What do large school districts need from ed-tech providers? Michael Casserly Executive Director of the Council of the Great City Schools spoke at the Software Information Industry Association (SIIA) conference this week in San Francisco. The speech was direct, honest, and well balanced in tackling some difficult issues like NCLB.
Towards the close of the speech he made the following 10 requests of the Ed-Tech community. I’ve added my perspective from the industry’s side of the conversation.
1. Provide tools that build academic vocabulary and develop high order thinking skills. I found this an interesting request given that all the major publishers and several mid and small sized publishers have materials that do all of these things. Either we are not meeting the real need with our products or we are not getting the word out effectively. This should give all of these providers cause to reflect on their offerings and their go-to-market strategies.
2. Provide targeted intervention materials for Special Education (SPED) and English Language Learners (ELL) – specifically age appropriate materials targeting different ability levels. This is a similar problem to issue #1, there are a fair number of existing resources in the market already, but most of them are print based. One area where technology could make a huge difference is flexibly scaling basal textbook content to the student’s ability level. Doing this with print presents two intractable problems – the sheer number of variations needed is prohibitively expensive and the stigma associated with the lower level books causes kids to resist using them. On-line everyone is in the same application and the number of variations is limited only by the sophistication of the software engine.
3. Develop virtual environments to stimulate inquiry based learning when the real materials would be too expensive or dangerous. This is an exciting area with a lot of activity. My article in Cable in the Classroom covered this very ground. Virtual worlds do present a challenge in districts with high poverty around equity of access to technology. The path of least resistance here may be cell phone based interfaces similar to what is happening in Japan and Europe.
4. More group learning resources using technology. Honestly – I was writing like crazy and missed the substance of this request. If you were there and recall please explain in the comments. [Update: see Charlene Blohm’s take on this in comments.]
5. Clarity from publishers on what our materials do and don’t do. There is a feeling that technology vendors have either over-promised or omitted important product shortcomings. Fair enough. The temptation is always there for vendors to do this – but in the conversation economy it can be deadly. Trust is the coin of the realm. Sales Management has a responsibility to set the right tone of integrity and honesty.
6. Provide clear alignments to standards in a deep and meaningful way. They would also like to know where we don’t meet the standards – don’t force them to figure it out on their own. Vendors might be more inclined to do this if we feel that it is more than a check-off item. The cost of doing correlations and maintaining them is significant and yet from what we can tell once they are submitted they are never used again. We do this little Morris Dance around the standards and then districts buy the book with the prettiest cover.
7. Stick by them – they are in it for the long haul and they need business partners to trudge that road with them. This is a legitimate request but a hard one to implement due to the management turmoil many large districts suffer from on an ongoing basis. It can take years to position a sale in a large district only to see it derailed by a reorganization or funding re-allocation. Only the largest publishers can make this kind of sustained commitment which limits the range of innovative solutions that the large districts see.
8. Longitudinal follow up with effective professional development. He also requested that we bundle PD into the cost of the products – if PD is an add-on option there is the temptation to skimp in this area. This request is consistent with the thesis that we are going to see a Negroponte switch to districts paying for PD and getting the materials for free. Of course, the easiest way for districts to insure that this happens is to issue their RFPs with PD bundled in. Until that happens vendors who are competing on price are going to leave it out. Amplifying this temptation is the fact that PD is frequently the item with the lowest contribution margin at publishers and ed-tech vendors.
9. We should resist customizing our products for one district – too many districts have had been left behind on legacy code as a result of this. I’m really not sure that the vendors are at fault on this one. This usually happens when a large district flexes their market power by demanding special attention. I’ve known vendors who have walked on these deals because they see the problems down the road, but there is almost always someone willing to bid it exactly the way the district requested it. See my comment below on how the Council itself could play a positive role in these situations.
10. Provide software tools that help them use data more effectively. This includes longitudinal tracking systems, dashboards, and benchmarks. This is an area where lots of companies are doing important work. Student Information Systems, Data Warehouses, Assessment Reporting Systems, and Learning Management Systems are complex software systems that are evolving rapidly. This is also one of the areas where technology, used effectively, can provide real tools for change.***
On top of all this he added a bonus request. He asked that vendors resist selling products when the district wants to use them in an inappropriate way (wrong age level, insufficient infrastructure, etc.). This is related to item 9 above. If a vendor feels they are being pressured to do something like this it is hard to push back, particularly in a competitive situation. Responsible vendors will walk away – but there will always be someone who will make the promise to win the business. I think there is an opportunity for the Council to be of service in this area. If the responsible vendors felt they had place they could go before these deals were sealed it might make a difference. The Council could put a word in with the district that they were headed in a risky direction.
Large Districts (and States) need to resist the temptation to use their market power in ways that ultimately hurt their own interests. There are perfectly legitimate uses for that market power so I’m not advocating unilateral disarmament – just suggesting that some restraint is needed on both sides. Districts shouldn’t make unreasonable demands and vendors shouldn’t make unrealistic commitments.
***I’m working on the Data Driven Decision Making Report that will be released in the next few weeks. It is an in-depth look at the SIS and Data Warehouse market and is a follow on to the 2003 report. If you would like more information please use the contact us link and reference the report.