P.T. Barnum as a school consultant

Consultants are profiting from telling the obvious to Arkansas schools, writes Brian Kisida of Mid-Riffs.

Fayetteville School District’s new Phi Delta Kappa curriculum audit will bear an uncanny resemblance to a Dilbert cartoon, Kisida predicts.


Of course, Phi Delta Kappa’s report will turn community members’ idea into “consultant-speak gobbledy-gook,” as it did for the Rogers School District.

Develop and implement a comprehensive curriculum management system that delineates short- and long-term goals, directs curriculum revision to ensure deep alignment and quality delivery, and defines the instructional model district leaders expect teachers to follow in delivering the curriculum.

Translation: Establish a system to set and achieve goals. And make it a good one.

The Rogers audit also recommends:

Research, identify and implement strategies to eliminate inequities and inequalities that impede opportunities for all students to succeed.

Translation: Do what you and every other school district has already been doing (or should have been doing) for decades.

I wonder if hiring a consultant is the only way to build support for change. You’d think any decent school district would have people on staff who can write badly.

Via Jay P. Greene, who suffers from blog envy.

Denver Public Schools has hired a therapist who specializes in marriage counseling to help the school board get along. (Via Eduwonk.) That inspired a friend of Alan Gottlieb of Education News Colorado to ask:  Who will get custody of the kids if it doesn’t work out?

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  1. Margo/Mom says:

    My district hired Phi Beta Kappa to do a curriculum audit some years back. The finding that knocked everyone out of their chairs is that there wasn’t one. Granted, this was in pre-standards days. But the poor experts apparently requested every document that they could think of that might reveal to them the curriculum–nothing. Doesn’t mean there weren’t a whole lot of individual curricula. But even at the high school level where courses have deceptively similar names (like Algebra I; French II and so forth)–there was nothing district wide to ensure any moderate level of consistency from one building to the next.

    And yes–it is sad that no one in the district knew–or could credibly state–this.

  2. Hiring outsiders to foster change is done in school districts for the same reason it is done in companies: it provides political cover to those people who want the change to occur, but would ruffle many feathers suggesting the changes. Those who would like to but can’t or won’t speak up are now able to say that an independent person is responsible. This is also why consultants are often used to determine who to lay off.

  3. These consultants’ verbiage sounds like the blah-blah-blah that Rick Dufour and his acolytes write. Alas, my superintendent is smitten with this charlatan and cannot see that his jargon-filled writing obscures an intellectual vacuum.

  4. Student of History says:


    This article uses Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Delta Kappan interchangeably. Margo/Mom follows with the same error. This is not an uncommon error but it’s sometimes a propitious one and shouldn’t be encouraged.

    The college national honor society Phi Beta Kappa doesn’t do curriculum audits. It does tend to sponsor somewhat pedantic lectures and publications for its alumni and the illustrious Book Award for high school’s outstanding juniors.

    When a professional advocacy group’s findings are mislabelled with the name of a prestigious academic honor group, it creates a perhaps undeserved presumption of authority for the findings.

  5. Yes, I noticed the same thing. Phi Delta Kappa might be flattered – I don’t know – but Phi Beta Kappa would NOT. Insulted, yes.

  6. Thanks for pointing out the Beta/Kappa error. I’ve fixed it.

  7. Student of History says:

    Thanks Joanne.

    This distinction among wildly different entities became a famous, advantageous confusion earlier when the website Mathematically Sane stated that an article called Parrot Math by Thomas C O’Brien had been published in February 1999 in Phi Beta Kappan.

    The Parrot Math article asserts that “there is significant research to show that the force-feeding of computational procedures is harmful” and that children should be allowed to construct their own understandings of math.

    Having it appear that Phi Beta Kappa endorses this view makes it seem accepted and mainstream. More than one curriculum director has done a presentation telling skeptical parents that Phi Beta Kappa endorses the proffered math curriculum to silence their concerns. After all these years this fortuitous “typo” remains up on the mathematically sane website.

    Parents wouldn’t defer to the actual Phi Delta Kappan article in quite the same way. That’s why I noticed and knew it mattered. For anyone not familiar with it mathematically sane was expressly created to be an antidote to the information found on the mathematically correct website.

  8. And people are offended that teachers want to sell their best lesson plans?

  9. Don Bemont says:

    I agree with Allison, consultants often exist to provide political cover more than to bring new insight. At the very least, every consultant I have ever known arrives knowing that he must say things which please the district office. He (or she) can step on parents’, teachers’, principals’ and students’ toes, but future consultancies depend up recommendations from superintendents.

    When you add this to the fact that district office chooses the consultants, you come to realize that the school district is paying a lot of educational dollars mainly to consolidate their power, at the expense of other stake holders.

    Several years ago, our high school went to a particular variant of block scheduling. It was agreed at the time that we would try it (I was certainly in favor at the time) and then re-evaluate after five years.

    Five years passed, and quite a few unforeseen problems arose. It would be fair to say that a majority of academic area teachers no longer thought that block scheduling was beneficial, and that most of the support now came from people who like the more relaxed (read: non-academic) atmosphere that had resulted. This presented a political problem for the superintendent who felt her reputation rode on a change made on her watch.

    Her solution: Bring in a consultant. I spent quite a bit of time gathering facts and putting together a written report detailing our problems and presented this to the consultant. When we met privately, the man told me rather uncomfortably that he had been hired because he was a leading proponent of block scheduling, that he could not possibly advocate ending a block scheduling program, and that the district had never authorized him to even consider such an eventuality. He was here only to recommend tweaks.

    His report mentioned only those shortcomings that could be blamed on teachers, nothing systemic. (He did not even document and deny systemic problems — they simply did not exist in his report. The school district publicized this as the necessary five year evaluation of the program.


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