The Education-Industrial Complex


If I wanted to stop being a scientist and become wealthy, there’s one obvious path in front of me:

I’d become an educational consultant.

What would be the source of my newfound wealth? Federal grants, state programs and professional development funds from cash-strapped school districts. School districts that have stratospheric class sizes, have cut all arts, and fired their librarians long ago.

I bet I’d be able to double the income I’m making now, as a university professor.

Would be unethical to become a well-paid educational consultant? Myself, I’d have trouble sleeping.

How could I switch from being a science professor to educational consultant? It wouldn’t be hard. I have a Ph.D. in a STEM field and have been an educator for a couple decades. I have connections in a few school districts, and with a few years of experience working on STEM Education projects I could easily create a brand around myself as a pioneer in inquiry-based learning. I could hire a current or former teacher to gain K-12 classroom credibility.

If I were to come with a catchy name and website, and start pushing the pavement, I bet I could come up with a strong bank of clients within a year. I’d start out with some freebie gigs, build up a positive reputation, and then I could start charging, on a sliding scale depending on how much money the client has to burn.

Would I be a good educational consultant? No, I think I’d be a horrible one. Would people realize I’m a horrible one? No, because the reputation of a consultant isn’t necessarily connected with success of long-term outcomes.

I’d have little to offer than the obvious stuff that any scientist would be able to offer: Kids inherently love science. People learn though self-directed inquiry. Teaching science is hard because teachers need to provide a strong framework within which kids can develop and conduct their own experiments.

You don’t need a consultant to tell you that. But that’s what I’d do, and after I throw in a ton of accepted acronyms, and throw in one of my own invention, I bet it would sell like a snocone in the summertime.

Why would I think this could actually fly? Because I see it all around me.

When education falls on hard times, consultants win, and kids lose.

Teachers lose too, because the consultants are brought into to fix the teachers. What the teachers really need is the freedom to do what they’ve been trained to do, but no consultant can get paid to say that.

US educational levels are inversely tracking income inequality; that’s not merely a correlative relationship. School districts that have no money and are failing (also not a spurious relationship) are apt to find some kind of money to overpay consultants, with the mistaken thinking that if the people inside the system can’t make everything fine, you have to bring in someone from outside.

I’ve seen outside consultants receive huge checks from school districts, when the districts really, truly, need to spend the money other places. I haven’t ever seen any consultants fix anything for real. I have seen – and am part of – genuine partnerships that result in long-term changes over the course of several years. But hiring an outside consultant for a day, week, month or year? The only real result, that I’ve seen, is that the consultant’s pockets get stuffed with cash.

Educators tend to be smart people, so what’s with wasting the money on consultants? I’m not wholly sure, but here are some ideas. First, part of it is that administrators in underfunded districts can’t hire anybody to do certain tasks full-time, so they spend far too much on consultants to do jobs that should be done by employees within the districts.

Second, outside consultants have an odor of happiness and credibility. They dress like administrators and not like teachers, and appear well-connected to people of influence. Their dog-and-pony shows cause a happy feeling of positivity that you can’t get from someone you work with on a day-to-day basis. If you smile, bring bagels, and are full of funny ideas that appear to be innovative, then you’ll get good reviews and then you’ll get hired by someone else.

Third, hiring a consultant is easy. Making change yourself is hard, and making change happen in a stubborn community with which you work on a daily basis is even harder. But giving a check to someone who says that they can make change happen for you? That’s easy.

I am experienced with several troubled schools. Like all messed-up urban schools, the reasons for the problems are complex, but you could reasonably choose to see it as a simple matter, as symptom of poverty. These problems can’t be fixed with a consultant. This doesn’t stop the administrative efforts to find the consultant with a magic bullet.

I am familiar with one school in particular, which has been known to be a problem school for decades. For almost as long, this school has been working with an outside organization that has been hired as a consultant to repair the school. Obviously, the outside organization isn’t doing its job. If they were being honest with themselves, couldn’t the consultants return the checks to the school to spend the money more wisely? Yes, they could. But who works against their own livelihood?

When schools have excellent teachers who are empowered to teach as they see fit, and when the curriculum is designed for inquiry rather than memorization, then kids will learn. Right now, our public schools are missing those critical elements. Until consultants can find a fix to those problems, I wish they’d just go back to the classroom.

(As an addendum, you might ask what kind of long-term partnerships am I involved in and how do they help fix our problems? I’m mostly working to recruit and prepare more excellent science teachers than we currently have, and to promote science education for kids of all ages. Their effectiveness is handicapped by lack of funds, and policies set by the district, the state and the federal government.)

2 thoughts on “The Education-Industrial Complex

  1. Not that I don’t agree with some of what you said, but consultants can play a role when administration can’t see the forest from the trees. But keep in mind, consultants wouldn’t have jobs if they weren’t hired in the first place. In business school (which is good training for a consultant), we were warned that one shouldn’t be frustrated if a report you wrote as a consultant ended up in some drawer without ever being acted upon. You wrote it, they read it – they have consulted someone. Sure that may reflect on the content of the consultant, but I think it speaks more about the people who hired them and could not find the solution they needed themselves, or did not want to put in the work required to make changes. I also think, just from my talks with my teacher friends, that generally the culture in education is very risk adverse when it comes to making decisions, and that often they can use consultants as the scapegoat rather than taking responsibility for something themselves.

    • I’ve just never seen a short-term consultant success story in K-12 education. In concept, it’s great. In practice, what a frickin’ waste of dough. I’m waiting for someone, who hasn’t worked as a consultant, to tell me otherwise.

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