Students suffer as a result of inefficient purchasing. Connecting what schools buy, how long it takes to buy, and whether the right products are purchased often happen in siloed conversations. We need to take a systems thinking approach towards understanding how broken or dated procurement processes impact student performance.
There are a number of reasons why K-12 procurement is complicated:
- Rules concerning competitive bidding, special business designations, purchasing thresholds, and allocations exist, because well-meaning lawmakers want to make sure that tax dollars are spent appropriately. These rules and regulations have remained constant for more than a quarter of a century. The world has changed dramatically since their authoring.
- Using technology as a tool to improve K-12 buying processes inside the central office lags far behind digital transformations in the classroom and it pales in comparison to technological advances in the private sector.
- The education technology marketplace is crowded. Having access to central distribution platforms, having enough opportunities to “prove” market fit and keeping the lights on in the midst of long procurement decision cycles, make breaking through as a K-12 vendor nearly impossible.
When educators don’t have a stake in or access to decisions that affect their ability to help their kids improve, products often end up as “shelfware.”The grave, unwanted side effect of this reality is that it now takes fine-tuned expertise to handle district and school purchasing–and to be effective without breaking the law. In addition, teachers, principals, academic officers, and district staff do not have balanced influence over the products and services reaching students. Superintendents and procurement officials are left with undue pressure surrounding decisions about what makes it into the classrooms. This is a bit disconcerting when, respectfully, many of these decision makers have not been in the classroom in decades, if ever. When educators don’t have a stake in or access to decisions that affect their ability to help their kids improve, products often end up as “shelfware.”
The consequence is not just wasteful spending–it translates into missed opportunities to improve student outcomes.
We spend a lot on our schools. Is it making a difference?
School spending is skyrocketing. According to GSV, by 2020, U.S. K-12 spending is projected to reach nearly $840 billion, a growth rate of around 15%. That means in a 180-day school year, we will spend approximately $4.7 billion dollars a day on K-12 education. And yet achievement levels are stagnant.
While the Every Student Succeeds Act is undergoing what many hope will be promising changes, the Education Department’s General Administrative Regulations receive, what seem to be, largely cosmetic updates. Title I dollars still “supplant,” not “supplement” district spending–with no sign of more targeted oversight.
So, how does purchasing happen in schools?
In many cases, districts often find themselves encumbered, simultaneously: (1) dealing with pressure to meticulously execute complex legal documents (namely, Requests for Proposal), (2) the feeling of being shackled to laborious bidding processes, and (3) rarely receiving appropriate guidance or resources to loop in stakeholders. Principals, teachers and others receive very different training when it comes to purchasing. Many admin credentialing programs gloss over purchasing best practices, and teacher credentialing programs rarely even address it.
In most cases, purchasing authority ends up in the hands of too few, and those people may lack the real-time knowledge and/or time to effectively manage such far-reaching decisions. Most district offices are offsite, physically separated from the students and teachers they serve, which in and of itself creates a barrier to communication. On the other hand, smaller districts and schools often have to make do with differing spending expertise levels–often having to wear many hats.
In most cases, purchasing authority ends up in the hands of too few, and those people may lack the real-time knowledge and/or time to effectively manage such far-reaching decisions. When trying to determine what’s in the market and what’s right for their clients, K-12 purchasers often rely on google searches and word-of-mouth for product discovery while heavily devoting resources to compliance issues.
Empowering all K-12 stakeholders
It would be foolish to suggest we abandon the well-intentioned rules and regulations that keep folks honest. Procurement officers and purchasing specialists perform an absolutely vital role for schools in gathering information, leveraging stakeholders, and executing deals. They are stewards of our public dollars and should be applauded for the work they do. That said, they do need an easier way to loop in the rest of their professional community to surface and share ideas and to save time and money.
Districts and schools need tools to track the product discovery, vendor evaluation and product selection process.My solution is to decentralize purchasing and empower more stakeholders by centralizing communication and data digitally, which is precisely what we’re championing at Noodle Markets. We’re combining a national market network of K-12 companies with bid management tools and a dashboard of valuable purchase data for K-12 educators. Districts and schools need tools to track the product discovery, vendor evaluation and product selection process.
We are also building tools that allow schools and districts to have their own “purchasing portals” which provide a central location for district users to go, find and purchase from district approved vendors at negotiated prices. In addition, many of the smaller purchases that wouldn’t normally trigger “competitive bidding” still require “competitive quotes”. Having a system like Noodle Markets where K-12 purchasers can issue quotes to several vendors in minutes saves an enormous amount of time and keeps folks out of “procurement jail”, a term used by several clients. The most important thing we are doing is providing the procurement/purchasing department, who is our primary client, with tools that allow them to sit on the helm and manage and control in a decentralized purchasing environment. Our focus is bottom line savings for the district. The more money we help save the more dollars available for the teachers and students that need them.
Finally, we need to have more conversations and professional development round the importance of K-12 purchasing and we need to tie those conversations to its impact on student outcomes. We’ve started some of this work with our new free, learning community on edWeb.net “Inside K-12,” and look forward to sharing more resources over time. Other organizations like EdReports.org, the Jefferson Education Accelerator, and Digital Promise are also doing important work. Only good can come from shared knowledge and commitment to do better.
Imagine what would be possible if more K-12 professionals were empowered to contribute to their school buying practices. We’d see more motivated roll-out and less waste, because only the best and right products would make it into classrooms. And we would see a higher output of product usage attached to achievement. Most importantly, we could save educators the time and energy needed to do what matters: supporting students.