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Money, Data, Security: The Biggest Challenges Facing K-12 Tech Leaders

By Benjamin Herold — June 11, 2019 9 min read
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The biggest challenges facing today’s K-12 technology leaders are no real mystery.

School technology chiefs are worried about cybersecurity. They have limited budgets, which have to be stretched to manage a flood of new devices, software, and apps. And they’re focused on how all that new technology and data can support schools’ bottom line: good classroom instruction.

“In addressing the myriad issues related to managing a district’s digital ecosystem, IT leaders have not lost sight of the big picture,” according to the Consortium for School Networking’s 2019 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report, which outlines the priorities and hurdles reported by 335 respondents.

To better understand the big issues facing the K-12 sector’s chief technology and information officers, Education Week spoke with officials from five school districts around the country. Here’s what they told us:

1. Beefing up cybersecurity: “If it can’t run on our network securely, there’s not much reason to have it.”

Joe Phillips’ leap from the U.S. Army—where he served as an intelligence analyst and IT director, among other roles—to director of technology for the 16,000-student Kansas City, Mo., school district was an eye-opening experience for a number of reasons.

The biggest difference may have been in how the two institutions approached protecting and securing sensitive information.

“In the Army, cybersecurity was second nature,” Phillips said. “Coming to education was a lot like going back in time.”

Joe Philips

In recent years, educational data has become a valuable black-market commodity. Districts around the country have fallen victim to phishing scams, hacks, ransomware attacks, and missteps by their own staff and students. The fallout has included millions of lost taxpayer dollars, tens of thousands of teachers and children who have had their personal data compromised, and an erosion of public trust.

It’s no wonder, then, that the CoSN IT Leadership survey identified cybersecurity as technology chiefs’ top priority. More than two-thirds of survey respondents told the group that the privacy and security of student data was more important to them now than in previous years.

In Kansas City, there’s been a commitment to putting cybersecurity first in the district’s five-year technology plan, Phillips said. His department is seeking funds for new firewalls, network switches, and wireless access points; new backup and recovery systems; an endpoint detection-response system that can be used to identify and investigate suspicious activity, such as potential phishing scams; and a new disaster recovery data center. By modernizing the district’s infrastructure, Phillips hopes to plug the holes that malicious actors might seek to exploit.

The work isn’t sexy, he said. Five years ago, it might have been a tough sell to the district’s leadership and board.

But not any more.

“Putting out classroom devices is great,” Phillips said. “But if it can’t run on our network securely, there’s not much reason to have it.”

2. Budgeting on a shoestring: “We can get by with less funding because we have good systems in place.”

Mary Wegner

Mary Wegner knows a thing or two about stretching resources in a difficult financial environment.

She’s now in her 5th year as superintendent of Alaska’s 1,200-student Sitka school district, serving a remote island community that “sits on a rock at the edge of the Pacific Ocean,” as the district’s website puts it. During Wegner’s tenure, the district’s annual operating budget has declined 5 percent, to a little over $20 million.

“Technology has taken a cut,” she said. “But we’ve learned that we can get by with less funding, because we have good systems in place.”

One example: Sitka’s leadership team and teacher-chaired technology committee recently committed to focusing on technology as a support for classroom instruction, rather than an end unto itself. That, in turn, led the district to change its staffing patterns. A standalone 6th grade technology teaching position was eliminated, and Sitka schools moved instead to integrate into all classrooms the tech skills and digital literacies that used to be taught in standalone fashion. The moved saved $100,000, Wegner said.

Such tough decisions are common in K-12, the CoSN IT Leadership survey suggests. School technology chiefs identified budget constraints as a major barrier for the third year in a row. One-fourth of them said they didn’t have enough resources to meet school board expectations. Many said they tried to supplement their funding by seeking out grants.

That’s been Wegner’s approach. The money that has come in, she notes, hasn’t been for technology per se. Rather, it’s been for priorities like culturally responsive teaching for the Sitka district’s large indigenous Tlingit population.

The lesson?

“It’s not about finding money in the budget for tech as an isolated thing,” she said. “It’s really about helping teachers change in the classroom.”

3. Leveraging data to drive instruction: “Instead of digital tools being used as a babysitter, we’ve grown a lot more focused.”

Jaraun Dennis

Using ed tech to improve teaching and learning is the Holy Grail for many K-12 technology chiefs. Often, that means getting actionable data in the hands of teachers in time for it to actually inform key decisions, such as how to group students or what needs to be re-taught.

