5 Best Practices of Tech-Leading Superintendents

Members of the League of Innovative Schools share the secrets of their success in implementing and maintaining tech initiatives.

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's December 2013 digital edition.

Karen Cator
Karen Cator

In 21st century schools, superintendents play a key role in the success or failure of technology initiatives. But what makes a true tech leader? T.H.E. Journal recently asked Karen Cator, former director of technology for the Department of Education and now CEO of Digital Promise, to identify five key attributes shared by superintendents who have successfully led with technology. Cator sat down with her team to discuss what they saw in the superintendents who belong to Digital Promise's League of Innovative Schools. We then interviewed five members of the league who, according to Cator and her staff, personify the key attributes. For superintendents looking to lead tech transformations, these five best practices provide a strong foundation to build on.

1) Be a learner.
Cator says that the best technology leaders are curious: "They exhibit and exude lifelong learning. They're always asking questions, they're always talking to people, and they're observing what's happening around them. They might have a reverse mentor, somebody who they look to for feedback and information on how they see the world." These reverse mentors can be high school students, teachers, or other people in the district.

"The world is changing unbelievably fast," remarks Cator. "If you're not continuously learning, your ideas will be dated, and you won't be iterating on the work that you're doing. You'll be closed, thinking you have all of the information yourself, when we know today that nobody can have all the information. The great superintendents I've met have this great quality of questioning and curiosity that they bring with them wherever they go."

The best practice in action: Eric Williams, superintendent of York County School Division (VA), says, "Social media is a wonderful means of learning from people in a variety of positions. On Twitter, I actively connect with teachers, principals, and superintendents both inside and outside our district." Williams uses Twitter to reach out to teachers in his district who have demonstrated new and impressive methods of classroom instruction, and also to learn from the network of educators across the country who populate his feed. He actively models this style of learning by sharing sample tweets with school board members and holding workshops for principals in his district on the effective use of Twitter as a professional learning tool.

Twitter takes down the walls of hierarchy and the restrictions of time, so Williams is able to learn from teachers both inside and outside his district. Sometimes he picks up innovative instructional approaches from fellow educators; other times the learning is more general. "For example," he says, "I recently read a tweet that said, 'A person who wants something will find a way. A person who doesn't will find an excuse.' While this is not deep, it is helpful reminder to be persistent as a leader."

Ultimately, Williams says, it's about improving the learning that's happening in the classroom: "We've seen how successful Twitter has been amongst our division leaders--superintendents, directors, principals--and once teachers take that on and it filters down into the classroom level, we can then have students who are connecting with other students and with outside experts without regard for hierarchy."

Williams' advice on cultivating this habit? "Seek out opportunities to learn from others regardless of position, and wear your learning on your sleeve. Don't be afraid to show that you don't have all the answers. Instead show that you're constantly seeking them from a variety of people."

2) Have a clear vision--and share it.
According to Cator, successful superintendents "have a vision for what's possible, and they're very transparent about it. The notion of transparency is critical here. You want your vision and ideas to be widely shared. A leader can't be so far ahead of the parade that if they turn around, they don't see the parade behind them."

Cator adds, "This notion of transparency also keeps misinformation from spreading. People aren't out there saying, 'I don't know what's going on, I have no idea what they're trying to do.' "

The best practice in action: Barbara Nemko, Napa County (CA) superintendent of schools, declares, "Early literacy is a game-changer to me. We can't have kids getting discouraged early in their learning careers because they don't understand the language." One of the biggest challenges in early literacy is closing the achievement gap that results when a student comes from a home where English isn't the native language, or where parents don't have time to read to their children.

Nemko's vision for her district involved putting iPads and digital literacy tools into the hands of kindergartners and pre-K students across her districts to help close that achievement gap. Nemko attributes the success of this initiative to the fact that she opted to show rather than tell with her teachers. 

In the summer of 2011, she worked with NapaLearns, a public/private partnership that raises money for schools, to fast-track a pilot with a class of 16 at-risk students, mostly English language learners who'd missed preschool and were about to enter first grade. Nemko brought in a kindergarten teacher from a neighboring school to run the class because that school's kindergarten teachers weren't familiar with the iPad and thought the program was a terrible idea. Nemko remembers, "Eventually the head teacher from that school came in to watch the pilot on her own time, and within two days she was absolutely convinced."

That head teacher soon brought in the rest of the kindergarten teachers. The original idea was to have the 16 students in the pilot program bring their iPads with them to first grade, but the kindergarten teachers demanded that every student in their kindergarten classes have access to the technology from then on. "The fact that they went from thinking this was the stupidest idea they'd ever heard to demanding that every kindergarten student have access to this is pretty big," says Nemko.

As of 2013, iPads with Footsteps2Brilliance and other digital literacy apps are being used in kindergarten classrooms throughout the district, and 100 percent of the English language learners who have taken the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test since the initiative started are now at the 5-year-old level. Nemko concludes that "even the skeptics, when they saw our kindergartners using this technology, understood and picked up the vision."

3) Be goal-oriented.
Technologically successful superintendents articulate specific measurable, attainable goals, says Cator. "One of the things that we've seen with Dr. [Mark] Edwards at Mooresville is that he is one of the best people I've ever seen in my life at naming where his district is now with very specific metrics, and naming where they're trying to get to. So whether it's amount of scholarships achieved, their graduation rates, decreasing dropouts, better behavior amongst their students, or decreasing tardies, he's very, very good at having those metrics right there so that people can see them, and they can know what they're trying to accomplish."

