IT Trends | Feature

Technology Leadership Evolved

Four K-12 technology leaders explain how they're changing the way they work with educators to meet the new demands of 21st century schools. They also offer up some of their trade secrets for building consensus, overcoming poor morale and generally keeping the peace between IT and academic staff.

Years ago, typical K-12 IT leaders came up through the administrative ranks and focused on keeping computers and business applications running. Whether they were called CTOs or CIOs, they had compartmentalized skill sets that tended to favor technology over teaching. In 2014, however, the role of chief information officer or chief technology officer is just as likely to go to a former teacher or principal with an interest in finding new ways to harness technology to collaborate with curriculum and assessment leaders.

Indeed, when the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) surveyed 250 IT leaders in 2013 about their key concerns, 65.7 percent of respondents cited the change to a student-focused BYOD environment, while 39.8 percent mentioned the need to break down silos in their districts. CoSN noted that these results "show that IT leadership is clearly focused on the education and learning environment in a district, rather than the business environment, despite their budgetary challenges."

What separates CTOs who play a significant role in teaching and learning from those who don't? THE Journal asked four school district technology leaders about how their job responsibilities are changing and how they have broken down barriers between curriculum and technology departments to create a culture of innovation in the classroom.

Remove Roadblocks
Tom Murray said that one of the biggest problems school districts face is a disconnect between curriculum and technology departments. "We want ours to work in lockstep," said Murray, director of technology and cyber education for the Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, PA, which has 10 schools and approximately 5,500 students. One way he has addressed the problem was to embed an employee, Chad Evans, in the curriculum department. "His title is 21st century learning facilitator, and his role is to bridge the gap between curriculum and technology," Murray explained.

Murray started his career as a classroom teacher and was a principal for five years before moving to the technology department three years ago. "In my experience, many directors of technology understand a lot about networking and infrastructure but don't understand how technology impacts what takes place in the classroom," he said. "It is important for the technology executives to spend time in the classroom, especially if they don't come from a teaching background."

He said they shouldn't make decisions from a district office without understanding the true impact those choices can have in a kindergarten class.

Murray said his job is made easier because his superintendent, Lisa Andrejko, is tech-savvy herself. "She has a vision for 21st century education and pulled me from a principal's job to be director of technology and cyber education to help establish that," he said. "I liked it because I can take advantage of my passion for technology — but technology in the hands of students to make a difference in their education."

Murray said he's comfortable wearing two hats at once. "On the infrastructure side of things," he said, "I rely on the strong team we have to make sure we are a great customer service organization."

But he also challenges the traditional technology department "lock it and block it" mentality. "That is outdated, I believe. One of our goals is to remove roadblocks and to stop saying, 'You're not allowed to do that.' With students, we focus not on acceptable use policies but on responsible use. We want to teach digital citizenship. We are not going to set policy for the 2 percent who are knuckleheads. We are setting them for the 98 percent and then deal with any scenarios as they arise."

At the same time, Murray stays involved in teaching through Quakertown's "cyber school" initiative. "Our students can schedule any combination of face-to-face and cyber classes that meets their needs," he said. All the courses are designed from the ground up, taught by Quakertown faculty and analyzed by the director of curriculum. According to Murray, since the initiative launched, "We have seen a 10 percent increase in graduation rates and the highest student achievement levels ever."

Just as the district offers differentiated learning from students, it also offers differentiated professional development for teachers. "We want teachers to have a say in professional development, to identify things they need help improving and work with their supervisor to develop a road map of how they are going to get there," he said.

Murray is also a big proponent of using social media to meet with other educators from around the globe. He compiles a list of weekly Twitter chats in education and helps moderate an EdTech chat that brings together 300 or 400 people to talk about topics such as resource-sharing or how to challenge people's thinking. "So I get to connect with a lot of people who are smarter than I am and challenge my thinking. We push each other," he said. "That's how you grow, rather than sitting in a workshop where someone talks at you."

When it comes to exploring ways to use technology, Murray leads by example. "To create a culture of innovation, you have to get administrators to open up about what they are learning," he said. "Have them write blogs. The best administrators are transparent about their own development."

Focus on What Students and Teachers Need
When you speak with Scott Smith, he makes one thing clear about the Mooresville Graded School District (NC): Technology is not driving the bus. Technology is secondary to a focus on what teachers and students need. Smith's title is chief technology officer, but as a former teacher with an Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction, he said, "My goal is to focus on technology's impact on the teaching and learning environment."

For several years, the district has had a 1-to-1 laptop program for all staff and all students in fourth through 12th grade, as well as wide deployment of digital content and interactive whiteboards. Mooresville is not a rich district, but it has made use of what it has. Out of 115 districts in North Carolina, it is 100th in per-pupil expenditure and third in academic achievement, Smith said.

To keep his ear to the ground, Smith goes on regular classroom walkthroughs with the executive directors of curriculum and instruction. "We walk through an intermediate school together, classroom by classroom and then compare notes when we come out," Smith explained. "Perhaps one teacher is doing great things with the digital resources, and that concept could be shared with another teacher. In fact, we have formalized that process a little bit by creating a Google Form for each class that the executive director and I both fill out and then compile our ideas." Those observations are shared with the teachers. "It is not a gotcha exercise," he said. "We share our notes with principals, [with] teachers and with the seven instructional technology facilitators."

