Special Report

A Test of Leadership

By Andrew Trotter — November 10, 1997 16 min read

As technology flows ever faster into the nation’s schools, many administrators say they’re feeling swamped by the challenges of putting it into place.

“We’re getting kids coming into our system—even at kindergarten—who are pretty knowledgeable with computers,” says Allen Rosenthal, the superintendent of the Sun Prairie Area School District, near Madison, Wis. “There’s a real pressure on us to put technology at the top of our agenda.”

It’s a pressure that most administrators would rather avoid, some members of the profession say.

While superintendents tend to support technology, according to polls, they turn wary once they discover how much it changes the traditional school culture, according to James Tice, the superintendent of the Strafford, Mo., schools.

“We are bodies at rest that are wanting to stay at rest,” Tice says of his colleagues. “Administratively, we’ve got it perfected. We’ve got kids lined up in desks, we ring bells, and they change classes.”

But when superintendents see children sprawled on the floor around a computer working on a group project, or have to evaluate technology-using teachers, or even imagine telephones in every classroom, they don’t know how to act, Tice adds.

Technology presents a range of difficult management issues for administrators: What kind of equipment should a district buy? How much training should teachers receive? What’s the best way to provide maintenance? How can a district integrate administrative uses of technology with instructional uses?

Plenty of information is available on these vexing subjects from school staff, the Internet, government and professional organizations, trade publications, and vendors. But good advice is often buried under a mound of hype and jargon, and opinions abound about the best ways to proceed.

“In working with districts around the country over the last five to 10 years, I have been struck by how very uneven technology use can be,” says Walt Haney, an education professor who teaches a course titled “Expectations and Evidence for Educational Technology” at Boston College. “A district can be state of the art in its research unit but at ground zero regarding instructional applications, or the reverse.”

Even high-tech districts differ from one another. “If you look at the leading-edge school districts, every one is doing things a little differently,” says Steven P. Lanphear, the educational technology coordinator for the Verona, Wis., school district, which has given every student from grades 3 to 12 an e-mail account.

Some administrators have been hesitant to commit to technology because they’ve seen how hard it is to avoid costly mistakes. Still fresh are instances of officials who have overspent on communications systems that vastly exceeded their needs; who bet on technologies that were “orphaned” by manufacturers; who neglected to seek input from teachers; and who exhausted their budgets on equipment, leaving nothing for staff training.

Rosenthal describes technology as “one of the most frustrating challenges” of his nine years in Sun Prairie. “We know what the need is, but meeting that need and juggling it with all the competing priorities is tough.”

Experts say there is a link between administrators’ ability to make informed technology decisions and their personal use of technology.

A superintendent who has a computer in his office and uses it “is more willing to invest in [a technology] plan and is more aware in general of his staff members’ needs,” says consultant Judy Stainback, who assists Tice’s district.

Linda C. Wing, the coordinator of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendents Program, agrees. “A lot of people experience changes in their lives using technology, and then they know children can do it, too.”

Nearly three-fourths of school superintendents nationally use computers, according to one survey, but observers have mixed impressions of administrators’ command of technology.

“An increasing number [of administrators] are becoming technologically literate, but it’s still a small percentage,” says Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Craig Richards, a professor in the graduate program for school administrators at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, guesses that only 5 percent of principals nationwide are fluent in the basics of word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software.

The reasons include the administrators’ age, schedules that are too busy to allow time for training, and, for some school leaders, a reluctance to give up the perquisite of having a secretary do the typing.

“Principals, on average, are 50 years old,” Richards says. “We’ve got a generation of people who are actually barriers to the infusion of technology in school systems—and are afraid of it themselves.”

Other observers see signs of progress. “It’s not a dismal picture,” says John R. Hoyle, a professor of educational administration at Texas A&M University. “There are some individuals who refuse to turn their computers on, but I see more of the older guys, ages 40 to 60, surfing the Web.”

Hoyle notes that the level of computer skills varies with the job title: A superintendent may only know word processing, but the chief finance officer probably understands spreadsheets, too.

Whatever the reasons for lagging technology skills, they do not include lack of access. Administrators commonly have a modern computer on their desk, and they tend to get e-mail accounts and access to the Internet before teachers and students, says Jerry Malitz, a project director at the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington. A fall 1996 NCES technology survey found that 92 percent of Internet-connected schools make the Internet available to administrative staff, compared with 88 percent that provide the Internet to teachers and 35 percent that provide it to students.

To boost administrators’ skills, some districts have required administrators to attend computer survival courses. In Strafford, Mo., Tice has made technology know-how count in awarding administrative promotions.

And a number of graduate programs—such as the education specialist program at Northeast Louisiana University—demand that candidates for degrees in school administration must take a technology course—a rare requirement five years ago.

