In my years as a middle school teacher, my daily concerns centered around making copies, grading papers, phoning families, and sneaking leftover extra desserts from the cafeteria. My time was packed with lesson planning, attendance, tutoring, and copious record-keeping. So when brown packing boxes filled with new pencils, notebooks (or even textbooks) suddenly appeared in the back of my classroom, I did not ask questions. Sometimes I did not even need the products. Sometimes, I did not use them.
Now my job is streamlining K12 buying and acquisition. And when I explain what I do, my teacher and admin friends invariably respond with a puzzled or glazed look. You do what? That’s a thing?
When packing boxes filled with pencils, notebooks (or even textbooks) appeared in the back of my classroom, I did not ask questions. Sometimes I did not need the products. Sometimes I did not use them.
That surprise got me wondering, because the ways that products and services make it into the classroom matter. Recent studies show that certain products and services may actually moderate the impact that socioeconomic status has on achievement, and there is significant variation in the curriculum use of districts–influenced by achievement, spending, and income. We also know that there is incredible school spending waste–money that could be better spent on infrastructure, staff, technology, or services. Why not empower the whole school community to boost their “Buying IQ?”
There are a few reasons this has been historically difficult.
Funding Uncertainties in K12
Schools are constantly facing budget pressures across spending levels, whether it is the Trump Administration’s announcement of over $10 billion in cuts to federal education programs, impending budget woes after 4 years of spending increases in California, or local cutbacks after unsuccessful bond elections for capital improvements. While members of the public may rally to protest these cuts, school leaders are left with the fallout.
Because funding sources for education are so disparate, it requires specialized knowledge to track developments and to feel empowered to have a say in budgeting and buying.
Bloated, Confusing Procurement Processes
MDRC for the Council of the Great City Schools’ “Foundations for Success” landmark study more than a decade ago identified “unsatisfactory business operations” as a key component perpetuating student achievement gaps. Specifically citing the difficulty teachers and principals face in “getting the basic necessities to operate a school,” other debilitating factors included lack of acceptable supplies and undue influence of school board members on supplier contracts.
One district’s year-long audit resolved with more than 200 recommendations around classroom spending.Add to that complicated rules governing competitive bidding and fair evaluation of products and services, and the average educator is easily left out of the process. One district’s year-long audit resolved with more than 200 recommendations around classroom spending. The auditor’s office identified “outdated and inefficient operations that cost taxpayers millions of dollars” in addition to “an inconsistent contracting process, a toothless internal audit system and serious security and privacy concerns.” Products and services are procured in a vacuum.
School Operations Gaps in Teacher and Admin Prep
For teachers, it is no surprise that credentialing programs focus on pedagogy, education theory, and classroom management, rather than school or district operations (though some master’s programs dive into spending). For admin credentialing programs, there is coursework around operations, usually under “Organizational and System Leadership.” That said, time constraints around credentialing mean that more attention is paid to community building, instructional leadership, and fieldwork. At Noodle Markets, one of our largest user groups is school founders, who frequently admit a personal knowledge gap about operations.
The nitty gritty of purchasing does not receive sufficient attention across educator prep programs.
Whether librarians, IT directors, or classroom teachers, most educators can think of wasted spending–and wish list items.These realities lead to communication silos in K12 purchasing, leaving many stakeholders feeling disempowered. Despite district efforts to get input, purchasing decisions often appear top-down. That means procured products and services go unused or underused. Educators may not receive necessary training on purchases. Sometimes, they never wanted or needed the purchase in the first place. Meanwhile, worthy innovations can take months (or years) to reach the classroom, as educators struggle to surface needs up the chain of command. Whether librarians, IT directors, or classroom teachers, most educators can think of wasted spending–and wish list items.
I do not mean to say that purchasing responsibility should be a new burden for already overloaded educators. But I do believe that greater voice in the process is a good thing. When educators are empowered around the products, services, and curriculum used in their classrooms, progress happens. New data around efficacy and usability can be surfaced, time and money can be saved, and students can see improved outcomes.