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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.

By Marc Fisher |  June 25, 2007; 8:07 AM ET
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Here is the difference between outside consultants to government and outside consultants to corporations: The corporate consultant is an axe-man, telling the corporation who to fire so re-organization can occur. Government is more likely to hire consultants and then ignore their advice.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 25, 2007 9:25 AM

I don't think Mr. Fisher really understands what is included in the price of an outside consultant. It is not just paying some people to do work your own people could do themselves. The consulting company picks up their benefits, numerous logistical and material costs. The costs of any labor disputes. These extra costs can double the base wage.

What the mayor gets in return should be a more objective assessment of the situation, one not swayed by connections, favors, or inertia within the DC government. One done by people who do this all the time, and so have more expertise, have economies of scale. The consultants will likely work longer hours than the DC school system expects its own employees too, will have better resources, equipment. The consulting firm will fill in gaps in employee availability.

The military doesn't build its own airplanes, and even doctors go to other doctors. Seeking outside advice from a reputable source is usually much more efficient and beneficial.

I think the Washington Post would certainly benefit from outside advice on its news content! I come from an academic background where objective criticism is valued. I would not expect a newsman to understand this.

Posted by: joe | June 25, 2007 9:38 AM

Have any of these consultants had actual experience in a classroom?

Posted by: silver spring | June 25, 2007 9:38 AM

These consultants "would be getting $3.34 million to identify waste and inefficiencies in the long-troubled, much-studied school system."

Obviously, the first item of waste and inefficiency is hiring overpriced consultants. How about putting that $3.34 million toward fixing the buildings or buying some books?

Posted by: NAC | June 25, 2007 9:59 AM

Does who can't do, consult.

Posted by: petra | June 25, 2007 10:25 AM

I was once in a position to watch outside consultants form a major reorganization in a medium-sized health care system.

None of the consultants had health care experience or expertise. They embraced the ideas of any employee (usually those from the logistics/operations side as opposed to the care-giving side) on how to "improve" the process, and pooh-poohed ideas of the front-line staff (or criticisms by the front line staff of their favored ideas, for that matter). And they billed millions of dollars in the process.

The result was a system that didn't actually work well at all in the flow of health care. And in the next few years, the changes they instituted were the cause of some major malpractice errors.

About 10 years after the launch of this reorg process, the majority of the recommendations bought so expensively were phased out. Because they simply didn't work.

I agree that sometimes an outside view can help you find ways to get past institutional road blocks or find a way to improve a process flow through new technologies. But letting outsiders totally revamp any large organization is simply foolish. They have no long-term investment in making sure it works. Because if there are problems...well, someone will call them back in and they can bill some more.

Posted by: I don't like Consulticks | June 25, 2007 11:44 AM

I don't usually agree with Mark, but this time I do.

Consultant studies is how the DC schools got to the sorry state they're in. If they don't have half a dozen of these already I'd be surprised.

What'd you bet if you assembled the past 3-4 supers of the DC public schools they'd give you as good a rundown on waste.

Posted by: RoseG | June 25, 2007 1:16 PM

I wonder would be complaining about wasted money if we had inspired teachers who demanded excellence in their classrooms. Not one or two but a system full of inspired teachers.

Having facilitated professional development in the city, most of the teachers couldn't write a logical lesson plan. They did not understand how to actively engage students during instruction. They could not define learning. They did not understand how to check for understanding during instruction. They made many elementary content errors. Now, the consultants can talk about saving money at the system level but we have a damaged front line. Put some $$$$$ into them.

Posted by: Michelle | June 25, 2007 1:38 PM

I worked for DCPS and witnessed the waste, abuse of the system, and general fraud.
Armed guards and drivers for the super, paid parking for administrators who are paid six figure salaries, DCPS-provided Blackberry devices, credit cards, catered luncheons, you name it. When I worked there, there were 20 people working just in the communications department, many of whom only worked 20 hours a week and were paid for 40. I talked to the DC IG and was blown off, to people in now Mayor Fenty's office and was blown off, the chair of the school board and was blown off, and on and on and on. DCPS should be razed. Shame on the people who only now want to pay 3 plus million to find out what is wrong at DCPS.

Posted by: Sam | June 26, 2007 12:44 AM

I worked for DCPS and witnessed the waste, abuse of the system, and general fraud.
Armed guards and drivers for the super, paid parking for administrators who are paid six figure salaries, DCPS-provided Blackberry devices, credit cards, catered luncheons, you name it. When I worked there, there were 20 people working just in the communications department, many of whom only worked 20 hours a week and were paid for 40. I talked to the DC IG and was blown off, to people in now Mayor Fenty's office and was blown off, the chair of the school board and was blown off, and on and on and on. DCPS should be razed. Shame on the people who only now want to pay 3 plus million to find out what is wrong at DCPS.

