Special Report
Executive Skills & Strategy

One Superintendent’s Approach to Pragmatic, Sustainable Tech Leadership

By Benjamin Herold — April 23, 2019 | Corrected: April 24, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the annual allotment for Chromebooks in the Fort Smith school district’s recently passed millage proposal. It is $825,000 per year.

In his dark suits and muted ties, with a manner more like your local pastor than a Silicon Valley CEO, Doug Brubaker doesn’t exactly scream “innovation.”

But in an age of deep-pocketed disruptors whose ideas about reshaping public education have mostly foundered, Brubaker’s patient, people-first approach to technological change may be exactly what schools need.

“I know what it’s like to be a 4th grade teacher, and the tech doesn’t work, and you’re up there tap dancing trying to keep that class going,” said the superintendent of the 14,000-student Fort Smith, Ark., school district. “It’s really important to be practical.”

As part of a new special report on ed tech and innovation, Education Week believes such pragmatic tech leadership is worth a closer look.

One big reason: fresh signs that educators’ skepticism around K-12’s innovation fixation runs deeper than previously thought.

Consider, for example, a new, nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center. Fewer than 3 in 10 of the nation’s K-12 teachers believe classroom technology provides a lot of support for innovation in their classrooms, the survey found. Just 49 percent said their school or district trains them to use technology in innovative ways. And despite the billions of public dollars already spent, most teachers said ed-tech innovations have not changed their thinking on what school should look like or how to improve academic outcomes.

It would be easy to see such numbers and blame teachers for being resistant to change, said Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech.

But take a wider view, he said, and you’ll see that such dynamics are hardly unique to public education. Across sectors, adopting new technology is the easy part. Much more difficult is implementing those tools smartly, learning how to use them well, taking care of them over time, and evaluating whether they’re actually effective.

When the former consistently happens, but the latter does not, people are bound to roll their eyes at promises that “innovation” will bring about dramatic improvements.

“You have to approach this work with real wisdom and care,” Vinsel said. “When you focus too much on just buying new things, you end up with a workplace culture that is not healthy or constructive and you end up with piles of unused technology lying around.”

Classrooms weren’t exactly technology graveyards when Doug Brubaker first arrived in Fort Smith, a mid-sized town on the Oklahoma border with a rapidly disappearing manufacturing economy.

But there were signs of stagnation.

Back during the Obama administration, for example, the district had used federal stimulus dollars to buy new LCD projectors for classrooms. But there was no plan to repair and refresh the devices, said Vance Gregory, the district’s longtime director of technology. Seven years later, many had become unusable.

“The philosophy was, run it until it breaks,” Gregory said of the district’s previous leadership.

Brubaker came in with different ideas.

After starting as a classroom teacher in 1995, he’d gone on to become an assistant principal, principal, technology director, and assistant superintendent in a number of Texas districts. Though he’d helped launch robotics programs and iPad initiatives in his previous stops, former colleagues described Brubaker as more of a systems-thinker than technology geek.

That orientation quickly became evident when he took the reins in Fort Smith in January 2017.

Brubaker didn’t come in with a disruptive vision or grand new plans.

Instead, he promised to build on what was already working. His first move was a listening tour of the district’s more than two dozen campuses. As Brubaker served biscuits and gravy to teachers and parents, he asked what they liked—and what they didn’t—about their schools.

When it came to technology, the new superintendent heard a consistent refrain.

People were excited about the previous administration’s move to start purchasing Chromebooks for students.

But they worried about poor training, spotty Wi-Fi access, and a funding stream that might dry up before the district’s 1-to-1 program could be extended to all grades and before older devices could start being replaced.

“One of the first things Dr. Brubaker said was, ‘You can’t buy things without looking into the future,’ ” said Gregory, the technology director. “He knew we had to improve the support we were providing around those devices, and he knew we had to make them financially sustainable.”

Too many district leaders forgo that kind of pragmatism in favor of headline-grabbing changes and shiny new objects, said Tom Ryan, the chief information and strategy officer of the Santa Fe, N.M., school system and a board member of the Consortium for School Networking.

But taking a patient, long-term approach to technological innovation helps changes actually stick, he said.

“What Doug is doing is demonstrating that people are more important than stuff,” Ryan said. “His investment in [building] trust is paying off.”

Indeed, six months after becoming superintendent, Brubaker began rolling out a new, community-driven strategic-planning process. It culminated last year with Fort Smith voters approving their first tax hike to support public schools in more than three decades.

Included in the new millage proposal: $825,000 a year in recurring, reliable funding to expand the Chromebook initiative and make sure the devices can be refreshed every four years.

To get there, the district first asked a team of teachers, parents, principals, students, and community and business leaders to imagine what schools should look like in five years. Then, they outlined what it would take to turn that vision into a reality.

The group’s initial wish list included 65 items and a $658 million price tag.

Still, Craig Pair, a 57-year old Fort Smith resident who works as a control-systems integrator, designing and operating the automated equipment used in local factories, said he clapped his hands when he saw the list.

The reason: It included budgeted line items for technology support.

“In my line of work, everyone knows that you buy an electric motor, that’s only one-tenth of the cost of that motor’s life cycle,” Pair said. “But in schools, they don’t usually understand that keeping it up and running is the hard part.”

Still, Brubaker and the Fort Smith school board knew that local voters would never go for such a pricey plan.

So a citizens’ committee, including Pair, was formed to winnow the list down.

A number of the splashier technology expenditures—reimagining school libraries, buying new document cameras, moving from phones to a voice-over-internet system—were shelved. Other recurring expenses, such as staff salaries, were also stripped out of the proposal.

But the final proposal—pared down to 15 items and $121 million—still included money to make sure the Chromebook initiative could be sustained.

It passed last May with 62 percent of the vote.

“I think it’s a good thing,” parent Michelle Crane told local TV news station KFSMthen. “Things are going to get old and tear apart and fall down. So you’ve got to keep up with it.”

At CoSN’s annual conference earlier this month, a team from the Fort Smith school system outlined its efforts and offered lessons on how to successfully build community and teacher support for such a maintenance-oriented approach to education technology.

“The people around here run businesses of their own. They’re careful managers of their own resources. They know what it is to struggle,” said Zena Featherston Marshall, the district’s executive director of communications and community partnerships. “I think the [Chromebook refresh plan] resonated because people saw it as really practical.”

And the process isn’t done, the superintendent stressed. Over the past year, Brubaker has been working to find other ways to support the technology-related elements of the strategic plan that the millage proposal won’t fund.

None of the steps he’s taking is particularly groundbreaking. The district saved about $300,000 by doing an inventory of its software licenses and canceling the ones it was no longer using. Brubaker is reorganizing the technology department and starting a student-internship program to free up more resources for technical support. He’s revamping Fort Smith’s technology training, so teachers can find different levels of help depending on their existing comfort level with the tools at their disposal.

But April Coats, who teaches a technology-heavy class in which students get to pursue projects of their own design, said the changes are already making a big difference.

Instead of running decade-old graphic-design software, for example, her students this year are able to use the latest version of Adobe’s Creative Suite.

“They’re not going to be completely shell-shocked when they get to college,” Coats said.

Does such work count as “innovation?”

It certainly doesn’t seem to be the attention-getting kind. Only two people—including one reporter—showed up for the Fort Smith leadership team’s talk at the CoSN conference.

But Doug Brubaker didn’t seem to mind.

“I believe in listening first,” he said afterward. “Sometimes, you end up going further if you moderate your pace a little bit and make sure you’re really bringing people along with you.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2019 edition of Education Week as Choosing Pragmatism Over Shiny New Things


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