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Executive Skills & Strategy

‘A La Carte’ Purchasing Tactics Signal Districts’ Unique Needs

By Amanda M. Fairbanks — April 22, 2013 8 min read
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The way Jeff Elstad sees it, the days when school districts partnered with one vendor to buy a prepackaged, multigrade curriculum for seven to 10 years are long gone.

Mr. Elstad runs the Byron public schools in Minnesota. Like many districts around the country, the Byron school system, when faced with budget shortages last spring, started doing things differently. The $60,000 that the upper-middle-class district had been spending each year on curriculum procurement, for instance, became an easy place to start making cuts.

“We’ve moved away from the traditional textbook. They’re pretty much obsolete the moment they’re printed,” said Mr. Elstad, an educator with more than 20 years of experience. Last fall, he became Byron’s superintendent after working as a middle school principal.

The 1,800-student district, which currently allows students to bring their own digital computing devices to school, plans to roll out a 1-to-1 iPad program for 7th to 12th graders next fall.

Already, the middle and high school math curriculum is completely “flipped” — meaning students watch video-recorded lectures after school, in the afternoons, evenings, and on weekends, thereby saving class time to ask questions, work on problem sets, and collaborate in small groups.

In moving away from the printed word and toward the adoption of a districtwide digital footprint, Byron is also changing the way it goes about procuring its curriculum. While it still partners with New York City-based Scholastic to supply the district’s K-4 literacy curriculum, it now relies much more heavily on open education resources, teacher-created materials, and learning management systems to supply the content for the upper grades.

“We’ve decided to forgo the purchase of boxed curriculum sets from major vendors and instead looked for innovative ways to meet our needs,” said Mr. Elstad, who predicts such thinking will soon filter down to the lower grades. “We’ve done a complete 180.”

While K-12 procurement of curricular materials has long favored big companies such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson because of economies of scale, some districts are now relying on smaller, startup companies to supplement segments of their curriculum needs. Many are pursuing an à la carte approach to procurement — still relying on traditional providers for large, multigrade programs, but also forging partnerships with smaller companies to supply innovative products and platforms.

‘A Huge Shift’

L.C. “Buster” Evans, the superintendent of the Forsyth County schools in Georgia, estimates the 39,000-student district was spending about $3 million a year on textbooks five years ago. This school year, that spending is around $500,000.

“We’ve clearly made a huge shift. Both from printed materials, but also by doubling the amount of money we spend on digital products and content-delivery programs,” said Mr. Evans. Forsyth also runs a districtwide “bring your own device,” or BYOD, program.

“All told, we’re spending less than $800,000,” on print and digital materials Mr. Evans said.

In Forsyth County, the shift in resources also came with a shift in providers from the education industry.

“While we’re still working with Pearson, there’s a completely new array of vendors we’re working with that in many cases didn’t even exist five years ago,” said Mr. Evans. In stark contrast to the big, grand curriculum presentations of years past, he routinely sits in on product demonstrations from startups with only a handful of employees.

“There’s definitely an à la carte collection of content rather than an adoption by one provider,” he said. Instead of using three or four textbook companies as it did in the past, Forsyth now partners with more than two dozen content vendors.

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“No longer do you buy a single type of thing to meet the needs of all learners,” said Mr. Evans, who sees the shift in providers as a way of creating more personalized learning environments for students.

Tom Vander Ark, who formerly ran the education division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and has since written the book Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World, says that while teachers have long supplemented boxed curricula with their own content, in the era of personal, digitized learning “it’s an idea now on steroids.” (The Gates Foundation provides support for coverage of the K-12 marketplace and new approaches to schooling in Education Week.)

Mr. Vander Ark, who also writes a blog, Vander Ark on Innovation, hosted on edweek.org, says the old pattern of curriculum adoption, in which a district might sign a seven-year contract for wraparound services with one vendor, began to change significantly in 2008, just as the economy tanked.

