Special Report
Classroom Technology

D.C. Favors Centralized, But Flexible Ed-Tech Buying

By Benjamin Herold — April 13, 2015 3 min read
Kim S. Burke, the principal at J.C. Nalle Elementary School in the District of Columbia, shows enthusiasm during an open house to explain blended learning software to teachers and leaders from other schools, as Kevin Wenzel, blended learning specialist for the school system, watches.

John P. Rice, the manager of blended learning for the 46,000-student District of Columbia schools, wants every elementary school in his district using ST Math.

But he’s stopped short of centrally mandating that principals adopt the program, instead going with an opt-in model—and regular doses of friendly encouragement.

“If I had told all 70 schools three years ago they had to do it, I have no idea where we would be now,” Mr. Rice said. “This way, schools are banging on my door to get [ST Math.] It will probably happen in every school soon, but it won’t be forced.”

During the 2012-13 school year, as part of a larger effort to change mathematics instruction to better reflect the goals of the Common Core State Standards, the district adopted the software. ST Math’s developers, the mind Research Institute, lined up corporate partners to help cover the hefty initial sign-up cost: $34,000 for schools with fewer than 350 students and $48,000 for schools with 350 students or more.

Thirty-one of the city’s 70 elementary schools opted to use the software that school year.

But just 11 of those schools met the mind Research Institute’s criteria for “full implementation": 85 percent of students getting at least halfway through the syllabus.

One major obstacle: balancing the student-computing time needed to use ST Math effectively with the demands of three other blended-learning math-software programs the central office had also recommended.

“It was definitely a function of overload,” Mr. Rice said. “Some schools just had a hard time being able to regularly get [students] in the computer lab.”

Such challenges are fairly common with district-level blended-learning-software adoptions, said Steven M. Ross, a Johns Hopkins senior research scientist.

But in a study released in 2014, Mr. Ross and colleagues found that most district superintendents, chief academic officers, technology directors, and other high-level officials still preferred centralized procurement of instructional software.

That was particularly true when it came to buying software sought for core instruction, as opposed to a supplemental or enrichment tools.

Two Approaches to Buying Blended Math Software:

Districts Weigh Control Over Software Buying

Colo. System Lets Individual Schools Shape Ed-Tech Buying

“The bigger the product gets, the more value there is to [purchasing] being centralized,” Mr. Ross said.

One reason: Large urban districts in particular have very high student-mobility rates, and it can create problems when students are expected to start with a brand-new curriculum and software if they switch schools midyear.

Hybrid Option Favored

Like Steven Hodas, a practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Mr. Ross favors “hybrid” procurement approaches in which district central offices play important, but limited, roles in selecting blended-learning software.

The District of Columbia system has increasingly moved in that direction.

The elementary schools that fully implemented ST Math in 2012-13 saw significant gains: The proportion of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” on standardized tests rose 19 percentage points, compared with 5-percentage point growth for non-ST Math schools.

Those results—and some creative professional development (and marketing) by the district—have helped encourage other schools already using ST Math to go all in on the program, and helped persuade schools that did not opt to use the software to reconsider.

In February of this year, for example, Mr. Rice arranged for J.C. Nalle Elementary, one of the schools that embraced the new software most fully, to host an ST Math open house for teachers and leaders from other schools.

Kim S. Burke, Nalle’s eighth-year principal, said she appreciated the balance of autonomy and guidance that the district had given her in implementing the new blended-learning model.

“Principals don’t always have all the latest cutting-edge information,” Ms. Burke said. “It’s really helpful when you have a technology office trying to stay on top of those things and saying, ‘You might want to consider this'—so long as you’re not forced” to adopt software that isn’t a fit for your school.

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as Centralized Purchasing Brings Rewards for D.C.

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