Beware outside consultants? - Part 4, hiring organizations

This is my final post in my series on outside consultants. Parts 1 and 2 highlighted two controversial consultants, Drs. Willard Daggett and Ruby Payne, to illustrate some possible issues of concern. Part 3 delved into some professional obligations of outside consultants (like myself) who work with educational organizations. Today's post will offer some of my thoughts on the responsibilities of the school organizations that hire outside consultants.

J. Dellicolli helpfully pointed us to the National Staff Development Council (NSDC) Code of Ethics for professional development leaders and providers. The code for providers is fairly similar to the National Speakers Association's (NSA) code that I highlighted in Part 3. Unlike the NSA code, the NSDC code does include an emphasis on alignment with student learning goals. Note that Dr. Payne may fall afoul of Principle II of the NSDC code, which states that professional development providers should "habitually and accurately explain the strengths and limitations of the practices they recommend" (emphasis added). Similarly, Dr. Daggett's work appears to violate Principle I of the NSDC code, which says that services should be consistent with "high standards of quality."

More importantly for this post, however, is the NSDC code for professional development leaders:

Principle I: Staff development leaders are committed to achieving school and district goals, particularly those addressing high levels of learning and performance for all students and staff members.

Staff development leaders make decisions based on high academic standards for all students. They ensure that staff development activities make a significant contribution to the accomplishment of school system and school goals for student learning.

Principle II: Staff development leaders select staff development content and processes that are research-based and proven in practice after examining various types of information about student and educator learning needs.

Staff development leaders are informed consumers of educational research. They are familiar with and use research findings and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the research and its applicability to their settings. Consequently, staff development leaders only recommend professional practices that support high-quality teaching and learning. Staff development leaders use data to plan, assess, and evaluate the effectiveness of staff development efforts. Data may be drawn from various valid and reliable sources such as norm-referenced and criterion-reference tests, portfolios of student work, teacher grades, and student attendance and graduation rates. These data are disaggregated to determine the effectiveness of the school program and staff development on various sub-groups of students. In addition, other sources of information, such as data on student, parent, staff, and community satisfaction with schools, are used to guide decision making.

Principle III: Staff development leaders continuously improve their work through the ongoing evaluation of staff development's effectiveness in achieving school system and school goals for student learning.

Staff development leaders conduct formative as well as summative evaluation of the effectiveness of the staff development content and processes in achieving student learning objectives. They routinely and clearly report in writing the results of staff development to persons responsible for allocating staff development resources. Staff development leaders ensure that adequate funds are available for evaluation and that the evaluation process begins with the establishment of student learning goals and the planning of adult learning activities. They also ensure that members of school improvement teams have the necessary knowledge and skills to evaluate the effectiveness of staff development in improving student learning.

Principle IV: Staff development leaders continuously improve their knowledge and skills.

Staff development leaders read widely, attend workshops and conferences, belong to appropriate professional associations, regularly consult with researchers and professional colleagues, and reflect on the effectiveness of their own practice. They contribute to the development of other staff development leaders through conference presentations, professional writing, and service on professional boards and committees.

Principle V: Staff development leaders ensure an equitable distribution of resources to accomplish school system and school goals for student learning.

Staff development leaders ensure to the extent of their authority that adequate resources of funding and time are available to achieve district and school goals and that the allocation of these resources reflect both fairness and need. They also ensure that resources are invested in those areas deemed most likely to promote high levels of learning for all students.

Principle VI: Staff development leaders advocate for policies and practices that ensure the continuous learning of all students and employees.

Staff development leaders make certain that schools provide a culture and structures that support the continuous improvement of practice and of student learning. These organizations have norms of continuous improvement, collegiality, and experimentation. Organizational structures such as school calendars and daily schedules, labor contracts, and leadership practices advance school system and school goals for student learning.

Principle VII: Staff development leaders conduct themselves in a manner that avoids conflict of interest or the appearance of such conflict.

Staff development leaders do not accept any compensation, gratuities, or favors from staff development providers that may directly or indirectly affect leaders' judgments about contracting for services with providers. In addition, staff development leaders have no financial investment in or obligation to providers with whom the school system or school contracts.

