Special Report
School & District Management

Many Districts Go Without a Chief Tech Officer

By Sean Cavanagh — September 30, 2013 8 min read
Jan Mathis, left, and Brian Kayes, employees of the Erie 1/Board of Cooperative Educational Services and the Western New York Regional Information Center, speak in an unused wood shop turned technology storage and work area at Ripley Central School in Ripley, N.Y. The school district does not have a single tech leader, but instead uses the nonprofit BOCES for help with everything from tech support to staff training.
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Technology leadership in many districts is provided not by one person, but through whatever arrangements the school systems can muster.

Even as schools juggle a daunting array of evolving technological demands, federal data show that roughly half of districts do not have a full-time chief technology officer or technology manager whose sole job is to oversee all digital needs. Those needs include ensuring that technology contributes to improved classroom instruction, as well as making sure it works properly.

But while many ed-tech advocates and district leaders argue that districts should have a permanent staff member who holds the title of chief information officer or chief technology officer, many school systems, particularly smaller ones, find that making that commitment is difficult, primarily for financial reasons.

In other districts, not having a full-time CIO or CTO may be simply a matter of custom, if technology’s role has traditionally been regarded as a limited one.

The New Albany school district, a 2,250-student system in Mississippi, is just one of the many that do not employ a full-time administrator overseeing all technology, and its application to instruction.

The district has a network administrator, whose primary job is to oversee tech systems and make sure they are functioning properly, and it has a contract with an outside company to provide additional help across its five schools, said Superintendent Jackie Ford.

But the district does not have a designated staff person whose main role is to oversee effective technology implementation in the classroom. That responsibility often falls on individual school principals, whom Mr. Ford describes as tech-literate and eager to take on new tasks.

Currently the district is seeking to modernize its tech use. Many elementary school teachers and students are getting laptops, and the district is converting to wireless technology and preparing for online state tests. A top-level person to connect the academic and technological dots would be helpful, Mr. Ford said.

Still, New Albany is trying to make progress while also operating within the budget constraints familiar to districts everywhere. Mr. Ford describes tight finances as his system’s biggest challenge in making technology work to its full potential, and part of what makes adding another administrator difficult.

“What I’d love is to have someone who could be a coach and lead people when they have an issue” with technology in the classroom, Mr. Ford said. “It’s a priority, and we’re working toward it.”

The New Albany district’s strategy, and approaches like it, appear to be common in many school districts around the country.

Just 51 percent of U.S. school districts have a full-time employee responsible for overseeing technology, according to the most recent federal data, covering the 2006-07 school year, from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Budget Choices

In small school systems, the use of full-time staff in that role is rare. Only 42 percent of districts with fewer than 2,500 students—more than 70 percent of the nation’s roughly 14,000 school districts fall into that category—have full-time chief technology officers.

The odds of midsize districts with full-time personnel in that role are greater, with 70 percent doing so. Eighty-three percent of districts with 10,000 or more students use that approach.

Districts that either can’t afford a full-time technology administrator or don’t believe they need one typically choose from several alternatives, according to those who work with schools on digital issues.

Some hire outside providers or consultants for specialized or all-encompassing services. Others rely on part-time technology directors, who may also be teachers or administrators with other responsibilities, or outsiders moonlighting from jobs in the private sector.

Still other districts divide responsibility for overseeing technology among a team of district employees, who can include superintendents, principals, classroom educators, and curriculum specialists. Sometimes neighboring districts decide to share technology experts.

Full-Time Tech Leadership?

A breakdown of public school districts reporting on whether they employ and individual responsible for educational technology leadership.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

The Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, a professional association for school technology leaders, prefers that districts have a full-time staff member in that role. It also recommends districts designate chief technology officials as “cabinet-level” administrators, who answer directly to superintendents.

But COSN also recognizes that many smaller districts may not take that step, often due to cost, said Keith R. Krueger, the Washington-based organization’s chief executive officer.

Regardless of the staffing structure, what’s most important for districts is that they have employees capable of providing “strategic leadership” on technology issues, he said. That means having people who can manage tech systems and also set a vision for technology and how it merges with curriculum, professional development, spending, and overall academic goals.

