October 21, 2020

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education gives you strength

Helping education entrepreneurs and school leaders navigate the procurement maze | American Enterprise Institute

4 min read
Key Points The procurement of new education products or services is frequently complicated by a...

Key Points

  • The procurement of new education products or
    services is frequently complicated by a maze of regulations that create
    confusion among district officials, vendors, and policymakers about what can
    and can’t be procured.
  • Whether a good or service is “allowable,” or how
    to pay for it, often comes down to interpreting key terms in regulations and
    statutes; two examples underscore the merits of creating terms mutually
    understood among stakeholders.
  • The active collaboration required among school
    officials, vendors, and policymakers to make sense of terms in ways that make
    good on the promise, intent, and guideposts of policy could accelerate the
    feedback loop between policy and practice.

Read the PDF.

Years ago, a scrappy startup created a diagnostic assessment
that teachers could use in their classrooms. It was cutting-edge, and the
company grew by leaps and bounds—except in one state in the Southeast. It
didn’t matter how many agreeable conversations they had with district officials,
state program officers would not allow districts to purchase the product. Without
clear answers why its product didn’t fit with state practices and preferences,
the company’s leadership began to suspect that state officials did not like
them. That wasn’t the case.

It
turned out that the state’s decision (and, in turn,
the district’s) was informed by a long-forgotten statute that prescribed
specific requirements for diagnostic reading assessments. That statute, and the rules that followed, were drafted a decade
before the startup came into being.
It did not account for digital assessments that could be administered with handheld technology (at the time, a
PalmPilot).

The
company’s technology and assessment didn’t square with the largely outdated
regulations. District leaders understood that their choices were prescribed in
ways that prevented using the company’s technology. But few appreciated that
those decisions were informed by a statute passed when many of the district and
state decision makers were still in college.

Once presented with the incongruity among emergent technology, district preferences, and an outdated statute, policymakers were keen to update. The new technology was then quickly adopted in the state, helping the state achieve its accountability objectives while giving teachers diagnostic tools to inform instruction and improve outcomes. The barrier to procurement wasn’t personal, of course. But it required translating a product into terms that were cognizable to policymakers and analyzing the policy preconditions that shaped the market.

For
more than 20 years, Whiteboard Advisors has been performing this sort of
analysis to bridge the divide between emergent technologies and legacy policies,
creating flexibility for districts, schools, and educators to improve student
outcomes with new tools and approaches. Along the way, Whiteboard has found
that education entrepreneurs and investors’ perception that education
procurement is “broken” is often misguided.

Procurement often works exactly as intended. Ed Kirby notes that sometimes rules and requirements exist because advocates worked with legislators to create opportunities only for services or activities that meet defined criteria.1 School officials safeguard against waste, fraud, abuse of public funds, and noncompliance with program rules. This can seem like a drag, but it’s not that school officials aren’t against innovation and expediency; they are against risk, which is prevalent in a fast-growing sector.

According to EdSurge, the online education technology journal, more than 2,500 digital products emerged over the past decade, including more than 640 curriculum resources alone, and every year new companies enter and exit what’s estimated to be a $10 billion market.2 Navigating and filtering what’s available doesn’t appeal to most school officials. The procurement of education technology is clouded by “the difficulty of sorting through the increasingly large number of products available,” and it’s complicated by the need to abide by layers of statutes, regulations, guidance, and prior practice.3 It’s fertile ground for confusion and wasteful spending—and a profound opportunity to establish common ground.

In
this report, I build on the story of the scrappy startup by sharing two
in-depth examples of Whiteboard Advisors’
work to create a shared understanding of new ideas and material terms
between education organizations and decision makers. In the first example,
confusion arose from the relatively new online service “crowdfunding.” At the
behest of the Office of the Washington State Auditor, school officials in
Washington interpreted crowdfunding in a
sweeping manner that restricted teacher access to all crowdfunding
platforms. In the second example, I examine confusion about the application of
the “evidence-based” research requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act
(ESSA). The absence of a shared and commonly used framework to implement the
requirements continues to cause grief for
vendors and school officials alike.

Both
examples have something to offer school officials and entrepreneurs.
Regulations and technology constantly reshape the education marketplace. This
requires public officials to continually monitor how new services allow them to
fulfill their responsibilities while improving how they go about their
business. It also compels business officials to clearly anchor their work in
the rules that bind procurement with public money. The most innovative ideas,
no matter how smart, aren’t helpful if they don’t fit within a compliance
framework, and it’s even worse if everyone is speaking past one another. But
this shared understanding doesn’t just
happen; it requires careful facilitation.

Read the full report.

Notes

  1. Ed Kirby, “Breaking Regulatory Barriers to Reform,” in The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship: Possibilities for School Reform, ed. Frederick M. Hess (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008).
  2. Learning Counsel, Market Spend Analysis & 2017 Digital Curriculum Strategy Survey, 2017.
  3. Jennifer R. Morrison et al., Fostering Market Efficiency in K–12 Ed-Tech Procurement, Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research and Reform in Education, September 22, 2014, https://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/DP_Improving
    EdTechPurchasing_FullReport.pdf. 

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