Special Report
IT Management

CAOs and CTOs Ramp Up on Collaboration

By Sean Cavanagh — March 28, 2016 7 min read
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If there was ever a time when school districts’ chief academic officers and chief technology officers could work in their own silos, isolated from each other, those days appear to be over.

In many K-12 systems, the jobs of these two administrators have become increasingly intertwined, as technology has evolved from an add-on or complement to instruction to a core piece of how teachers, students, and administrators go about their work.

The job of chief academic officers is typically to press for improvements in instruction and policy that will boost student learning.

The job of chief technology officers is usually to help set digital strategy in districts—or at least to ensure that various tech tools are functioning properly.

In this special report, Education Week takes an in-depth look at how CTOs and CAOs in individual school districts around the country and a charter network are working together to cope with difficult academic and technological challenges facing their systems. The articles focus on how these jobs get done in a small school system in Iowa, a small city in upstate New York, a California-based charter network, and large suburban systems in Oregon and Georgia.

The positions and the working relationships vary across the country. So do their titles: CAOs are often known alternatively as assistant superintendents for curriculum and instruction, or something similar. CTOs are frequently called chief information officers.

Regardless of their official titles, the most-effective CAOs and CTOs today are likely to have a strong grasp of the needs and priorities of the other administrator—even if they don’t agree on everything—according to those who work closely with both groups of K-12 officials.

In some cases, that level of collaboration can be difficult to come by. The two groups of administrators bring different professional backgrounds and concerns to the table, even when they identify the same set of challenges and set out to solve them together.

When the Consortium for School Networking, which represents chief technology officers, surveyed its members last year on the biggest challenges they face on the job, they ranked the existence of “silos” in their districts that make it “harder to work on technology planning” near the top. It’s been one of the biggest difficulties identified for three straight years on the survey.

The growth of technology in districts has fundamentally changed the work of both CTOs and CAOs, and made it “a different world than we had 10 or 15 years ago,” said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the consortium.

The new landscape has made it more important than ever for administrators to look beyond official job descriptions and figure out how technology can help them accomplish broad district goals.

Getting the Tech Right

In district administrative offices, both technology and academic officers have to start with the question, “What is our vision for learning, and how do we enable that?” Krueger said, and “how do we [create] a common vision for instruction and technology?”

In many school districts today, technology is at or near the center of K-12 officials’ vision for improving the quality of teaching and learning.

CTOs: Educational Backgrounds

A recent survey found that chief technology officers have a mix of educational and technology-based training.


Source: Consortium for School Networking

Ninety-three percent of teachers today said they use digital tools in some way to help guide instruction, according to nationwide survey results released last year by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Those teachers split relatively evenly in saying technology played a primary role, secondary role, or no role at all in their classrooms.

School systems across the country are routinely making big purchases of digital products, from devices to curricula to management systems, at significant costs. The overall value of the ed-tech market has been set at more than $8 billion, by one estimate.

And when districts make tech purchases, top administrators—from superintendents to CTOs to CAOs—are under enormous pressure to get it right.

If big technology plans go awry—as they have in many K-12 systems, most notably in the case of the Los Angeles Unified School District and its 2013 purchase of iPads, district leaders have to answer to taxpayers.

But district administrators also face pressure, from at least some members of the community, to think big when it comes to technology. There’s a prevailing belief that students need a strong familiarity with tech tools to prepare them for the job market, and administrators don’t want to deny students the digital grounding they need, observed Ronn Nozoe, the associate executive director of the ASCD, formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Nozoe has worked as a teacher, superintendent, and state department of education official.

“There’s community pressure. A neighboring district goes 1-to-1,” said Nozoe, referring to an effort to supply laptops for every student, and school officials are intent on “keeping up with the Joneses.”

The sheer availability of new classroom technologies contributes to one of the most common sources of friction between CAOs and CTOs, said Krueger, of the consortium.

See Also

Chief academic officers are often expected to juggle other administrative duties, in addition to focusing on teaching and learning issues, a recent Education Week survey found. They also answer to different top-level district administrators.

Survey Data: Chief Academic Officers Wear Many Hats

Many CAOs want teachers to have broad access to the apps, web tools, and software that those educators believe will improve instruction. CTOs tend to prefer standardized platforms, which are secure and loaded with tech tools that are compatible with each other, Krueger said.

What’s more, CTOs and CAOs are likely to be making big decisions about buying and implementing technology as they juggle myriad other duties. While more than 80 percent of districts with more than 10,000 students have a full- or part-time person charged with overseeing technology, just 42 percent of the smallest districts in the country do, according to federal data. In larger districts, CTOs’ main focus is setting overall tech priorities. But in small school systems, it’s likely they’re asked to provide tech support, too, and juggle other, non-tech tasks.

Many CAOs also cover a lot of ground. A survey published in 2015 by the Education Week Research Center found that 60 percent of CAOs also serve as heads of assessment in their districts, perhaps not surprisingly. But it also found that many of them also were tasked with duties such as directing human resources, special populations, or library services in their school systems, or serving as school principals.

Both CTOs and CAOs are likely to have their own visions for school district budgets, and that can also be a source of tension, said Krueger.

In many K-12 districts—despite the steady growth of digital curricula—textbooks and print materials still dominate, Krueger noted. When it comes time for districts to make big spending decisions about adopting new classroom materials, CTOs tend to favor digital materials, while some CAOs may want a larger share of money reserved for print products. (Major commercial publishers today often sell a mix of both print and digital resources to districts.)

Seeking Seamless Strategies

Even when both sides have the best intentions with a tech project, CTOs and CAOs can find themselves at odds, Nozoe said. One example occurs when a corporate partner in the community approaches the superintendent or CAO with an offer to donate a big supply of devices or software. The administrators are thrilled. But the CTO, Nozoe said, asks myriad questions about the project. Does the district have sufficient bandwidth to support the technology? Are teachers and others prepared to use it? What are the best practices for using the technology?

With any major tech project, superintendents and CAOs should consult CTOs on important “strategic and tactical” questions, Nozoe said.

“You want to have technology that’s not just a fancy notepad,” he said. “Is the technology part of a seamless experience, or is it a frustrating experience?”

Andrew Houlihan, who has served as the CAO in the Houston Independent School District since April, said he and his fellow administrators are working together to implement technology in ways that make sense for students and teachers.

See Also

Urban and large districts are far more likely than rural and smaller ones to have full-time CTOs, federal data show. K-12 systems in the Northeastern and Southeastern United States are also more likely to have full-time employees in those roles. “Full-Time Tech Leadership?”

The district’s PowerUp initiative is meant to bring devices, digital curricula, and new tech-based strategies to schools across the 215,000-student district.

Houlihan, who previously served in other top administrative jobs in Houston, has been working closely with chief technology information officer Lenny Schad. Their staff members meet regularly to talk about challenges in technology. They coordinate in providing different types of tech training to teachers.

And they work together to make sure their academic goals align with purchasing decisions—as was recently the case when Houston bought a commercial reading program to improve literacy in early high school, Houlihan recalled.

“It’s got to start with those one-on-one conversations, and relationship-building,” said Houlihan but it requires “having a coherent structure in place at the central office level. It can’t rest on one or two departments. It has to be across the board.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as CAOs and CTOs Ramp Up Teamwork


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