The best practice in action: Watch a video in which Mark Edwards from Mooresville Graded School District (NC) explains how being goal-oriented has affected technology initiatives at his district.

4) Collaborate.
Cator believes that super superintendents "build collaboration with local researchers, build collaboration with other superintendents, support collaborations between teachers, and build a learning culture." She says that in education, "We talk a lot about every person having their personal learning network. A superintendent who builds collaboration amongst other districts, community leaders, and local researchers is also then modeling and encouraging everybody to build really strong collaborations."

Another upside of this habit, says Cator, is that collaborative superintendents are less isolated, "so it's not the superintendent feeling like they have this incredible burden all on themselves and that they are the superman or superwoman who's going to solve it, but that it's very much of a culture of 'we.'

"That's critically important in this whole country right now. We have to get better at building the interactions and building the information flow from one place to the next, so that every superintendent in every district isn't trying to figure all of this out, specifically with respect to technology and implementation."

The best practice in action: Steve Dackin, superintendent of Reynoldsburg City School District (OH), says, "Our biggest question in our district has always been, 'What is the appropriate role of technology in education?'" Dackin leaves that decision up to his principals; as he says, "They understand that they are the CEOs of their buildings." Building principals are held accountable for their results, but are also encouraged to choose their own collaborators--as a result of which the district now has more than 35 partnerships with businesses and organizations that collaborate with educators to help them meet their goals.

Five of the district's schools (two elementary schools, one middle school, and two high schools) focus primarily on STEM. All of those schools use blended learning as their primary model, supported through relationships with organizations like Education Elements and The Learning Accelerator. Dackin himself created a blended learning partnership with a local community college to help high school students earn college credits.

The district also works with the Columbus-based Battelle Memorial Institute. "They've partnered with us on our application lab that we installed about a year and a half ago," Dackin says. "They helped fund the installation of the lab, and now we have a number of kids who are engaged in robotics and the creation of products through the three-dimensional printing process for local businesses and service organizations."

The Battelle partnership came about because one of Dackin's more entrepreneurial principals reached out to the institute on his own initiative. "My principals know that they're empowered to go out and find opportunities to support the students in their building," Dackin says. "I'm just here to remove the barriers that keep people from doing these things, and then lend support so that these initiatives can grow and become sustainable. It's an important role, but it requires you to give up the notion that you're in control."

Dackin believes that "education is too important to be left up to just educators. Our kids need to have real-world, authentic learning experiences, so we need to reach out beyond the walls of our school district."

5) Create a culture of innovation.
In exemplary districts, Cator says, "You see a culture of 'yes and,' a culture of innovation. It's not just trying new things to see what happens, but creating a whole culture of continuous improvement. It's a culture of observation. It's teachers as researchers in their own classrooms.

"It's the opposite of a culture of control, where the superintendent is trying to keep everything very buttoned up. That doesn't necessarily lead to the best ideas evolving and improving. It also makes people shut their doors. They might try new things, but it will be in the safety of their own classroom. They won't be encouraged to share that out. You won't get the benefit of the 'yes and,' of people adding value to other people's ideas."

The best practice in action: Linda Clark, superintendent of Meridian Joint District No. 2 (ID), recalls looking around her district in 2009. "I saw that we had all of these individual teachers who were trying to win every kind of grant they could, grants that would give them just enough money to buy one device for their classroom," she says. To capitalize on those efforts and put some supports in place, the district hired a grant facilitator to help teachers find resources and write grants, built a website that linked to training resources for a number of different devices, and made individual $2,000 district grants available to teachers.

After three years, the district grants became scale-up grants, and $50,000 was given to select teachers to expand initiatives funded by previous grant money. Clark says, "I believe that we're much further along than we'd be if I had just announced an initiative, because we're able to see which technologies work best for different scenarios and capitalize on that experience." The district grants have been funded through a variety of sources including E-Rate money and state technology money. "In addition to the district grants, our grant facilitator has helped our teachers bring in over a million dollars in outside money to our district," explains Clark. "Our teachers are very aggressive in searching out every dollar that they can find externally."

In 2012, the district solicited proposals about the ideal 21st century classroom from five of its most innovative teachers, and secured a grant to redesign a classroom in five of the district's buildings. "In each of the buildings, the buzz surrounding these classrooms quickly spread, and soon both teachers and parents were on board with this initiative," Clark says. The district secured a $350,000 state technology grant to install more classrooms throughout the district. In one elementary school, all of the classrooms now feature this design. "One of the big takeaways of this initiative has been the heightened level of student engagement that occurs when the focus of the environment and the tools within it is on learning," Clark says. "When you go into these classrooms, you see students who are truly engaged."

Clark's advice to her fellow superintendents is this: "Identify your teachers who are bringing new ideas into the classroom. Support those efforts. Let folks know that they are allowed to take risks and that you understand that not everything they try will work. Those will be the seeds from which widespread innovation will grow."


League Leaders

The League of Innovative Schools is an association of superintendents, hand-selected by Digital Promise twice a year. There are currently about 40 members, who were chosen based on their vision for their district, the challenges they've faced, the initiatives they've implemented, and how they demonstrate their willingness to share their experiences and learn from their peers.

There are three components to being a member of the league: 1) knowledge-sharing both within the league and out into your district; 2) participating in pilots of emerging technology products and services; and 3) participating in research projects organized through the league.

The application process opens soon for districts interested in joining the league's spring 2014 cohort.