Published Online: April 21, 2014
Published in Print: April 23, 2014, as New Standards Sway Buying Plans

New Standards Sway Purchasing Plans

Technology, curriculum, testing tools in the mix

While debates over the merits of the Common Core State Standards rage on, many states and districts are immersed in the business at hand: buying curricular materials, professional development, assessment tools, and technology meant to help them meet the demands of the new academic guidelines and the forthcoming tests aligned to them.

As contracts worth thousands or even millions of dollars are awarded, it's clear that the sweeping standards and assessments are influencing how states and districts spend their money. What is less clear, even among those who have attempted to study the overall costs of standards and tests, is how much of that spending they would have incurred anyway as part of the normal process of making costly updates or replacing resources.

Some work preparing for the common core is being coordinated across states—perhaps most notably, the two main state consortia crafting aligned assessments with $360 million in federal funding. But that collective activity and spending, which could potentially reduce costs, appears to be the exception.

The complex relationship between the common standards and tests, on one hand, and district spending, on the other, can be seen in systems like the 22,000-student Toledo district, in Ohio, which over the past few years has made major purchases for everything from assessment systems to wireless technology.

In some cases, such as an ongoing, $4.7 million upgrade of the district's Internet connectivity, the spending is closely bound to the common core—specifically, to the online tests that Ohio and other states are scheduled to give to hundreds of thousands of students in spring 2015.

With other purchases, such as the district's acquisition of a formative-assessment system, the decision was based on many factors, not limited to the common core.

"We did our homework and we were trying to find [one] assessment system that could be used for different things, rather than having to use four or five different assessments," explained Tim Beard, the data manager for the Toledo district. "We were ready for something new, and it all fit together."

Costs and Assumptions

A number of analyses have sought to pin down how much states and districts will spend implementing the common core—while acknowledging that the collective price tag can swing by billions of dollars, depending on the assumptions used.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in a 2012 report, estimated that the gross cost of transitioning to the new standards for English/language arts and mathematics could run as high as $12 billion over one to three years, if states and districts used a "business as usual" approach to buying. That means they would go without taking advantage of potential savings derived from shifting to online and open-source materials, among other steps.

If states and districts implemented the common core by relying on a "balanced approach" to spending, seizing on some but not all cost-saving options, it would bring the cost lower, to $5 billion, according to Fordham, a Washington think tank that backs the standards.

Another estimate, published that same year by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that has been sharply critical of the common core, put the total costs of implementation at $15.8 billion for one-time and operational expenses over a seven-year period, which the authors describe as the typical lifespan of standards before they are reviewed and revised.

A Common Theme in K-12 Spending

Numerous states, and districts of all sizes, have referenced common-core needs in putting out recent requests for proposals for companies to provide them with educational products and services. Some of the very different types of approved projects include:

In Arizona, officials last year asked for proposals to build a new, statewide learning-management system that would, among other purposes, support efforts to implement the common core by providing a system to "create and deliver new professional-learning content for educators." No contract has been awarded.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system last year awarded a contract to the Center for Development and Learning, a Metairie, La.-based nonprofit, to help implement the common core. The district capped the contract at one year and $900,000, following a process in which school board members questioned the project's cost and whether the 42,000-student district should handle the project internally.

Delaware's education department asked for bids last year to help develop a cadre of teachers to provide counsel to their peers on using formative assessment tied to the common core. The state hired LearnZillion, a company focused on professional development, for $150,000 a year to help manage the project, which includes bringing together 34 "dream team" teachers to take a lead role in the project.

The Stamford school district in Connecticut recently sought proposals from consultants to craft individualized professional-development plans to help algebra teachers master common-core math content. the 16,000-student district ended up hiring a consultant on a one-year contract for $23,400, renewable for up to five years.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has launched a project to provide all students with computing devices. The initiative, expected to cost $1 billion over time, was conceived with the common core in mind. The 650,000-student district began purchasing iPads, with embedded Pearson-produced curriculum, but the project has generated controversy after a series of technology snafus and questions about the curriculum's readiness for schools.

