Better District Ed-Tech Purchasing Strategies Explored

Associate Editor

Districts’ procurement of education technology is fraught with issues that can leave K-12 administrators overwhelmed with choices and companies frustrated with an often long and confounding selection process, a new study says.

The research hinges on the question of how to make transactions in the K-12 marketplace “less clunky, more seamless,” said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, speaking to an audience at National Education Week’s Thought Leader Summit this week in Washington. (The conference was not affiliated with Education Week.)

The EIA and Digital Promise, which co-sponsored the study, offer six ideas about how to improve the process. They recommend:

  • Better guidelines for districts conducting needs assessments and including end users in the process
  • Faster methods of schools’ evaluation of products and better ways of sharing results
  • Simplified Request for Proposal (RFP) processes to ensure a level playing field and high-quality results
  • Piloting approaches that increase rigor and drive purchasing decisions without over-burdening teachers
  • Creating incentives for providers to get results and show evidence, such as performance-based contracting and prizes
  • Developing websites with trusted information about ed-tech tools and district procurement policies and better ways to match providers and products with educators
  • Pursuing more research about funding strategies for acquiring ed-tech products

My colleague, Sean Cavanagh, delved deeply into the research this week in: “Ed-Tech Vendors Often in Dark on District Needs, Study Shows”, with an interactive data graphic that dissects districts’ ed-tech buying

Meanwhile, at the thought leaders event, two veterans from various perspectives of the ed-tech purchasing fray described the procurement predicament from either side of the dotted line. Participating in the panel with Pines were Steven Hodas, practitioner in residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, who shared his observations as the former executive director of New York City Schools’ iZone; and Joseph Olchefske, formerly superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, who has been president of three education companies—most recently, Calvert Education Services.

Olchefske told the story of a contract he pursued in Philadelphia public schools with one of the companies he ran. “The school district’s superintendent and two assistant superintendents were nodding their heads [about the purchase],” he said. Their recommendation to “go for it” ran into an obstacle with the legal and purchasing departments, where the sale was held up for six months. “We lost a year of implementation, simply to go through the regulatory hoops to comply,” he said.

Still, superintendents are generally satisfied with the purchasing process, according to the study. “They aren’t aware of the value being left on the table,” Hodas said.

Pines said districts report that they value rigorous evidence in the decision-making process, but more often they rely on the recommendations of their peers.

“That doesn’t trouble me at all,” Hodas said, adding that it makes sense to “talk to somebody who’s going to use [the ed tech] the same way you’re going to use it.”

Pines said most pilot studies in districts are “described to us, loosely, as tire-kicking exercises.” But most companies don’t see those small studies as a clear path to launching their products at scale. “The final insult is when the pilot is over, and an RFP is issued,” he said, rather than automatically awarding the contract to the company that conducted the pilot, if it was successful.

You can read the entire study, which was conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education, here:

Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing

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