“For many districts, it was one of the easiest spots to hit the pause button,” he said. “So they skipped a year, and when things didn’t really get better, in many places, folks just stopped that cycle altogether.”

Along with the recession, Mr. Vander Ark describes a combination of other factors that have disrupted traditional, one-provider procurement practices: the rise in the use of mobile learning devices by students and educators, the availability of cheaper technologies, the development of tens of thousands of learning apps, and the widespread adoption of open education resources.

Taking those influences together, he sees 2010 as an “inflection point” — a time when schools began a transition from the use of predominantly printed materials to the adoption of digital resources.

And as the options increase, many districts, he predicts, will become even less reliant on traditional procurement strategies and choose instead to acquire a set of learning tools tailored to the needs of each student.

Apps and Software

When it comes to procurement, the field is rich not only with digital textbooks, but also with an increasing number of apps and software.

“We’re seeing that those dollars aren’t shifting to digital textbooks, but to apps and software, creating a whole market and opportunity that didn’t exist before,” said Tyler Bosmeny, the co-founder and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Clever. The company provides a service that links various pieces of educational software with a school’s central information system.

“It’s really been a huge shift,” he said. “Because in an app world, you don’t have to buy everything from the same place.”

Though the company is not yet a year old, Clever is already operating in more than 3,000 schools nationwide. While in past years, a district might have partnered with three or four companies to provide content, Clever now helps districts integrate a mosaic of specialized learning apps, with over 60 such apps operating on a single platform.

“Instead of big districts choosing a conglomerate approach from one provider, they go to DreamBox because they want the best 2nd grade math software, or they get NoRedInk for their grammar program, or READ 180 because they have students reading below grade level,” said Mr. Bosmeny, who sees districts selecting individual applications to fit their needs rather than a big bundle of preset services.

“It’s a colossal shift in how education dollars are being spent,” he said.

Common-Core Needs

But Karen Billings, the vice president of the education division at the Washington-based Software & Information Industry Association, the principal trade group for the software and digital content industry, says she still sees many districts buying full curriculum packages from established providers, while often choosing startups to supply game-based or mobile apps.

When it comes to deciding whether to partner with a 200-person company or a two-person startup, large legacy companies still offer more name recognition and support staff, Ms. Billings notes. “Schools know they’re sticking around and that they’re not going anywhere.”

But while startups may lack a history and reputation, Ms. Billings sees them as often willing to go the extra mile to please their customers. With generally far fewer products — sometimes only one — many new companies treat the relationship with a district as a partnership, she says, with a sole focus on making a product work the best it can.

A desire for nimbleness is what motivated the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., to change its procurement tactics.

“Simply put, the big companies didn’t have the best products,” said Steve Holmes, Sunnyside’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Two years ago, Sunnyside taxpayers passed an $88 million bond to help pay for the district’s transition to a 1-to-1 computing program, in which each student is given his or her own digital device.

Sunnyside has about 18,000 students; 88 percent are Hispanic, and nearly 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

In September, the district started a 1-to-1 initiative for 4th to 9th graders. Over the next three years, the district plans to add an additional class until the program extends to 12th grade.

When the time came to select new curriculum partners, Mr. Holmes and his leadership team placed a heavy emphasis on whether the products being advertised met the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. By the 2014-15 school year, nearly all states will be required to administer online assessments to track student progress as part of the common-core requirements.

“The large companies, the ones that have always held court, for them to retool their entire selection wasn’t really cost-effective when it came to common-core alignment,” said Pam Betten, who directs Sunnyside Unified’s 1-to-1 program.

While Sunnyside ultimately chose to partner with a large company after selecting Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Education for its middle school science curriculum, the district took a “calculated risk” in selecting Conceptua Math, a startup company based in Petaluma, Calif., for its 5th and 6th grade fractions curriculum.

All told, the district selected more than 15 content vendors — a mix of companies both large and small. By contrast, a decade ago, the district partnered with two big companies to meet all of its curriculum needs.

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as À la Carte Purchasing Tactics Signal Districts’ Unique Needs


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