Top-level executives from school districts across the country gathered in Austin, Texas, March 10-12 to develop solutions to the technology challenges facing the nation’s schools. The occasion was the fourth installment of the Superintendents’ Technology Summit, co-sponsored by Gateway and produced by eSchool News.
Since October 2000, the summit has provided a forum for senior education leaders to fine-tune their knowledge of the issues that impact school technology use, such as recruiting and retaining technology personnel, evaluating the costs and benefits of various computing solutions, implementing complex information systems, and communicating successfully with stakeholders.
The summit opened on Sunday afternoon, March 10, with a golf tournament, in which participating superintendents were given the chance to play in the sun, chat with technology vendors, and network with colleagues. Summiteers got down to business at a keynote session the following morning with Willard Daggett, president of the New York-based International Center for Leadership in Education. His talk was entitled “The World Today2005.”
Daggett told the gathered superintendents that “we need to take something off the plate of educators in this country.” He cited the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” which criticized the effectiveness of the American educational system. Since the release of that report, Daggett said, many new theories have surfaced claiming to address the nation’s educational shortcomings. “There is an expert for each of those theories in every district,” he said. “And these issues have now been institutionalized,” making the process of education reform extremely difficult for the nation’s education leaders.
Daggett cited numerous examples of pointless educational practices that result from an inability to adapt to change. For example, he said that the United States and Canada are the only nations that use the “old-school” keyboard. Originally developed for use on early-model typewriters, the standard keyboard setup is blamed for drastically increasing the incidence of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in recent years. Daggett also cited a “disconnect between what kids learn in the classroom and real life.”
“Why are we the only industrialized country in the free world that does not follow the American research on reading and writing?” Daggett asked rhetorically, adding, “Our challenge is not figuring out what needs to be doneit is figuring out how to deinstitutionalize our institutions.”
Damage control and cutting costs
Following the keynote speech by Daggett, attendees went to one of two morning breakout sessions.Tom DeLapp, president of California-based Communication Resources for Schools, spoke on the topic of “Damage Control: When Technology Creates a Crisis.”
He presented attendees with a number of hypothetical situations in which schools might face a technology-related public relations crisis. For instance, he asked what would happen if a community watchdog group received evidence that someone had been viewing pornography on district computers.
“A crisis is a test of your capacity, your beliefs, and your skill,” said DeLapp. His first piece of advice was, “Don’t call it a crisis. If you do, it will be in the headlines as a crisis.” Instead, school leaders should take the opportunity to define the situation immediately.
“The public is looking for three things: leadership, definition, and accountability,” he said. “You have to think of yourself as a reputation manager.”
In emergency situations, DeLapp advised superintendents to release a statement within the first 30 minutes. The statement should reveal the who, what, when, where, and how, and it should set the tone and provide context.
In the other morning session, Daryl Ann Borel, assistant superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, advised attendees on “Cutting Technology Costs through Standards and Audits.”
“We are in the business of educating children, not buying stuff,” she pointed out. “The question we always have to ask ourselves is, ‘How do the things we buy support learning?'” Borel said school leaders must make decisions based on the total cost of ownership of the equipment they buy, and this might not always mean selecting the cheapest option. “You also have to address training, maintenance, upgrades, and a lot of other things,” she said.
National K-12 Advisories
Summiteers then participated in the National K-12 Advisory consensus-building activity, assisted by handheld polling technology provided by the Leadership Technology Group (LTG) and led by Gary Marx, president of the Virginia-based Center for Public Outreach. Experts gave presentations on three topics: the advisability of using application service providers (ASPs), the feasibility of outsourcing school information technology (IT) functions, and the merits and demerits of platform standardization.
After the pros and cons of each issue were debated, participants selected the topic they were most interested in discussing further. The most popular choice, outsourcing IT functions, was the subject of a post-lunch consensus development session. Dick Callahan, vice president of education at Gateway Inc., and Don Knezek, executive director designee of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), debated the pros and cons of outsourcing.
Participants then were asked to come up with a list of key questions that define the issue and indicate their positions on each of these questions using the polling devices. The results will be used to help policy makers at all levels reach their own decisions about the topic.
Participants agreed that if you’re going to outsource any of your technology functions, you need at least two things: a contract specifying mutually agreed upon expectations for both your school district and the outsourcing company, and constant communication with the outsourcing vendor, so adjustments can be made if necessary. (More information about the National K-12 Advisories on IT Outsourcing will be published in a future issue of eSchool News.)
