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Common Core Contracts Pick Up Steam, Focus on Teaching Materials and PD

Districts in some states aren't exactly going hog-wild spending money on their Common Core-related activities. A recent study has found that the bulk of the contract bids related to Common Core work put out in 2012 and 2013 were generated by districts in 11 of the 45 states that were committed to implementation of the state standards. These states issued 10 or more contracts for projects. The high-rollers were California districts, which advertised 109 contracts during that period, and New York, which had 73.

Districts in 10 other states were active, but less so, issuing between five and nine bidding opportunities. Local education agencies in another 20 states put out either one or no bidding contracts during those two years.

The median size of contracts was $35,205; however, the overall average was nearly $375,200, owing to the impact of a few very large contracts that ran over $1 million each.

For example, Baltimore County Public Schools awarded a contract worth $5.4 million to edCount to assist in the development of a "world-class elementary curriculum that complies with Common Core." A $4 million, five-year contract was given to Pearson by the same district to provide instructional resources for grades one and two that adhere to the standards. Shawnee Mission School District issued a $2.2 million contract to McGraw-Hill Education for use of the "Reading Wonders" series.

These findings were shared in a recent research report from Onvia, a company that sells access to a database of state and local government contracting activity. Onvia Researcher Paul Irby undertook a search of the database specifically for terms related to the Common Core. Although 4,000 projects included references within their full text, only 600 directly mentioned Common Core in the project titles or descriptions, which he took to be a more accurate indicator that the given project was "primarily focused" on implementation work related to the learning standards.

Irby noted that although the Common Core "really kicked off in 2010," contract activity didn't begin until 2012, then grew by 20 percent in 2013. Along with the complexity of the process, the political overtones of the standards may be one reason issuance of contracts was delayed for so long.

"There's complex coordination required between the federal, testing consortia, state and local levels along with discussions by both educational and general government policymakers such as state legislators. There has to be a level of overall consensus to move ahead," he said.

The predominant types of projects during those two years have been focused on instructional materials and professional development, two of the categories cited in a 2012 Fordham Institute study that examined the cost of implementing the standards. Testing, the third category reference in the Fordham study, showed up in just a "few" contracts in the database, suggesting, wrote Irby, that the vast majority of those contracts are going to the two online testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

A major category that hasn't seen much coverage among the 600 contracts is technology, which, the report stated, is encouraged more extensively as "one dynamic of the Common Core." Some technology work, Irby explained, is encompassed in other kinds of projects, such as device and software upgrades related to online teacher training and the transition to digital content for instructional materials. In a nod to the Fordham research, he noted that introducing more technology into those two areas "would save a lot of money. If you combine online teacher training with electronic student learning, the combination of both in cost savings is just huge."

However, that scenario doesn't cover "the cost of getting your computer labs up to speed, buying more computers, making sure there's enough bandwidth to handle the rigors of having large groups of students online at once taking these tests." Irby added that those contracts are either coming late in the rollout of the Common Core or the expenses of buying student devices and related services fall under "threshold," the amount a district can spend without going out to bid.

Although the Common Core is state-driven, only a quarter of contracts are being issued by state education agencies. Many of those are for curriculum consulting, such as mapping statewide "targets to the new standards," the report stated. The majority of contracts — 61 percent — are being issued by individual school districts, and most of those are large metropolitan districts. Another 12 percent come from cities and counties, which in most cases actually represent public schools that don't fit under a traditional school district agency structure, Irby explained.

Having evaluated the essence of some 600 contracts issued for Common Core work, Irby offers three pieces of advice to districts and others that need to buy requisite products and services.

First, "Get a handle on the different types of vendors that compete for this work." Some vendors specialize in particular curriculum areas and others in professional development of teachers. No one company specializes in all areas — from materials to training to IT solutions. Knowing the areas of specialization can help you write your RFP or bid as clearly as possible, he explained, which will result in better responses. "You don't want to be writing it one way assuming there's a certain type of winner for that bid out there when they really don't exist."

Second, be upfront as much as possible about the larger political context of the project and share some of the "complications", so that the vendors understand the challenges you (and they) may be facing.

Third, when writing the contract, try to be straightforward about the work you need done. "It's always helpful when an [education] agency is clear about their goals and what they're looking for," Irby said.

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