Without visionary school leadership, backed by supportive communities, the disparities in ed-tech budgets increase. So say the authors of the “Digital Leadership Divide,” a survey released June 10 by the independent research organization Grunwald Associates and the non-profit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

The quality of leadership, researchers found, is also the primary indicator of whether technology funding–regardless of the funding level–is likely to be spent wisely or be wasted.

Despite budget shortfalls affecting schools from coast to coast, visionary leaders refuse to let a lack of funds derail the effective use of technology in their schools. Even in the face of stagnant or declining budgets, the report states, dedicated educators are aggressively pursuing the use of technology by employing creative thinking and innovative partnerships to make up for a shortage of cash.

“Schools that are committed to deepening the impact of technology are finding ways to raise or repurpose funds to maintain or increase their level of support for technology, even in difficult budget cycles,” the report said. On the flip side, “Schools that are less committed to using technology are falling behind–cutting budgets, reducing staff, and forgoing the professional development that would enable educators to use technology more effectively.”

The findings are from a nationwide survey of 455 school decision-makers, including superintendents, assistant superintendents, directors of instructional technology, chief technology officers, and administrators of management information systems. The study, sponsored in part by AT&T, Educational Testing Service Inc., and Microsoft Corp., reportedly is the first in a series intended to monitor schools’ technology spending and related trends.

According to researchers, the key to effective technology integration lies not in the number of dollars spent, but in the ability of school leaders to communicate their needs and harness the power of technology–making the best of what resources are available.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found that school budgets may not be the biggest barrier to deploying and utilizing technology effectively in the classroom,” said the study’s lead author, Peter Grunwald. “Instead, visionary leadership coupled with an aggressive development of community and parental support seem to drive change in the most technology-intensive schools.”

Chief among researchers’ findings were a direct link between the quality of leadership within the district and the amount of money budgeted for technology programs, a need for community and stakeholder buy-in, and a too frequent disconnect between school administrators and classroom educators regarding the effective use of technology.

Thinking outside the box

Despite recent and widespread budget shortfalls, several of the nation’s most tech-savvy districts are finding a way to bring new technologies to bear in their schools.

In the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, a 32,000-student district in Lake Charles, La., where more than 50 percent of the students live in poverty, Superintendent Jude Theriot has remained committed to increasing the district’s stake in technology despite three consecutive years of multi-million dollar spending reductions, including a brutal $7 million cut in 2003 and an additional $2.5 million cut in 2004.

“The focus has to be on student learning,” he said. And that means, “it’s just not on the table to cut technology.”

Instead of scaling back technology programs, Theriot has instructed district leaders to aggressively pursue new opportunities. In terms of professional development, the district offers online courses for teachers as a way to extend training across the entire school system, while saving money on the cost of individual instructors.

Through the district’s “Laptops for Leaders” program, school principals receive Tablet PCs and attend workshops intended to show them how the technology could be used to appraise student achievement and better meet district goals.

For teachers, the district offers its “Implementing a Technology-Enriched Curriculum” (I-TEC) initiative, a professional development model that encourages educators to reflect on effective teaching methods and to explain their successes to other colleagues throughout the school system.

Although hardware is critical to any technology initiative, Theriot said, success is ultimately dependent upon the “human element.”

His philosophy is supported by the findings. “Where there’s a will to deepen schools’ commitment to technology, there seems to be a way–and this seems to be more important than funding,” the survey said.

Fostering that will results from a school leader’s ability to effectively communicate the need for technology to stakeholders–including parents and school board members, the study found.

Seventy percent of school leaders whose classroom-technology budgets increased over the last three years cited the influence of strongly supportive communities–compared with 38 percent of school leaders whose budgets decreased over the same three-year period, according to the survey.

Although less dramatically, the same phenomenon applies to administrative technologies. Among leaders whose budgets for administrative technology increased, 42 percent reported having supportive communities. Among leaders whose administrative technology budgets decreased, only 20 percent reported having supportive communities.

