Education industry analyst Jim McVety was wandering the aisles of a school boards’ convention recently when he happened upon the exhibit of a school furniture supplier.
Someone at the company had added a sign to the display that said “Our furniture is No Child Left Behind-compliant,” Mr. McVety recounted.
The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2002 has a lot to say about school accountability, highly qualified teachers, school choice options, and other matters affecting public education. But nowhere in the federal statute’s hundreds of pages is there any discussion of acceptable craftsmanship on desks and filing cabinets.
As it turns out, the furniture company, whose name Mr. McVety could not recall, was merely razzing the many other education vendors in the exhibit hall touting their products or services as elixirs for Uncle Sam’s expanded requirements.
“They were sort of poking fun at the No Child Left Behind language” being cited by many other exhibits, said Mr. McVety, who tracks the education industry for Eduventures Inc., a Boston research firm.
Pot of Gold?
While it would be a real stretch for a supplier of desks to claim a No Child Left Behind connection, plenty of other education companies are seizing on the law to promote their wares. And many can legitimately claim that their products or services are related to at least one provision of the law.
“The day the act was signed by President Bush, we began the due diligence of reading it and finding which provisions applied to our products,” said Brad Baird, the vice president of sales and marketing for Excelsior Software, a Greeley, Colo.-based concern that markets electronic gradebook software for the K-12 market.
“There is gold at the end of that rainbow for us,” Mr. Baird remembers thinking at the time of the act’s passage.
Excelsior is one of many companies that have added references to the law to their Web sites and other marketing materials. “Pinnacle Plus helps you meet the challenge of No Child Left Behind,” says one magazine ad, in a reference to the company’s flagship electronic gradebook.
The company has customized the gradebook software with state-by-state curriculum standards, and it extols the software’s ability to communicate online with parents, thus helping district’s fulfill the law’s mandate to provide timely feedback to parents, Mr. Baird said.
Other technology companies have been quick to jump on the federal bandwagon, too. The Microsoft Corp. provides a link on its main education Web site to its Class Server 3.0 product, a software package that it says will help schools “meet the challenges of No Child Left Behind.” The site points to the use of the Microsoft product by the 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school district to “achieve comprehensive performance analysis and data-driven instructional planning objectives.”
Blackboard Inc., a Washington-based educational technology firm, provides not only a special section of its Web site focused on the federal law, but also a section-by- section chart on the law’s main provisions, suggestions on how Blackboard’s products can help with each one, and a list of potential sources of federal money that could pay for them.
Plato Learning Inc., a Bloomington, Minn.- based provider of online curriculum materials, publishes a special No Child Left Behind newsletter, the Plato Post. A sample headline: “Plato Learning addresses Reading First with new K-3 curriculum.”
In fact, scores of education marketers are building advertising and marketing materials around some of the law’s key terms, such as “scientifically based research,” “adequate yearly progress,” and “Reading First.”
In a print advertisement for its Skill Navigator software program, curriculum provider Riverdeep Interactive Learning Inc. plays on the potential disconnect between education professionals who are learning all the accountability requirements of the federal law and the general public.
The ad shows a group of students using the software and declares: “They’ve never heard of Adequate Yearly Progress. They just want to get into college.”
Mr. McVety of Eduventures said he has been dismayed to see some marketing efforts for products that claim to be the total answer for school district compliance under the No Child Left Behind law.
“NCLB marketing is all the rage among solutions providers in K-12, but that doesn’t mean it always makes sense,” he said. “Legislation as broad as No Child Left Behind doesn’t allow for a single company to provide the total compliance answer.”
Still, “companies can’t afford to shy away from” coming up with some marketing efforts under the law, Mr. McVety added. For now, he said, there is a sort of “minimum ante,” which involves slapping the federal No Child Left Behind logo on Web sites and other marketing materials.
“No Child Left Behind is a neon sign that is drawing customers to the store,” Mr. McVety added. Success of the pitch then “depends on the quality of the actual solutions that will compel the customers to stay.”
Message for Parents
At a meeting of the Education Industry Association in Boston last month, executives of large education companies and small entrepreneurial businesses gathered, and the market opportunities under the No Child Left Behind Act were one of the big topics.
“There are more targeted pools of federal funding available than ever before,” Gail Pierson, the president and chief executive officer of Riverdeep, said during one session.
But several owners of education businesses said that in the year- and-a-half since President Bush signed the measure into law, they have yet to see major new revenues streaming their way.
“The theoretical No Child Left Behind funds are there, but the cash flow isn’t,” said Jason Stricker, a partner at Insight Education Group, a Sherman Oaks, Calif., consulting firm that is helping several districts comply with the law by providing such services as teacher training and curriculum development.
“As we approach superintendents, No Child Left Behind comes up immediately in the conversation,” he said. “Compliance drives the superintendents, and that drives businesses like us.”
Some companies have been fairly creative in positioning products that have been around for a while into tools for meeting the demands of the federal law.
Reliance Communications Inc. is a Scotts Valley, Calif.-based company that markets SchoolMessenger, a voice-messaging system geared to helping schools notify parents about anything from weather- related closings to individualized test reminders and absence notifications.
“There are very specific provisions in No Child Left Behind involving parental notification,” said Nate Brogan, a company executive. “We really were surprised and pleased when we perused the legislation.”
Besides the usual references to the law on the company Web site, someone at Reliance thought of trademarking the phrase “No Parent Left Behind.” Now, the company has launched a grant program under that title that lets a handful of schools with below-average “attendance and performance levels” receive the SchoolMessenger program for free.
Three schools will get the grants this fall, and the company hopes to give away as many as 10 systems next spring, Mr. Brogan said.
“We’re not on the front line of No Child Left Behind compliance, but we are probably high on the second tier,” he said.