The AI revolution has arrived in K-12-education—not only in the classroom, but behind the scenes.
Many school district leaders and technology experts believe generative AI tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, as well as other tools that are only beginning to emerge, could make school districts more efficient and fiscally responsible. They could also relieve some staff members of burdensome paperwork and other tedious tasks that distract from their more important core duties.
But these tools are also only newly available and rapidly evolving. Their capabilities, limitations, and risk factors are only beginning to come into focus. Without robust expert guidance and long-term professional development, school workers may struggle to take maximum advantage of what these tools can do—or they may rely on them for tasks that humans are still best equipped to perform.
Still, school districts might find more success first experimenting with incorporating AI tools behind the scenes, rather than starting in the classroom, where parents and teachers could be vocally skeptical at the outset, said Bill Daggett, founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education and the Successful Practices Network, nonprofits that aim to offer guidance and spur innovation among school district leaders.
“If it will save you money at the operations level, it’s not going to be controversial, it’s going to be very positive,” said Daggett, who is also a former teacher, administrator, and state education department official.
In Daggett’s view, a fully functioning AI tool can remove 80 percent of the time and effort that goes into a single task. But the person using the tool still has to put in that remaining 20 percent—whether it’s fact-checking, revising, or synthesizing the output.
Even the most ardent advocates of AI believe that it can’t, and shouldn’t, render humans obsolete. The technology works only as well as the data it contains and the human effort and ingenuity that goes into using it.
“I don’t think in the next three years an AI is going to take over our superintendents,” said Tom Ryan, a former chief technology officer for schools and co-founder of K-12 Strategic Technology Advisory Group, a consulting firm.
That said, these tools have already entered the mainstream. Kelly May-Vollmar, superintendent of the Desert Sands district in California, recently received a lengthy complaint from a parent about the condition of a particular athletic field. But something about the complaint seemed off.
After further conversation, the parent revealed they had used ChatGPT to generate the complaint, and hadn’t removed some details that weren’t consistent with the actual complaint.
“If you think about a Google search, the better and more precise you can be, the better your search results are going to be,” said May-Vollmar, also a board member of the Consortium for School Networking, which represents school technology leaders. “Not everybody knows how to do that well yet because it’s so new.”
AI tools also bring up privacy concerns that have yet to be fully explored. Inputting students’ private information into an AI chatbot could make that student’s information vulnerable to hackers and even violate state and federal data-sharing laws.
Many school districts have only begun to develop policies around how staff members should engage with these tools, Ryan said. Guides from organizations like the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the International Society for Technology in Education are a starting point, but lack some specificity.
AI is showing no signs of slowing down its influence on K-12 education and the wider world. Just this week, the Los Angeles school district announced an AI chatbot will serve as a student adviser to communicate about grades and attendance.
“‘Should we or should we not’ is a wasted conversation,” said Sarah Radcliffe, director of future-ready learning for the Altoona school district in Wisconsin. “It’s here and it’s not going anywhere, so we’re going to use it.”
Facilities and transportation
Some of the most complex systems school districts deal with on a daily basis are the school buildings themselves, and the buses that transport students.
Districts often struggle to keep track of maintenance obligations, prioritize facilities upgrades, and anticipate future needs to accommodate fluctuating enrollment and trends in technology usage, like the growing need for device charging stations.
With artificial intelligence systems in place, districts can use predictive analytics to proactively determine when new system parts will be needed or when the time has arrived to think about tearing down a building and starting fresh, Ryan said.
Similarly, emerging updates to transportation software can adjust bus routes based on traffic conditions, the age and location of assigned students, and the vehicles’ gas mileage. “Maybe the shortest path isn’t the fastest path,” he said.
Scott Elder, superintendent of the Albuquerque school district in New Mexico, wants to use generative AI tools to keep better track of the pace of school spending on equipment, books, and other classroom materials throughout the year. The district conducts tens of thousands of transactions a year, too many for any one person to tabulate.
He also wants to cut down on the frequent problem of stocking up on mechanical parts for HVAC systems, only to leave them sitting in storage for years at a time waiting for a unit that needs them, if they don’t become outdated in the meantime.
“We’re really looking at it to try to streamline the work we do on payroll and operations,” he said.
Recruitment and hiring
Human resources teams in districts often have to comb through job applications to verify that candidates’ credentials match the requirements of open positions. They also have to spend considerable time generating and adjusting job descriptions.
These are all tasks AI tools could handle, Ryan said.
Here too, though, the limitations are real. Radcliffe tried recently to use ChatGPT to generate generic descriptions of the district that interviewers typically read aloud to job candidates during job interviews. But the tool pulled enrollment data and other details that were out of date.
Instead of having a person monitor social media reactions to district initiatives like bond campaigns, AI tools could analyze feedback, detect shifting sentiments among community members, and develop suggested messaging to reach groups that may be confused about the district’s message or may not grasp the particulars of the initiative.
Radcliffe recently had to write a letter to community members explaining a new district partnership with T-Mobile to provide hotspots to low-income families. She asked ChatGPT to write the letter for her.
The result wasn’t perfect, and she made some changes. “The language was a little repetitive,” she said.
But all in all, the tool saved her 90 minutes of work.
Almost everyone who works in a school district—or anywhere else, for that matter—can think of a time when they’ve spent 15 minutes writing an email or a presentation outline that probably only needed to take five minutes. ChatGPT and its brethren can speed up that process, said Pete Just, a technology consultant who recently served for 13 years as chief technology officer for the Wayne Township school district in Indiana.
These tools can also expedite mechanical tasks like scrolling through a list of tardy students and finding parents’ phone numbers, and summarizing the main points and answering queries about a 100-page PDF.
Just is also seeing district workers using these tools to get up to speed on issues or topics they don’t already understand.
Radcliffe has been encouraging her district-level colleagues to see what AI tools can do for them. In a recent meeting, she asked for a report back.
“I work with a pretty open-minded team,” she said. Her colleagues said they had:
- Generated templates for writing letters of recommendation for students applying to college (a task some teachers have to do many times a year);
- Generated interview questions for positions that might not be familiar to the interviewer;
- Generated PowerPoints with a certain number of slides on a given topic, complete with a joke to keep the audience engaged;
- Generated a synopsis of a 20-minute YouTube video;
- Aligned a district writing rubric with the Wisconsin state standards; and
- Developed a school district policy around the use of generative AI in the classroom.
Some special education practitioners have even begun experimenting with using generative AI to speed up the often-lengthy paperwork process for providing essential services to students with disabilities, said Lindsay Jones, chief executive director of CAST, a nonprofit formerly known as the Center for Applied Special Technology that advocates for universally accessible educational materials.
Caution is appropriate, Just said, especially because the widely available iteration of ChatGPT currently has limited knowledge of events that took place after 2021.
“We’ve already heard cases of people not using it appropriately because they’re not double-checking the information they’re getting,” he said.
Partly because of its limitations, Just isn’t especially worried about people losing their jobs en masse to robots.
“It may take over part of the job of some of your staff,” he said. “That’s great, because there’s things you could never get accomplished that now you can assign your staff to do.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as AI Could Save School Districts Time and Money—If They Use It Correctly