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Leadership Is Ownership

When district leadership truly owns technology, innovation is possible, no matter what the obstacles.

Stephen Marcus, the late and much-missed director of the South Coast Writing Project in the 1990s, once said that it was easier to move a graveyard than change a school.

Anybody involved with urban education might elaborate on that metaphor and say that it’s easier to move Arlington National Cemetery than to change a big-city school.

Yet this past spring, when I was reading applications for the Sylvia Charp Award (which honors a district that has “shown effectiveness and innovation in the application of technology districtwide”), I was struck by how many urban districts had overcome common obstacles to innovation in urban education to implement technology programs that were actually making a difference in teaching and learning.

My admiration for many of their efforts led to this month’s cover story on urban-school technology success stories (see page 26). None of the districts profiled here took the same course as the other, but they all had one thing in common: They were blessed with extraordinary leadership.

Indeed, when I was reading the award applications, I could almost predict how innovative and successful the district initiative—urban or otherwise—was going to be by the quality of the superintendent’s letter that accompanied the submission. Some superintendents wrote about their district’s technology initiatives as if they had no connection to the efforts, as if they were an outsider looking in, praising the IT director or some other player who was in charge of the “project.” Not surprisingly, the technology implementations in those districts were unsystemic, uninspired, and definitely not award-worthy. I found it fascinating—and disappointing—that there are district leaders who don’t understand that in order for technology (or any innovation) to take hold, they need to be the chief owner of the vision and the implementation.

Which isn’t to say that the superintendents shouldn’t delegate or have strong teams. Clearly in a large urban district, the superintendent cannot possibly run the show (although I have to marvel at Miami-Dade’s superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, who acts as principal of his district’s iPrep Academy). Yet, to successfully infuse technology into the teaching and learning culture, an urban district must have a “strong, visionary leader” who, in the words of Ann Flynn, director of technology programs for the National School Boards Association, “recognizes changing student needs and instructional styles, is able to convey these changes in a way that inspires staff to follow, has aligned resources to deliver professional development, and has gotten buy-in and support from parents and voters.”

These words should describe any school district leader, regardless of size. Fittingly, in next month’s T.H.E. Journal, we are profiling innovative rural districts that have defied their own odds to achieve success in technology implementation. I haven’t read the story yet, but I’m willing to bet that every one of the districts will have a leader who is also an owner.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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