Federal funds for administrator training
The March 11 luncheon was highlighted by a speech from the newly appointed executive director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology. John Bailey, former director of technology for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, briefed superintendents about the recently signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. According to Bailey, the law simplifies funding for educational technology. It combines several ed-tech programs into a single block-grant program, Enhancing Education through Technology, which will be administered locally by states.
Twenty-five percent of the funds must be used for professional development activities, Bailey told attendees. The good news: The costs of administrator professional development, including conference attendance, may be counted toward the 25 percent, Bailey announced. “Now, you know something that even your IT staff hasn’t heard yet,” he told the superintendents.
Another benefit of NCLB, Bailey said, is that every single education program is an opportunity for technology funding: “You have to first think about your instructional need, and then ask how technology can help you solve that need.”
A third benefit is the law’s flexibility, which is exemplified by a feature called “transferability,” Bailey said. This feature gives school leaders the ability to transfer education dollars between programs, depending on need. “So if you decide you have a safe and drug-free school, you can take funds from that [program] and move them over to technology, if you feel that is where you need to focus your funds,” he said.
Security and professional development
In the afternoon sessions on March 11, Harold Kellogg, a consultant for school districts looking to enhance their security, spoke on the topic of “Balancing Security and a School Climate Conducive to Learning.” Kellogg advocated giving teachers wireless phones to use at their discretion and letting students use phonesresponsiblyas well.
In another session, Heidi Blair-Clevenger, digital media coordinator for Deer Valley Schools in Phoenix, discussed the merits of “Technology Professional Development for Administrators.” It’s crucial for school administrators at all levels to be well-versed in technology issues and applications, Blair-Clevenger said, because strong leadership at the school and district level is needed to ensure the success of technology programs.
Clevenger recommended that school leaders review the Technology Standards for School Administrators, released last year by ISTE (see http://cnets.iste.org/tssa for more information); expand professional development offerings so they address these topics; conduct regular self-assessments of technology skills; identify peer experts who can help “coach” colleagues; and employ a variety of delivery modes for staff development.
Surviving systems implementations
The final day of the summit opened with another round of informative breakout sessions. In “Information Systems Implementations: A Survivor’s Guide,” a group of IT consultants discussed what it takes to implement a complex information system successfully. The group’s advice resonated with attendees, many of whom were familiar with recent, high-profile (and costly) problems with installations of new information systems in large urban districts such as Philadelphia and San Francisco.
In her presentation, Donna Linder, manager for the Gibson Consulting Group, gave tips on how to implement such systems smoothly. In one example, she urged school personnel to give very explicit guidance to vendors. For instance, instead of saying in your request for proposals that the vendor must “capture at-risk information,” she recommended that you specify your district’s expectations in greater detail. She also urged school leaders to adopt a disciplined approach, use measurable requirements, and be sure to leave even more time for the process than you think will be necessary.
In a session titled “Update on Arizona’s $144 Million School Tech Initiative,” Philip Geiger, executive director of the Arizona School Facilities Board; Craig Larson, chief executive officer of LearningStation; and Megan Zimmerman, senior consultant for KPMG, discussed how their organizations worked together to implement a statewide distribution of software to Arizona school districts via the ASP model.
“A neat thing about the ASP [model] is that you can actually track the usage [of curriculum software] and see which pieces are actually being used and which are not,” Zimmerman said.
There was some heated discussion about the selection methods for curriculum titles. One attendee expressed concern that “the decision was made on behalf of the teachers,” rather than by teachers. But according to Geiger, who spearheaded the Arizona ASP project, “If there are pieces missing, the schools can go buy them for themselves. The point is that this is one state project that will be done, whereas there are so many projects that just go on and on and eventually lose their focus.”
At the March 12 luncheon, Chris Dede, professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, delivered a speech entitled, “Technology as a Means, Not an End.”
“As a member of the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ generation, I got a lot of what I call ‘teaching by telling,'” he said. “Now that we have a global, knowledge-based economy, a lot of what I learned then is now obsolete.”
Dede told attendees that, as superintendents, they know that if you study issues until you completely understand them, it can be far too late to take action. “By that time, they have morphed into a whole new problem,” he said. “Thriving on chaos is typical of what future generations will face.”
Dede said his research indicated that children need to learn “higher-order skills,” such as guided “learning by doing,” collaborative learning, and nurturing apprenticeship or mentoring relationships. He called these higher-order skills “distributed learning.”
He also gave attendees the web address for a course he teaches at Harvard on distributed learning (http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~dedech/502) and encouraged them to use the resources it contains.