Houston Marketing Its K-12 Curriculum Nationwide
Cashing in on their inventions increasingly seen as way for districts to recoup development costs.
Maria Goodloe-Johnson felt she had no time to lose when she took over as the superintendent of the Charleston County, S.C., schools in the fall of 2003. In a demographically diverse district of urban, suburban, and rural areas, the percentages of black students scoring below state standards were two to four times greater than for white students.
Rather than write a new curriculum from scratch, Charleston County bought one from the Houston Independent School District. By building on what the Texas system already had produced, the superintendent guesses she saved at least a year in her effort to bring about greater instructional consistency in her own district.
“Every day and every hour that we are not producing in the classroom, we are wasting our time,” Ms. Goodloe-Johnson said this month. “The bottom line is why reinvent the wheel?”
Leaders of the Houston district couldn’t have said it better themselves. With a marketing office launched in 2002, the 210,000-student system is selling its curriculum, called CLEAR, to districts in and outside Texas. So far, 14 school systems have bought it, in whole or in part. Some use it to construct their own materials. Others adopt it almost as is.
Houston’s aim is to recoup some of the cost of development. The district spent three years and more than $10 million to create CLEAR, which covers 69 courses for pre-K-12. Sales so far have brought in $1.5 million, a figure that district leaders expect to grow significantly when they add new lesson plans to the curriculum.
Other districts have likewise found ways to cash in on their academic creations. Anderson School District Five in South Carolina sells its curricula. The Montgomery County, Md., district has partnered with a technology company to sell a reading-assessment program it devised that runs on hand-held computers.
The Chicago school district sells a resource kit of activities for bilingual, early-childhood education, called Virtual Pre-K, to districts across the country. And administrators in the Los Angeles Unified district say they’re boning up on intellectual-property law as they consider whether to sell some of the instructional materials they’ve produced in recent years.
By dedicating an office to pitch its products full time, Houston appears to have gone a step further than most such efforts.
A Better Mousetrap
Johanna Lockhart, who is in charge of marketing CLEAR and has written a new book on marketing for school leaders, said other districts initially were taken aback when they heard what she did. But no more, she added.
“When we first started having a presence at conferences, people would come up and say: ‘Houston ISD? What are you doing in the vendor area?’ ” she recalled. “The idea that we would be out there selling something shocked them. As the years have gone by, they come looking for us.”
The largest school system in Texas didn’t set out to become a curriculum provider for other districts when it began work on CLEAR a decade ago under then-Superintendent Rod Paige, who later become the first U.S. Secretary of Education in the Bush Administration. Aware that many teachers relied on textbooks, the district wanted something to help educators understand how to teach to state and national standards.
In a kind of Manhattan Project, many hundreds of district staff members spent three years assembling CLEAR, which stands for Clarifying Learning to Enhance Achievement Results. Its architects sought not just a typical, sequential breakdown of learning objectives, but also details of how the skills build upon each other, as well as ideas for teaching and assessing them.
Take teaching 4th graders to use patterns to reinforce multiplication. CLEAR describes what the pupils must have learned in the 2nd and 3rd grades to absorb the lesson. It then suggests dividing paper rectangles into squares to show equivalents, such as 7 x 3 = 3 x 7, and having students do the same to show others.
“Teachers should not have to make these decisions in a vacuum,” said Ricki Price-Baugh, who oversaw the design of CLEAR before retiring as the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in 2004. She is now director of academic achievement for the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington. “Somebody at the district level should be providing that guidance.”
Ms. Price-Baugh said the idea of selling CLEAR didn’t enter her mind until she gave a presentation on the curriculum at a state education conference in the late 1990s. Afterward, she found herself buttonholed by administrators from New Braunfels, Texas, a 6,400-student district just northeast of San Antonio. They wanted to know if they could buy CLEAR.
By then, Houston already had waded into the service-provider business. One of its earliest such enterprises was to contract with other districts to handle their filings for reimbursement of student services covered by Medicaid. But only when the district decided to sell CLEAR did it set up a marketing office.
“We really did not want the people in the office of instruction in HISD to start getting their view toward marketing, and off the mainstay of their mission, which is to keep developing curriculum,” said Melinda Garrett, the district’s chief financial officer.
Instead, the district brought one of its former executives, Leonard Sturm, out of retirement to set up a separate marketing effort with Ms. Lockhart, who had previously worked in sales for a ski resort and an oil investment firm. Although her office now markets several products and services, her main job is to sell CLEAR.
Ms. Lockhart prepared slick promotional materials, including a brochure sporting a snow-capped mountain reflected in a placid blue lake, with the words: “Give your schools an advantage: a CLEAR advantage.” In addition to placing booths at conferences, she invites leaders from other districts to come to Houston for demonstrations of the curriculum.
The price is determined by a sliding scale based on a district’s enrollment. CLEAR comes on CD-ROM, and Houston provides training on how to navigate it.
Last year, the 38,000-student St. Louis public schools—so far, the only district outside Texas besides Charleston County to buy CLEAR—paid $191,000 for its pre-K-8 components in English/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.
Although St. Louis has had to rearrange much of the curriculum to conform to Missouri’s standards, CLEAR provided a critical starting point, said Paula Knight, the district’s executive director of instruction. A big selling point was Houston’s academic performance, as measured by state tests, which has won praise. The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation selected the district for its first Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2002.
“My first assignment was to fly down to Houston and not come back until I had the document in hand,” Ms. Knight said. “When you look at Houston’s data, they’ve had success for at least five years, whereas St. Louis has not had much success in achievement in the four core-content areas in well over 10 years.”
The 48,500-student Charleston County district, which includes the city of Charleston, bought CLEAR for about $100,000 and began using it in fall 2004. The district began to see improved overall performance and a narrowing of its achievement gaps that school year.
Ann Birdseye, Charleston County’s director of curriculum and instruction, says the curriculum itself was only part of the reason. Staff training and common planning time were needed so teachers could learn to use it, she notes.
“If that weren’t there, this would just sit on a shelf,” she said. “Having the document does not guarantee change.”
To be sure, the $1.5 million brought in from CLEAR is a pittance in the Houston district’s annual budget of about $1.3 billion. Still, district leaders say that they might as well recover what they can.
Soon, sales may pick up. The district is field-testing model lesson plans in its classrooms that are far more detailed that what CLEAR now includes. Houston teachers designed the lessons based on the curriculum. “We think that once we put lesson plans out there, that’s going to be the seller,” said Ms. Garrett, the chief financial officer. “Lesson plans developed by master teachers are like gold.”
Vol. 25, Issue 20, Page 10