Special Report
School & District Management

Talented Chief Tech Officers Hard to Find for K-12

By Michele Molnar — September 30, 2013 5 min read

Like technology itself, the job description of the district chief technology officer is changing rapidly—and often dramatically—as public education transforms around it, and through it.

That’s why keeping up with the demands of the K-12 CTO’s job can be difficult, because relatively few of these professionals are schooled in the perfect marriage of skills on the instructional and technical sides to make the best decisions for districts.

A school district’s top technology official may go by many different titles, including chief information officer, but chances are he or she must be prepared to help educators implement new instructional technologies; handle online assessments; manage student-achievement data; and oversee cyber security—all while keeping a system that powers everything from attendance to budgeting to the grading system up and running.

“If you look generically at CIOs across all industry sectors, in 1992 [PricewaterhouseCooper] said that 80 percent of the job of any CIO was technical. In schools, that was ‘wires in the boxes,’ ” said Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, which represents school technology leaders. “Today, that’s about 20 percent of the job. The other 80 percent is providing leadership, vision, and an understanding of the educational environment and the actual technology.”

Many district leaders lack an understanding of how a smart CIO or CTO can help transform their schools. The issue may be evident in “help wanted” postings.

“Often, the school district is advertising for [CTO] positions looking for skills that are not the core of what they need,” Mr. Krueger said, “so they advertise for technical skills, as opposed to leadership and understanding how to apply the technology to educational enterprises.”

Finding qualified people to do the expanded job of a district CTO can be challenging—and, by industry standards, less than lucrative. The consortium found that salaries of K-12 CTOs lag behind those in the business sector: Sixty-five percent reported an annual salary below $100,000, while the average CTO salary in private industry is more than $190,000, according to the organization’s K-12 IT Leadership Survey 2013, which was distributed to more than 2,500 district IT leaders, with 250 responding.

Tightening budgets have put an additional strain on the role of chief technology officers.

“Some districts have chosen to eliminate or downgrade the CTO position in California,” said Andrea F. Bennett, the executive director of the California Educational Technology Professionals Association, which works to promote the integration of instructional and administrative technology in school districts and county offices of education.

Two or more years after the cutbacks, districts are finding that was “a huge mistake,” she said.

“They wind up spending more on technology,” Ms. Bennett said. “They don’t have a leader—someone who understands the bigger picture for the entire school, versus the needs of each classroom.”

A shortage looming?

Mr. Krueger echoes those concerns.

“When superintendents wake up to what they really need in a CTO, there will be a huge shortage” of qualified personnel to take on the position, he predicted. “Especially with the retirement of many CTOs,” and the lack of succession planning for the position in most districts, the shortage could become critical, he said.

Three organizations have stepped up to meet this talent gap by developing programs to train and certify emerging and practicing chief technology officers about how to meet the evolving educational technology needs of school districts. While their focus is on ctos, each program provides a way to help superintendents and other administrators learn more about the best way to work with CTOs to improve schools.

The California association runs the CTO Mentor program, which has been creating a community of support through mentorship and collaboration for seven years, pairing technology officers with mentors who have been on the job in districts at least eight years. The program also works to educate superintendents and district leaders about the importance of creating a cabinet-level CTO position.

When the current class finishes, the CTO Mentor program will have trained 140 chief technologists in three strands: education, technology, and leadership.

“We’re experiencing multiple paradigm shifts at the same time in education,” said Julie Judd, the CTO of California’s 17,400-student Ventura Unified district and a CTO Mentor graduate. From the Common Core State Standards to adaptive-testing technologies, more responsibility lands in the office of the chief technologist than ever before, she said.

“Now technology is really important,” she said, “because we work with systems and do the maintenance of data for state reporting—and the local data is what determines the local-control funding formula in our state.”

For a former band director who came up through the technology ranks, the mentor program was vitally important, Ms. Judd said.

Certified Ed-Tech Leaders

Since 2011, a K-12 technologist in the United States has also been able to take an exam to become a Certified Education Technology Leader through COSN.

Eighty technologists have received the CETL designation, which the organization said demonstrates that they have mastered the “Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO,” including the ability to define the vision for and successfully build 21st-century learning environments in a school district.

“I was looking for a system to show people that we’re schools, not IT companies, so we need an understanding of budgeting and strategic planning, setting policies, a focus and understanding on the instructional needs of students, the teaching needs of teachers, along with our own professional development because we still have to keep the network up,” said Jeremy Shorr, the director of educational technology and curricular innovation for the 7,700-student Mentor public schools in Ohio.

“I found all that in their framework,” said Mr. Shorr, the first technology officer in the state to earn the certification.

In North Carolina, the Certified Educational Chief Technology Officer program is a course taught through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s school of government. The program is currently only for North Carolina school CTOs.

Superintendents are expected to participate in a portion of the 10-month program, which has been teaching technologists for four years in a partnership with the state and a nonprofit.

Neill A. Kimrey, the state’s instructional technology director, said the program was instituted because “we didn’t see a real consistency of making good K-12 decisions based on best practices for acquisition and management of educational technology.”

By requiring superintendents or assistant superintendents to join some of the classes with the CTOs, the program sees more impact, according to Mr. Kimrey. Ultimately, however, about one-quarter to one-third of top leaders do not attend.

“When I look at the districts where we’ve seen the most change,” Mr. Kimrey said, “it’s almost always where the superintendent participated.”

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 Leadership Training Aims to Advance K-12 CTOs

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