Some of my quick thoughts on these seven principles include the following:

  • In many school organizations, the percentage of staff development time spent on activities having nothing to do with Principle 1 is very high. This is a complete waste of an extremely precious resource.
  • NSDC advocates professional development that is "research-based and proven in practice" (Principle 2). This is an admirable goal but difficult to achieve given the often conflicting nature of existing research, the lack of high-quality research in certain areas, and/or the highly contextual nature of education (i.e., certain practices are more successful in some situations but not others and we're not always sure when or why this is true).
  • I would guess that most school districts do an extremely poor job with Principle 3, evaluation of the effectiveness of their professional development practices. This is also probably true for Principle 6, ensuring a climate of continuous learning for employees and students.
  • Principle 5, equitable and adequate allocation of funding and time, is intriguing. I'm unclear whether this pertains only to the professional development efforts themselves or whether it's a broader call for the other supports that must accompany staff development activities in order for those activities to be successful.
  • Like for the NSA code, I also think that the NSDC code may not be specific or comprehensive enough. For example, here are some suggestions from Darin King:

    1. Balance. Has the organization adequately researched the topic to understand the variety of perspectives associated with a specific topic? Sometimes school districts can become enamored with a certain consultant and their ideological and/or philosophical perspective. It is important to seek out information on the same topic that is slightly or significantly different.
    2. Situation. Has the organization adequately researched what makes their organization unique from others? A school district needs to identify the uniqueness of their own situation to determine the validity of a consultant's recommendations. I believe strongly that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to making significant change in a school district. We are sometimes too quick to adopt an entire list of recommendations without recognizing the local presence of the parameters that are necessary for a successful implementation.
    3. Capacity. Has the organization adequately assessed their capacity to implement the recommendations? Considering change without a clear picture of the organizational capacity as it relates to the implementation is silly. There are areas in every school district that are weak and/or stressed, so implementing recommendations that rely on weak and/or stressed areas may become difficult to successfully accomplish.
    4. Alignment. Has the organization adequately developed strategic and/or tactical plans that focus on specific organizational outcomes? To avoid constantly "jumping on the bandwagon" with the latest fad, school districts should have a clear picture of what they are trying to accomplish. The whole language versus phonics debate comes to mind. Figure out what you believe in, find a consultant that can help, and then make sure the recommendations are aligned to the strategic outcomes of the district.
    5. These are all great ideas and align well with the NSDC code. Here are some additional recommendations that I'd make for hiring organizations:

      1. Do your homework. As Ron Houtman notes, hiring organizations "should do some due diligence and see what others are saying" about the people they're considering hiring. In the Google era, there's no reason not to spend a few minutes researching proposed outside consultants. Better to find out beforehand than to have participants fact check and undermine the speaker during the session.
      2. Avoid unnecessary controversy. Both Daggett and Payne come with too much baggage. There usually are other folks who can deliver the same high-quality content and message who don't have the accompanying controversy. Why not hire them instead and avoid the negative news story in the local paper?
      3. Don't waste people's time. As Darin noted, have a clear goal in mind. Assess the organization's capacity to implement the consultant's recommendations. Put into place the needed support structures to make the initiative successful. And so on... Otherwise, it becomes just another "sit and get" session with no purpose, no follow-up, and no impact. In other words, a session that erodes your credibility with the people whom you're suppposed to be serving.
      4. Don't just bring someone in because he's a great speaker. Unfortunately, what I often see with my own invitations is that someone has seen me present and "thinks I'd be a great speaker for their staff." As much as I enjoy intersecting with school organizations and other groups, however, it shouldn't be about me and it shouldn't be that I get invited just because I'm a dynamic presenter (or because they heard a neighboring school district brought me in so they think they should too). Again, it's not purposeful and, no matter how great I am, it's almost guaranteed not to be impactful. Now, I do believe there is some worth in bringing in someone to "challenge the status quo" IF there's a follow-up plan in mind...
      5. Look inside. Some of your best experts already work for you. They're already doing what you want the rest of your staff to do. Find ways to tap into their experience and expertise. Create thoughtful, structured, ongoing opportunities for them to work with others in your organization. Give them resources to increase their reach and impact. There's no reason to abide by the old saw that "an expert is anyone who's at least 50 miles away."
      6. Insist on more for your money. I'll echo Gary Stager's beliefs that hiring organizations should ask more of outside consultants. Don't just bring us in for a keynote talk. Create strategic opportunities for us to interact with educators before and after "the big speech." Have us do workshops, discussion sessions, training in the classroom or computer lab, etc. In addition to teachers or administrators, have us meet with school board members, support staff, and/or community members (all of which are neglected but important groups for the success of professional development efforts). Most of us charge by the day. Don't kill us but use us for the entire day (including the evening). Many of us would greatly welcome the opportunity to interact more with your people.
      7. This has been an extremely long post so I will conclude with the observation that lack of follow-up kills the most well-intentioned professional development. If hiring organizations don't have a plan in place for building upon and extending an outside consultant's visit, they might as well not even have her come visit.

        Like my previous list for outside consultants, this list is not meant to be conclusive but rather a starting place for conversation. What else should I have included?

        [Note: If you haven't read the comments to Part 2 (in particular), or the accompanying conversations on the In Practice blog and elsewhere, they're well worth a read. See also Miguel Guhlin's post regarding his own expectations for speakersGary Stager's 2000 article section on False Prophets/Profits, and my previous post, Why is staff development so bad?]

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