Feature

The Consultant From Oz Syndrome

Don’t expect a great wizard to take the place of collective actions that must be developed within an organization by GARNETT J. SMITH


"And I will ask him to give me a faculty and staff with motivated hearts," said the professional support coordinator.

"And I will ask him to send Toto and me back to the ‘50s when faculty and staff in little red schoolhouses in Kansas were obedient and showed respect for their superiors," said Dorothy, the director of training and development.

"Do you think the Wizard Consultant from Oz could show me how to make the teachers I supervise act more compliant?" asked the black-and-blue supervisor of performance appraisal.

"Just as easily as he could give me faculty and staff with brains," said the curriculum and instruction specialist.

"Or send me back to the ‘50s," said Dorothy.

"Then if you don't mind, I'll chip in some grant money to co-sponsor the Wizard Consultant with you," said the black-and-blue supervisor of performance appraisal.

Clinging to Consultants
"Flying in the Consultant From Oz" is a concept familiar to school administrators across the country. It is symptomatic of a human condition known as the "Consultant From Oz Syndrome," or COS.

Expanding upon the observations of Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, typical victims of COS are consumed with a desire to seek out wondrous wizards renowned for their ability to clarify direction, install key administrative plans, policies and procedures and energize the ranks. Sufferers of COS tenaciously cling to the hope that somewhere there exist wizard consultants who, like captains of the cavalry, can lead the charge to rescue the beleaguered settlers (generally the COS supporters themselves) from their attackers (the forces of external change). "So long as such myths prevail," cautions Senge, "they reinforce a focus on short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic forces and collective learning."

The Consultant From Oz Syndrome is not a condition to be taken lightly. At its core COS is based on fear, anxiety and loss of control. It also is based on a pessimistic set of assumptions, all too often shared by policymakers, educational researchers, education administrators and classroom practitioners. These assumptions center on of people’s powerlessness, lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change--deficits that can be remedied only through the intervention of a few great outsiders.

This parody is not intended to demean any contribution, value or usefulness that professional consultants may add toward stimulating and supporting school reform. On the contrary, Marilyn Friend and Lynn Cook, who have researched the contributions of external consultants to educational change in their book Interactions, indicate that consultants and consultees consistently have a mutual and positive influence on one another.

The irony of COS lies not in the fact that school administrators choose to bring in external consultants, as Friend and Cook put it, to "solve problems that cannot be solved without another’s expertise," but rather it has to do with examining implicit as well as explicit assumptions as to why administrators seek out "the great and powerful Oz" in the first place. In Roots of Reform, author Terry Astuto maintains these assumptions center around the administrators’ lack of confidence in people who populate schools--teachers, support staff, fellow administrators and students.

Symptoms of the Syndrome
If you examine closely the dialogue of Dorothy and her three colleagues, you can discover the three main symptoms of COS.

  • No. 1: Placing undue confidence in external sources.

    Many directives made by administrators afflicted with this syndrome, no matter how meaningful they may be to those administrators, often are irrelevant to the needs of particular schools and their educational stakeholders. If the consultant’s central message is viewed as lacking relevance, it becomes distorted during implementation or is simply ignored once the consultant departs.

    Any staff development program that ignores these dynamics will do little to energize professional educators, improve teaching performance or raise either the school or the school system to a higher plane.

    The conversation Dorothy has with her three colleagues is not as much a discourse about staff development (its overt intent) as it is a discussion about trust and competence (or the lack of it) and the forces of compliance and control (its covert intent). The conversation among educators is essentially the same one the storybook Dorothy has with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s classic story. As in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the modern conversation is filled with nuances of self-denigration, fear and anxiety. It implicitly looks to an external source for both collective and individual deliverance. It is a conversation of limited imagination, one that, Terry Astuto says in Roots of Reform: "Rationalizes domination in the name of efficiency and effectiveness."
  • Many directives made by administrators afflicted with this syndrome, no matter how meaningful they may be to those administrators, often are irrelevant to the needs of particular schools and their educational stakeholders. If the consultant’s central message is viewed as lacking relevance, it becomes distorted during implementation or is simply ignored once the consultant departs.Any staff development program that ignores these dynamics will do little to energize professional educators, improve teaching performance or raise either the school or the school system to a higher plane.The conversation Dorothy has with her three colleagues is not as much a discourse about staff development (its overt intent) as it is a discussion about trust and competence (or the lack of it) and the forces of compliance and control (its covert intent). The conversation among educators is essentially the same one the storybook Dorothy has with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s classic story. As in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the modern conversation is filled with nuances of self-denigration, fear and anxiety. It implicitly looks to an external source for both collective and individual deliverance. It is a conversation of limited imagination, one that, Terry Astuto says in Roots of Reform: "Rationalizes domination in the name of efficiency and effectiveness."

