Selling to K-12 school districts is a circle of Hell. But we can fix it.
I first entered that circle as the founder and CEO of The Princeton Review. After years of working directly with students, we believed we had the expertise and reputation to help districts adopt formative assessment (quizzes and other exercises that inform instruction, rather than evaluate students and educators). While we grew well and helped our districts use data in new and exciting ways, we discovered complex, bureaucratic, expensive, and opaque procurement processes that wasted millions of our dollars and much of our morale.
Simply finding the RFPs (Requests for Proposals) in our category in time to participate was a massive undertaking, and responding to them involved hundreds of pages of documentation and hundreds of man-hours. The final part — printing and shipping a dozen copies of a massive document — then led to months of waiting while committees waded through the responses, set up presentations, and tallied their scorecards. The steep costs in time and energy were prohibitive for a smaller company (and we weren’t that small). I don’t want to know how many opportunities we had to de-prioritize for lack of resources. It just didn’t make business sense to pursue many middle and low-range contracts.
As an entrepreneur, investor, and rapt observer of the education sector, I remain concerned about the implications of this reality for public education. Pioneering companies often take a pass on the K-12 market. The ones who press on face long odds against entrenched competitors who know how to navigate the process.
It’s not much better for the educators. Smaller school districts choose from few products and services, which drives up prices. And they end up covering the cost of the labyrinthian process itself. Further, the process often excludes input from the vast majority of teachers and administrators. They often don’t get to see the best product and service options, important as public policy, technology, and pedagogy changes create changing requirements.
There have been worthy efforts to address this problem. States and localities have created their own e-procurement systems, though they’re not usually K-12 focused. Various for- and non-profit websites have popped up to review or catalog products in a few education segments. And companies like RFPSchoolWatch have pioneered solicitation monitoring in K-12.
But someone still needs to put the pieces together if this system is going to work for anyone. That’s what led me to Nicole Neal, a former Pearson executive and tech guru with two decades of experience in K-12 education. Working around existing laws and regulations (those are generally there with good reason, and they’re not going anywhere soon), we set out on a deep investigation to see how to rethink the process.
Here’s what we found: both educators and providers need a centralized destination for purchasing. Educators in schools and districts need it so they can discover and vet all of their options; they should know what products and services are out there, their approximate cost and popularity, and which are being used by the schools and districts they trust. Then they need simple ways to translate that research into legal and clear RFPs, to evaluate the bids that come in, and to then translate the winning bid into a contract. Providers need all of this too, to put their services in front of more schools and districts, lower their sales costs, and drive change more quickly. None of that is easy, but none is impossible, either.
Introducing real competition and transparency around K-12 purchases is critical to raising the quality of their outcomes. There are tons of interesting tools out there, but no one can find them or know if they’re any good. Let’s fix that.
Together with Nicole Neal, John Katzman is a co-founder of Noodle Markets, K-12’s first digital procurement platform and marketplace, and founder and CEO of The Noodle Companies.