Three-fourths of the tech leaders surveyed by CoSN, for example, said they are working to be more responsive to educators’ IT needs. Nearly half said they’re focused on “surfacing real-time data for educators pulling together multiple sources of information.”

It’s not as simple as it may sound, especially for small and rural school districts, said Jaraun Dennis, the chief technology officer for Wyoming’s 3,000-student Uinta County School District #1.

“In our elementary schools alone, we have five or six different options for digital tools,” Dennis said. “Imagine the gamut of data generated when you have teachers logging into all those different places, then going to another place to look at state assessments, and somewhere else for literacy assessments.”

Uinta doesn’t have instructional coaches to help. The district’s IT staff are stretched thin. Convincing people who understand both the technical and the educational side of the work to come work for low pay in Southwest Wyoming isn’t easy either.

But progress has come, Dennis said, as the district has become more intentional about how and why it’s using classroom devices and instructional software in the first place. From a hazy plan to use technology to support “blended” and then “personalized” learning, Uinta has grown into a model where teachers use specific software programs to identify and fill gaps in students’ learning.

“Instead of digital tools being used as a babysitter, we’ve grown a lot more focused,” Dennis said.

4. Breaking down information silos: “It’s hard to keep up.”

Jamey Hynds

Even for large, well-resourced systems like Texas’s 80,000-student Katy Independent School District, getting actionable information in the hands of educators in a timely manner is a major challenge.

“That’s the way it is with any large organization,” said Jamey Hynds, the district’s director of business intelligence. “Data are siloed, and people in different departments are trying to put that information together to fulfill their own needs.”

A variety of efforts to make the flow of information more seamless fall under the general umbrella term of “interoperability.” The CoSN leadership survey shows just how rare most are: 27 percent of respondents said their districts have fully implemented single-sign on solutions to make it easier for students and staff to access multiple software programs. Fifteen percent make regular use of data dashboards to visualize and analyze information. Just 8 percent say their digital content is fully interoperable.

Hynds has led Katy ISD’s efforts to address such challenges. The district has its own data warehouse, used to store information from a wide variety of sources, including assessments, the district’s student information system, and human resources and financial software. Hynds’ team has developed “well over 100 dashboards,” he said, including one to track legislation that could affect the district.

How do such tools improve decisionmaking?

When teachers or counselors are meeting with parents, they can open the district’s “student viewer” to quickly see an individual child’s full academic history, allowing for instructional decisions to be made on the spot.

Central office staff use other dashboards and data to project new student enrollment, including where English language learners are likely to be, and plan future facilities and staffing patterns accordingly.

And Katy principals can now easily track all the student devices used on their campus, seeing how they’re used and when they need to be replaced.

It’s just the beginning, Hynds said.

“Think about the Internet of Things, creating information about HVAC systems and lights and letting us predict energy costs,” he said. “Everything is exploding. It’s hard to keep up.”

5. Improving training and professional development: “It’s a cool tool. But how is it going to impact student learning?”

Austin Houp

Perhaps the biggest issue school technology chiefs must help address isn’t really IT-related at all.

It’s about improving teaching and learning in the classroom.

Austin Houp, now in his second year as the director of curriculum, instruction, and technology for Missouri’s 800-student Ash Grove school district, described the challenge.

“At times, some teachers have a tendency to use tech for tech’s sake, with no clear pedagogy or learning objectives behind it,” Houp said. “I’m able to have the conversation with them, ‘Yes, it’s a cool tool. But how is it going to impact student learning?’”

There’s a lot of evidence that training and professional development around K-12 technology use is spotty. It’s also highly inequitable: A 2017 analysis by the Education Week Research Center found that students in high-poverty schools were much less likely than their counterparts in wealthier schools to have teachers who had received training on how to effectively integrate technology into their classroom instruction. Houp outlined the contours of the challenge in Ash Grove.

For years, Houp said, any training he provided came on top of his regular duties as a social studies teacher, basketball coach, and football coach. That meant that most of his work with other teachers was focused on the basics of how to operate the iPads and Chromebooks the district had recently purchased.

In his current position, though, he’s been able to branch out a bit. Now Houp works with teachers to analyze data from benchmark assessments. There are conversations about which digital curricular materials might make the biggest classroom impact. He’s even working with teachers and principals to reduce student screen time, including implementing plans to forego Chromebook time and promote board games and social interaction during recess.

“The biggest impact has been a higher level of consistency in how we view technology in our district,” Houp said. “All of us are on a much better page.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2019 edition of Education Week as Learn How Ed-Tech Leaders Are Tackling 5 Big Challenges


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