Posted by: Sam | June 26, 2007 12:44 AM

The whole idea of consultants at this point seems a bit contrary to the ethos that Fenty was supposedly going to bring to DCPS. Mr. Fenty came with the battlecry of "IMPLEMENTATION." In large part, the criticism of Mr. Janney was not his ideas but his failure to implement them quickly enough! Frankly, there is no shortage of good ideas...the problem is lack of leadership, relentlessness, determination, willingness, to implement them!

Consultants absolutely have their place and expertise and value, BUT, not here, not now, not in DCPS...Just fix one thing for me - not everything, just one thing - you pick it and show me it worked!

The education czar copies from another education plan and I hear the new Chancellor intends to convene focus groups of teachers????? Frankly, as a teacher, I cannot say I am inspired!

Where is that Nike ad when you need it!

Posted by: Michael | June 27, 2007 12:51 PM

Coming from the perspective of a teacher, I wish they would spend teh $3.3 million dollars developing a coherent, tight curriculum (or borrowing one). The current math curriculum is horrible! It is fraught with errors, inconsistencies and serves as nothing more than a general guide for what needs to be taught!

Hey the schools are factories and the widgets are kids'brains. THe real consulting work needs to be done on the teaching and learning process and making that more and more efficient. How can we streamline the process of teaching and learning and improve the feedback loop.

Hey, I know the consultants can come in and find at least their fees in cost cutting measures but come on the meat (and by the way the hardest work) is in those classrooms!

Posted by: Michael | June 27, 2007 1:05 PM

D.C. Council's Low Expectations

As many thinking Washingtonians and newcomers have noticed, District government has affirmed our growing local culture of low expectations. Leadership and experience in D.C. is now defined as anyone who is successful at getting elected or appointed to public office. Proven expertise, exceptional credentials and comprehensive plans that are truly open to the public are no longer the standard.

Testimony at the D.C. Council's confirmation hearings for education officers Victor Reinoso, Allen Lew, and Michelle Rhee prove this point. On one hand Mr. Reinoso's relatively minimal credentials for Deputy Mayor for Education are hyped, yet he is excused at this stage and his age for not understanding the lack of professional integrity and competence behind plagiarism. All responsible parents and teachers struggle to hold our children to a higher standard of honesty and accountability.

Education is our most critical tool for socioeconomic development. Mr. Fenty and the Council's minimal standards and practices regarding Mr. Lew indicate another example of low expectations and dubious credentials. Remember, this is the same Allen Lew who's been one of the chefs cooking the books regarding the Washington Nationals baseball stadium development. Yes, the same person that angered the Council and numerous public observers by his tactics of misinformation, disinformation and delayed information to the Council last year on stadium construction financing.

At the very least, Mr. Lew's appointment to be executive director of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization represents a new low in governmental incest, administrative inbreeding, and sole source corruption. I pray that we all vigilantly follow the money if he's confirmed.

Then there's Ms. Rhee, a truly likeable and attentive individual whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk with recently. Despite her seemingly fabulous façade of professionalism and background in education, her bottom line credentials and expertise as a chancellor candidate have major experience holes. We can do better. You can't fake managing a multibillion-dollar urban school system. The leadership and logistics required to effectively manage any major city system is not like amateur night at the Apollo Theater. Far more talent and technique is demanded, and justifiably expected. Acting like you know just won't cut it.

The common agreement among most proponents and opponents of Mr. Fenty's appointees is that we need systemic and measurable improvements in our public schools. No doubt, I fully agree. However, unquestionable excellence at every level should be our standard. Sacrificing quality at the top, and in the beginning of a long process for systemic improvement, has previously proven to have disastrous results.

We can no longer academically or fiscally afford another series of untested and unfulfilled experiments on our children. We suffer from serial superintendents, and the expense to buyout their contracts. I'm not willing to gamble my most important investment, my child, on a stage full of dancing amateurs possessing no rhyme, reason or rhythm. It's show time, and the D.C. Council needs to get its act together regarding higher standards and genuine best practices.

Dennis Moore, Chairperson
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control - DCICC

Posted by: Dennis Moore DCICC | June 27, 2007 7:30 PM

Thank you to Mr. Fisher for speaking so boldly about Mayor Fenty's desire to spend soooo much money on consultants we don't need! Why not propose a program of collaboration among health and social welfare, early childhood identification, special education interventions that work in the general education classrooms, and free (you could use that 3 million of this)after-care in the schools? These young bright, enthusiastic leaders could certainly mastermind something that would make a difference.

Posted by: Barb | June 27, 2007 8:50 PM

my the tide has changed towards the Fenty school takeover. WashTimes did an article on how Ms Rhee cannot prove she actually succeeded or can solely take credit for the reading results she claims the kids gained under her tutelage. Council finally challenges Reinoso for plagarism and he pleads the 5th. Fenty said what was wrong with schools was the management. Give it to him and someone that reports directly to him and things will get done. It appears this audit will take at least 6-months. these folks are going to take quite some time to understand DCPS, if they are not just applying their prior criteri and developing recommendations. There is no way there recommendations will be anything but cookie cutter, unless they engage the public.

Posted by: RobGreg | June 29, 2007 4:43 PM

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