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Howdy Partner: Engaging with Superintendents

Jacob Hanson
August 8, 2022

Superintendents prefer to partner with companies that see education as their mission, rather than sales.

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Matt Kinnaman is the president and co-founder of New Era Superintents, an organization dedicated to helping superintendents put the focus back on student success at a time when there are a lot of distractions and political division. He’s an expert in the field. Before founding New Era, he was VP for events at Thoughtexchange, and group publisher at District Administration magazine, where he was part of the team that created and ran DALI, the District Administration Leadership Institute.

Quintin Shepherd, New Era chairman, is superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas, and a nationally-recognized voice on transformational and collaborative leadership. Also, he recently published The Secret to Transformational Leadership.

I sat down recently to chat with Matt and Quintin to find out how vendors can better support superintendents and achieve district-level adoption.

Know the Hows and Whys of Your Product, Not Just the Whats

Shepherd said that he doesn’t want to start by hearing what a vendor has to offer, but why they are offering it.

“I want every kid to graduate with a high school diploma and something else,” Shepherd said.

“They either need an industry certification so that they can go to work, they need a military enlistment letter, or they need acceptance to a college and university. I think of them as the three Es: it's either enlistment or it's enrollment or it's employment. Those are the three E's that I want for my own kids when they graduate.”

“If you keep that as your lodestar, that's it. That's why we're here,” Shepherd said. “And then, and only then when you answer that question, do you back out to the how and then you talk about what are we going to do.”

“Too many people start with the what, and then try to figure out the how, and they completely forget about the why,” added Shepherd, ”but if you stick to the why, and then the how, and then the what, things sort of fall into order in a pretty interesting way.”

Focus on Student Outcomes Everyone Wants

Kinnaman noted that though division seems ever-present in the United States these days, the mission of education can be a powerful unifying force.

“You could have a room of people who are bitterly divided on topics, but if one of us says to that room, ‘Look, every third-grade student needs to be able to read at grade level because we know that if a third-grade student can read a grade level, he or she has better lifelong prospects across all measures of success,’” Kinnaman said. “And we'll have agreement on that. There will be 100% agreement on that statement.”

That doesn’t mean that anything else is any less important, according to Kinnaman. It’s simply not the “We need to also start from being singularly focused on what we came here for in the first place and what we all can agree on rallying around, and that's delivering these levels of success to students.”

Explain How Your Product Will Improve Educator Capacity, Processes, or Resources

Quintin said that educators trying to improve teaching and learning have three domains within which to make those improvements. Comprising the supports of a three-legged stool because no two will work on their own, those areas include capacity, resources, and processes.

In deployments that succeed, it’s because vendors have a solid understanding of the processes that make their products succeed when they’re deployed and fail when they’re not.

“They can tell us where it worked and why, and they can tell us where it didn't work and why,” Shepherd said. “They have unique insight into the processes that we don't have from our own system. So when we're trying to improve our capacity, the conversation that I want to have with the partners at the table is, ‘Where is it working? Where is it not working?’ I don't care about whether or not it is or not working. I'm not judging you. I want to learn from you what are those processes that make it work. I think they bring a vital role.”

Don’t be Afraid to Guarantee Results

Shepherd said that the best way for a vendor to get a meeting with him is to have a product that can deliver on promises—and then actually make those promises to him.

“It's a conversation that some superintendents around the country are taking more and more seriously,” Shepherd said.

"And I, myself have done this with folks who want to meet in the district. The question that I have for them is as straightforward as it could possibly be. If you're going to quote me a price, what's your guarantee on that price? Can you guarantee me X percentage of student learning growth and, if not, do I get my money back? Are you actually willing to stand behind your product enough to say you will give me money back if you don't meet this particular threshold?”

Shepherd said that, though some companies will not offer any guarantees, more and more are coming around to the idea.

“There are companies that will do this,” Shepherd said. “We engaged with one around graduating kids and they absolutely delivered on that promise 100%. It's a hard conversation. It's one we've not typically done in education, but it's one we need to do a whole lot more of, saying, ‘Look, you've gotta guarantee an outcome on this.’ And if not, then clearly there's a product issue and that shouldn't be born by the district.”

Be Educators at Heart

Kinnaman said that he sees a true partnership between schools and their tech providers.

“They start as companies,” Kinnaman said, “but they can become partners with the district leadership in a truly kindred spirit way. And that's the beautiful thing to see. A lot of observers see it first as a kind of a mercenary arrangement. ‘I pay you because I have to.’ It can have a sense of commercial dirtiness to it.

“I see that as completely false,” Kinnaman continued.

“The reality is, and this is the beautiful thing, the entrepreneurs who launch ed tech companies to help students succeed in reading and math and science are educators at heart. They believe that this is a moral imperative in the world. It's a mission.”

Kinnaman said that mission-driven companies can’t just deliver some number of units at a particular price margin and then dance their way to the bank and vacation before fading into the sunset.

“It doesn't work that way. What they need to do is create real value for students,” Kinnaman said. “And when that happens, sure, they have to get paid.”

Kinnaman said he has come to see this kind of mutually committed partnership as the heart driving effective ed tech deployments.

Successful ed tech companies are “in it because they believe in the heart and soul of education as a priority, and they want to deliver not only the resources, but the processes to make it successful,” said Kinnaman. “but they can only become successful companies by being successful partners with the people who are leading education.”

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