COVID-19 and the Biggest Myth in Education Sales

Market Insight
LeiLani Cauthen

Today, selling into schools is a lot like myth-busting. As the Learning Counsel conducts our Emergency National Virtual Discussions, we are finding some very interesting truths, and busting some very ingrained 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 2008/2009 Great 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-cleaning 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 were not really transitioning to digital by rearranging budgets, and more importantly, all they could do with educating virtually. The schools that were totally innovating often found themselves under budgeted intentionally because of another pervading myth that virtual is cheaper.


And then COVID-19 happened

Traditionally, there has been a culture of “place-as-important” for many district and school leaders. There is a pride in the big beautiful buildings that younger generations might 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. Prior to COVID-19, far too many Superintendents told us that they would keep buying textbooks while trying to make the transition to digital curriculum. That meant the budget didn’t move, so of course there was “no money.” Those same Superintendents were forwarding the idea that there was 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 from the media that there is no money for curriculum (or anything else) to assist with virtual learning, it was natural for these good soldiers to forward the party line without question.

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. Prior to COVID-19, we were hearing interest from senior education executives to form some sort of coalition to get new monies allocated specifically for digital curriculum. This implied 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 were true, and maybe some were 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.


The education sales reality: Money is available, and more is on the way

One thing is true now, as it has always been. Schools have money. School districts have money. And some $30.75 Billion is coming, courtesy of the CARES Act. Traditionally, schools and districts have purchased on want over need. In other words, a school district can always find the money for what it wants. Right now, the needs and wants of schools and districts coincide, and everyone feels the pressing need to get virtual learning right, and to get access for every child. The way they are getting there differs widely, but every school and district is moving in the same direction. The answer appears to be more and better technology, but don’t discount the role of teachers. It is true that the roles will change, but the fact is teachers will be more important, not less.

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, can create a rather hostile reaction. 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. However, with our new reality of compulsory virtual learning, you no longer need to take a back seat to anyone.

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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