Special Report
Classroom Technology

Districts Weigh Control Over Software Buying

By Benjamin Herold — April 13, 2015 4 min read
Thanh Nguyen, a technology instructional coach at J.C. Nalle Elementary School in the District of Columbia, works with students Traci Burton, left, and Nygal Young during a lesson using the blended learning software ST Math. The district has encouraged, though not required, schools to use the program.

As with most big-ticket items, school district central offices like to control the purse strings when it comes time to shop for new blended learning software.

But school procurement experts, education technology vendors, and school leaders alike are increasingly convinced that a more bottom-up approach offers a better chance for solid implementation—and, they hope, big learning gains.

Across the country, districts and schools are confronting tension between centrally controlled and site-based purchasing. In the pair of stories that follow, Education Week looks beneath the hood of the experiences of a large district and individual elementary school that each bought and implemented the same product in recent years.

Steven Hodas, a practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy-advocacy center at the University of Washington, in Seattle, is among those who favor a decentralized approach.

“When it comes from the top, it’s easy for people in schools to fold their arms and wait for it to blow over,” he said. “If you make sure the people who are doing the work are not objects, but subjects, you’re a lot more likely to get their buy-in and their commitment to making [the software] work.”

The challenge is that school-level purchasing is full of potential pitfalls, too.

And so the result is growing experimentation and variation in the ways school systems buy blended-learning software and roll it out in classrooms.

Take, for example, the starkly different approaches taken to buy ST Math, a popular blended-learning program from the MIND Research Institute, an Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit, now used by 2,500 schools around the country.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., the 385-student Pioneer Elementary School is the only one in the 24,000-student Academy District 20—which has made school-level autonomy a priority—to adopt the software.

“I’ve been in education since 1982,” said Diane Quarles-Naghi, Pioneer’s principal. “At this point in my career, I would never want for someone to say, ‘You can only use
this.’ ”

Across the country, the 46,000-student District of Columbia system sits toward the other end of the procurement spectrum. Now in its third year of a large, centrally led effort, it has pushed ST Math out to 46 of its 70 elementary schools.

Two Approaches to Buying Blended Math Software:

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

Colo. System Lets Individual Schools Shape Ed-Tech Buying

“I definitely strongly encourage all schools to jump in,” said John P. Rice, the manager of blended learning for the district. “But we’re not going to schools and saying, ‘You have to find the money to do this now.’ It’s posed in a more positive way.”

There’s no solid research on which approach produces the best results for students, said Steven M. Ross, a senior research scientist and professor of education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. But it’s clear that most purchasing of educational software is still done centrally, he said.

Benefits of Centralized Expertise

A big argument in favor of that approach is that district-level technology experts often know more than their school-level counterparts about the range of ed-tech options available—and what research says about their effectiveness. Most principals simply lack the time and expertise to adequately vet the hundreds of products that vendors are trying to sell them.

Central offices also tend to have a better sense of the infrastructure and hardware requirements necessary to implement blended learning. They tend to have the expertise to handle challenging issues such as student-data privacy and interoperability between software systems. And there can be benefits to using the same instructional materials across all schools, particularly in districts with high student mobility and teacher turnover.

But a big drawback of centralized purchasing is that the people who matter most—principals and teachers—may be less likely to buy in if they feel a new technology program is being forced on them or doesn’t meet specific student needs.

And the consequences of getting a big, centralized software purchase wrong—in terms of money, time, credibility, and, most importantly, impact on students—are also incredibly high, said Mr. Hodas.

“More and more schools understand the value of making a lot of small bets instead of one big bet,” he said.

That’s the approach taken in the New York City education department’s office of innovation, which Mr. Hodas headed until 2014.

In such “hybrid” software-procurement systems, the role of the district central office is to provide schools with supports and services that are either too difficult or too costly for them to undertake themselves, such as writing contracts and conducting product evaluations.

But when it comes to selecting the software used in their districts’ classrooms, the aim is to involve teachers and school leaders from the beginning.

As software buying is increasingly “decoupled” from infrastructure-building efforts and device purchases, such school-level involvement in blended-learning purchases should become easier for more districts, Mr. Hodas said.

“I think we can have the best of both worlds,” he said, “which is somewhere between ‘everyone do what the superintendent says’ and ‘every 3rd grade teacher is on her own.’ ”

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 Districts Weigh Control Over Software Buying

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