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School Districts Are Really Bad At Buying Technology

A new report finds a "problem" in how school districts work with education technology companies.

Posted on November 14, 2014, at 5:25 p.m. ET

School districts that spend billions of dollars every year on the latest educational technology are using antiquated buying processes that shut out teachers and leave tech companies frustrated, according to a new report by the national nonprofit Digital Promise and the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

The education technology industry is booming, buoyed by nationwide pushes such as "one-to-one" initiatives, which aim to give one device, such as an iPod or Chromebook, to every student. Venture funds pumped $452 million into ed-tech startups in 2013, according to data from the New Schools Venture Fund. Last year, school districts spent almost $10 billion on education technology.

A vast majority of district superintendents said they were happy with the way their school district buys technology. But the Digital Promise report found serious flaws with those methods, which often don't use data or rigorous evidence and can shut out the voices of teachers who actually use the products. Most districts rely on anecdotal evidence and informal "pilots," which generally involve brief product tests or even simply demos, rather than surveys or data analyses, the report said.

"There are no accessible sources of rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of the vast majority of ed-tech products," the report said.

And only 50% of districts actually involve teachers in the process of deciding which technology to put into their classrooms. Students were involved just 15% of the time.

The Digital Promise report found that just 6% of educational technology companies were satisfied with the way school districts buy ed-tech products, with only 4% saying that the process "met contemporary needs." Technology companies said they found it difficult to find information about what school districts actually wanted and struggled to break into the fragmented and often bureaucratic world of school districts.

Rather than focusing on research and development, ed-tech companies said they were forced to spend much of their time and money on building "referral networks" and beefing up their sales force.

Relationships between technology providers and schools have come under increased scrutiny since a scandal in the Los Angeles Unified School District over a $1 billion initiative to buy iPads for every student and teacher. An internal report found that officials from LAUSD had corresponded frequently, and some alleged improperly, with executives from Apple and Pearson, and that few teachers in the pilot program had actually used some of the expensive technology. The school district's superintendent eventually resigned last month, in part because of the scandal.

The processes of buying school materials were designed for textbook purchasing, not for technology, said Karen Cator, Digital Promise's CEO. "With technology you have much more varied and continuously improving products," Cator said. "The rate of change is much more fast-paced."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.