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School & District Management

Q&A: Houston Schools Chief and CTO Push Digital Learning Vision

By Michelle R. Davis — September 30, 2013 5 min read
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Houston Superintendent Terry B. Grier and Chief Information Technology Officer Lenny Schad have been working together less than a year. But during that time, they’ve planned and started executing a sweeping, $18 million 1-to-1 laptop initiative with the goal of erasing the digital divide in the urban Texas district.

The multimillion-dollar “PowerUp” project, which is beginning to roll out this school year, will ultimately equip more than 130,000 students in grades 3-12 with laptop computers. When the academic year kicked off, teachers at 11 high schools received laptops, and in January, all students at those schools will get the devices.

Mr. Grier and Mr. Schad, the former chief information officer for the 65,000-student Katy, Texas, school district, say that during the time they’ve worked together, both have independently done research for the project, visited successful programs together, and disagreed on the scope and the type of devices needed. But they say their working relationship is exceptionally collaborative.

And that raises an important question: How do superintendents and CTOs establish such relationships that, in turn, help their districts use technology more effectively to improve schools?

Education Week recently conducted a joint telephone interview with Mr. Grier and Mr. Schad to understand what it takes to build effective superintendent-CTO partnerships. Following are excerpts from that interview:

Q: Does establishing a positive working relationship start with hiring?

Grier: Having someone you can trust and work with, who will honestly push back and disagree if needed, and at the same time stay focused on what we’re about, is important. Part of my interview strategy was to find someone who not only knew the work and could get on the same page in a hurry, but could openly disagree and push back until we come up with a better mousetrap.

Schad: Dr. Grier and I were on the same page from the very first time I interviewed. I understood the foundation of what he was trying to get accomplished.

That philosophical piece is an important part of making sure the expectations of the superintendent and the CTO are in alignment. He asks the questions I would not have thought about because he comes from a different perspective. He makes me think differently and approach things on a bigger scale.

It’s important I keep Dr. Grier updated on all aspects of this initiative—not in gory detail, but I need to keep him abreast of what’s going on. He has a keen ability to pick areas where he might want to dig a little deeper.

Grier: I try to stay away from decisions about the type of hardware we’re going to use, whether we should let kids have a case or a backpack to carry the computers. I’m more interested in how teachers are going to use this technology. What I’m trying to do is get people that really, really know what they’re talking about, get us all together, and have the group become co-architects, versus this being Terry Grier’s digital-conversation program.

Q: I know there were times when the two of you disagreed on how to proceed. For example, Mr. Grier wanted to start the 1-to-1 initiative with all Houston high schools and Mr. Schad recommended a more limited kickoff. You ultimately settled on 11 schools. What impact does it have on your professional partnership when you have those disagreements?

Houston Superintendent Terry B. Grier, left, and Chief Information Technology Officer Lenny Schad have learned important lessons about how to work together to use technology to improve schools.

Grier: Lenny told me we needed to slow down, that we didn’t have the capacity from an infrastructure standpoint to do it. I asked how many schools can we do it in. It was a back and forth.

Also, I’ve always been a Mac guy, and I was interested in using MacBook Airs. But as we started the process, Lenny said, “You have to be more open-minded about this.” He was right. [The district eventually chose Hewlett-Packard laptops.] If you can’t create the kind of culture where people are willing to have pretty tough debates and then come to a consensus, then you’re not going to be effective in the long run.

Schad: He’s asked us all to operate this way, and those of us who have done it have seen no repercussions or felt they were being put in a penalty box. Dr. Grier doesn’t have time to get into the details like we should, and part of our job is to be able to give him a different perspective.

Q: I know the two of you meet, one on one, on a weekly basis. How important is it that the CTO be at the executive level with direct access to the superintendent?

Grier: When I came here, technology was a director-level position, and that person reported to the chief financial officer. I elevated that position to CTO and moved the salary up. Thinking that information technology is not a key, integral part of everything you do is shortsighted.

One of my questions during the interview process was whether people had a preference to report to the superintendent or the chief financial officer. Anyone who said it was preferable to report to the CFO was immediately eliminated from the pool.

Schad: I think my answer was that I would only take the position if I was reporting to the superintendent. That’s how important it is to me. Technology is pervasive in every part of the organization. In some form or fashion, it’s touching every piece of the business. What a good CIO or CTO brings to the table is that integration concept. No matter what the conversation is, I should be able to have input.

Q: The two of you spent a lot of time observing other 1-to-1 programs. How important was that?

Grier: By doing that, you can learn from others. We don’t want to make the same mistakes that others have. We went on those trips together, and that was critical. We have to be in the same book on the same page, though we don’t have to sing the same verse.

Schad: It was so important that we make those visits together. We are each observing from completely different perspectives. That’s why our meetings are so productive, too.

Q: How do your different perspectives provide balance in decisionmaking?

Grier: Lenny knows I have 100 percent confidence in where he’s leading, but I do get pushback from other staff members who say that Lenny is not an educator, he doesn’t know curriculum and instruction. He comes from the business side, but Lenny knows a heck of a lot, and he fills in the gaps for us.

I’m more interested in the type of digital curriculum we select and how we’ll know it’s aligned to Texas state standards and what instruments we’re going to use to assess kids.

Schad: Dr. Grier comes from the superintendent’s, the curriculum perspective. That’s why we have a nice balance. The things he brings up might have been a passing thought for me, but not to the degree they were for him.

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 Q&A: Hoston Superintendent Partners With CTO on Innovation

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