“Technology needs to be acknowledged [in credentialing],” says Gary Marx, the AASA’s deputy executive director. “The credentialing processes change more slowly than the world around us. That’s frustrating to school administrators who feel that preparation needs to be adequate.”

Interest in adding technology requirements was spurred by an AASA commission proposal for professional standards developed in 1993, says Hoyle, who chaired the commission. Many of the standards have benchmarks that include technology. Superintendents are expected to know how to use Web pages and the Internet to communicate with staff and their communities; to know how to use technology to enhance administration of business and support systems; and to be able to apply technology in creating and managing instructional programs.

The association plans to make the standards the core of a national training and licensure program for superintendents.

In the long run, some experts say, stiffer technology requirements in teacher training and certification will have an even greater impact in developing the skills of administrators, who usually start out as teachers.

While such efforts can give superintendents a broad grasp of technology, district leaders should rely on specialists for technical advice, school officials recommend.

Jesse Rodriguez, the director of information technologies for the Tucson, Ariz., district, and Paul Houston of the AASA have a common understanding of how a collaboration can work. Rodriguez served under Houston when Houston was the Tucson superintendent, from 1986 to 1991.

Houston says he had basic computer skills but little experience in large-scale technological change when he arrived in the post. He turned to Rodriguez for advice on buying a computer system to anchor the district’s information functions.

“I had to make a decision between a mainframe and [a network],” Houston says. “We were ready to spend several million dollars.”

At the time, he adds, “there were powerful forces arrayed pushing the mainframe solution.”

Rodriguez helped him clarify what his goals were for the 63,000-student district and how technology could advance them, Houston says. They avoided getting sidetracked into debates about, say, the merits of Apple computers vs. IBM.

“[Rodriguez] would constantly say, ‘What do we want to happen?’ ” Houston recalls.

Together, they agreed that a network-based system mirrored the kind of district Houston wanted. Many districts are taking a similar approach more than a decade later.

Lewis A. Rhodes, a consultant and a former assistant executive director at the AASA, says the rapport between Houston and Rodriguez is “a perfect model,” but adds that “you don’t find that much.”

Unfortunately, Rhodes says, many district technology experts are isolated in management-information-systems departments and are not consulted on governance and instructional issues.

“They aren’t brought in to important conversations,” Rhodes says.“They’re just talking to themselves.”

One leadership test that looms in some administrators’ minds is how to provide upgrades and technical support for school technology.

Districts have tended—or been required—to spend money from bonds and state grants on buying equipment, while they often have underestimated or omitted ongoing support costs in their budget forecasts.

Increasingly, districts are providing Internet access through a network, which requires more sophisticated support than a single modem connection. Greater dependence on networks and computers for basic functions raises the stakes if the equipment breaks down.

Most experts say it’s essential to have technical experts on staff. Many schools that have wide-area networks still rely on part-time network administrators, but the share fell from 51 percent in 1994 to 42 percent in 1996, according to the NCES. The share of schools with full-time network administrators, meanwhile, climbed from 9 percent to 29 percent.

Another 29 percent of schools with wide-area networks still had “no single individual” serving as a network administrator, however. Such schools may be relying on a combination of district and school personnel and outside vendors.

A nationwide shortage of informational-technology specialists is making it more difficult to hire qualified people. “Technical specialists are getting hard to find,” says Cheryl Williams, the director of the Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, at the National School Boards Association.

Money is also a factor. Large and better-funded districts can generally afford to hire a small, if overburdened, technical staff. But small districts and those that are just scraping by financially tell a different story. In some Missouri districts, the only technical support is a toll-free phone number, consultant Stainback says.

Districts’ typical strategy has been to grow their own expertise by training teachers or media specialists who have technical aptitude. That approach can have mixed results, as in the 4,600-student Sun Prairie district, where school media specialist Pat Wende served for three years as the technology coordinator.

Wende says the part-time job included technology planning, equipment purchasing, training teachers, and loading software on hundreds of individual computers.

“I was also in charge of a whole library media program,” she says.

And being spread thin wasn’t the worst of it.

“She became a lightning rod and the middle person for some real political struggles” over technology funding, debates over computer platforms, and computer donations, superintendent Rosenthal says. Last summer, she returned full-time to her media center job.

David S. Glaser, the chief financial officer of the Rockwood, Mo., schools, near St. Louis, has been grappling with the technical-support issue in trying to manage a rapid influx of technology into the 20,000-student district. In only 10 months after voters approved a bond request in April 1996, the district added advanced networks and more than 2,000 multimedia computers to its previous stock of 4,000.

In private industry, Glaser says, companies provide a support person for every 35 to 150 personal computers, depending on the company. The Rockwood district currently has 10 support people of various skill levels—one for every 600 computers.

“Obviously, in the last year, we’ve been asking ourselves what innovative ways we can increase our support,” Glaser says.

The district’s strategies have included adding a work-order tracking system on the districtwide network and installing a management system that enables technicians to attend to problems on network servers and hubs without having to leave their offices.

