Do You Need an Education Consultant?
“Working with consultants isn’t cheap - how do we know if it’s what we need?” We hear that one a lot as we talk to districts considering whether they should hire a consultant to help them personalize learning in their schools. There’s no right or wrong answer as to whether you should seek support or go it alone, but there are some questions that are worth thinking about as you consider your path.
Scope and Scale
As you think about whether to hire a consultant to help you with personalized learning, the first question you should ask yourself is, “What is the scope and scale of the change we’re hoping to make?” Most districts don’t need expert support when they are looking for changes that are small, and that are intended to stay small. For example, if you’re looking to integrate a piece of software, adopt a few new practices in single classrooms, or encourage a handful of innovative teachers to try out some personalized learning practices, you almost certainly have the capacity within your district to manage these changes yourself. There are great books, websites, videos, and online courses out there that provide the basics.
So why do districts hire a consultant? Usually, it’s because they’re looking for something bigger. They’re looking to change the way students, teachers, leaders, and parents in their district think about learning, for example, modernizing the definition of what it means to be educated, to be a learner, to be a teacher. Or they’re looking to ensure that the structure and the operations of their district, from district expectations to professional learning and support, create a culture of innovation where new approaches can take root. Often, they’re looking to make change across many teachers and many schools, finding ways to build buy-in, support, and ownership so that the adoption of personalized learning doesn’t fizzle out. They want to make meaningful, lasting change that is collectively owned and implemented throughout school and district teams. And it’s that kind of culture change, that kind of change management and project management, where it often makes sense to look for help from the outside.
What to Consider When Hiring a Consultant
Experience Leading Change
That brings me to my next question, regarding a district’s change management muscle. As they consider whether to hire a consultant, we ask districts to ask themselves, “As a district, how have we done historically in terms of leading and managing initiatives that had a transformative and lasting impact on our district?” It’s hard to do this well, but some districts have led transformative change, time and again, without external support. Change is hard in most organizations, however, especially in school districts, and a consultant can often bring an outside perspective, a set of tried-and-true tools, and wisdom about when to use different approaches based on the specific challenges your district is facing. Change management is as much an art as a science, and so consultants benefit from having worked in dozens, sometimes hundreds, of districts around the country where they’ve learned about what works where, and why.
Personalized Learning Knowledge
Similarly, within the context of personalized learning, we encourage leaders to think about their knowledge base. As yourself, “How much does our district know about personalized learning best practices occurring around the country?” Some districts and leaders do a great job of keeping their finger on the pulse - if they’re considering adopting personalized learning, they’ve visited schools in other districts that are already personalizing learning and have seen the practices in action. Others have hired team members who came from districts that were already successfully using personalized learning, who can speak to how it’s done. For other districts, it’s nice to bring in an outsider with deep knowledge of an area of practice, in this case personalized learning, who has worked with other districts, visited the pioneers and innovators, and done extensive research. Consultants have the ability to build deep knowledge about their field, and share that knowledge with their clients.
Leaders’ Role in the Process
Another question has to do with the district’s project leader – whether they are the superintendent, an assistant superintendent, or another administrator. We ask districts, “What role do your leaders want to play in the process?” In change management, the facilitator role and the visionary role are best held by separate individuals. The visionary needs to lead the charge and inspire the team, while the facilitator needs to plan and lead thoughtful meetings and workshops, document the process for the board and other constituencies, and ensure that the right stakeholders are included at the right times, in the right ways. If there is someone in the district who can serve as the facilitator while another leader serves as visionary, that’s great! If not, or if you feel you need someone with specialized skills as a facilitator, then a consultant might help.
Need For a Thought Partner
And finally, we encourage districts to think simply about the question of whether they feel they need a partner. We can all identify moments in our lives when we felt ready, felt strong, and wanted to be independent. Some of the best thinking and problem solving happens this way. And we can all think of moments when we benefited from having a partner. Leadership can be lonely, especially when leading a major change, and so districts and leaders who work with consultants often find the relationship to be one that leaves them feeling like they’ve got an ally, an expert, and a trusted partner in their corner as they help their district shift its culture and practice around educating students.
Inside the Life of an Education Elements Consultant
Ultimately, it’s about capacity. We asked a few questions in this post – scope and scale, experience leading change, personalized learning knowledge, leaders’ role in the process, and the need for a thought partner – each of which is really about a district’s internal capacity. Which of those capacities do you have in-house? For those you don’t have in place within your existing team, think about how you’ll develop them internally before starting the project, or about whether it makes sense to bring in a partner who might already have those capacities and who might be able to develop your team while simultaneously helping you lead your project. The good news is that if you do decide to hire a partner, there are great consultants out there. Good luck!
Interested in developing leadership skills in yourself or your team members? Join us at one of the Education Elements Leadership Institutes taking place throughout summer and fall 2019! Learn about The NEW School Rules, Innovative District Leadership, Team Habits, Strategic Planning, Teacher Retention, and more.
About Andy Shaw
Andy Shaw is a Design Principal on the Design & Implementation team, working with district and school teams to improve student outcomes through inclusive and intentional change processes. Andy has worked in education since 2002, first as a high school mathematics teacher and then for seven years as a high school administrator. Most recently, he served as the Dean of Curriculum and Innovation at The Bay School, a progressive high school in San Francisco, where he led a future-focused redesign of the school's curriculum, calendar, and bell schedule. Andy's passion is for process: keeping students, teachers and staff, school values, and culture at the heart of major initiatives. He holds a B.A in Mathematics from Bowdoin College and a Master's of Arts in Education Leadership from Teachers College at Columbia University. Andy is originally from Maryland and currently lives in Berkeley, CA.