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Classroom Technology

Harvard Business Review, MBA Lessons Guide Principals’ Ed-Tech Leadership

By Michelle R. Davis — April 23, 2019 8 min read
Principal Sarah Guerrero has led Northbrook Middle School in Houston for the past four years using skills she learned from earning a MBA from Rice University.
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When middle school Principal Sarah Guerrero decided to build a 1-to-1 computing program in her school, she turned to advice she had read in an article in the Harvard Business Review.

“Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” by retired Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter, provided a loose blueprint for how she would move forward, including eight success factors with clear steps for communicating a vision, empowering others to act on that vision, and institutionalizing new approaches.

The iconic article, first published in 1995, was written for executives in the business world, where transformation is expected and innovation is encouraged. But the steps outlined by Kotter worked just as well when applied to Guerrero’s new ed-tech initiative, which was rolled out during the 2017-18 school year at Northbrook Middle School in Houston. Guerrero first read the article in 2011 when she was enrolled in the Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program, or REEP, as well as simultaneously earning a master’s of business administration through Rice’s Jones School of Business.

“Great management is not something you learn through the traditional pathways of education,” she said. “The way I approach my work as a principal is through this leadership and management lens—the bulk of that I learned from my time working on my MBA.”

The idea of taking a business approach, based in entrepreneurial thinking, is one that works particularly well when it comes to ed-tech initiatives in schools, but it’s also one that school principals often don’t use. In part, that’s because many rise to the position through the educational system where risk-taking and quick pivots—which can be hallmarks of success in today’s evolving business world—are not always valued or encouraged.

Recognizing that working as a principal often has more in common with managing a business than being a classroom teacher, several colleges and universities have created business fellowships or full-blown MBA programs for educators. REEP, a business fellowship which also allowed some educators to earn their MBAs through Rice University, trained more than 300 Houston-area educators until philanthropic funding for the initiative ran out in 2017, said Lawrence Kohn, who served as REEP’s director of programs and evaluation.

“Principals are often not prepared for this role,” said Kohn, who is now the founding partner and chief research and evaluation officer for Leadership Partners, which provides professional development to education leaders. “They don’t get preparation around strategy and change management, deeper communication skills, and marketing [in their education careers].”

Kohn said he has seen districts roll out big ed-tech-device programs using tactics in direct opposition to those recommended in business settings: They do it all at once with little thought to the goals behind the technology, they don’t get buy-in, they don’t build on small successes.

“There’s so much they should have done strategically for that moment,” Kohn said. If those principals “were trained in change management, they’d recognize that.”

For Paul Baez, the concepts he learned during the REEP fellowship have guided him as he worked to expand the use of ed tech as the principal of Rees Elementary School for the past eight years. The school is in the Alief Independent district in Houston.

First, Baez had to take on some risk. When he arrived at Rees—where 82 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch—the school scored alongside some of the best in the district on state testing. But when he visited classrooms, he saw traditional teaching and students who were not engaged.

He decided to focus on integrating technology into the school day, with the ultimate goal of forging a strong blended-learning program at Rees. But teachers and the district were reluctant—after all, students were already scoring well on state tests, and a new approach could jeopardize that success.

“The idea of this being risky was huge,” Baez said. “I walked into a school that had the reputation of doing well. Teachers thought, ‘Why should we change anything?’ ”

So Baez went back to his REEP training—including the advice in Kotter’s article. He started small, by implementing low-cost versions of electronic white boards into classrooms, before investing in more expensive smart boards. Baez said his training through the REEP project, particularly around budgets, had a big impact on his ability to be creative with funds to pay for the technology, particularly since principals in his district have a lot of autonomy over their school finances.

Before REEP, “I was never trained on budgeting, or day-to-day prioritizing of funds, or looking at funding to pay for initiatives,” Baez said. “It’s astonishing to me how few educators know about these concepts.”

He then aimed to buy devices for students and mapped out a yearly technology phase plan. Baez added a few devices to classrooms before introducing a full 1-to-1 model. He analyzed the budget and did lots of scaffolding around implementation and introduction of technology. He got a few teachers excited, and over the years of the rollout, they got others invested. Now, all students in grades 2, 3, and 4 have iPads or laptops to work on.

