A Checklist for Engaging a School District’s Central Office
Many edtech startups (understandably) try to sidestep the complexity and bureaucracy of the central office, and go straight to teachers. Unfortunately, while going directly to teachers is a good route to test usability, gain acceptance, generate enthusiasm, and to make a few initial individual sales, monetizing the product at a volume to justify significant investment inevitably requires companies to deal with the central office. Edtech companies must understand and work within the system; they must aggressively pursue a district office strategy in parallel with working directly with teachers. A well thought out Central Office strategy with realistic timing should be part of every business plan.
Know the customer
In the words of writer George Packer in a recent The New Yorker article, “Change the World,” the Silicon Valley sees government as being “slow, staffed by mediocrities, and ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.” But it is worth pausing to try to understand why districts are bureaucratic, as part of a basic lesson in Marketing 101: Know the Customer.
There is a lot of money in education and it is the taxpayer’s (namely, your) money, and people want it to be spent honestly and wisely. Annual federal, state and local spending on education in California is nearly $3,000 per inhabitant, making it the largest piece of the state and local budget. Many districts are some of the largest local employers and sources of local business revenue. Whenever cases of wrongdoing are exposed, legislators will add a new layer of compliance and oversight to an already burdensome set of regulations. This super-sensitive legal and political environment provides a public forum for businesses to confront administrators on any decisions that do not fall in their favor. Districts often will make safe choices to avoid these confrontations.
Of course, there is more than just money at stake. We are talking about children’s futures and there are many stakeholders including families, teachers, and the community. Many administrators take this moral responsibility very seriously, and are visibly distressed by any action that hurts kids.
One may argue that schools have been failing American kids for at least the last 30 years so it is morally irresponsible to maintain the status quo. However, in the age of social media, bad press is easy to generate and almost impossible to quiet. Misinformation, once posted on the Internet, is difficult to dispel. As a result, public school districts are generally very risk averse. Even relatively minor decisions are pushed up the hierarchy to executives who may not have the information to make quick decisions. Despite perceptions to the contrary, most district executives work very hard but must deal with existential crises every day. As a result, many decisions get locked into a holding pattern, and only those most imminent and critical get resolved.
Within this chaotic, compliance-driven, risk-averse, hierarchical environment, there are three basic strategies that can improve your chances of selling to a district.
Target your product/message to address one or more of the District’s priorities
Even though there are a myriad of regulations that apply to every district in the state, district governance is largely local and no two districts are the same. You can start to construct a profile of the district by gathering some basic information:
- General statistics including size, demographics, dropout rate and academic performance (see here for California). This is will give an idea of the challenges facing the District;
- Go to the district website and browse through the website itself, the strategic plan, board meeting minutes, superintendent’s messages, the technology plan and the staff directory and/or organization charts (you can learn a lot about a district’s priorities from titles, departments, and the reporting structure).
Addressing one or more district priorities will increase your chances of getting attention among key executives. If your product only addresses a small part of what is at the top of a District’s agenda, consider partnering with other vendors with complementary functionality to present the District a more comprehensive solution.
Make it easy for the CTO to support the purchase
It makes sense to first get enthusiasm for your product among some teachers. But even if the decision-making authority lies somewhere else in the organization, the CTO will bear much of the responsibility for implementation, and will appreciate being brought into the loop early. S/he knows good implementation is the key to success. Districts are notoriously bad at implementation and the product inevitably gets blamed for poor outcomes even if they were the result of poor implementation.
- Make sure your product is compatible with the District’s infrastructure. You may have to augment your product (for example, to integrate with the District’s student information system) or partner with other vendors to address device or network issues;
- Offer professional development. Given the widely varying levels of technology competence among District staff, professional development can go a long way towards getting everyone on board.
- Consider offering project management assistance;
- What post-implementation support will you provide?
Make it easier for the District to buy
There is some pre-work you can do to speed up the purchasing process by helping the District negotiate through its own bureaucracy:
- Show them how to fund the purchase. Can you identify appropriate “categorical” funds or bond money? Can you partner with a foundation and include financing with your proposal?
- Be aware of the school budgeting and spending calendar. Once budgets have been approved, usually by March of the prior year, it is difficult to find “new” money to buy anything that has not already been budgeted. In addition, there are reporting periods throughout the year when there is a hold on purchases, and there is a “use-it-or-lose-it” deadline by which schools have to exhaust their budget or lose the money;
- Structure your proposal to comply with the District’s procurement rules. Can you show why the contract does not have to be competitively bid? Have you established the necessary partnerships to satisfy local content requirements?
- As soon as things are moving in the right direction, get a sneak peak at the District’s contract template so that you can start working out compromises for provisions that your lawyers consider unacceptable. Many technology purchases require a professional services contract in addition to a software agreement; get insurance, TB and fingerprinting clearances for your staff upfront.
Other checklist items
- As you get teachers excited about your product, try to engage teachers from more than one school--it will increase your leverage on the Central Office;
- Obviously, it always helps to know someone influential within the Central Office. If your product can further the cause of certain advocacy groups, foundations or non-profits, they may be able to help you get traction with the right people;
- Don’t hesitate to ask teachers or principals to invite Central Office staff to your meetings;
- Try to identify and engage someone from the Central Office who can project manage the implementation. This is not necessarily the champion, but is someone who can work cross-functionally across the District and who has the capacity to manage project details;
- If the scope of your offering is relatively narrow, consider teaming with vendors that have products or services with complementary functionality, so that you can approach the District with an integrated solution. District executives face a constant barrage of vendor solicitations all claiming to do one thing or another. A “full service” proposal would simplify their lives.
A final word
Negotiating the School District Central Office bureaucracy can seem daunting, but that is where the money lies, and that is where there is the power to scale your solution to benefit the largest number of kids. Some companies have chosen to market their product directly to parents through consumer channels and dodge the public school system entirely, but even if they are able to meet their revenue goals, it does not help close the achievement gap which is the most serious education issue in America today. Edtech companies that learn to deal with the Central Office not only will prosper but also can impact the socio-economic subgroups that need the greatest help.