Education Monday: $3.3 Million for Fancy Consultants
One of the highest-paying jobs a newly-minted college graduate can find is to join one of the big consultancies and churn out research reports for the many American corporations, foundations and public agencies that believe deeply in the cult of expertise.
Somehow over the past generation or so, the big consultants have managed to persuade managers in the private and public sectors alike that the best advice and ideas about changing and improving an operation come not from within, but from high-priced consultants who roam the nation, dropping in to enterprises about which they know little or nothing, making a quick study of the situation, and ginning up beauttifully-bound reports written in clean and official-sounding corporatese.
Mayor Adrian Fenty, a big believer in combing the nation for best practices, has made some impressive hires to run city agencies, but one of the first things he did upon finding out that he would indeed take over the D.C. school system was to announce that two big consultancies, McKinsey and Company and Alvarez and Marsal, would be getting $3.34 million to identify waste and inefficiencies in the long-troubled, much-studied school system. This is a sad and disappointing development: There is no shortage of information on how the D.C. system manages to waste so much money. As the Post's April Witt reported in the paper's investigative series earlier this month, so many reports and reform plans have been commissioned and produced for the D.C. schools over the past quarter-century that you could probably build a nice, sturdy elementary school building out of the accumulated mass of thick documents.
Luckily, Fenty says the cost of hiring these pricey consultants will be borne by foundations and private donations, not by the taxpayer. Still, the tasks with which the consultants have been charged are dishearteningly repetitive of so many reform efforts that have come down the pike in recent years.
McKinsey is being asked to develop "a business plan for creating a special education pilot program in DCPS" and to develop "solutions and methods for tracking DCPS initiatives." Is there any study of the D.C. schools in the past 25 years that didn't seek to do the same thing?
Alvarez is being paid to "review all individual school budgets and overall DCPS budget," identify "patterns of inequity or inefficiency at a district-wide level," analyze "past spending patterns and practices" and look at "Medicaid reimbursements for special education services with the goal of recapturing funds." I've read that report at least half a dozen times already.
And these consultants have done this before, too. That's how they make their money--they sell school systems on the fact that they have done this kind of work in other cities, and then they provide each of their clients with fairly similar analyses and recommendations.
That's not to say that the consultants don't come up with important and interesting ideas. But their conclusions generally read much like the conclusions of all the other studies that have been done of this system; for example, they will surely decide that breaking up big inner-city schools into more manageable, smaller schools would likely boost intimacy and achievement.
The overarching ideas in the education reform business don't vary a whole lot from city to city or even from year to year. What's been missing from the District's schools is not plans or studies or outside consultants' reports. What's missing is the political will to clean out a cynical and too-often incompetent middle management, demand student achievement, create pockets of success to lure back families who long ago gave up on the public schools, foster parent involvement, and relieve the schools of decades of accumulated functions that ought to be reserved to social service agencies. No number of reports from consultants take us a step closer to any of that.
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