School Superintendents to Ed Tech: 'Please Stop'

A Washington state superintendent set off a firestorm of support when she tweeted in mid-March to education companies: "...To every vendor, solution partner, researcher, education advocate, etc. please stop. Just stop. My WA superintendent colleagues and I confronting school closure need to focus on our communities. Let us do our jobs."

Now, a survey of superintendents at other school districts has confirmed the sentiment first expressed by Susan Enfield, who leads Highline Public Schools near Seattle. Nearly half (46 percent) said what they most need from ed tech right now is "to be left alone."

The survey drew responses from 67 superintendents who belong to the National Superintendents Roundtable.

During a period when school system leaders are focused on making sure students get enough food and have the equipment and access they need for remote learning and are trying to figure out plans for the fall, what's not helping, they said, was a "flood of sales calls from technology vendors offering to help."

"What superintendents want most is to be left alone in the middle of this crisis," noted James Harvey, executive director of the Roundtable, in a statement. "They worry that unvalidated products are being marketed to parents and teachers that distract from the district's mission."

According to the survey, the main solution needed from vendors was professional development, to help teachers use the technology that schools already have in place. On a scale of one to six, with six being the most critical, that was ranked 4.1 in terms of importance.

Negative experiences with vendors (mentioned by 32 percent of respondents) have overshadowed the positive ones (20 percent). As one person asserted, "We are now creating a list of which companies we are going to blacklist because of this unethical sales behavior." Said another, "Honestly, there are some vendors I will never do business with in the future because of the crazy amount of emails." Besides, said 54 percent of survey participants, they aren't even the right people to contact regarding district technology needs.

What about all those free software offers promoted by hundreds of companies (and, ahem, this publication)? Two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) said those deals are turning into a "distraction from district mission." "Free offers are helpful, but we need a plan to evaluate what we are using and time to study implementation," one superintendent said. "Who doesn't like free? However, it does distract from our focus if the products aren't vetted first," added another.

A lack of product vetting is also troublesome for free offers made to families and teachers, the survey found. Forty-eight percent of district leaders said they worry about marketing unvalidated products to these audiences, and a quarter (24 percent) said they're concerned that the products and services don't necessarily align with current district programs.

Once those free programs end, most superintendents were pretty sure they won't adopt the new technology. Nearly six in 10 (57 percent) said they would only follow through on purchases after district review; another 17 percent said they wouldn't consider purchase at all. As one respondent bemoaned, "Given the nature of where we will be with district budgets, I don't believe we will be purchasing anything new when this is over."

The overall results of the survey have suggested "that vendors would be well served to step lightly in the current highly charged and difficult environment," the report concluded. Ed tech would be better served, first, by staying out of the way of superintendents as they map a path through the pandemic for their schools and, second, directing their focus on district curriculum directors and information technology specialists. That's the best way, the report stated, to build "trust, respect and reliable long-term markets with school leaders."

The report is openly available on the National Superintendents Roundtable's website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.