Special Report
School & District Management

Ed-Tech Leadership Is a Tough Task for Principals

By Denisa R. Superville — April 17, 2018 7 min read
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Principals sit in a very difficult position when it comes to educational technology. They face pressures about what digital learning approaches to take and what tech products to buy—from the central office, education companies, teachers, parents, and students. Some will embrace their choices, while others will question them—or in some cases, even try to undermine them.

That’s why many ed-tech experts say that the success of digital learning initiatives often hinges on the principal’s ability to find the right balance among all the various groups in a school community. But, ultimately, principals also must make tough decisions based on the best interests of students.

“Whether [the technology is] for learning or it’s for teaching, we want to look at it, we want to explore it, and if it’s something that we find is useful, then we’ll actually put the money into it,” said Brad Currie, the director of planning, research, and evaluation for the Chester school district in Morris County, N.J., who helped his district implement a 1-to-1 computing program while he was vice principal of Black River Middle School there.

To get a sense of where the pressure points are around some core ed-tech issues, the Education Week Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of 500 principals, assistant principals, and school deans.

The survey found the greatest pressure was largely coming from vendors and the central office—not teachers, parents, or students.

Regarding the personalized-learning movement, for instance, 55 percent of principals felt mild to strong pressure from technology companies to welcome the movement, and 46 percent felt such pressure from district leaders.

Technology companies also topped the pressure-cooker list when principals were asked if they felt pressure to reject or accept computer science education, with 47 percent of principals feeling mild or strong pressure from them to do so. District leaders were second, with 39 percent of principals citing such pressures.

Winston Sakurai, the principal of the upper school grades 7-12 Hanalani Schools, a private Christian school in Hawaii, said some technology companies have gotten more creative and aggressive in trying to get his attention. In the old days, they just sent mailers or catalogs with their product pitches.

“Now, it’s emails from tech companies asking, “Are you interested in this? Can we set up a phone call? Can we set something up?’ ” he said.

A few times, education company marketers have called his secretary directly insinuating that they had already talked to him and that he was interested in getting more information about the product, even though he had never said so.

“The tactics have gotten a little bit aggressive,” he said. “I think it could be frustrating to some people.”

Part of the reason for the aggressive outreach is that it’s easier to find and contact principals, he said. But, he added, tech companies are also probably facing stiff competition from a glut of free resources that are now available to schools, including Khan Academy, video lessons on YouTube, and free open-sourced curriculum crafted by teachers.

Other survey results and follow-up interviews with principals and district administrators also reveal interesting perspectives on the leadership roles of principals around issues related to personalized learning, screen time, computer science skills, and access to technology. They include:

• Two years after the Obama administration launched its Computer Science for All initiative—aimed at ensuring that students at every grade level have access to computer science courses—only 7 percent of principals and school leaders surveyed said teaching the subject was central to their school’s mission and operations. Nearly a third said computer science for all was not on their radar screens.

• Slightly more than half the principals surveyed described personalized learning as a “promising idea” or a “transformational way to improve public education.” Another 31 percent said it was “one of many school improvement strategies available” to them.

• Nearly two-thirds of all principals believed students are getting the right amount of screen time in school, while 17 percent believed students were getting too much.

Jethro Jones, the principal of Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks, Alaska, found some of those results surprising.

“I think that anybody who is not seeing [personalized learning] as a transformational way to improve public education doesn’t understand what it can be,” said Jones, who hosts a weekly podcast, “Transformative Principal,” in which he interviews principals who are making a difference in their schools. “Truly personalized learning is the way that deep, meaningful, memorable learning has always happened.”

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In the digital age, personalized learning has evolved to include individualized-learning plans for students, continual assessments, and ongoing feedback loops. Schools have also redesigned learning spaces to allow students to work at their own pace, in small groups, or individually.

It’s “about giving kids what they need, when they need it, and being aware enough of what’s going on in their lives and what their skills are to be able to give them extra support,” he said. “Technology allows us to do it at scale, but technology does not allow us to do it, period. There’s an important distinction there that you don’t have to have technology to personalize learning for your kids.”

Brian Partin, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, similarly said that personalized learning gives educators an opportunity to provide differentiated supports for students. He, too, was surprised that more of his colleagues do not have as positive a view of personalized learning as he does.

In Tennessee’s Kingsport City school district, where Partin worked as a middle school principal before going on leave to serve as the NAESP president, the movement to personalize learning is the result of expectations—he hesitates to use the word “pressure"—at the state and local levels. It grew from the need to implement more rigorous state college and career standards, the district’s mission statement to graduate globally competitive citizens, student input, and support from community leaders, he said.

Local businesses have also been part of the discussion to ensure that students have access to meaningful computer-science-based learning experiences, beginning in elementary and continuing through high school.

“When you are talking about ensuring college-and-career readiness for all students, a big part of that is making sure that they are technically ready to enter either the workforce or college, because so much of what we do in the workforce and throughout college has that need for a good, solid understanding of computer science,” Partin said.

Students are also a central part of the conversation in Kingsport and other districts. They provide feedback to school administrators through surveys and by participating in student-advisory panels and student councils. (In the Education Week Research Center survey, 31 percent of principals felt mild or strong pressure from students to embrace personalized learning, and 32 percent felt such pressure from students to embrace computer science education.)

While 30 percent of principals said that computer science for all was not on their radar screens, the Chester district’s Currie said that’s his district’s passion.

Chester’s adoption of a computer science initiative predates the Obama administration initiative. Programs for students have accelerated in recent years as free resources have become more readily available through websites such as Code.org, he said.

Chester’s employment of computer science for all was a result of a change in the district’s strategic plan, as well as support from the board of education, district leadership, and parents, Currie said.

It involved extensive research, visits to schools that were early adopters, professional development for teachers, physical redesigns of learning spaces to include makerspaces, and the addition of after-school clubs offering students opportunities to learn how to code.

“We never felt any pressure from any ed-tech company to do this,” said Currie, who was the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2017 National Assistant Principal of the Year.

But he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing if a company were to approach him about a product.

“I am actually approaching companies saying, ‘Hey, I have this need; how can you help us out with that need?’ ” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the case [everywhere]. I am always looking for new and exciting ways to make teaching fun with technology.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Technology Leadership Is Tough

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