A common practice in business and industry, when management sees a need for dramatic improvement, is to pay a high price to a consultant to come in, dig through and analyze data, interview employees at all levels, and then tell management what it already knew. It sounds funny, but it is not an unreasonable strategy for building consensus and getting support for significant organizational or process changes that need to be made for improved efficiency or customer service or safety or other key measures. Of course management is sometimes surprised at the results of such efforts, and that is good news when it happens, if it results in action rather than defensiveness.
Good reasons for using consultants to sell change is that their employees normally work, during such short-term projects, at unsustainable levels of intensity and are totally unconcerned about the local politics and interrelationships that often inhibit investigations and truth telling by full time employees. The approach also allows employees at all levels to have a say in what needs to be done, helps all employees to recognize that change is needed, and enables the management directly involved to better sell proposals to their own management. I experienced consultant overload a few times during my career and, while usually educational, it is not always fun. A few of my former Eastman Chemical associates will remember well our experience with Brooks International.
What made me think of this is a story in today’s The State Newspaper about a proposal from the state Education Oversight Committee to spend $300,000 on a consultant who would “…evaluate at least three school districts, analyzing how efficiently they spend money on non-instructional expenses, including overhead, personnel, procurement, facilities, transportation and technology.” Well, I’d like to know also how efficiently they spend money on instructional expenses. That is where most of the money goes, but digging into that issue could be politically sensitive.
State Superintendent of Education, Mick Zais, opposes the study because it requires no funding or buy-in from the districts to be studied and does not require the districts to take any action as a result of the study. He has an excellent point and probably thinks that the primary purpose for the study is political rather than educational. After all, one of the primary supporters is State Senator Vincent Sheheen who was defeated by Nikki Haley, a Zais supporter, for governor and plans to challenge her again. He is going to be needing ammunition, and an unfavorable report on school districts would be very helpful. I have no doubt that Superintendent Zais, Senator Sheheen, and Governor Haley all want improvement in SC public education, but the political issues are very real obstructions they all face.
Mr. Zais already knows, and reports in the article, that, while the student population of South Carolina public schools increased 10.3% from 1995 to 2011, the number of teachers and administrators increased 48.1%. A quick calculation shows that the ratio of students to total teachers and administrators decreased, over that time period, from 14 to 10.4. I don’t believe anybody has presented any data showing that the increases in staffing and associated spending have improved education results.
So, while this proposed study by hired guns fits the corporate model in that it would involve outsiders coming in for a short period of high-intensity work and telling management what it already knows, it misses the mark because nobody would be responsible for or have the authority required for making the needed improvements. It would just be throwing good money after bad. It would not address at all the fatal flaw that the little state of South Carolina has 81 school districts, each with a powerful superintendent, large staff, support from local politicians, and turf to protect.
Typical of the meaningless data that are often presented to the public is a little table in the article, reproduced below, that tells what percentage of spending in each of the eight school districts in and around the state capitol is spent on each of four categories, instruction, support, operations, and leadership. What would be more helpful would be dollars per pupil spent in each of these categories. I suppose that would clearly show both widely publicized inequities in South Carolina education spending as well as less well known efficiencies of some districts.
The bottom line is that few in power in the public school systems have any strong motivation for significant change and any elected official trying to drive such change will feel stubborn resistance of the education establishment even while facing constant demands for more funding. The real daily pressures on school superintendents and data such as that in the table above are much more likely to lead the Lexington 4 Superintendent to argue for spending more on leadership than to motivate the Lexington 5 Superintendent to try to figure out how to spend less on instruction.
And all that dysfunction is why we have the current unfortunate demand for more charter and private schools and for public funding for them. When I was a kid, the only drivers for private schools were desires for religious education and for continued segregation, neither of which were significant issues in 1950's small East Tennessee towns where the public schools were generally held in high esteem and morning devotions and The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag were key elements of the daily routine. Now the primary drivers seem to be desires for improved basic education, for more discipline, and for simple respect for religious faith. And, unfortunately, there may still be a few die-hard segregationists around.
So, forget the $300,000 for a consultant study until and unless there is a commitment to act on the recommendations.