Cabinet Or Bust

Every school district I’ve ever worked with has done two things terribly in my opinion (at least prior to my arrival). The first is plan for technology in a sustainable and strategic way and the second is to provide adequate support for technology use in the classroom. I can attribute both to the lack of a Cabinet level technology leader involved in the day to day decision making discussions of the district.

It strikes me as profoundly short sighted that in the rush to test every California kid on computers in March 2014, these two fundamental flaws in many school district’s thinking are not being addressed.

I just met with a school district that realized they needed someone to help them through these interesting times, however they weren’t willing to commit all the way for a cabinet level position reporting to the Superintendent, instead opting for a position reporting between Business and C&I. Having reported to two different departments once before, I can personally say this is a recipe for disaster. But they are trying and that’s an important point. Another district I know of is trying as well and they appear to have gotten it right, posting for a Cabinet Level CTO position reporting to the Superintendent to help guide them through these technologically challenging times. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be much guidance on this from the existing leadership organizations, and that’s really too bad. So here is my take on it.

In the absence of a CTO to guide them, many school districts are using their one time Common Core money to solve what they think are their readiness troubles (ie. buying devices by the pallet load) but these plans are short sighted. Long after that one time money is gone, online testing and the learning environments needed to prepare kids for 21st century literacy will require a constant refresh of equipment and a level of technical support most schools have never known.

So why have schools historically never invested in regular technology updates or enough technical support? Well, for starters, technology hasn’t been a fundamental need in schools before now. Sure, certain programs may have required a school computer lab or a classroom mini lab but these have generally always been school driven and funded. And then usually with one time dollars and no plan for hardware obsolescence or replacement. Daily integration of technology into instruction on a district wide scale is completely new for most and to think a district can succeed with common core and online assessments without increased student access to technology is just plain crazy.

Along the same lines, in many school districts there has never been a concrete relationship between the  number of devices a school purchases and the amount of support the district provides. In my experience, individual schools have been able to add more and more devices and keep older and older systems running while expecting the same level of support from the continuously stretched District IT departments.

And while there are ways to mitigate some of this through communication between Principals and IT, the use of technology committees and district standards, nothing is more effective than a Cabinet level CTO who can bridge the gap between Business and Instruction and guide the district strategically through what is now a constantly changing technology landscape with profound implications for student learning and assessment.

The SBAC challenge is a major structural problem facing districts and many are ill prepared to address the scale of technology that it requires. Districts need CTOs now more than ever to inform and guide them through to the other side of SBAC and the future beyond with online and blended learning, virtual schools and learning analytics.

At a basic level, how a district funds and purchases devices has to change. How support is funded, allocated and structured has to change. How technology is used in the district, in school offices and in classrooms has to change. All of this can’t be done from a second tier seat on the back end of the leadership team.

And when it comes to technology support for the classroom, building an expectation for daily technology integration which relies on technology to work more often than not requires a support system more like modern business has been using for the past two decades than schools have ever been used to before. Schools have some of the worst device to support staff ratios in the business world. In an environment where technology down time was acceptable or at least tolerated, these high ratios were ok. But moving into environments where down time measured in days will have serious impacts on student learning and the ability to administer online assessments, support ratios are going to have to change. Some districts are already in the process of hiring more tech support staff and creating help desks with live people manning the phones for immediate tech support. Who is driving these changes in districts without CTOs? Is anyone listening?

In addition to basic technical support, teachers and principals need support integrating technology into their instruction like never before. It’s not just enough to make sure the tech works, the district needs to provide resources to help teachers integrate it into their daily instruction because not knowing about technology is no longer an acceptable answer.

Let me reiterate that, online adaptive assessments are not a school problem. Districts can’t leave these decisions up to principals the same way they’ve left technology decisions to them in the past. That has led to the situation I see at many Districts, where some principals invest in computers, support and technology for students and others do not; creating an uneven distribution of technology access for students. Districts are going to have to step up and start owning technology from start to finish if reliable online assessment results are important to them. Kids are going to need screen time to be ready for the tests. All kids, not just the ones that go to the school where the PTA fund raises for computer labs.

A district without a CTO at the table has a good chance of missing the forest for the trees. With a CTO on board; making sure technology is integrated into common core implementation plans and the strategic long term vision of the district, the district will ensure that it isn’t just being reactionary and doesn’t find itself unprepared for the many changes being driven by the rapid advances of technology in the education policy making space.

It’s important to note that none of this is about the technology. It’s all about providing teachers and students access to the resources that are taken for granted everywhere else in the modern world but in our classrooms. It’s about preparing districts for the 21st Century and Common Core. It’s about building schools and school cultures where students want to learn. It’s about empowering teachers through technology to become better teachers. It’s about preparing kids for their unknown futures and districts for the unknown challenges yet to come.

Cabinet or bust!