John Q. Porter, the deputy superintendent for the office of information and organizational systems, in the 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school system was recently named the superintendent of the 32,200-student Oklahoma City public schools, a job he’ll begin in July. Porter recently sat down with Kevin Bushweller, Education Week’s assistant managing editor for online news and the executive editor of Digital Directions, to talk about the role of the school district chief information officer, the challenges he has faced in that job, and what he sees ahead. Following are edited excerpts from the discussion.
Do you see the move from chief information officer to superintendent as something that will happen more and more? Yes, I do. Especially as chief information officers … truly [have] what I consider to be the characteristics of a good chief information officer—and that is someone who not only understands the technology, but understands the business. And the business that we’re in is the business of education. … Several [district] CIOs have called me already to give them some guidance on how they can prepare themselves to ascend to the position of superintendent of a public school system.
Listen to the full interview with John Q. Porter, deputy superintendent for the office of information and organizational systems for the Montgomery County, Md., school system. Interview conducted by Kevin Bushweller.
—Christopher Powers/Education Week
Is the job of superintendent something you saw yourself moving into when you first started working in public schools? No. I expected to go back into private industry when I came into the district seven years ago. … But over time … I became hooked and developed a great passion for education. I felt I had something to give back, and when I was promoted to deputy [superintendent], it gave me the opportunity to really see the breadth of what it meant to be overseeing a school district.
What is the biggest challenge facing chief information officers in large districts? The major challenge I see is really getting the support of the organization. … The superintendent is the leader; the superintendent sets the tone. And without that commitment from the superintendent of what the CIO is trying to accomplish, it won’t happen. It will be, at best, mediocre; it will not be high-performing. … Make sure there is a commitment from the superintendent to embrace the position of CIO. … I would maintain the CIO needs to report to the superintendent. If you look at the private sector, that’s where you see that position typically located.
But you said that in most districts, the CIO is not sitting at the Cabinet level. Why is that the case? Historically, people have not seen technology as being that critical. … [But] it can potentially drive your instructional program. More enlightened superintendents see that, and you’re starting to see the evolution of CIOs sitting at the table and being part of the Cabinet. But we are still a long way from that. Even the position of [district-level] CIO is not widespread throughout the country. Five or six or seven years ago, I was probably one of five, maybe 10 in the country who had that title.
What has been your biggest disappointment in the world of educational technology? I believe in one-to-one [student per computer], and unfortunately because of finances and other pulls, it’s tough to get districts to embrace the issue of one-to-one. I’m also disappointed that technology is perceived as being … the cure-all. We don’t think that the textbook is the cure-all; we don’t think the pencil is the cure-all. But technology is held to a higher standard. … You wouldn’t say that you would have [a] five-to-one [person-to-computer ratio] in a corporation, but we believe we can have five-to-one in a school district. We have to utilize technology to its maximum potential, and we’re not doing that yet.
How difficult is it to attract people with excellent technology skills to work in schools? To attract them, it’s definitely money. … You have to break away from the notion that the highest-paid person, or the model, is based on a principal’s salary. You have to look at what market you are in. Markets drive salaries.
Has the promise of educational technology been realized? We’re not there. And we’re not there for a variety of reasons. … One of the first things cut in a local school district budget if they are in financial crisis is technology. Typically, the reason is it’s not dealing with people.
Where do you see schools, from a technology standpoint, in five to 10 years? Between five to 10 years, we will be one-to-one [person to computer] with some form of technology. It won’t be a desktop; it won’t be a laptop. … It may be a combination of a variety of different technologies that would allow students to be able to receive their curriculum, assessments over these devices. They will be able to do more individualized instruction. There will be more gaming, and more instruction will be delivered through gaming. I would hope that you will see teachers evolving from lecturing and direct instruction to where the students are driving the instructional program and the teachers are helping facilitate it, … where students are able to do more independent study than we see today.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Digital Directions as Moving Up