School technology leadership: Essential elements for success

(Editor’s Note: This speech was given to the 10 winners of the eSchool News 2005 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards at an awards ceremony in San Antonio Feb. 19.)

Good afternoon. On behalf of the entire staff at eSchool News, I’d like to salute you all for the job you do every day to manage the operation of your districts, and especially your judicious and effective use of technology to improve school efficiencies and raise student achievement.

You do all this despite tremendous budget pressures and federal mandates that discourage innovation–mandates that would rather have you testing students than new or experimental programs. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it’s never been so hard to be a school district leader than it is today, and that’s especially true when it comes to shepherding in new technology initiatives. For the pitfalls are many–and the critics are just waiting to pounce.

In observing the ed-tech landscape from a national perspective, I’ve noticed what I think has become a rather disturbing trend in recent months: There seems to be a new wave of backlash against school technology by certain members of the mainstream media and the public at large.

Sure, educational technology has always had its share of critics. I remember Todd Oppenheimer’s essay that ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997, less than a year after the first National Educational Technology Plan was unveiled, questioning the need for computers in the nation’s schools. And, as you might recall, it was quite a struggle to get the federal eRate up and running the following year, amid heavy opposition from certain members of Congress who called it the “Gore tax,” despite the fact that it was a bipartisan effort by two Republican senators and two Democrats that led to the program’s creation.

But, by and large, these criticisms became less frequent, and less vocal, as students, teachers, and school administrators began realizing the tremendous benefits of technology and the internet. As school buildings and then individual classrooms became wired, as teachers began incorporating technology into their instruction–connecting students to real-world events in real time, and making students’ education more engaging and relevant to their lives–you didn’t hear as many calls to abandon technology initiatives, or read as many stories questioning the need for these kinds of projects.

Now, however, the landscape appears to be changing again. A quick perusal of some of the stories we’ve covered in the last year reveals a number of examples of school district leaders from across the country–your own colleagues–who have come under fire for their investment in technology.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, Superintendent Andre Hornsby’s dealings with LeapFrog SchoolHouse and PLATO Learning, among other companies, were questioned in a series of reports by the Baltimore Sun. Though Dr. Hornsby was cleared of any ethical violations in the awarding of contracts to these companies by an independent committee formed by the school board to investigate, the heads of both companies lost their jobs over the affair.

And in a story we’re working on now for eSchool News, Superintendent Roy Romer of the Los Angeles Unified School District has taken some heat from a report in the Los Angeles Times that the district’s $50 million investment in Waterford Early Reading software hasn’t paid off. Pearson Digital Learning, which distributes the software, says the district’s troubles with the system aren’t surprising, given the limited amount of time that students are using it.In Sutter, California, the superintendent of the one-school Brittan Elementary School District was excoriated just this past week for his plan to have students wear ID badges with radio-frequency identification chips embedded in them to streamline attendance-taking and improve student safety in the event of a crisis. As it turned out, his plan created a mini-crisis of its own when a small but vocal minority of parents raised a flap with the ACLU, and the story received national attention. According to a source who was familiar with the project, only six of the school’s 600 or so parents objected to the plan. But this one-percent opposition was enough for the company that had partnered with the school to back out of the deal.

I don’t mean to imply that, in all of these cases, the school leaders themselves were blameless, or that the press didn’t have a right to inquire into these investments. But I do think a number of factors have converged to make this kind of scrutiny all the more intense today, and it’s only going to continue.

Dennis Pierce

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