    Sorting Out Differences
  • No. 2: Difficulty in telling the difference between consultants and magicians.

    A recurring problem for those with the Consultant From Oz Syndrome is the elevated levels of cognitive dissonance that arise when the magical powers of the external consultant fail to deliver idealized outcomes. Make no mistake about it, Consultants From Oz are spellbinders.

    "They can play on your emotions as deftly as any virtuoso ever played the violin," says Saul Gellerman, dean of the Graduate School of Management at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. "They can start your pulse racing, start the adrenaline squirting into your arteries and pump up your blood pressure. They are exciting!" That’s why administrators suffering from COS hire them. And that’s why their long-term impact on schools is usually disappointing, especially if one’s real purpose in not merely to entertain, but to actually transform schools in fundamental and remarkable ways.

    The goal of all consultation is change, whether it be in teachers, departments, schools or systems. The Consultant From Oz model assumes that change will occur automatically after a series of "sit-and-get" sessions. Research shows that externally generated, consultant-based information and training is most influential during the early (initiation) stages of reform or restructuring and loses momentum over time. The most serious limitation of the "expert" approach, notes Duane Brown in his book, Consultation: Strategy for Improving Education, is that it often precludes the development of long-term, highly creative and productive relationships in which both the consultees and the consultant commit their personal expertise and resources toward developing specific solutions to particular problems.

    Consultants from Oz (especially highly paid ones) are presumed, if only by their solicitors, to be privy to a mystic cookbook of rational recipes or magical spells that will restore peace, harmony and control. But as Phillip Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., warns, no cookbooks exist for those who would restructure schools. "There are no magic herbs to sprinkle over school systems."

    People who experience COS often become embittered and frustrated as they watch their externally derived and delivered policies, guidelines and recommendations encounter the complex reality of general, special and vocational education systems where they invariably become less magical than initially presumed. Vanderbilt University’s Terrence Deal, who first described the Consultant From Oz Syndrome more than 10 years ago, captured it best when he wrote: "Knowledge of experts, opinions of influential persons and values of diverse groups meld into guidelines that apply across the board, then slip between the cracks."

    "You are all wrong," said the little consultant meekly. "I have been making believe."

    "Making believe!" cried Dorothy. "Are you not a great wizard? Did we not pay you $5,000 a day plus expenses?"

    "Hush, my dear lady," he said. "Don’t speak so loudly, or you will be overheard, and I should be ruined and forced to return to my old job in pre-owned auto sales. I’m supposed to be the Great Wizard Consultant From Oz."

    "And aren’t you?" Dorothy asked.

    "Not a bit of it, my generous benefactor. I’m just a common man."

    "You’re more than that," said the Professional Support Coordinator, in a grieved tone. "You’re a humbug."


    Consultants, whether from without or within the system, require a high degree of knowledge and skill in both the content of the innovations being considered (i.e., expertise in the substance of the programs in which the consultees are being trained) and in the process of how that innovation is to be implemented (i.e., knowledge of how to plan, conduct and follow through on the professional development activities that have been suggested).

    The consultant who inspires his audience to adopt a new educational process may do more harm then good if little effective follow-up and support is provided. Michael Fullan, dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, maintains that "in deciding or in assessing the role of consultants, we should have in mind not only whether they obtain or provide good information on given occasions (e.g., a workshop), but also whether they or someone else follow through to provide support for the use of that information."

