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School & District Management

Big Ed. Companies Face K-12 Buying Shift

By Amanda M. Fairbanks — April 22, 2013 4 min read
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When it comes to curriculum procurement, Pearson, the giant education publishing company, can only hope the future resembles Huntsville, Ala.

While in past years Pearson had supplied the elementary math curriculum for the Huntsville city school system, the two entered into a different partnership last summer, when Huntsville became one of the largest school districts in the country to embark on a districtwide digital conversion, according Pearson officials.

Alongside the district’s 1-to-1 computing program, which supplied a laptop to each Huntsville 4th to 12th grader, Pearson replaced every piece of the existing K-12 curriculum with digital content — in a paper-to-digital conversion that spanned 75 days. Besides the laptop initiative, students in grades K-2 use iPads, while 3rd graders use netbooks.

“We’ve been working elbow to elbow with the district ever since,” said Scott Drossos, who heads Pearson’s work with districts looking to make similar 1-to-1 transitions.

According to Mr. Drossos, Pearson — a London-based company whose U.S. headquarters is in New York City — works with 85 percent of the schools in the country “in one way or another.” In Huntsville, a middle-class district of about 24,000 students, Pearson is foremost among a portfolio of service providers helping to facilitate the district’s all-digital conversion.

While the Pearson-Huntsville partnership is unique in that the company provides the entire curriculum for Huntsville’s core subject areas, the district also partners with smaller companies such as Edmodo and Moodle, two learning platforms, to receive additional services.

“A certain benefit we bring is our capacity to help districts make that shift,” said Mr. Drossos. “We view these partnerships with incredible importance in helping districts make these digital conversions. As a company, if you don’t have that kind of capacity, it’s hard to play that role.”

U.S. schools have long met the bulk of their curriculum needs through one of three big publishing companies: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or McGraw-Hill. But in recent years, some districts have also started partnering with startup companies in an à la carte sampling of providers, picking and choosing what they want from big companies, rather than buying one full-service package from one or just a few providers.

Though Pearson’s relationship with Huntsville so far is the only one of both its size and its scope, some observers wonder whether such an experiment signals a shift in procurement strategies, with big companies solidifying their place at the top of the heap.

‘Dynamic Situation’

Karen Billings, the vice president of the education division for the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group, often sees large companies having a distinct advantage over their smaller counterparts, particularly when it comes to soup-to-nuts procurement.

“Large companies can offer K-8 reading programs and larger, multigrade solutions, while small companies may have an innovative app to teach aspects of middle school math,” she said. Many startups specialize in digital resources, she said, but larger companies can often supply a product in whichever delivery platform a school wants.

“Very few [startups] have built an entire curriculum yet,” Ms. Billings said.

Still, Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, notes that procurement practices have shifted.

“It’s no longer a world where you buy your content for an entire high school from one particular company,” said Mr. Krueger, whose nonprofit network, known as COSN, represents chief technology officers from nearly 800 school districts. “It’s now a much more dynamic situation, where content is coming at you from a lot of different places, with school systems and teachers interested in creating their own content.”

Christine Willig, a senior vice president of products for Columbus, Ohio-based McGraw-Hill Education, is the first to admit that the needs of school districts have changed. With the expansion of more affordable technologies and mobile devices, learning can now be personalized and differentiated in ways never before possible.

“But the fact that we’re 100 years old doesn’t stop us from also being on the cutting edge of new technology advancements,” Ms. Willig said of her company. Since 2008, everything McGraw-Hill has created in education is available digitally or includes a digital component.

When Ms. Willig attends a trade show, although she glances at what her major competitors are up to, she often spends the bulk of her time perusing the back aisle, curious to see where startups are pushing the boundaries and unleashing their creativity.

She said she doesn’t see most of the smaller companies being able to provide the scale and scope of McGraw-Hill’s services, though she readily concedes the two models increasingly work in tandem.

Mary Cullinane, the chief content officer and executive vice president of corporate affairs for Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sees school districts still working with trusted partners, while also being interested in bringing new faces to the negotiation table.

“We work with startups and other entities who don’t have the experience and scope of resources that we have,” she said. “We come together with those partners to create an offering which meets the needs of a district leader holistically. We see ourselves as an organization that’s able to take our content and provide access for appropriate partners to build upon.”

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 Big Companies Face K-12 Shift

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