Special Report
School & District Management

What Principals Really Think About Tech

By Benjamin Herold — April 17, 2018 | Updated: April 18, 2018 4 min read

As digital devices and social-media platforms become an ever-larger part of children’s lives, the nation’s school principals find themselves in an uncomfortable—if familiar—bind.

On one hand, principals say they’re worried about technology’s potentially harmful effects: A full 95 percent believe their students are using screens too much at home, and 83 percent say they’re at least “moderately concerned” about how students use social media outside of school, according to a new national survey of school-based leaders conducted by the Education Week Research Center.

At the same time, however, principals are welcoming technology and technology-driven trends into their own buildings. More than half described personalized learning as either a “transformational way to improve public education” or a “promising idea.” The relatively new idea of offering computer science education to every student is already on most principals’ radar screens.

Why do those findings matter?

Because ready or not, when it comes to technology, the country’s 90,000-plus public school principals play a critical gatekeeper role, said Daniel Kelley, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who also heads Rhode Island’s Smithfield High.

That means staying up-to-date with the latest technologies, responding to the problems technology creates, figuring out how such tools can be used for learning, and navigating pressure from tech companies and vendors to expand technology use—all while juggling a thousand other tasks, Kelley said.

“It’s our responsibility to meet kids where they’re at and have a basic understanding of their world,” Kelley said. “But trying to keep up can become overwhelming.”

Principals’ divided minds about technology are nothing new, said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the 1910s and 1920s, for example, a general moral panic occurred around the potential harms associated with motion pictures—at the same time innovators such as Thomas Edison were arguing movies could revolutionize public education.

“This is an overarching trend through the last 100 years of education history,” Zimmerman said. “We see a lot of nervous hand-wringing about what technology will do to kids, but also a kind of technological fetishism that leads schools to try to adopt every new idea in the hopes of making education better.”

Nowhere is that tension more evident today than on issues related to screen time and social media.

School leaders are clearly worried about what children are doing on devices at home.

But even as districts rush to give every student his or her own Chromebook or iPad, 61 percent of principals say their students are getting “the right amount” of screen time in school.

Principals are also twice as likely to say they’re “extremely concerned” about students’ social-media use at home than their social-media use at school—even as class assignments and homework increasingly move online, creating new opportunities for children to become distracted by YouTube and other popular digital platforms.

Such is the reality of life in 2018, said James Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes responsible technology use by children and families—and helped launch a “Truth About Tech” campaign to warn about the dangers of technology addiction.

“Technology, used wisely and appropriately, can be an excellent resource for learning,” Steyer said. “But there is also an arms race for our kids’ attention going on. It’s being led by certain tech companies, and there are really significant downsides. Principals need to understand that.”

Given the stakes, it’s understandable that parents and the public want principals to be informed, savvy gatekeepers on technology issues.

But on that front, too, some concerning signs emerge in Education Week‘s new survey data, said Justin Bathon, an associate professor of education leadership at the University of Kentucky who has trained school leaders on effective technology use for more than a decade.

Notably, principals responding to the Education Week survey said they feel the most pressure from technology companies and vendors to increase student screen time (58 percent), embrace personalized learning (55 percent), and spread computer science education (47 percent).

In some cases, at least, that does not appear to align with the messages being delivered by parents, students, and teachers.

For example, just 22 percent of principals said they feel pressure from teachers to increase student screen time—lower than the percentage of school leaders who say teachers are actually pushing in the opposite direction, for screen-time limits.

“I think it’s fair to criticize principals for participating in group think, rather than making their own independent assessments of each of these concepts,” Bathon said. “That kind of decisionmaking requires research, time, and a team. That’s not happening in most places.”

In schools, that reality is compounded by the tremendous variation among principals.

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Some are tech-savvy and thoughtful about using technology to help students explore individual passions. Others want nothing to do with understanding how students communicate on Instagram. Most are genuinely concerned about striking an appropriate balance between keeping children safe and preparing them for a rapidly changing world. Many feel unprepared to do so.

Where does that leave students, parents, and the public?

Given the decentralized nature of American schooling, and the resulting sway that each principal has in his or her school building, the answer is clear, experts say.

“For better or worse,” Bathon said, “we have no choice but to trust principals on these questions.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as What Principals Really Think About Tech

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