With over a million students, New York City's public school system is one of the most complex in the country. In a system so vast, information and resources have a way of falling through the cracks, making it difficult for principals to tend to the needs of their teachers and students.
The New York City Leadership Academy, the centerpiece of Mayor Bloomberg's education agenda, aims to create a new generation of principals who can make the leap from managing their schools to leading them. And Columbia's Graduate School of Business is helping them marshal the resources to do it, by offering a course known as the Education Leadership Consulting Lab.
In its second year of operation, the course places small teams of students with principals from the Academy, many of whom are in New York's toughest schools.
The principals get help with information and contacts they don't have time to dig up on their own time, and the students get a crash course in street-level consulting.
"We have to give them a plan that's actionable," says Kelly Fischbach, a student in the Lab. "In many classes at the business school, you create a case study that just sits there, or that goes away after the class is over. But in this class, we're very concerned with implementation. The principals have to be able to use this."
This semester, Fischbach and her teammate Carrie Braddock were assigned to a Harlem-area middle school principal, who told them that his school had scored a "2" out of a possible "4" in comparison with other New York City schools. They asked how the rating had been determined -- but he didn't have any more information.
"It's not like the number wasn't based on anything -- it was," says Fischbach. "But you sit down for a meeting with him and his walkie-talkie is going off. He just doesn't have time in his day to find all the criteria on everything. Part of our job is to help him navigate the data he's been given."
Classes for the Education Lab are led by Donald Waite, executive-in-residence at the business school, and William Duggan, an assistant professor there. Duggan notes that the case studies created by his students are "classic consultancy projects."
"In any consulting project," says Duggan, "your client will say, 'Will you find out about 'x'? Then you look into it and realize that 'x' is really 'a' 'b' and 'c.'"
Last year, for instance, one principal asked his student consultants to find out why the majority of his students weren't yet enrolled at a health clinic in the network run by Montefiore Children's Hospital.
"The students found that it wasn't anything the kids were doing or weren't doing -- it wasn't even the school's problem," says Duggan. "It was that Montefiore simply wasn't aware of the trouble kids had to go through to get enrolled."
So Lab students created a plan for increasing communication and coordination among students, school administrators and the hospital, thereby increasing enrollment.
Regardless of whether the Lab's students eventually pursue a career in education (most do not) Duggan says that the real prize is experience in on-the-ground problem-solving -- "a very rare and precious commodity in business school."