August 17, 2023 | By Erin Smith
School districts are typically the entryway for educational products to make it into the hands of students and teachers. However, the unique ecosystem of each district can make it challenging for product developers and vendors to know who to approach in a district to share information about a new educational product.
Understanding the roles different actors play in district procurement and what you need to do before reaching out to a district can help you build a successful partnership. Drawing from Jennifer Morrison’s “Action Point” framework,1 this blog post lays out who’s who in district procurement to help you begin to better understand how to share information about your products so you can accelerate uptake and connect your products with students and teachers.
Who holds the purse strings?
District funding streams often dictate who is responsible for procuring educational products. You may find it helpful to start by understanding these funding streams and which bodies oversee the funds for procurement of supplemental products (such as Read180, Ed Puzzle, AR Reading) or core products (for example curriculums such as Science Island, Reveal Math, Amplify ELA).
The approval of funding for new or existing products can occur at different cycles, such as school years, or ending of performance agreements with existing vendors. Finding out who at the district or state level knows about product funding cycles and performance agreements will allow you to start building meaningful relationships. Also, understanding whether funding for new products comes from federal, state, district, or school budgets can help guide you to the right level of decision-makers. With this understanding, as well as knowledge of whether committees of subject area experts for supplemental or core products exist, you can begin to create a plan for targeted outreach.
Who is using the educational product?
Who in the district should you approach to share information about your product? To answer this question, it may be helpful to first ask another: What does my product aim to achieve? If your product is a large assessment, you may want to approach the director of research and assessment. If it is a supplemental reading intervention, it might be more advantageous to go to a district literacy coach.
For district leaders and staff, relationship-building is critical to understanding school and district context and gaining insights into how to position your product within the district or school. District leaders and staff will likely know the right questions to ask to understand if your product is a fit for their needs. They may also have a say in its procurement.
Users of your products are most likely to also serve as champions. A champion is someone at the school, district, or state level who is aligned and committed to the issue your product aims to address or to using the product itself. Champions are important in helping connect researchers and developers with those who are vetting, approving, and buying products. Champions can go to bat for the product, speaking to the gap or need the product aims to address and helping decision-makers understand the benefits of incorporating the new product into the system.
Who vets and approves products?
The product vetting and approval process may involve many different decision-makers. For many districts, a product that has been vetted and approved will end up on a culminating list of approved vendors or products. This list helps to reduce time commitments and other constraints that administrators encounter when deciding which products to procure. Some states and districts also have allocated funding tied to the use of the products on the list. In this case, when a school administrator chooses a particular product, district funding pays for its usage instead of it coming out of the school’s budget. Identifying who develops the list of approved products can help you focus your efforts on outreach and help your product achieve widespread adoption across a district or state.
Keep a look out for requests for proposals (RFPs) that indicate a district or state is in the market for a new product. Once a product is analyzed internally, decision-makers may come back with questions to better understand how the product fits into their particular contexts. When you submit materials for an RFP, it is important to know how your product will fit into the state or district context, as the approvers will want to see that the product can work with already established systems. Finally, knowing who is leading RFPs at the district or state and building relationships with those decision-makers will increase the likelihood that you will be the first to know when an RFP is forthcoming.
What should I pitch to districts?
Once you know who the decision-makers are, it is time to pitch your educational product. Your pitch should be straightforward, be in plain language, and emphasize the uniqueness of the product and the expected results. As Morrison notes, districts typically face pressure to purchase only essential products and are less likely to pursue more exploratory or supplemental products. Districts have limited time and resources to purchase new products, so if decision-makers can clearly differentiate your product and quickly grasp the perceived gap or need it aims to address, they will feel less overwhelmed and more likely to purchase your product.
The LEARN Network is conducting research on how schools and districts procure curriculum materials and other educational products and programs to improve teaching and learning. Findings from our research will shed light on the key players in a district’s procurement process. Developers and vendors can use findings to conduct targeted outreach around their products to build meaningful relationships. We plan to share the results to support researchers and developers in successfully scaling educational products.