The biggest myth in education sales

Market Insight
LeiLani Cauthen

Today, selling into schools is a lot like myth-busting. As the Learning Counsel tours the U.S. with our city-by-city Digital Curriculum Strategy Discussion events, we are finding some very interesting myths.

What is a myth? There are two primary definitions. One is “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” This definition of myth is like a folk tale, fairy tale or legend. While it might feel while one is selling to schools that he or she is living in some ancient legend, another definition, “A widely held but false belief or idea,” is the appropriate definition here.

So just what is the most “widely held but false belief or idea” in education? It’s the one you hear almost every time you approach a prospect.

The educational sales myth:  There is no money.

One of the most interesting phenomena of the education market is the ever-persistent rhetoric that there is no money. This is always contextual to how budget is allocated, because education is always the largest portion of state budgets, and many times the same is true for local county/community budgets. Even during the recession, the federal stimulus monies evened out the great dip-that-really-wasn’t. Oh, there was a lot of belt-tightening, but in truth there was also a whole lot of house-cleanings using the excuse of budget, and squirreling-away for other projects. In tracking the Stimulus funds, one of the anomalies was the fact that there was a lag of years in some areas for spending their allocations. All during the great recession, you could walk through a good 100 feet of interesting foam-core boards with fantastic pictures of brand new $30-$350 Million new buildings going up all over the U.S. when attending the annual National School Boards Association (NSBA) events. Big school construction is still such an enormous industry that there are whole magazines dedicated to it. Meanwhile, the ever-growing charter schools delivering on a shoestring budget take space in emptied commercial buildings or old malls like New Jersey where there is a waiting list of some 20,000 students. Rhode Island and a few other states had placed temporary moratoriums on new public school construction, while other states like Georgia question spending on a single school construction project, “$147,893,989 for about 1,650 students.”

Many districts are not really transitioning to digital by rearranging budgets, and more importantly, all they can do with educating virtually. The schools that are totally innovating often find themselves under budgeted intentionally because of another pervading myth that virtual is cheaper.

There is a culture of “place-as-important” for many district and school leaders. There is a pride in the big beautiful buildings that younger generations may gladly trade for less class-time and more mobile learning. This is restricting some of the creative thinking – thinking that is obviously going on with charters and private schools. It’s true, far too many Superintendents have told us this year that they will keep buying textbooks while trying to make the transition to digital curriculum. This means the budget didn’t move, so of course there is “no money.” Those same Superintendents are probably forwarding the idea that there is no money to the troops while spending $25 Million a year on textbooks, perhaps a new building or two, and another wad on tablet computers. The troops, or teachers in this case, have also been well indoctrinated all their lives in the idea that there is no money. Upon hearing yet again there is no money for the curriculum to run on the devices they were just given with no accompanying training, forward the party line without question.

Interestingly, there are stories of districts who, sometimes by no fault of their own but some sort of procurement over-encumbrance complicity by their state, have warehouses full of unused textbooks worth thousands if not millions of dollars. Stories abound, including these examples from the last few years:

• West Contra Costa Unified School District, CA in 2014

• Clark County School District, NV in 2012

• Washington, D.C. in 2007

• Irving Independent School District, TX in 2012

• Detroit, MI in 2008

• San Francisco Unified School District in 2011

What’s interesting about these is that almost universally the articles mention reasons such as “out of date” or “the teacher didn’t use that workbook” or “new edition replaced those ones we never opened.” At $10-$150 per volume or more, those poorly planned allocations that went unused are representative of an enormous upside to the tech community.

Historically, if you wanted to raise taxes in any major city, just stop collecting garbage for a few weeks until it piles up in the public view and call it lack of money, and pretty soon, everyone will agree that there needs to be higher taxes.

This is also true of the education public sector. They can never, never, never indicate that they have “enough money.” That would be in very poor form, perhaps indicating they are not managing budgets well. Yet they spend enormous sums. Plus there are strict rules about allocations in most places. Right now, we are hearing interest from senior education executives to form some sort of coalition to get new monies allocated specifically for digital curriculum. This implies an inability to transition existing funds into the new realities and changed form that could be created from facilitated digital curriculum, or that somehow digital is more expensive than old print versions, or that the cost to train teachers to use it all is higher than earlier professional development. Maybe some of these facts are true, and maybe some are exaggerated. Maybe there is some fixed thinking. What is clear is that in a period of great change, there is opportunity to challenge fixed ideas – provided you have the complete idea of what change looks like and what it could do.

Those examples are all around us. Schools with waiting lists in your state are probably already doing things differently.

Certainly, there will always be a need for teachers. As many who sell to schools know, any mention of “a reduction of the number of teachers” in exchange for perhaps specialists in some areas and more virtual curriculum, creates very hostile reactions. Most companies back away from this and adopt a line of “well, we’re totally pro-teacher” and do not advocate any transformative change in the organizational structure that makes sound financial sense for a serious plunge in the direction of their products. They introduce products as “supplemental” curriculum, and teachers use it as remediation or “fun” work if the student has finished other things. This tactic could be questioned now because 80 percent of the students in the U.S. have access to digital devices or are in a school with a 1-1 initiative.

Every district has its horror stories of waste because of poor planning, which, while not palatable to the tax-paying public, is understandable given the incredible change being pushed by various accountability laws onto schools.

It’s a brave digital curriculum or tech salesperson who brings up the idea of real transition and advocates a vision that truly uses the technology to transform learning. Considering the level to which a lot of digital curriculum is built to now, adaptable to every student with metrics and remedial work as needed, there is definitely an argument to be made.

It’s an even braver salesperson who boldly operates on the fact that there is money, it’s just a question of how it’s allocated.

About the Author

LeiLani Cauthen is CEO of the Learning Counsel and author of The Consumerization of Learning.


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