    Another administrative danger, Fullan cautions, is that by introducing school stakeholders to a continuous stream of superficial, unconnected innovations, administrators inadvertently instill within the stakeholders the suspicion that the system does not know where it is going or what it is doing.
  • A recurring problem for those with the Consultant From Oz Syndrome is the elevated levels of cognitive dissonance that arise when the magical powers of the external consultant fail to deliver idealized outcomes. Make no mistake about it, Consultants From Oz are spellbinders."They can play on your emotions as deftly as any virtuoso ever played the violin," says Saul Gellerman, dean of the Graduate School of Management at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. "They can start your pulse racing, start the adrenaline squirting into your arteries and pump up your blood pressure. They are exciting!" That’s why administrators suffering from COS hire them. And that’s why their long-term impact on schools is usually disappointing, especially if one’s real purpose in not merely to entertain, but to actually transform schools in fundamental and remarkable ways.The goal of all consultation is change, whether it be in teachers, departments, schools or systems. The Consultant From Oz model assumes that change will occur automatically after a series of "sit-and-get" sessions. Research shows that externally generated, consultant-based information and training is most influential during the early (initiation) stages of reform or restructuring and loses momentum over time. The most serious limitation of the "expert" approach, notes Duane Brown in his book, Consultation: Strategy for Improving Education, is that it often precludes the development of long-term, highly creative and productive relationships in which both the consultees and the consultant commit their personal expertise and resources toward developing specific solutions to particular problems.Consultants from Oz (especially highly paid ones) are presumed, if only by their solicitors, to be privy to a mystic cookbook of rational recipes or magical spells that will restore peace, harmony and control. But as Phillip Schlechty, president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., warns, no cookbooks exist for those who would restructure schools. "There are no magic herbs to sprinkle over school systems."People who experience COS often become embittered and frustrated as they watch their externally derived and delivered policies, guidelines and recommendations encounter the complex reality of general, special and vocational education systems where they invariably become less magical than initially presumed. Vanderbilt University’s Terrence Deal, who first described the Consultant From Oz Syndrome more than 10 years ago, captured it best when he wrote: "Knowledge of experts, opinions of influential persons and values of diverse groups meld into guidelines that apply across the board, then slip between the cracks."Consultants, whether from without or within the system, require a high degree of knowledge and skill in both the content of the innovations being considered (i.e., expertise in the substance of the programs in which the consultees are being trained) and in the process of how that innovation is to be implemented (i.e., knowledge of how to plan, conduct and follow through on the professional development activities that have been suggested).The consultant who inspires his audience to adopt a new educational process may do more harm then good if little effective follow-up and support is provided. Michael Fullan, dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, maintains that "in deciding or in assessing the role of consultants, we should have in mind not only whether they obtain or provide good information on given occasions (e.g., a workshop), but also whether they or someone else follow through to provide support for the use of that information."Another administrative danger, Fullan cautions, is that by introducing school stakeholders to a continuous stream of superficial, unconnected innovations, administrators inadvertently instill within the stakeholders the suspicion that the system does not know where it is going or what it is doing.

    Delivering the Goods
  • No. 3: High levels of denial when consultants tell you they are not wizards.

    "You are a very bad man," said the three co-sponsors.

    "Oh no, my friends, I'm a very good man. It’s just that I'm a very bad wizard."

    "Can't you give me a faculty and staff with brains?" asked the curriculum and instruction specialist.

    "You don't give people brains. Your faculty and staff learn more about your schools every day than I'll ever know. A baby has brains but it doesn't know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the more genuine experiences you can share with your faculty and staff, the more knowledge they are sure to gain."

    "That may be true," said the curriculum and instruction specialist, "but I shall be very unhappy unless you give me a faculty and staff with brains."

    The false wizard looked at him sadly. "Well," he said with a sigh, "I'm not much of a magician, but if you come back tomorrow morning, I will expose your faculty and staff to any number of brainy new ideas and train them in the latest educational procedures and practices. I cannot tell you that they will be able to use any of them in actual situations, for we all must figure that out for ourselves."

    "What about giving me more control over my teachers?" anxiously asked the black-and-blue supervisor of performance appraisal.

    "You are confusing influence with control," answered the wizard. "You have a positive influence on your teachers, I'm sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living person who is not afraid that the influence she or he has on others may be viewed as insignificant and result in one’s advice being rejected. True courage is believing that the positive influence you exert on your teachers will help them in making better decisions about their teaching performance and improving their programs, even though you may be afraid it won’t work, and that kind of courage you have in plenty."

    "Perhaps I have, but I'm scared just the same," said the supervisor. "I shall be really unhappy unless you give me some control techniques that allow me to 'teacher-proof' the system and make me forget I am afraid."