But there has been resistance at the district level along the way—though the superintendent has now recognized his efforts, and Baez regularly provides training and support to other schools in the district.

Initially, district officials were hesitant about the expansion of technology, and even the IT department was nervous about opening the network up, Baez said. The district blocked YouTube—which had a lot of instructional videos Baez wanted his teachers to use—from the devices. The technology department also made it difficult to add and use the 40-some educational apps teachers identified as useful in their classrooms.

“That fear lasted a long time, and I had a good number of battles,” Baez said. “But I broke down a lot of walls for a lot of people, and now our district is transformed in terms of wanting to embrace technology.”

Guerrero, center, participates in the “daily stand up,” a regular meeting with the leadership team at Northbrook.

But Baez acknowledged apprehension on the part of principals who worry that if ed-tech efforts don’t move forward glitch-free, they will be blamed. “A lot of principals don’t want to take that risk,” he said. “There’s a fear of being held accountable by the district in terms of those assessments.”

Jeanna Sniffin, the principal of the 1,125-student Ronald Thornton Middle School in Missouri City, Texas, just helped open the brand-new school in the Fort Bend Independent district this academic year. Each class has 10 laptops that can be folded into tablets, and the school has three computer labs stocked with 30 laptops each.

The school features flexible spaces for collaboration and creative furniture options—many on wheels to provide different configurations.

Part of being a new school was creating the “branding” or marketing around the school and its emphasis on technology. Sniffin said the REEP fellowship taught her to view her school community as different target markets—students, parents, teachers—with different outreach needs. She had to market this new school and its tech initiatives to each group.

Part of that effort meant pushing the idea of personalized learning through technology to teachers. While teachers worried that moving away from traditional classroom instruction would affect state test scores, “my philosophy is that if we provide those meaningful learning experiences every day in relevant ways, then the test will take care of itself,” Sniffin said.

The district has been supportive of the tech initiative, rolling it out slowly to other schools, with Sniffin’s school on the forefront. The district has allocated lots of training for teachers—much of it voluntary—and created an online course for professional development.

It also has provided a position on the school campus called “a technology-integration champion,” who supports both students and teachers around the technology.

Principal Guerrero said she learned valuable leadership and management lessons in her MBA program, and from the Harvard Business Review that she puts into practice in her school. One of those lessons: “As a school or a company or a corporation, if you’re not telling your story, someone else is going to tell it. We don’t think about that much in education, but it’s really important.

“Our district is very forward-thinking in knowing that all the teachers aren’t ready and each teacher is coming in at a different place,” Sniffin said.

When Guerrero, the principal of Northbrook Middle School, got the opportunity to do a digital expansion at her school, she only had four days to decide whether to sign on. The school, in which nearly all students qualify as low income, had just recently cycled off the list of those penalized by the state for poor performance, and she knew there would be a huge learning curve.

But Guerrero said she had already put in place a management structure that allowed for a “quick pivot.”

“We could quickly identify whether we were ready or not and had ways to get feedback from teachers,” she said. In fall 2017, the 1-to-1 iPad initiative, funded by a grant from the Verizon Foundation, launched. Each of the devices has a data plan, and students take the iPads home.

During the planning and roll out, Guerrero harkened back to the Kotter article, ticking off the need for a vision, a guiding coalition of champions for the project, the ability to communicate her vision—and felt the school could tackle it. She also used lessons from a negotiation class she took through her MBA program.

Verizon typically requested that schools receiving the technology grants unveil the devices in a large community event to pass the iPads out to students and families. Guerrero didn’t think that would be the most effective way to highlight the value of the technology to parents, students, and teachers.

Instead, she negotiated with Verizon for special permission to give the students the iPads first, teach them how to use the technology, and then hold a community event in which the students highlighted for their parents the power of the technology.

“It was such a powerful opportunity for everyone,” she said. And, Guerrero said, the event also allowed her to take control of her school’s narrative around the ed-tech initiative.

“As a school or a company or a corporation, if you’re not telling your story, someone else is going to tell it,” she said. “We don’t think about that much in education, but it’s really important.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2019 edition of Education Week as Business Principles at Work


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