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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Advice for Education Providers Navigating Coronavirus

By Rick Hess — March 19, 2020 2 min read

Last week I penned a caustic column over at Forbes in which I decried the number of pitches I’ve been receiving from education providers since COVID-19 started to shutter schools. As I lamented, the challenges of the moment and the need to work together:

Makes this an especially bad time to see people—particularly those in and around schooling—appearing to see what COVID-19 can do for them. Each such example fosters cynicism and suspicion, making it harder for communities to work together or stoically accept hardship. If anyone should grasp that, it's those who claim to be worried about parents and students.

Since that piece ran, I’ve gotten two different kinds of responses. One is hearty agreement from so many of you. The other consists of queries from providers and advocates who wanted to know, “Okay, wise guy, if we’re trying to get the word out about what we’re doing, what would you suggest we do?”

It’s a fair question and I’ll try to offer a few suggestions.

First off, try to make sure you’re not taking up the time and energy of school and system leaders who have a lot on their plate. I’ve heard from a number of district officials that the usual drumbeat of pitches has grown even more intrusive, and that it’s just adding noise to the chaos with which they’re struggling.

If you want to be helpful, reach out quietly and directly to people you have working a relationship with. Ask them what they need, and really listen. If there’s something you can do, it’ll come through. Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington put it well in talking to EdSurge:

I appreciate hearing from vendors and partners who simply want to let me know they are available for whatever I need... I do not appreciate hearing from vendors whom I don't know pitching me their product or service at a time when I don't have time for distractions. And that is all they are right now, distractions.

Appreciate that this is a moment when discretion and good deeds are likely to be rewarded. Instead of pitching or marketing, consider making your resources freely available in an accessible, user-friendly format until schools are open again. Those able to embrace long-term thinking have an opportunity to do well by doing good: Pitching in while showing lots of potential future customers just what you have to offer.

Another idea is to partner with other providers to offer easy-to-use, comprehensive resources. If you have stand-alone curricula or videos, that’s fine, but teachers and parents who are making things up on the fly want one-stop solutions--they don’t have much interest (or expertise) in stitching virtual resources together.

Most of all, if you’re a PR flack working to drum up extra media attention for a client, understand just how off it looks right now when you’re marketing stuff like the chance to talk to an optometrist about eye strain or a tutoring executive about their study packets. Chris Lehmann, principal and CEO of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, has a blunt message on this count, advising, “Don’t pitch right now. Be of service. Know the difference.”

Lehmann’s warning on Twitter was firmer: “Seriously, if you are an edu-vendor right now and you are trying to capitalize on this moment by saying NOW is the time to buy your stuff, I am going to put you on a ‘Never Purchase’ list.” That is extraordinarily well said.

You may see things differently. In any event, I’m certainly interested in hearing from you. We’re all negotiating unfamiliar territory here, and I recognize that providers often have much to offer and want to get the word out. But, given that this moment calls for cooperation and trust, it’s essential that you go about your affairs accordingly. That’s a challenge, but also, perhaps, if we all proceed appropriately, an opportunity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.