School administrators in a number of states are turning to students for technical help. In Issaquah, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, for example, more than 300 high school students are organized into teams to maintain networks and run student Internet services throughout the district’s schools.

A few students visit the district’s elementary schools and some middle schools every week, installing wiring, loading software, training teachers and students, managing Internet accounts, and performing other maintenance and repair functions. The students get course credit, and their skills lead to well-paying summer jobs and sometimes to permanent employment.

Michael Bookey, a parent who helped build the Issaquah project from a networking activity for eight students in 1989, says it exemplifies the kind of creative solutions that school leaders will need to survive the technological changes ahead.

“Schools must operate more like new-age companies than industrial-age factories,” he says.

But Tucson’s Rodriguez warns against depending too much on students for technical support: “It’s realistic if you assume you’re going to have a structured organization behind it. The idea that a district can only run its schools with kids is far-fetched and dangerous.”

Another key administrative responsibility is to assess the results of a district’s technology program.

Few, if any, school systems have figured out how to measure the effect of technology on student learning. But a promising effort is under way in Montgomery County, Md., an affluent suburb of Washington.

The 125,500-student district is in the middle of an ambitious plan to connect classrooms, media centers, and offices electronically so students and staff can tap information and communicate within the district through an intranet, and globally via the Internet. The Global Access project, now in its fourth year, will take another six years to implement and cost $70 million.

“We have to demonstrate to funding sources and to parents that the time and effort we’re taking to implement technology and train teachers is worth it,” says district administrator Susan Marx, the director of the project’s user-services team.

A committee of officials from the district and the county government, which is paying for Global Access, developed 22 indicators to monitor costs, timetables, and performance. The measures shed light on four broad features—the technology itself, its use by district staff, its impact on teaching and learning, and fiscal issues. Accompanying each measure is the projected cost of collecting the data.

The district is pilot-testing several indicators this year and plans to introduce them gradually.

School officials hope to use this information to understand the links between technology and student achievement. They already know that infrastructure alone is not enough.

The key is whether the technology “is thoughtfully used in planning for instruction,” Marx says.

If performance measures prove valid and practical, school leaders may find it easier to win political support for technology in the future—and for a broader range of technologies than those currently found in the classroom.

Many taxpayers don’t see the value to children of investing in administrative technologies and basic infrastructure, school leaders often complain.

But such investments increase a school system’s capacity for getting things done, says Tucson’s Rodriguez. This happens on two levels, he says—first, by automating a host of necessary administrative tasks so they are done quicker; second, by “informating,” that is, helping schools use data to make good decisions, a task they have done poorly in the past.

The Broward County, Fla., schools are betting millions on that premise by developing a data infrastructure that gives its schools an unprecedented ability to manage their budgets, buy supplies, hire teachers, and analyze student data.

“School districts have been lagging a little bit behind in management systems. Business is ahead of us on this,” says Carmen Varela-Russo, Broward’s deputy superintendent of technology.

One component of Broward’s data infrastructure is “data-mining” technology, developed with the help of IBM, that lets principals or teachers delve into district records for their students’ test scores, attendance patterns, or even health information, and sort it to create profiles of individual schools or classes. A three-school pilot test is being expanded to 20 schools this year.

“All of a sudden, we have data in ways we never had it before,” Varela-Russo says.

But she cautions that educators need to be trained to use this deluge of data effectively. “You need to know how to analyze data and translate that into doing something different to improve mastery of learning in the classroom,” she says.

In its leadership programs for principals and assistant principals, Broward has added training in how to crunch data, interpret the results, and make appropriate changes in their schools, she says. And district administrators routinely give research briefs to principals to explain to them the meaning of data reports.

“I will tell you there is a tremendous difference in what principals understand now and what they used to,” Valera-Russo says.

Districts such as Broward that blur the distinction between administrative and instructional uses of technology may have a leg up on the goal of achieving meaningful school change, according to a growing cadre of experts. Not only will the districts benefit from a richer environment of data, consultant Rhodes says, they also can develop stronger connections among their personnel.

“You have technology now to connect people in different ways and align them to a purpose and support them in a way that’s sustainable,” he says.

Such connections include everything from telephones and e-mail, which help teachers, administrators, and employees chat more conveniently, to central databases that store the accumulated expertise of school staff—as in Broward, where computers at every school can access current academic standards, tips on teaching strategies, and recommended technologies.

New technological capabilities will require administrators to adopt new ways of managing, says Tice, the Strafford, Mo., superintendent.

He cites the biblical admonition against sewing a piece of new cloth onto an old garment. “In education, we continue to take something new and patch it into our old way of doing things,” Tice says.

“When we get this new power of technology, we generally try to do things better,” he adds. “The real challenge is we need to do better things.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1997 edition of Education Week as A Test of Leadership