The Sacramento Unified School District sought help providing professional development for teachers and administrators in grades K-8 to implement the common-core math standards. The 43,000-student California district selected Generation Ready to coordinate training, at a cost of $175,000 for one year, an amount covered through a grant from a private donor.

One recent poll sought to drill down on the spending behavior of districts. Released by MDR, a market-research company based in Shelton, Conn., the survey found that 68 percent of school systems plan to buy instructional materials that address the common core, an increase from 62 percent the previous year. The results were based on a phone survey of district technology and curriculum officials, conducted in April and May of last year.

Flow of Money

Yet determining whether state and district spending was born directly of the common core, or would have occurred in the normal course of events, is not easy.

Traditionally, states have updated their standards and instructional materials aligned to those standards about every six years, though the cycle can be longer in some states, said Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Pre-K-12 Learning Group at the Association of American Publishers, a Washington-based trade association.

The authors of the Fordham study attempt to isolate that ongoing, cyclical spending by states and districts from new, common-core-specific spending. They say that if the ongoing spending—an estimated $3.9 billion over one to three years—is taken out, the potential common-core costs drop significantly, from $12 billion to $8 billion on the high end, or to as little as $927 million if states and districts follow a "bare bones" approach to spending.

The author of the Pioneer Institute study, Theodor Rebarber, agrees that a lot of state and district spending during the dawn of the common-core era would have occurred even without the new standards.

Even so, that spending carries tangible financial and academic costs because it reflects a decision not to devote money to other strategies in curriculum, testing, and teacher training that could be more effective, argued Mr. Rebarber, the CEO of AccountabilityWorks, a Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit that helps states and districts with assessment issues.

"Isn't that an enormous diversion, an enormous waste of time for those students who will never get those four to five years back?" Mr. Rebarber said of the shift to the common core. "Think about the time spent—for negligible benefits."

Other factors cloud attempts to gauge how much states and districts are spending on the common core. Many analysts, for instance, note that K-12 spending is also being triggered by factors such as improving state and local budget conditions, and schools' costly and ambitious commitments to educational technology.

In addition, while the common core has fueled some types of K-12 purchasing, the flow of money has not been uniform across the country, observed Scott Marion, the associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, a Dover, N.H., organization that works with state and local school systems. The common core also caused some states and districts to put buying on hold until they can be sure of what they want, he noted.

"It's speeded up the revision cycle, or in some cases, slowed it down," he said.

Some of the fast-acting states and districts probably should have been more discerning buyers, added Mr. Marion, pointing to criticism that some commercial publishers are simply relabeling old products as common-core aligned.

Eventually, the common core could help states and districts join together to make purchases of larger volumes of materials, allowing them to negotiate better contracts and set higher expectations for companies selling technology and other K-12 products, said Paul Stembler, the cooperative-development coordinator for the WSCA/NASPO Cooperative Purchasing Organization. But state and local officials will probably need a few years to become familiar enough with the standards to know what to demand of K-12 companies, said Mr. Stembler, whose organization is a subsidiary of the National Association of State Procurement Officials, a Lexington, Ky.-based organization.

Right now, the common core is probably "still feeling fuzzy," and "the fuzziness fights against a cooperative contract," Mr. Stembler said.

Meanwhile, providers of potentially low-cost or free sets of materials, known as open education resources, are revising and churning out new academic guides with the common core in mind.

For instance, one of the biggest names in that field, the nonprofit Khan Academy, recently released new adaptive and interactive math resources linked to the standards, a move that could herald the likely shift of open education providers into offering more sophisticated options to schools trying to meet common-core demands.

Far-Reaching Needs

In Toledo, the common core has had a significant, if not always direct, effect on several aspects of the district's budget.

For years, the district had been considering overhauling its technology and moving toward a 1-to-1, student-to-device strategy, but those plans had not taken off, recalled Michael Martinez, its director of educational technology.

