connections. "I see it as a form of prostitution," says Tice simply. "They're trading on their past and their connections."

Often, too, some say, the money spent on consultants should instead be directed at the schools themselves. "Consultants come in here and tell us we'd be doing a better job if we used more handouts," says Gary Latman, an English teacher and department chairperson at William Rainey Harper High School, one of the seven high schools to be reconstituted in Chicago. "But the fact is, I can only make 200 copies a month and I see 125 students or more every day."

Latman's alternative: "With the hundreds of thousands [the district's] giving him, hold off and give us a Xerox machine instead."

"There's a value to the in-service we're receiving," he says. "But we have master teachers here. Why not use them?"

It's a question, some say, that schools should always ask first.

Donna Harrington-Lueker is a free-lance education writer based in Newport, R.I. E-mail: dhlueker@ids.net