School & District Management

Ed-Tech Purchasing Defined by ‘Pervasive Culture of Can’t,’ Says Report

By Sean Cavanagh — January 07, 2015 4 min read
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Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog.

District officials from big-city school systems offered blunt criticisms of a slow, cumbersome, and often anxiety-choked procurement process for buying educational technology, in a new report that argues that those obstacles can stymie innovation.

In a paper released today, researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education say that both vendors and school officials trying to shepherd purchases along typically have to navigate a deep sea of competing rules and district offices with different interests and responsibilities.

The tangled process tends to exclude new and smaller ed-tech companies, and potentially curtail new ideas, say the authors, in a conclusion that echoes previous research on K-12 procurement.

States and school districts set strong regulations on procurement for a reason, of course--to prevent fraud, mismanagement, cronyism, and corruption that can undermine public trust, and cost taxpayers money, potentially many millions of dollars.

But the authors of the paper, Tricia Maas and Robin Lake, say their research suggests many district policies and procedures are woefully outdated and create a “pervasive culture of can’t” in which the natural instinct of various administrators and departments with some connection to purchasing is to play it overly safe, slow the process down, and in many cases stick with companies with an established track record.

District practices for procuring ed-tech have received increased scrutiny recently.

Big tech purchases by districts like the Los Angeles Unified school system have come under heavy criticism. At the same time, a number of advocacy groups, researchers, and vendors say that the process followed by many districts in buying ed-tech makes it difficult for K-12 officials to find the products they need--and makes it hard for vendors to identify what districts want.

The report by the center, based at the University of Washington, Bothell, was based in part on interviews with district officials in several major school districts: Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

Quoted anonymously in the report, many districts officials involved in procurement offer jarring critiques of what they see as the bureaucratic morass that swamps K-12 purchasing. A few examples:

  • One former head of a district office involved in procurement told the researchers that the school system’s central office was “mired and filled with bureaucrats.” The district officials said she ended up needing employees who could “sell the work” to staff involved in procurement and cut through red tape. With so much code and legal advice and conferences with vendors for K-12 procurement officials to sort through, “there is a ton of back and forth,” she told the authors, “and a lot of it is just total nonsense.” Central offices are often understaffed, and hampered by a lack of expertise, both of which inhibit purchasing, the authors found.
  • District officials reported putting forward “highly detailed RFPs” requiring 100-plus page proposals and burdensome requirements, such as mandatory checks for tax compliance and background checks. Big companies can eat those costs, but “it’s definitely a lot harder for small startups,” one district official reported.
  • Both districts and vendors struggle with K-12 school policies that are outdated. Physical-data storage policies make it difficult for school systems to buy cloud-based technologies; one district reported struggling to meet legal requirements to protect students in online environments. The district wound up forbidding websites such as Twitter, as a result.
  • A general fear of making mistakes or igniting a lawsuit or scandal pervades the buying process, district officials said. This, combined with having both vendors and district officials who are unsure of the rules, creates confusion and lead to district officials putting up barriers that are largely “imagined,” center officials say. Even for small contracts not requiring an RFP, vendors often struggle to get approval from a district. Each office touching procurement in a district, “invokes its own, ‘no,” [and] channels all other ‘no’s’ as well,” one district official told the authors. “Legal will tell you, ‘this has to pass security muster with the IT guys.’ IT will tell you, ‘procurement will never go for this.’ ”
  • There’s resistance to school-level control over purchasing. While most large districts give schools some discretion over buying, some district officials interviewed believe principals are often seduced by vendors’ rosy promises and sometimes inclined to “chase the new thing.”

In an interview, Maas and Lake said that meaningful changes to procurement practices almost certainly can only be made by superintendents or school boards, both of whom have the power to dictate change across offices and departments.

The mindset among district has to go from total “risk-aversion to risk-management,” Lake said. “It takes very strong leadership.”

Districts can take other steps to improve the procurement process, the authors contend.

They can promote an “iterative” procurement process that “relies on professional judgment,” they say, and central offices need to re-examine policies and take steps to clarify actual rules from imaginary restrictions.

Another potential step: School systems can limit the number of checkpoints that vendors have to pass through, and divide procurement processes according to the cost and complexity of various products. They can also put a focus on short-term contracts that make it easier for districts to test out new products.

As vendors clamor to make it in the ed-tech market (and investors line up to finance their efforts) expect pressure to mount on K-12 districts and companies to address, one way or another, the hurdles littered across the procurement landscape.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.