Many large urban school districts around the country are struggling to innovate because of the outdated, overly bureaucratic procurement systems they use to contract with vendors, a new study found.
The drawn-out procurement process can hinder partnerships with innovative companies that would put technology tools in the classroom, according to the study, released this week by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
“It’s the whole culture of the central office – risk-aversion [which makes it difficult] for small companies to get in the contracting process,” Robin Lake, director of the center, which is based at the University of Washington, told StateScoop. She added that schools’ procurement process is “antiquated, and not designed to facilitate quick, nimble innovation.”
The research is drawn from interviews with officials at six major school districts: Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Cleveland and the District of Columbia.
One former official from the District of Columbia Public Schools explained how companies like Verizon Communications Inc. or Microsoft Corp. promoting new, innovative products would often get shut out of the procurement process because vendors had to jump through hoops to complete a request for proposal (commonly referred to as an RFP).
“What killed me in D.C. was that I had partners who would come and say, ‘I have this cool new product and we think it’s good but we’d like to refine it. We’ll donate to a school and refine it there,’” the former official recalled. “But there were too many challenges.”
The RFP process can have dozens of steps, starting with soliciting vendors and followed by a background check, cost analysis and contract registration.
Lake said that established, well-known education companies like Pearson PLC – which has more than 100 contracts in 50 school districts around the country – are more likely to win contracts because the testing company is a well-established name.
Pearson scored a huge contract last year to develop the new, high-stakes Common Core state exams, despite criticism that the company has been investigated for botching tests.
“Historically, Pearson is very well positioned to win RFPs because they’ve built in the cost of doing this, they know the process, they know the applications,” said Lake. “The challenge is now opening things up to new companies and entrepreneurs with new ideas.”
Steven Hodas, who served as executive director of innovation in the New York City Department of Education during the Bloomberg administration, oversaw software competitions like the Gap App Challenge as an alternative to the typical procurement process.
“It was definitely part of an effort to change mentality,” Hodas told StateScoop. “It flowed out of the general philosophy to create more personalized learning environments for kids and teachers. We thought it was important to engage the marketplace so all the people who are out there building stuff are building stuff that is actually useful to us.”
The Gap App Challenge, which launched in 2013, sought software developers to create apps that would help middle school students learn math at their own pace. A Web-based company called KnowRe was among the winners, offering targeted instruction for students based on their particular weaknesses in the subject.
“Instead of issuing specifications of what the solution should look like, we said, ‘Here is what we’re trying to solve, give us your best thinking,’” said Hodas, who is now an education consultant. “And that was wildly productive.”
He added that education officials should embrace startups with fresh ideas rather than partner repeatedly with the same companies. “There is a predictability that is really important to government,” he said. “It would rather have predictable mediocrity rather than unpredictable excellence. That’s the way the culture is.”