The problem with consultants…

April26

From Building a Better Teacher – NYTimes.com

Doug Lemov realized he had a problem. After a successful career as a teacher, a principal and a charter-school founder, he was working as a consultant, hired by troubled schools eager — desperate, in some cases — for Lemov to tell them what to do to get better…

…Lemov himself pushed for data-driven programs that would diagnose individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. But as he went from school to school that winter, he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.

But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.

Lemov’s book is getting a lot of circulation since this story first appeared last month. The thing that struck me when I read this was, “Hey, this guy was an administrator, had run schools, and was being paid to provide expert advice at struggling schools, and he had no clue?” I applaud Mr. Lemov for figuring out he had no idea what he was doing even though he was pulling down fees as an expert, but HOW did he get to be an expert in the first place? Why on Earth would he be hired at low performing, high poverty schools when it looks like most of his experience was in private schools? Of course he looked like he knew what he was doing, he had been working in a “teacher-proof” environment. He didn’t realize that he didn’t have a clue, until he was  faced with “blue students” who are not immune to poor instructional practices (or very tolerant of them).

Don’t get me wrong, I like what I’m hearing about this book, I’ll probably read it at some point, and it sounds like a much more robust version of some of the more useful methodologies I’ve gleaned over the years, BUT, in my experience there are a lot of Doug Lemov’s out there among educational consultants, most of them just haven’t had his epiphany yet, and Lemov without that self-realization is just another white guy in a suit who didn’t have a clue.

Others stories on the subject that are floating around:

Is This Book Exposing Cracks In Schools Of Education (Teacher Colleges)? – THE DAILY RIFF – Be Smarter. About Education.

Class Struggle – Explosive book for a new teacher generation

It is a Narrow Path

4 Comments to

“The problem with consultants…”

  1. April 27th, 2010 at 6:45 am      Reply Jenny Says:

    I put this book in my Amazon cart weeks ago. I haven’t been willing to pull the trigger and actually buy it and I think you’ve hit on why. I guess I’m not convinced he knows that much more than I do much else all the fabulous, wonderful teachers I talk to and learn from constantly.

    Maybe if I could get it from the library…


    • April 27th, 2010 at 8:22 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

      Jenny, may I ask, the improvements at your school, were they led by teachers, consultants, your admin, or a combination of two or more of those?


      • April 27th, 2010 at 8:42 am      Reply Jenny Says:

        A combination. We’ve had fabulous administrators, but one of the most amazing things they did was to allow a lot of leadership from the teachers. We have brought in a few different consultants over the past 10 years. The majority were brought in at the request of teams of teachers, often because they had worked with these consultants previously. The one I can think of who has been brought in by our administration has been helpful, but less so than the others.


        • April 27th, 2010 at 9:23 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

          I am not surprised to hear you say this. I’m thinking having the staff involved in choosing consultants is a real must both for buy-in but also to assess the potential effectiveness of the program being offered.


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