School & District Management

The Knowledge Gap

By Michelle R. Davis — January 23, 2008 6 min read

When Chip Kimball took over as the chief technology officer in Washington state’s Lake Washington school district more than a decade ago, he quickly realized that his boss, the superintendent, knew little about technology.

That knowledge gap, says Kimball, meant the district was buying very expensive hardware, like Ethernet switches, when less-expensive technology would have worked. “The tech team was overspecifying switches,” asking for all kinds of capabilities that weren’t really necessary, he says. “Had [the superintendent] known the right questions to ask, he probably could have gotten an indicator of that.”

Now that Kimball himself is the superintendent of the 23,500-student Lake Washington School District No. 414, in Redmond, Wash., the home of the Microsoft Corp., he sees firsthand how important it is for district leaders to understand technology.

“Many superintendents say, ‘I don’t do technology, and that’s why I hire somebody.’ But they get led down the primrose path, and that’s why it blows up on them,” says Kimball, who became the superintendent in June of 2007.

Kimball is one of what appears to be only a handful of district superintendents who have experience as chief technology officers. Most technology experts say superintendents, in general, are sorely lacking in both the basics of using technology and its applications in the classroom and throughout the district.

“The people who are in charge of facilitating schools’ transition to the digital global economy—superintendents and principals—are typically the least knowledgeable about the digital global economy,” says Scott McLeod, the founding director of the Center for Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, or CASTLE, and the coordinator of the educational administration program at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. “It’s scary.”

‘Ask the Right Questions’

But superintendents don’t need to know the details about bits and bytes, experts say. That’s the role of a chief technology officer. What they do need to know is enough about technology to ask the right questions and be able to understand the instructional value of technology—something many technology directors aren’t trained to do.

“They don’t need to know the nuts and bolts, but they have to know when it makes more sense to go to a technology solution instead of a people solution,” McLeod says of superintendents. “They need to know what questions to ask about the school network, but they don’t need to know how it runs.”

The people who are in charge of facilitating schools’ transition to the digital global economy—<br>superintendents and principals—are typically the least knowledgeable about the digital global economy. It’s scary."

A technology survey of 125 superintendents and administrators in five Southern states done last year by Robert J. Hancock, an assistant professor of educational leadership and technology at Southeastern Louisiana University, found that school leaders are lacking in technology training. More than 96 percent of those surveyed said they were unaware of national, state, or local technology standards, and 88 percent said they had not attended a technology-training session for administrators in the past three years.

“With the superintendent as the chief decisionmaker, they’re going to rely on the expertise of the technology director, but often that person is not trained in administration,” says Hancock, who is working to launch the International Center for Technology in Administrative Practice, based at the university, in Hammond, La. “Optimal decisionmaking does not occur, because you might have a superintendent who doesn’t even know how to operate a PalmPilot handing over decisionmaking to an IT person who wouldn’t understand instructional concerns.”

Using technology to a district’s best advantage is an issue that spans every department—and superintendents need to consider that scope, says William R. Thomas, the director of educational technology for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. Superintendents, he says, should always “ask the question: How can technology play a role in this? How can it improve student performance, help a teacher do their job more effectively and efficiently?”

Above all, superintendents need to have a vision for how technology improves district operations on every level, says Kimball. “If a superintendent doesn’t understand enough about the tools to articulate and create the vision, they’ll never be able to move the system along and prepare kids for the 21st century.”

‘Develop a Skill’

But where should superintendents get their training?

Few administrator-training programs include courses on using technology effectively, and national professional organizations have lagged in tackling the matter, says Don Knezek, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, which has educational technology standards for administrators.

Technology Tips

To improve their knowledge of educational technology, school leaders should:

1: Check with national professional organizations to see what types of ed. tech. professional-development programs are offered and how they might fit into a busy schedule.

2: Contact technology-oriented education organizations to determine what type of ed. tech. training they offer.

3: Foster a relationship with a superintendent who has a high level of technology knowledge and skills; share tips and ideas.

4: Develop technology skills around a specific task. Pick a project and use technology to complete it.

5: Use a technology expert within your district as a mentor.

6: Understand how technology fits into your overall vision for your district, and communicate that clearly to administrators and teachers.

“There’s no question that professional organizations need to step up,” Knezek says. ISTE is doing some technology-leadership training but not reaching many superintendents, he says.

In his survey, Hancock of Southeastern Louisiana University found that 98 percent of those questioned said their primary professional organization did not meet their technology-training needs.

Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, says his group is looking closely at what superintendents need to know about technology now, and will publicly issue its findings later this year, when it will release a technology toolkit. So far, Krueger says, focus groups have found that many superintendents think of technology as “not my responsibility.”

“We need to be articulating a clear vision around school reform, or better yet how to transform our school systems,” he says.

But talking about technology isn’t engaging for many superintendents, Krueger says, so those who care about the subject need to find a way to reach the majority. “We need to make the case that technology links to their mission, which is ultimately about learning,” he says. “What does it enable us to do that we couldn’t do before?”

McLeod of CASTLE says his program offers workshops, seminars, and other training for superintendents.

The problem, says Kimball, the Lake Washington schools chief, is that superintendents often don’t have time to take classes or even take advantage of online professional-development opportunities. He believes superintendents who know they’re lacking in technology training need to put pressure on themselves to “become personally productive with technology.”

His advice is for a superintendent to find somebody within the district to be a mentor, or talk to high-performing fellow superintendents to gather information. Kimball also recommends targeting a project and tackling it using technology. That could mean using a superintendent’s blog to communicate with parents or staff members, doing a financial analysis with an Excel spreadsheet, crafting an effective PowerPoint presentation, or creating podcasts of speeches.

“Develop a skill around a task,” Kimball says.

And when it comes to technology, he says, superintendents must model good technology behavior.

“People watch everything a superintendent does: where they sit, what they do,” he says. “They’re also watching what kind of technology a superintendent uses, and how they manage it.”

Michelle R. Davis is the senior writer for Education Week’s Digital Directions.


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