School & District Management

Tech. Vendors Cloudy on K-12 Buying Needs

By Sean Cavanagh — December 08, 2014 5 min read
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Educational technology companies trying to do business with schools often have only a vague sense of district officials’ specific buying needs, according to a new study that delves into vendors’ and K-12 leaders’ frustrations with the procurement process.

The study, based on surveys and interviews of district leaders and ed-tech company officials, finds that many business officials regard district buying strategies as cumbersome and confusing. District administrators, for their part, say they’re overwhelmed by the vast number of ed-tech products peddled to them, which they lack the time and resources to evaluate thoroughly, the study says.

The overall findings are likely to resonate for many executives in the K-12 industry who have long regarded K-12 procurement as bureaucratic and particularly unwelcoming to startup companies with potentially cutting-edge products and ideas.

But the report also provides new details on which aspects of the buying process cause the most difficulty for vendors and K-12 administrators—and it offers suggestions for how the process could be improved to help buyers and sellers, and, presumably, students and schools.

The study found that ed-tech vendors, on the whole, are much more frustrated by the procurement process than are K-12 officials such as superintendents, curriculum directors, chief technology officers, and school business officials.

Collaboration Challenges

There’s a price to be paid when companies lose faith in districts’ procurement processes, said Karen Cator, the president and CEO of Digital Promise, a Washington- and California-based nonprofit that was one of the organizations to sponsor the procurement study. She said entrepreneurs and others offering digital products and tools that could help schools may end up avoiding K-12 systems, and instead look to markets they regard as easier to work in and more lucrative.

“Education is not necessarily the market they’re going to jump into,” said Ms. Cator, a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology. “The consequence is a lessening of innovation and new ideas.”

The study was conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, and was commissioned by Digital Promise, a congressionally authorized organization that focuses on improving education through technology and research, and the Education Industry Association, a Vienna, Va.-based group with more than 200 members, including small and large technology companies. Both Digital Promise and the EIA helped design the study.

The university researchers used a mixed-methods approach, based on surveys of nearly 300 district officials who have some connection to procurement, including superintendents, curriculum directors, business officials, technology directors, and principals. The researchers supplemented that data with interviews with survey participants.

The survey offers myriad examples of shortcomings that vendors and school officials see in the procurement process. Among the findings:

• A majority of ed-tech vendors, 66 percent, were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with district procurement procedures. By contrast, most district officials—between 60 percent and nearly 80 percent, depending on their job titles—said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the buying process, the survey found. (Superintendents were more likely to be content with the procurement process than other K-12 administrators, such as school business officers and principals.)

• Nearly all districts acquire ed-tech products based on some kind of “needs assessment.” But those assessments are often informal and don’t provide vendors with information on the specific educational challenges that districts hope to conquer.

• Districts struggle with “discovery,” or trying to find the best ed-tech products to meet their needs within the crowded and competitive landscape of companies touting their goods. As a result, school officials tend to regard the buying of tools and systems as a “hit-or-miss” enterprise.

• Similarly, many companies, especially less-proven ones, report that they don’t have the capacity to market their products to large numbers of districts, and so their ed-tech goods remain unknown to many potential K-12 buyers.

• District officials see “cooperative purchasing” with other K-12 systems as an appealing but often unrealistic strategy, because they regard districts as having specialized needs.

• Superintendents and other central-office administrators see decentralized, or school-based purchasing, as undesirable, because it leads to a loss of quality control and fragmented instructional practices. School principals, as one might expect, are much warmer to the concept.

• With limited, reliable information on what to buy, district officials tend to rely on recommendations from peers in other districts. They also rely on pilot studies—though such pilot studies tend to be conducted using very different standards, which may not provide useful information about the strengths and shortcomings of products, the study found.

• Principals and teachers are typically only moderately involved in district needs assessments to determine which educational technologies to buy, despite those employees’ key roles in making digital approaches work in classrooms.

(The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides support for Education Week’s coverage of college- and career-ready standards. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.)

Specific Priorities Missing

As it now stands, many district needs assessments are often so vague that developers are unclear if their ed-tech products are what those districts covet, said Steven M. Ross, a professor of educational psychology and a senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins, and a co-author of the study.

For instance, in requests for proposals and other public statements, districts will lay out their broad goals for increasing student achievement in math or language arts without laying out what types of ed-tech interventions or instructional strategies most appeal to them, Mr. Ross said.

Simply saying “ ‘we need a math program for high school,’ ” without providing other relevant details, he observed, is “sort of like saying, ‘We need a car with four doors.’ ”

John Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, in Reston, Va., said the study offered valuable perspective on school and company officials’ views of procurement.

But he was skeptical of the notion that large numbers of promising ed-tech startups are being shut out of the school market. Entrepreneurs are securing a foothold in K-12 systems all the time, he pointed out. The problem is that many companies don’t deliver on marketing promises, which makes K-12 leaders reluctant to test new ones.

“Schools have a really hard time distinguishing the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Mr. Musso said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Tech. Vendors Cloudy on K-12 Buying Needs

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