    "Very well, I will give you that sort of courage tomorrow," said the wizard.
  • "You are a very bad man," said the three co-sponsors."Oh no, my friends, I'm a very good man. It’s just that I'm a very bad wizard.""Can't you give me a faculty and staff with brains?" asked the curriculum and instruction specialist."You don't give people brains. Your faculty and staff learn more about your schools every day than I'll ever know. A baby has brains but it doesn't know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the more genuine experiences you can share with your faculty and staff, the more knowledge they are sure to gain.""That may be true," said the curriculum and instruction specialist, "but I shall be very unhappy unless you give me a faculty and staff with brains."The false wizard looked at him sadly. "Well," he said with a sigh, "I'm not much of a magician, but if you come back tomorrow morning, I will expose your faculty and staff to any number of brainy new ideas and train them in the latest educational procedures and practices. I cannot tell you that they will be able to use any of them in actual situations, for we all must figure that out for ourselves.""What about giving me more control over my teachers?" anxiously asked the black-and-blue supervisor of performance appraisal."You are confusing influence with control," answered the wizard. "You have a positive influence on your teachers, I'm sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living person who is not afraid that the influence she or he has on others may be viewed as insignificant and result in one’s advice being rejected. True courage is believing that the positive influence you exert on your teachers will help them in making better decisions about their teaching performance and improving their programs, even though you may be afraid it won’t work, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.""Perhaps I have, but I'm scared just the same," said the supervisor. "I shall be really unhappy unless you give me some control techniques that allow me to 'teacher-proof' the system and make me forget I am afraid.""Very well, I will give you that sort of courage tomorrow," said the wizard.

    The Wizard’s Secrets
    Those who have never read the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz may not be aware of the deep personal turmoil the wizard goes through when he fraudulently dispenses brains to the Scarecrow, a heart to the Tin Woodsman and courage to the Lion. Time and again he tries to convince each that not only do they already possess the judgment, consideration and courage they are seeking from the wizard, but also that they have demonstrated this capacity numerous times.

    All of this is to no avail. Finally, in desperation, he gives each what amounts to an emotional placebo. Only then is each satisfied. And how many school leaders today continue to hear and doubt the positive observations and comments made by consultants or other sources who assure them that their schools and school systems already possess many of the attributes, skills and abilities they so desperately seek?

    The consultant from Oz, left to himself, smiled to think how easy it will be to give the curriculum and instruction specialist, the professional support coordinator and the supervisor of performance appraisal exactly what they think they want.

    "How can I help being a humbug," he said, "when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can't be done? It's so easy to make these three happy because they imagine I can do anything. But it will take more than imagination to carry Dorothy back to the ‘50s in Kansas, and I'm sure I don't know how it can be done".


    Victims of COS consistently fail to recognize, celebrate and use the strong internal attributes and expertise that already exist in their school system. Sadly, persons afflicted with COS seem unable to assimilate the most important lesson that the Wizard of Oz knew all along but was unable to convey to Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Lion: He could give them only what they already had to improve their minds, bolster their hearts and sustain their courage.

    Ironies of the Syndrome
    Ann Lieberman, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University, observes that educational professionals engaged in serious reform need to introduce a tradition of sharing expertise amongst themselves. Such a tradition, she maintains, validates both intrinsic knowledge and confident inquiry. It recognizes the value of organizing activities around shared work with the contribution of local experience, and it broadens the base of that experience through collaboration.

    "As [stakeholders] become more secure about what they know, they are more willing and able to pick and choose among resources beyond the classroom doors for what they need to know," Lieberman says.

    Other lessons the Wizard of Oz knew all along are these:

  • Experience: This is the very attribute we need to tap into in order to achieve the performance outcomes specified in Goals 2000, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997, the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. This is the characteristic that persons infected with Consultant From Oz Syndrome often devalue or ignore.

  • Confidence: Peter Drucker says, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." Administrators with COS, who typically see systemic change "as something to which they react" rather than "as something they cause," are unlikely to ever possess the confidence necessary to achieve Drucker’s recommendation.

  • Motivated hearts: Victims of COS seem to forget that virtually everyone (including themselves) who has ever chosen education as a career did so because of a heartfelt conviction (at least once upon a time) that what they were going to do was of value. Remember the professional support coordinator? If he listened closely, would he hear a faint ticking, in 50-minute increments, of hearts that still retain the vitality to pump the life blood necessary to reinvigorate our anemic classrooms and schools?

  • Looking Inward
    Experience, confidence and heart are essential to revitalizing general, special and vocational education. Deal strikes this point most aptly when he states: "Excellence or improvement cannot be installed or mandated from [Consultants From Oz]; it must be developed within. It must arise from collective conversations, behaviors and spirit among teachers, administrators, students and parents within a local school community."

    As we continue our journey down the yellow brick road of reform in education, administrators and teachers alike would do well to remember the lyrics of the ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll song by America: "Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have."

    Garnett Smith is an assistant professor of special education at the Hawaii University Affiliated Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1776 University Ave., U-A 4-6, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822. E-mail: garnett@hawaii.edu. An earlier version of this article appeared in Teaching Exceptional Children.