policy & advocacy

Building A Better CTO

CoSN creates a new framework of skills that draws a greater range of responsibility for the 21st century technology leader.

As a CTO, you need to be passionate and have a pioneering spirit about the use of technology in the district. Your enthusiasm and leadership set the tone that the superintendent can either support or tolerate. Make your passion something I can’t resist being connected with.”

That’s L.C. (Buster) Evans, superintendent of Forsyth County Schools (GA), on what he wants in a chief technology officer. All of those attributes are not specifically accounted for in the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN; cosn.org) new Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO, but leadership certainly is a prominent element.

This latest, version 2.0 iteration of the skills framework builds upon work the organization did earlier this decade. This time CoSN, a professional association for district technology leaders, reached out to a variety of CTOs from across the country, from school districts large and small, CTOs who had migrated from business and industry to education, as well as those who had come up through teaching and learning. CoSN’s CTO Certification Committee reviewed competencies necessary for a CTO to be effective today and over the next five years. In addition, it looked at other performance standards inside and outside education,including the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence (baldrige.nist.gov/Education_Criteria.htm), Microsoft’s (microsoft.com) Professional Leadership Competency Wheel, and the International Society for Technology in Education’s (iste.org) National Educational Technology Standards.

The result is a rather daunting matrix of aptitudes and abilities, all directed toward a principal end result: improved learning. The framework combines three tangible skill sets—Leadership and Vision, Understanding Educational Environment, and Managing Technology and Support Resources—with a group of Core Values and Skills, which include communicator, exhibits courage, flexible and adaptable, results-oriented, and innovative. Each of the main skill areas has subskill areas. For example, you’ll find strategic planning under Leadership and Vision; instructional focus and professional development under Understanding Educational Environment; and communication systems and data under Managing Technology and Support Resources.

The hope for the new framework is multifold. Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, said in a press release: “Though many education leadership positions are defined by a set of competencies and necessary skills, the concept of education technology leadership is relatively new in many school districts. We undertook this effort to empower CTOs and other educators with the information they need to provide visionary 21st [century] district technology leadership.”

According to Bailey Mitchell, Forsyth County’s chief technology and information officer and co-chair of the Certification Committee, CoSN has already seen its hopes for the framework put into action, even though it has been out only since Dec. 1. “We had a meeting of the Georgia CTOs,” Mitchell says, “and we started talking about the framework. One CTO said he was going to use it for his own self-evaluation and base future professional development on it. The entire group is going to use it by focusing on a section each meeting and trading stories about how they accomplish each skill in their districts.”

While the framework does detail important individual skills, even if a CTO possesses these skills and earns certification demonstrating as much, a crucial factor in a CTO’s success is the standing and perception of the position within the overall district organization. “The CTO has to be a part of the superintendent’s cabinet in order to be truly effective,” Mitchell says.

Krueger suggests the same in his statement: “For CTOs to be successful in leveraging technology to improve innovation in education and student learning, it is essential to continually advance the profession.” The CoSN website is more explicit: “CoSN believes that the district technology leader can play a decisive role…as a member of the district-level leadership team. In all too many districts, that is not the case.”

“Reaching out to other departments and understanding what they want to accomplish, and helping them understand how technology can help, should be a part of every technology leader’s job no matter what the level.”

In Forsyth County, it is the case. Mitchell is part of what Superintendent Evans calls his “leadership team of high-performing prima donnas.”

“You must have the ability to connect to the people networks and department silos,” Evans says. “The CTO has got to cultivate a continued network with key system leaders.”

Mary Ann Wolf, former executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA; setda.org) agrees. Wolf sees a similar situation at the state level, where technology leaders are often buried in the Teaching and Learning division of the state education department or are a part of Technology Services.

“It’s tough because everyone is so busy and staff is spread so thin,” she says,“but reaching out to other departments and understanding what they want to accomplish, and helping them understand how technology can help, should be a part of every technology leader’s job no matter what the level.”

The Framework’s Five Purposes

Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services for Texas’ Round Rock Independent School District and chair of the Consortium for School Networking’s (cosn.org) board of directors, believes that CoSN’s new Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO accomplishes five goals:

Creates a clearly identifiable role for the CTO within a district’s leadership structure. Zaiontz reports to a deputy superintendent, but he is a part of his superintendent’s cabinet, where all district projects are discussed—which is exactly where he believes the CTO needs to be. As technology has come to permeate everything that’s done in his district, all of his fellow cabinet members also recognize that. “If Curriculum wants a math program, I can offer recommendations or make sure that what they select will work on our network and with other technologies,” Zaointz says. “If Assessment wants a new formative assessment package, I can be sure it interfaces with our student information system.”

Addresses the gap between the dual aspects of a CTO’s job: the instructional and the technical. As such, the framework can serve as a form of self-assessment. “I came up through the instructional side,” Zaointz says. “I wasn’t a techie.” Had the framework existed as the job changed to become more technical, Zaointz believes he could have used it to be sure he had the requisite skills covered.

Supports professional development opportunities. In tandem with promoting self-assessment, the framework can help CTOs and aspiring CTOs find professional training opportunities. In addition, CoSN will use the skill sets laid out in the framework to identify sessions at the organization’s annual conference.

Focuses on a broad body of knowledge. A CTO can’t hope to know everything there is to know. “As the technology has become more complex and is used in more and more places, my depth of technical knowledge is less that it was 10 years ago,” Zaointz admits. But he has hired people who can make up up for that. “My job has become more about leadership, vision, and working with others at the administrative level to help them understand ways that technology can be used to be more efficient and effective. As a CTO, I need to ensure that all areas of the framework are covered, whether I do it alone or delegate.”

Acts as an organizer for CoSN. According to Zaiontz, CoSN has conducted a number of great initiatives but isn’t always clear on how they relate to each other. The framework will help provide direction for future initiatives while providing a link to existing initiatives.

SETDA recently joined with the National Association of State Title I Directors (nationaltitleiassociation.org) on the writing and publishing of two documents, “Leveraging Title I and Title IID: Maximizing the Impact of Technology in Education” and “A Resource Guide Identifying Technology Tools for Schools” (setda.org/web/guest/titleI). The collaboration between the two organizations has fostered greater communication between state technology leaders and state Title I directors. In a recent meeting between SETDA members and Title I directors, 19 states reported sitting down with their Title I or technology director within the past two months, while only eight states said they had not. The general feeling among the directors is that the joint documents and other collaborative efforts will result in greater coordination of state grants for technology and Title I.

In Forsyth County, Mitchell’s work to change the perception of the CTO from “just the tech guy to an education leader” has required reaching out in all directions.

“You have to invite yourself to Teaching and Learning meetings to see what they are doing,” he says. “Get the trust of the school bus-fleet manager so you can help him pick the right GPS system. You have to learn how the financial system works so when the business office is looking for new technology, you can really help them.”

Mitchell says today’s CTO must be involved in every point of the new framework. “If all you talk about is putting technology fires out, break/fix issues, and how you need more bandwidth, that’s all you will do.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of THE Journal.