Smith's advice is to work on breaking down barriers. "In education, it is easy to get so siloed that you miss opportunities for collaboration," he said. "Things that work in elementary schools may also work in secondary schools, but we have to have them working together, and technology can bridge that gap sometimes," he explained. "For instance, we use Discovery Education online streaming content. We have to make sure we are getting strategic alignment across the district to get as much out of that as possible."

Smith makes sure that communication goes beyond just collegiality and "transparency" to actually solving problems. Mooresville holds quarterly data meetings at which administrators can drill down on goals and objectives. As an example, he said, "We can look at which teachers' students are doing well in fifth-grade science. I gather comments about the technology aspect such as a math program we are piloting. I can use these comments about its value when we are considering budgeting for it later."

This type of collaboration may be harder for technology executives who don't have the same educational training and background that he does. "IT folks can be black-and-white about things. Sometimes I have to tell my staff that I know something isn't what makes the most sense to you from a technology standpoint, but just do it because it is best for the kids."

Listen First, Speak Later
Kevin Schwartz, chief technology officer at Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, TX, has been busy with a 1-to-1 tablet implementation since he took the job in 2012. After working through a 1-to-1 rollout at his previous district, he realized that there are two ways to go about it. "You could have one charismatic person, either the CTO or a superintendent, who is the pied piper and really takes the whole project on their shoulders," he said. "Or you can do the harder thing, and that is build consensus and a community. We chose the latter and got regular structured conversations going early on."

In fact, his approach upon arrival at Clear Creek, a district with 40,000 students, was to do a lot of listening. "People started asking me for my vision, and I kept saying, 'I have to hear that from you.'" He said it enough times that people started to take him seriously. When teachers and administrators expressed their desire to proceed with the 1-to-1 program, he got them deeply involved in every stage of the planning process. "When this plan was presented to the school board, it was the curriculum leaders and deputy superintendents all speaking before me," Schwartz remembered. "I was the eighth speaker, and I could explain how we are going to do this."

Schwartz said his IT department needed to change to reflect a tighter focus on student learning. There had been turnover and instability in the CTO position before he arrived, and morale had suffered. "I had 100 people who behaved like abused children. They were great, smart, talented people, but they had learned some bad habits and had to do some healing," he said. "But by focusing on student learning instead of the department, it quickly improved. Some people didn't like it and left, but all the negative feedback is gone."

Schwartz suggested that CTOs consider two key things:

  1. Focus on why, then how, then what. "I say 'Think about the device last,'" he said. "Everyone wants to shortcut that process of thinking about why we are doing something and focus on which device to buy. I say build buy-in and that question of which device makes most sense will answer itself."
  2. Build cross-functional teams. "IT aspiring to align itself with the goals of the business does not produce the best outcomes," he said. "I think truly successful CTOs do not think of technology as a utility to apply to the business. It's better to build teams with curriculum leaders. That is easy to say, but hard to do — exhausting to do. But it's worth it."

Build Consensus
The tagline of Matt Federoff's e-mail signature says it all: "Technician by trade, educator at heart." Federoff worked as a classroom teacher for several years, then as a part-time teacher and part-time technologist before becoming the CIO of Arizona's Vail School District in 1999.

When he was working in the classroom, Federoff knew that teachers were doing some interesting things with technology, but they were often isolated from the IT department — or worse, perceived as an annoyance or a threat. Federoff was concerned that these classroom innovators were not having any systemic impact.

When he took the IT leadership role in his district, Federoff made a point of forging connections between curriculum and IT. "We had to find the right reverence and respect for each other," he said, not to mention learning to speak other's languages. "I say to my curriculum director, 'I can go to the ASCD conference and understand what they are talking about. Could you say the same if you went to one of my technology conferences?'"

Both sides have their own jargon and both can be insular, Federoff said, yet they must work hand-in-hand. He learned this the hard way several years ago. "Our curriculum development team went out and purchased performance benchmarking software without vetting it with IT," he said. "It turned out to be out of line with what we could support. That was a real 'a-ha moment' for us and for them. They never brought IT in to determine whether this program runs on what we have now," he said. "But I am hesitant to point fingers because when IT was highly insular, the executive leading it wasn't interested or thought he wasn't qualified to make a decision about that type of software."

When it comes to day-to-day operations, Federoff believes that the IT leader should be in charge of both administrative and instructional technology. "You can have employee lieutenants in each world, but they should be unified under one IT leader," he said.

He recommends that CTOs should start by taking the curriculum director to lunch and asking about the challenges the district faces, just as any IT executive has to understand the business he or she is serving.

Are reading scores low at one school?

Is absenteeism a major problem?

Which schools are performing well on state tests?

Technology execs must learn how to collaborate in new ways. "Technology is a meritocracy where the smartest guy in the room usually gets his way," Federoff said. "But educational leadership is not like that. It is about consensus-building among five or six people. So when the tech guy joins that conversation, he has to be good at team-building to get things done. It is a different mindset."

Vail's "Beyond Textbooks" initiative is a great example of how the district likes to work. Debbie Hedgepeth, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development, came to Federoff with a specific problem of moving curriculum guides from paper to a Web site. "Once we did that and got beyond just static documents, we saw an opportunity to do much more by having the teachers start adding standards-aligned content that they had created," he said. "The magic happened when we could harvest the teachers' enthusiasm and crowdsource it and populate it with their content. We went to fix a specific problem and that opened up to interesting new possibilities. After it was developed, we went back to develop some best practices and formalize processes. Now it is being used by 81 districts and is the largest digital content provider in Arizona."