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School & District Management

K-12 Leaders Shift From Protectors of Status Quo to Change Agents

By Katie Ash — September 30, 2013 7 min read
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David Britten, the superintendent of the 1,800-student Godfrey-Lee school district in Wyoming, Mich., said the activity he sees in his schools has changed dramatically over the past five years.

Between classes, students walk the hallways texting their families and friends. They bring their laptops and tablets to school to take notes in class. And Mr. Britten himself regularly uses the district’s Facebook page to reach out to and connect with students, parents, educators, and the community.

“That’s part of the game now,” said the superintendent.

In fact, as a result of the shifting educational landscape—in large part because of technological changes—what it means to be a superintendent today is far different from what it was just a few years ago, he and others say.

“In the past, the superintendent was more of a keeper of the status quo,” said Mr. Britten. “Most communities were quite proud of their school districts and happy with them, and what they wanted was somebody to come in and make sure it operates smoothly for as long as they’re there.”

That’s no longer true, he said. “The superintendent’s role is having to change to become more of an instigator of change,” he said. “And technology plays a big role in that.”

It’s a phenomenon that Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, has also noticed.

“There’s been a sea change in the view of what [the superintendent’s] role is,” he said. “Increasingly, they have to have the vision around what’s possible around technology.”

That doesn’t mean that the superintendent has to own every new gadget that comes out or know how each one works, said Mr. Krueger, but today’s district leader has to establish a long-term vision for a district that provides a path toward a digital conversion.

“I think superintendents are very much into talking about a digital conversion, but the hitch is that few of them know how to do it,” he said. “We actually have to do something different, and it can’t just be small little test beds. At some point, we have to have a plan for scaling.”

Teacher April Stenger helps kindergarten student Valentino Diego Torres, 5, order lunch using an interactive whiteboard at Minnehaha Elementary School.

That means not just buying 100 iPads and handing them to teachers, said Jayson Richardson, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky, but rather thinking about what kind of long-term infrastructure is needed to support those devices and how they will be used to improve teaching and learning.

“We’ve noticed that the folks who are struggling, they don’t really think proactively about what [technology purchases] are going to mean for networking, electricity, [and other factors at the district],” he said.

And it’s not just the superintendent who has to have the vision, said Mr. Richardson. He or she also needs to be able to clearly communicate it to school board members, principals, teachers, students, parents. and other members of the community.

“It’s shared, not top-down,” Mr. Richardson said of that vision.

Modern Chain of Command

Clear and transparent communication is a priority that Mr. Britten, from Michigan’s Godfrey-Lee schools, has embraced. He maintains two separate blogs about what’s going on in the district and personally manages the district’s Facebook page, he said.

“I want to make sure the communication is getting out there and it’s real communication,” he said, “not glossing over stuff to make the district look good.”

Superintendents across the country are now communicating more directly with community members than in the past, said Rowland Baker, the executive director of the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership, or TICAL, in Santa Cruz, Calif. The center, which operates out of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, helps train administrators in how to use and implement technology effectively in their school districts.

These days, when parents or members of the public want to voice an opinion about something happening in a school or district, they often fire off an email to the superintendent, rather than set up a meeting or phone call, Mr. Baker said.

“The chain of command used to be more evident. Now it’s more flattened,” he said. “The good part is that now people feel this intimate relationship with the leadership, but the inverse is that the superintendent’s job is now 24-7.”

Mr. Baker recommends that superintendents cultivate a strong support staff around them to delegate the slew of daily requests they receive and alleviate their workload. He also cautions superintendents to develop a thick skin.

Steven Webb, the superintendent of schools in Vancouver, Wash., watches as students Damon Reinhardt, 12, left, and Philip Morgan, 13, work on a geography project using the app “Pic-Collage”  in a 7th grade combined language arts/Washington state history class at Alki Middle School.

“It’s easy when you’re anonymous to sit back and throw rocks, so how do you, as a leader, keep a good perspective and not get rattled when somebody says something inappropriate?” Mr. Baker asked.

One of the critical relationships superintendents should focus on is between themselves and their technology directors, said Scott McLeod, the founding director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, or CASTLE, which is based at the University of Kentucky.

Superintendents must make sure their technology directors are people they can trust who will serve as facilitators of innovation, rather than as gatekeepers, Mr. McLeod said.

“Superintendents often just listen to the tech coordinator. We see that all the time,” he said. “You don’t want to defer to the tech coordinator who is working against the learning mission and may be overly zealous on filtering and blocking.”

‘Thinking in New Directions’

Mr. McLeod also points out that technology is making it easier for superintendents to network with one another to share ideas and best practices.

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“Whenever they run into trouble or they have questions, they have people they can tap into that they know have done it,” he said. Building robust networks of thought leaders can be informative and encourage new ways of thinking, Mr. McLeod said.

“Parts of those networks are set up so they jar [superintendents’] thinking in new directions,” he added.

Perhaps one of the biggest technological challenges that face superintendents is the impact of widespread budget cuts in recent years, Mr. Baker of TICAL said.

“You’re left with a situation of having to make tough decisions and be able to go out there and justify an expenditure of technology that can’t show a direct correlation to a standardized-test score,” he said. “It takes a lot of leadership to get those kinds of expenditures through.”

But, he added, “in some ways, the budget issue has caused us to look at some things that technology can do more efficiently.”

Steven Webb, the superintendent in Vancouver, Wash., tours district schools on the opening day of the school year. The district is rolling out full-time kindergarten for every school and a 1-to-1 mobile-device initiative in five schools.

That has definitely been the case in the Vancouver school district in Washington state, said Steven Webb, the superintendent of the 22,000-student district.

“We’ve been able to be very thoughtful, deliberate, and strategic about seizing upon the context to do some strategic pruning,” he said.

Although the district has faced more than $20 million in budget reductions during his six-year tenure as superintendent, he’s been able to weather the cuts without resorting to layoffs, he said, partly by creating efficiencies in the district that technology now makes possible.

For instance, the district has reworked the purchasing department so that individual schools order supplies and have them shipped directly to their sites, rather than purchases being made at the district level, shipped to a central warehouse, and then delivered to the various schools—steps that added to the cost.

Ordering office supplies from individual school sites and getting next-day delivery is an option facilitated by the Internet that was not available when the district first set up its purchasing and distribution channels.

The Vancouver system also revamped its nutrition-services program with new software to track more accurately how much food was needed and was being bought. The program used to have to be supplemented by the district’s general fund, said Mr. Webb, but now operates within its own budget.

The district has been able to invest those saved dollars, he said: “We’ve been able to shift resources from operation support to student learning supports and initiatives.”

The district is now rolling out a 1-to-1 computing program, which will be put in place over the next five years, starting with middle schools and scaling to grades 3-12. The district will be distributing both laptops and iPads to students.

“This isn’t about the technology,” said Mr. Webb. “It’s not about the devices. It’s fundamentally about preparing our graduates with the adaptive skills they need to not only survive but thrive in the 21st-century global interdependent world and economy.”

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as K-12 Leadership Evolves to Meet Digital Priorities


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