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Consulting in Education: What Would You Say You Do Here?

By Guest Blogger — November 02, 2015 5 min read
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Note: Daniel Lautzenheiser, former program manager at AEI and currently in the education practice at the Boston Consulting Group, is guest blogging this week. He is joined by his colleagues Lane McBride and Tyce Henry.

Hi all. We’re grateful for the chance to guest blog this week, and want to thank Rick for the opportunity. Most of us know Rick in some form or fashion— some even as students of his back in his UVA days! So it’s great to be here.

By way of brief introduction, BCG is a global management consulting firm. We help organizations grapple with their most difficult strategic and organizational challenges, and then help them make the changes needed to achieve their goals. Over the past 10 years, in the U.S. and abroad, we’ve expanded our footprint significantly in education by working with schools, districts, universities, foundations, and education companies—to date, over 500 projects worldwide.

The small group of us who started BCG’s education practice did so because we are passionate about all children having an opportunity to succeed in school and in life. We believed that while the effects of poverty are real and enormous, schools and systems can flip the odds for disadvantaged children. And, we believed that we had some expertise, tools, and talent that could help in this sector, just as in the other sectors where we work.

For some, that last part still begs the question: what, exactly, does a private consulting firm do with public schools and districts? Or, with apologies to Office Space, “What would you say...you DO here?” Today, we’ll take a crack at answering that question.

So, what does a consulting firm like BCG do in education?

Bring focus, structure, and facts to help education leaders with tough challenges. We work with incredibly smart and dedicated educators and administrators. Most of them are also incredibly busy. Our teams are able to spend a period of time intensely focused on a difficult problem: say, how a district should better align its limited resources with its instructional priorities over the next five years, or a how an education non-profit with a successful program can scale it to serve more students. While our team collectively has decades of education experience, including in the classroom, our value is not primarily in knowing something about education that our clients don’t already know. Rather, we can help bring focus and structure to decision-making: what are the facts and evidence we know? What do we not know? What are the criteria and principles upon which we will make a decision? What are our options? What will be the implications of our decision? And we work through these questions side-by-side with our clients, helping them develop their own solutions, challenging their thinking, and making the best decisions for their context.

Help education systems learn from each other. Over the past decade, we have worked with many of the largest U.S. districts, at the state level, with public charter school operators, and with a number of education-focused foundations. One advantage of this is knowing what other schools and districts are doing, what is working, and what efforts have fallen short. Busy school and district leaders often find this helpful. And, as a firm that works not only in education, we can bring in ideas from other sectors as well.

Bring functional knowledge. At BCG, we work across a wide array of what we call “functional” practice areas--the core tasks, or functions, that organizations perform—such as people and organization, strategy, and operations. While education is unique in certain ways, insights from across sectors on topics like organization, culture, budgeting, and strategic planning can provide new and helpful approaches.

For one example, after a legislative and judicial process culminated in the merger of Memphis City and Shelby County schools in 2011-13, BCG was brought on to help coordinate the merger. While few education leaders have been part of a merger, mergers are relatively common in other sectors. Many individual decisions within the merger process, such as school staffing levels or how to unify the food service function, were unique to education, but many of the tools we used in helping leaders simultaneously manage over 40 teams merging district activities were not.

And...what we don’t do:. One thing we don’t do is approach education systems with preconceived notions of what is right for their community, independent of its context.

We believe every context is different and merits a unique answer. Take the issue of charter schools, which tends to elicit strong feelings. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we worked with the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans as they prepared to take on a rapidly increasing number of schools. Given the extreme circumstances in New Orleans, the RSD viewed the situation as one where a very new and unique model might be appropriate. We worked with the RSD in the early stages of developing a novel portfolio district strategy, which currently relies heavily on charter schools and, while not without controversy, has supported significant gains in student achievement.

The New Orleans playbook, however, is not the playbook for everyone. Earlier this year we worked with education, community, business, and philanthropic leaders in Arkansas to help devise a long-term plan to improve their pre-K-12 schools. That plan speaks to improving teacher quality, expanding pre-K, providing more wraparound supports, and turning around low-performing schools (among other things), but makes no mention of charter schools. While the quality of implementation is paramount to the success of any plan, we believe the Arkansas plan itself represents a similarly viable path to substantial improvement. And, importantly, it is the right plan for Arkansas.

So, enough about us. We’ll be back later this week to talk about some of the lessons we’ve learned from a decade of work in K-12 education.

--Daniel Lautzenheiser, Lane McBride, and Tyce Henry

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.