Where community support is high, a number of tech-savvy districts are experimenting with alternative funding measures–including, fundraising and corporate partnerships–to promote technology in the face of shrinking budgets, the report said.

In the case of the Montgomery County Public Schools, a Maryland school district in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., school officials turned to advocacy.

Behind the momentum of an aggressive public relations campaign targeted at parents and other community stakeholders, district leaders persuaded school board members to double spending for technology–to $90 million over a six-year period–beginning next year, said John Porter, associate superintendent and chief information officer.

School leaders produced a program that aired on public television to highlight the benefits of technology in the classroom. The TV program encouraged stakeholders to eMail board members in support of increased technology spending, despite cuts to the overall budget.

“While this tack is clearly not an optimum long-term strategy, it can mitigate funding shortfalls in lean budget years,” the study said.

But this shift in thinking isn’t likely to occur on its own. For schools to pursue the effective integration of technology, district administrators must assume the lead as agents of change–with or without funding.

Ninety-three percent of survey respondents said top school leaders have the most influence on technology decisions.

“When a superintendent says, ‘This is the direction we are going in,’ everybody gets in line,” Porter said.

Professional development needed

Although the findings indicate a shared vision and broad support from stakeholders at all levels are needed to achieve a high level of technology proficiency in schools, researchers also have found a number of school leaders, especially those in large districts, are frustrated at the lack of technology expertise exhibited by teachers and other school personnel.

Nearly half of the school leaders surveyed from large districts (45 percent) say the lack of technology understanding on the part of other district employees poses a significant barrier.

Furthermore, school leaders admit they themselves lack the skills to integrate technology effectively. According to the survey, fewer than one in 10 school leaders (7 percent) would classify his or her ability to integrate technology into the learning environment as “very good” or better. Further, most school leaders contend classroom teachers need even more help. On a scale of one to 10, respondents gave teachers an average score of 5.3 on technology competence.

Making a difference

Even though educators acknowledge they lack sufficient competency with technology, they recognize that technology is essential to reaching district goals. When it comes to improving productivity and efficiency, 74 percent of survey respondents say technology provides timely data for decision-making, while 70 percent report it improves communication among parents, teachers, and the community. Nearly eight out of 10 respondents (78 percent) said their districts currently rely on data-driven decision-making, the study found.

Respondents also cited technology’s salutary impact on learning. More than two-thirds (68 percent) said technology motivates students and provides them with important life skills (67 percent).

Decision-makers also touted classroom technology as a means to create equity for students. Sixty percent of respondents said technology helped level the playing field for learners with disabilities, while 52 percent said technology can help individualize instruction and 51 percent reported it promotes academic equity.

The long road ahead

In spite of the importance of leadership, educators who responded to the survey made no attempt to hide the devastating effects of budget cuts on their respective technology programs. In fact, 48 percent of the school leaders surveyed cited budgeting issues as a key impediment to effective technology use.

In light of the survey’s finds, CoSN offered these recommendations:

  • Move from automating administrative practices to transforming teaching and learning. “Perhaps the most promising and powerful application of technology in education is the delivery of personalized instruction,” the report said. “We are only beginning to glimpse how technology can enable educators to assess students’ knowledge and skills continually and get results immediately.”

  • Invest in strong technology leadership. This includes the creation of the chief technology officer position in which the successful candidate works closely with top district leadership to pursue a shared vision for technology.

  • Create new professional development initiatives. The majority of educators still don’t possess the technology skills necessary to integrate technology into the classroom, the survey found. In response to this widespread deficiency, CoSN recommends school districts across the country schedule routine technology workshops to better prepare educators for their role in a technology-infused learning environment.

  • Recruit the active support of parents and the community. Despite budget constraints, the report states, community support can be a key factor in determining whether or not schools succeed in integrating technology effectively.

Links:

The Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com