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School & District Management Opinion

How Should Schools Purchase Ed. Tech?

By Harold O. Levy — April 12, 2016 3 min read
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School districts across the United States spend billions of dollars every year on educational technology—buying everything from desktop, laptop, and tablet computers to apps, online courses, e-books, videos, and software. Unfortunately, a sizable chunk of that money is being wasted on products that are overpriced and underperform, diverting school funding that could be better used to benefit students in other ways.

Ed tech has become a big business: In 2015, startups in the United States raised $1.85 billion from investors in almost 200 deals, according to EdSurge.

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Schools are faced with a dizzying number of choices in ed-tech products, each pushed by salespeople who claim that whatever they are selling is better than what their competitors are offering. The New York Times recently reported that “there are more than 3,900 math and reading apps, classroom-management systems, and other software services for schools in the United States.”

The sad truth is that schools are notoriously bad at picking ed tech that will actually help them teach. As a former New York City schools chancellor, I am one of the few people who have been on both the buying and the selling side, so I know of what I speak. Too many school districts buy ed-tech products on the basis of good marketing rather than careful analysis—the way a child is attracted to the hot toy of the Christmas season.

At this year’s SXSWedu Expo, a new nonprofit startup called the Technology for Education Consortium (TEC), for which I serve as chairman of the board, was announced. It was created to help districts work together to get the most value for every dollar they spend on ed tech and buy the most appropriate products.

Funded with a $750,000 seed grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, TEC has already brought together about 100 districts to share ed-tech purchasing knowledge, at no charge to the districts. TEC supports transparency, efficiency, and collaboration among school districts to improve ed-tech buying policies and decisions. (It is preliminarily funded by foundation grants and may ultimately charge member districts a nominal sum to support its work.)

The sad truth is that schools are notoriously bad at picking ed tech that will actually help them teach."

TEC will enable district leaders to share ed-tech hardware and software contracts so that all districts can benefit from the best terms a vendor offers. TEC will also fund third-party studies to identify which ed-tech products deliver the best results at the best prices. This will enable school districts—including those that are financially strapped, small and rural, or serving low-income students—to comparison-shop, learn from each other, identify implementation issues, and negotiate better contracts. My vision is for TEC to make available ed-tech contracts—and implementation issues—to all participating member districts to finally bring transparency to this industry.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as the executive director, supports ed tech that is effective in expanding educational opportunities for outstanding low-income students. And we know that ed tech is an important tool for all students in our multimedia world.

The vast majority of the ed-tech startups that have proliferated over the last few years haven’t lasted. That often happens with companies in new industries. But some ed tech has been shown to work very well. There are language-learning programs that have had amazing success. And numerous learning-management systems provide simple ways for students to advance at their own speed. Resources, like those that appear on the carefully curated website Edutopia, are nothing short of visionary. And some local school districts, such as Houston, that are starting to purchase digital textbooks have implemented rating programs to winnow the plethora of offerings to something more manageable. The federal government has also gotten into the act, with the appointment of its first adviser to focus on helping schools use open-source ed tech.

Schools have come a long way from the days when filmstrips and movies were the only ed tech around, and when students spent most of their time in class listening to teachers, copying material from a blackboard, reading from textbooks, and scribbling in their loose-leaf notebooks.

By upgrading the ed-tech purchasing practices in school districts so that they can share knowledge with each other, members of TEC will be taking an important step that will benefit students and save money at the same time.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as How Should Schools Purchase Technology for the Classroom?

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