Education Week - April 24, 2013 - Special Report - (Page S15)
EDUCATION WEEK APRIL 24, 2013
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EDUCATION WEEK APRIL 24, 2013
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À la Carte Purchasing Tactics
Signal Districts’ Unique Needs
he way Jeff Elstad sees it, the days when
school districts partnered with one vendor to
buy a prepackaged, multigrade curriculum for
seven to 10 years are long gone.
Mr. Elstad runs the Byron public schools in
Minnesota. Like many districts around the
country, the Byron school system, when faced
with budget shortages last spring, started
doing things differently. The $60,000 that the
upper-middle-class district had been spending
each year on curriculum procurement, for instance, became an easy
place to start making cuts.
“We’ve moved away from the traditional textbook. They’re pretty
much obsolete the moment they’re printed,” said Mr. Elstad, an educator with more than 20 years of experience. Last fall, he became
Byron’s superintendent after working as a middle school principal.
The 1,800-student district, which currently allows students to
bring their own digital computing devices to school, plans to roll out
a 1-to-1 iPad program for 7th to 12th graders next fall.
Already, the middle and high school math curriculum is completely
“flipped”—meaning students watch video-recorded lectures after
school, in the afternoons, evenings, and on weekends, thereby saving
class time to ask questions, work on problem sets, and collaborate in
In moving away from the printed word and toward the adoption
of a districtwide digital footprint, Byron is also changing the way it
goes about procuring its curriculum. While it still partners with New
York City-based Scholastic to supply the district’s K-4 literacy curriculum, it now relies much more heavily on open education resources,
teacher-created materials, and learning management systems to
supply the content for the upper grades.
“We’ve decided to forgo the purchase of boxed curriculum sets from
major vendors and instead looked for innovative ways to meet our
needs,” said Mr. Elstad, who predicts such thinking will soon filter
down to the lower grades. “We’ve done a complete 180.”
While K-12 procurement of curricular materials has long favored
big companies such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill,
and Pearson because of economies of scale, some districts are now relying on smaller, startup companies to supplement segments of their
curriculum needs. Many are pursuing an à la carte approach to procurement—still relying on traditional providers for large, multigrade
programs, but also forging partnerships with smaller companies to
supply innovative products and platforms.
of creating more personalized learning environments for students.
Tom Vander Ark, who formerly ran the education division of the Bill
& Melinda Gates Foundation and has since written the book Getting
Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World, says that while
teachers have long supplemented boxed curricula with their own content, in the era of personal, digitized learning “it’s an idea now on steroids.” (The Gates Foundation provides support for coverage of the K-12
marketplace and new approaches to schooling in Education Week.)
Mr. Vander Ark, who also writes a blog, Vander Ark on Innovation,
hosted on edweek.org, says the old pattern of curriculum adoption,
in which a district might sign a seven-year contract for wraparound
services with one vendor, began to change significantly in 2008, just
as the economy tanked.
“For many districts, it was one of the easiest spots to hit the pause
button,” he said. “So they skipped a year, and when things didn’t really
get better, in many places, folks just stopped that cycle altogether.”
Along with the recession, Mr. Vander Ark describes a combination of other factors that have disrupted traditional, one-provider
procurement practices: the rise in the use of mobile learning devices
by students and educators, the availability of cheaper technologies,
the development of tens of thousands of learning apps, and the widespread adoption of open education resources.
Taking those influences together, he sees 2010 as an “inflection
point”—a time when schools began a transition from the use of predominantly printed materials to the adoption of digital resources.
And as the options increase, many districts, he predicts, will become even less reliant on traditional procurement strategies and
choose instead to acquire a set of learning tools tailored to the needs
of each student.
Apps and Software
When it comes to procurement, the field is rich not only with digital
textbooks, but also with an increasing number of apps and software.
“We’re seeing that those dollars aren’t shifting to digital textbooks,
but to apps and software, creating a whole market and opportunity
that didn’t exist before,” said Tyler Bosmeny, the co-founder and
chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Clever. The company
provides a service that links various pieces of educational software
PAGE S16 >
‘A Huge Shift’
L.C. “Buster” Evans, the superintendent of the Forsyth County
schools in Georgia, estimates the 39,000-student district was spending about $3 million a year on textbooks five years ago. This school
year, that spending is around $500,000.
“We’ve clearly made a huge shift. Both from printed materials, but
also by doubling the amount of money we spend on digital products
and content-delivery programs,” said Mr. Evans. Forsyth also runs a
districtwide “bring your own device,” or byod, program.
“All told, we’re spending less than $800,000,” on print and digital
materials Mr. Evans said.
In Forsyth County, the shift in resources also came with a shift in
providers from the education industry.
“While we’re still working with Pearson, there’s a completely new
array of vendors we’re working with that in many cases didn’t even
exist five years ago,” said Mr. Evans. In stark contrast to the big, grand
curriculum presentations of years past, he routinely sits in on product
demonstrations from startups with only a handful of employees.
“There’s definitely an à la carte collection of content rather than
an adoption by one provider,” he said. Instead of using three or four
textbook companies as it did in the past, Forsyth now partners with
more than two dozen content vendors.
“No longer do you buy a single type of thing to meet the needs of
all learners,” said Mr. Evans, who sees the shift in providers as a way
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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - April 24, 2013 - Special Report
Education Week - April 24, 2013
Education Industry Players Exert Public- Policy Influence
Companies, Policymakers Look For Common Ground
Industry Shapes Goals And Tech Focus at N.Y.C. School
Beta Testing Ed. Products Can Get Tricky for Schools
Vetting Product Research to Determine What Works
Big-Name Companies Feature Larger-Impact Research Efforts
What to Ask About Research
À la Carte Purchasing Tactics Signal Districts’ Unique Needs
Big Companies Face K-12 Shift
Education Week - April 24, 2013 - Special Report