The federal findings on the use of full-time chief technology officers were based on 2008 data, but Mr. Krueger believes the numbers hold true today. The overall status of district technology leaders has risen in recent years, but he thinks many systems, particularly rural and poor ones, are still relying too heavily on part-time personnel.

The lack of technology leadership in poor districts can have dire effects on students, Mr. Krueger argues. Research has shown that in needy schools, technology tends to be used for rote learning, rather than building more creative and analytical skills, he said.

Mr. Krueger said COSN is working with directors of Title I programs, which help support the education of disadvantaged students, to encourage use of that federal aid for effective employment of technology.

As pressure to keep up with technology changes has increased, the decisions school systems face about tech leadership are similar to those of the 1960s and 1970s, when district finances were often overseen by bookkeepers, Mr. Krueger said. As finances grew more complex, districts created the “chief financial officer” position, a reflection of the new duties of those administrators.

“We think technology is at a similar tipping point,” Mr. Krueger said. More and more districts, he said, are expanding their expectations “of what technology can be.”

In-House Expertise

In some cases, tiny school systems end up seeking out tech-savvy teachers to help them in formal or ad hoc capacities, said John Hill, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, a West Lafayette, Ind.-based organization.

The trick is finding staff members who not only understand digital tools, he said, but also how they should be used in classrooms.

“It’s rare to find it in one human being,” he said.

Mr. Hill, who worked for two decades as a superintendent in a pair of rural Indiana districts, recalls that he was often forced to think creatively when searching for tech talent. He once hired an employee from a local Radio Shack part time to help his district do technology fixes.

“It was better than nothing,” Mr. Hill said, “but sometimes when you needed him, he was out working another job.”

Ripley Central School, in upstate New York, has taken a strategic approach in securing outside help to meet technology needs.

The school, which is its own district, has seen its enrollment drop from roughly 320 students to only 180. It faces many of the technology hurdles familiar to districts everywhere, in preparing for online assessments, trying to make wise equipment purchases, and helping teachers sort through computer glitches.

See Also

See related story,

Talented Chief Tech Officers Hard to Find for K-12

Until this school year, Ripley Central’s technology duties were overseen by a part-time tech coordinator; a specialist from the state’s Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, who provided support two or three days a week; and the principal, Lauren J. Ormsby, along with teachers and the school librarian.

Now, Ripley Central has decided to pay a neighboring district, Chautauqua Lake, to accept middle and high school students—a move designed to increase those students’ academic and extracurricular opportunities, and potentially cut costs. The district’s part-time tech coordinator was laid off.

Since then, Ms. Ormsby has taken on the role of the tech coordinator. She receives help from the Western New York Regional Information Center, a nonprofit public-service education organization, on a managed-services contract. The regional center, which is run by the state and serves 100 school systems, provides Ripley Central with specialists, technicians, and access to a help desk by phone, email, and online chat. The center offers on-the-spot help and technology planning advice. Its staff meets regularly with Ms. Ormsby and other district officials to talk about tech needs.

The district pays the regional center about $140,000 a year for its work, though the school system will be reimbursed from the state for about 85 percent of that amount, Ms. Ormsby said.

“We could make things happen on our own, but the amount of time it would take [to accomplish those tech tasks] would be much greater than it would be in a larger district,” Ms. Ormsby said.

The district’s chosen alternative is working, she said. During a recent week, the service provider had “nine different people in the district providing support,” the principal said.

“It’s not just the work getting done,” she added, “it’s the attitude and willingness they bring.”

Wearing Many Hats

Ms. Ormsby also predicts the managed-service provider will help the district adopt new technologies more quickly than it could on its own, and help Ripley Central officials make smart decisions about buying and using digital tools on the front end.

For example, after Ms. Ormsby bought a set of e-readers for students she discovered the devices required different login and password information, making classroom access difficult.

Having a managed-service company will help her anticipate those complications, she said.

More recently, the principal decided she wanted her students to access computer-based game Minecraft, which takes users into a virtual world where they use blocks to build structures and devices and protect themselves against monsters, and to tailor its use so students played only with each other, not other users outside the school community.

Normally, making that work in classrooms would have drained hours of Ms. Ormsby’s and her staff’s time. But within a day of raising the idea with the managed-service provider, its staff had already set the process in motion.

“It’s like magic,” the principal said.

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. 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 Smaller Districts Choose to Do Without a CTO

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