The wall of red tape keeping innovation out of schools has got to come down. And right now we’re witnessing a surge of entrepreneurs and investors looking to get smart tech tools into classrooms. But it’s going to be a long road.

When selling to schools, remember that you’re trying to break into systems that are non-evolving, which is part of the reason they’re failing so miserably.”

Last week’s Educelerate (the Chicago based national edtech meetup) featured a panel stacked with public sector educators unafraid to spell out 1) the difficulties associated with selling tech solutions to schools, 2) the underlying problems with public education those difficulties highlight, and 3) how entrepreneurs can increase their chances of getting game changing tech tools into students’ hands.

Organized by Educelerate founder Christopher Nyren and hosted at Catapult Chicago, this past week’s lineup included:

  • Ron Huberman - former CEO/Superintendent of CPS, President of CTA, Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, & current education entrepreneur and investment fund operating executive
  • Sharnell Jackson - former Chief of eLearning at CPS & current President of Illinois Virtual Charter School @ Fox River
  • Henry Thiele Ed.D. - Chief Technology Officer for Maine Township High School
  • Phil Lacey, Ed.D. - Director of Technology  for Niles Township High School
  • John Mellios - Director of Technology at CPS

All the panel members were united in their conviction that individualized instruction is the most important thing missing from most classrooms, and one of the easiest to solve using technology. But the endless challenges that come with selling to schools made me thankful MentorMob is infiltrating classrooms from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Good teachers armed with good technology can make this happen.

In a classroom full of 30 students, there’s going to be a wide range of aptitudes, learning styles, and interests. And every time a teacher spends extra time to help the struggling students, the other kids are slowly dying of boredom.

But the technology that allows each student to learn at his or her own pace is expensive, and school districts are hesitant to spend the additional time and effort it takes to purchase, implement, and train their teachers on a new tech tool—especially if their last attempt was fraught with technical difficulties.

Other hurdles are deeper and trickier. Any tech tool worth a damn is going to be transformational. But in selling a school on a new learning platform’s effectiveness, start-ups must still convince administrators that blended, collaborative learning is essential for equipping young people with the 21st skills we desperately need them to have. 

school house

Our world has changed dramatically. So why haven’t our classrooms?

It can take upwards of 19 months for a school to work through its procurement cycle, so don’t count on a quick turn-around time. This is especially important for young companies, since a thousand startups live and die or pivot dramatically within the span of 19 months. Plus, a company’s district champion might change jobs twice in 2 years. And since school budgets run from July 1st to June 30th and 90% of budgets are already committed by July 15th, don’t expect big end of year contracts.

Age-old sales rules still apply. It’s all about relationships. Don’t expect to make a sale based on merit alone—particularly with so many buyers coming from education and being relatively unschooled in IT. And in many counties, school board members are elected officials. That’s politics on top of government bureaucracy on top of a killer budget crunch. No silver bullet will slay that beast. The best you can do is be thoughtful, tactical, confident, and talented.

There’s at least one clear cut tactic that will increase your chances of making a sale: get a seasoned government procurement person on your team who understands the structure of schools. Because once you’re in, you’re in. And with CPS alone spending upwards of $6 billion a year, the end market is massive.

But of course—make sure your product really works before kicking down any doors or you’ll never get in anywhere else!