But worries that the district lacked a sufficient number of computing devices or reliable Internet connectivity to give the common-core tests online became a "primary mover" in Toledo officials' decision to begin making those technology upgrades, he said. The urgency of the school system's needs became clear, Mr. Martinez recalled, when he explained to district leaders that they would have to convert multiple academic classrooms into computer labs to accommodate common-core exams.

As a result, the district last year contracted with a company to improve wireless technology by replacing switches, establishing wireless hubs, and making other renovations. It is also buying about 3,000 computing devices for students, as it moves toward a 1-to-1 project.

By ramping up Internet speed and adding devices, the district will also create more instructional opportunities for teachers and students, Mr. Martinez predicted.

Planning for the common core "opened the doors," he added, and "allowed [the technology project] to happen. Right place, right time."

Another major purchase in the Toledo district, the replacement of a K-8 English/language arts curriculum for about $3.4 million, was strongly influenced by Ohio's adoption of the common standards, said Bob Mendenhall, the school system's curriculum director.

The district had reviewed its math materials and concluded that they could be aligned to the common core without a major purchase, Mr. Mendenhall said, but its language arts resources were outdated. The common core "accelerated our replacement plan," he said.

Additionally, in order to prepare teachers for that shift in curriculum, the district has spent about $350,000 on professional development, including the creation of "curriculum maps" to help educators understand the standards—though those costs are covered by federal funds Ohio received through winning the Race to the Top competition.

The common core's impact on the district's spending on assessment, meanwhile, has been more nuanced.

Toledo officials needed a K-8 assessment system that could prepare students for common-core test content—and ready them for the overall experience of taking computer-based exams, said Mr. Beard, the district's data manager. But they also needed a system that could churn out results that could be used for Ohio's statewide teacher-evaluation system and that also could help school officials identify struggling readers in grades K-2 and meet a state mandate that pupils read on grade level by the end of grade 3.

Ultimately, Toledo wound up purchasing the STAR assessment system for its local needs, produced by Renaissance Learning, of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., at a cost of $240,000 during the 2012-13 academic year and $137,000 this year.

Overall, the purchase of the STAR system reflected "very much a conscious desire to purchase something aligned to the common core," Mr. Beard said.

'Refresh' the Curriculum

In the Baltimore County, Md., school system, officials are only now delving into what the common core means for spending, said Richard L. Gay, the purchasing manager for the 108,000-student system. The common core typically isn't the trigger for any single purchase, but instead acts as a "framework" that is shaping spending across the board, Mr. Gay said.

For instance, the district recently agreed to buy a $5 million elementary curriculum for language arts to replace outdated materials, and the new materials will have to be common-core-aligned. Over the next four years, the district, which has a general-fund budget of about $1.4 billion, plans to spend about $200 million on a 1-to-1 computing program. In planning for that project, district officials found that they needed to overhaul their wireless systems—which in turn will help with common-core online testing.

Preparing for the common core "is not something we're going to be able to take care of overnight," Mr. Gay said. "Dollars are tight," he added, and "we've been flatlined taking care of what we have."

As districts weigh spending decisions, some states are making purchases that they believe will help them. In New Mexico, for instance, state officials in 2012 issued a request for proposals to provide professional development to help prepare teachers in English/language arts, math, and other subjects for the common core. They received 13 responses from bidders and selected two of them—Knowledge Delivery Systems and Solution Tree—which are receiving a combined $1.4 million a year to train teachers across the state on the standards.

District participation in the professional development is voluntary. About 80 percent of the state's school systems are taking part, said Leighann Lenti, the deputy secretary for policy and programs at the state education department.

Related Blog

Ms. Lenti said it was possible the state could have spent the same amount of money on professional development as one of the regular investments it makes in training, even if it hadn't adopted the common core in 2010—though the standards clearly influenced the state to act when it did.

"We put a lot of time and energy into supporting our teachers," Ms. Lenti said. "When you refresh your standards, you need to refresh your curriculum, and you refresh your support for teachers."

Vol. 33, Issue 29, Pages s22,s24,s25

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