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The Procurement Tightrope Shouldn’t Tie Districts in Knots
Clearly it wasn’t only the failed $1.3 billion deal to put iPads in the hands of all students and teachers that forced the resignation of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy. What’s clear, though, is that the recent FBI seizure in L.A. of iPad-related documents and new procurement rules that will increase federal scrutiny on outcomes and performance send a message to school leaders across the nation: procurement can take you down. Buying educational products and services—from books and tests to technology and research—is a slow, onerous, rule-bound process. One false step can land district leaders in the headlines, hastening the revolving-door tenure typical of far too many urban school chiefs.
Regardless of the specifics of the iPad deal, we worry that the Los Angeles experience will have a chilling effect on other school chiefs who are trying to innovate. This fallout could hasten and spread a pullback on technology, a pullback on creative thinking around redesigning schools, and a pullback on any high-reward initiative that challenges any aspect of “how we do things here.” That’s the wrong conclusion. The correct response is to bring our school systems’ woefully outdated procurement and deployment practices into the 21st century.
Certainly, school systems and leaders must protect the public’s money and preserve the public trust, walking a tightrope that wisely balances risk and rewards. But too often that tightrope ties districts in knots, getting in the way of delivering promising solutions—whether technological, instructional, or procedural—to address pressing learning challenges. Getting procurement right will be a crucial factor in how well districts are able to achieve their policy goals, whatever those may be.
As part of our procurement study at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, we interviewed central office personnel and observers in Los Angeles and five other large districts. One New York City Department of Education official told us that the head of procurement has told new hires, “Assume every vendor is a criminal.” This leads to paralysis through fear.
Procurement processes in large districts are often overwhelmingly complex and painfully slow, making it virtually impossible for smaller, innovative start-ups to do business with those districts, or for districts to acquire the most current technologies. Central offices are steeped in a risk-averse culture, stymied by barriers both real and imagined, and staffed with people ill equipped to effectively evaluate emerging technologies or see the big picture.
Some central offices have become so beaten down by processes, constraints, and a culture of compliance that managers expressed to us a palpable sense of passivity and defeat. Determined leadership can help overcome this “culture of ‘can’t’,” but as one NYC district representative said, “As soon as the boss isn’t pushing on the throttle, anyone can hit the brakes.” When asked about bottlenecks in the procurement process, one LAUSD official said, “There were so many I’m not sure where to start.”
Done right, procurement reform is much more than nimble contracting. It’s a way for school districts to reimagine the role of stakeholder engagement, school-level decision making, strategic purchasing, research and development, and risk management. This won’t happen without big changes to district policies and personnel. Those responsible for problem definition, solution sourcing, and contracting should be among the district’s most capable, imaginative, and energetic employees. Procurement, broadly defined, must shift from a culture of compliance to one of problem solving, to become the office where hard things get done rather than where initiatives go to die.
The good news is that the education sector doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel on procurement reform. We found plentiful examples of other sectors, from health care to the military, that have successfully adapted to an innovation mindset by adapting new technologies quickly, shifting to a more nimble approach to curating new solutions, partnering with private providers, and contracting rapidly to meet user needs. And the nation’s largest school system, New York City, has been for the last several years a national leader on this front with its iZone, connecting problem-solvers and educators to inspire new learning solutions and rapidly prototype and refine them.
Deasy was right to want LAUSD’s students to have the same access to technology that more advantaged students in other school districts enjoy. In the end, LAUSD has lost a visionary leader with a fire in the belly to do right by the city’s most disadvantaged kids. But our urban schools need a central office operating system reboot before purchasing more iPads.
Steven Hodas (@stevenhodas) is a veteran of both the New York City Department of Education and the edtech industry. In this blog series, School District Innovation: When Practice Collides with Policy, he provides insights into the challenges, struggles, and opportunities of large-district attempts to reform longstanding practices and change cultural norms. This series is part of CRPE's ongoing examination of innovative school systems.
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