Superintendents share their top concerns at CoSN 2014

superintendent-concernsSchool superintendents deal with a seemingly never-ending list of responsibilities, but some concerns are more pressing than others.

During a CoSN 2014 session moderated by Digital Promise CEO Karen Cator, Matt Akin, superintendent of the Piedmont City School District, and Cynthia Elsberry, superintendent of Horry County Schools, shared some of their top priorities.

Overall, building support for technology initiatives and managing some of the day-to-day issues that accompany these initiatives are things every superintendent deals with, but superintendents also have concerns about data, the digital transition, and more.

(Next page: So, what keeps superintendents up at night?)

10. Student data, privacy, and politics

Akin: “If we’re going to clamp down so much from a legislative side, and if student data can’t be in the cloud—I understand we have to protect student data. My fear is that, from a legislative point of view, that it’s going to be so tight that we’re not going to be able to do what we need to do to personalize learning.”

Elsberry: “I worry about the time when it will become an issue for us. One we get [our learning management system] in place, it becomes more of an issue as you’re housing all that data in one place. In the future, it could become more of a problem. We’re keeping data in-house at this point, but we know that we can’t continue that.”

9. District silos

Elsberry: “It keeps me up at night trying to figure out how to get people to talk to each other and understand that unless we do our work together, this [personalized digital learning initiative] won’t happen.”

Akin: “We broke down silos of instruction, technology, and administration. Now, it’s all of us. For so long, as a technology coordinator, I wasn’t invited to the leadership team meetings, but it’s a different environment now.”

8. Urging others to ask for help

Elsberry: “If you can’t fix it, it doesn’t mean you aren’t competent. This is just sometimes above our heads.”

Akin: “There are just problems you’re not going to know how to solve sometimes. We’re tasked with so much already.”

7. Forming a plan to substitute a device in the event of damage or parents not granting permission

Akin: “Kids break devices. They do. The natural inclination is to tell them to do without, but you really can’t do that. If you’re going to live in this environment, there has to be a [backup] device. If you can give the same thing to kids on paper [as a replacement], then why are you doing it in the first place?”

Elsberry: “We had some parents who have refused for their child to have a device. We didn’t anticipate that that would be an issue. Parents came to us and said they didn’t trust their children to take care of the device and asked us not to issue one. Then you face a dilemma of whether or not to issue it. The top two parental reasons were care of the device and that parents didn’t want their children on the internet.”

6. Device selection

Elsberry: “Selecting a device was paralyzing us. Are we getting the right device? Is it going to last? Whatever device we put into students’ hands, we thought: What is the purpose? What are we trying to accomplish? We want a classroom model that really engages students. That’s what the technology allows us to do.”

5. Digital transition

Elsberry: “Getting our well-established state repository that manages textbooks to move into a repository of digital textbooks is a whole new management layer that we’ve not had in the past. One challenge is figuring out how we can shape policies that allow us to manage the financial part of digital textbooks, including the recurring licensing fee each year.”

4. New environments

Akin: “We have a middle school with a Next-Generation Learning Challenges grant to develop personalized learning environments, and we’re looking at a competency-based model. You may be taking 7th grade math and the person next to you may be working on 5th grade topics. The most stressful part is teaching in a new environment. From a superintendent’s point of view, we still take tests at the end of the year and we’ll get some kind of mark—the tests really don’t have anything to do with what we’ve been teaching that child. A child may have made 1.5 years of growth in one year and still do lousy on the test, because it’s an 8th grade test, and they’ve moved from 5th to 7th grade levels. It’s a dilemma for us, whether to do the right thing or whether we do it on how we’re being judged. Maybe we do both, but I don’t know how. It’d be nice to move to a growth model, and not beat teachers up. Let’s use it for the education of kids and not use it for a way to beat up teachers.”

3. Building a shared vision

Akin: “The stressful thing about a shared vision is, just when you have it figured out, somebody comes along to mess it up—a board member or a politician, someone questions what you’re doing or questions the cost. You have to deal with it, and it’s almost a full-time job.

Elsberry: “Building a shared vision about technology and personalized learning in a large district—how do we bring that big ship along so that everybody knows what we’re trying to accomplish? Bringing a board along, and a community, to understand why you’re spending this much money on something that is a ‘forever’ cost—it never goes away because of digital content supply, professional development, and a refresh cycle. How do we keep this alive in people’s minds?”

2. Product pitches

Elsberry: “Vendors have knocked on our door since we began our initiative. It’s been overwhelming, and we formed a committee to manage that and we use a rubric to evaluate digital content sent our way. Having a neutral committee that assesses every piece of digital content has helped us immensely. It does slow us down, but I think we get a better product that way.”

1. Access and infrastructure

Akin: “Piedmont is rural, and all students have district-provided devices. Our first problem is how do we provide rural, low-income kids with internet access? We provide it at the school level, but we run across people all the time who have no access at home. That’s a national problem. If we don’t address it soon, we’re going to keep getting left behind as an international economy.”

Elsberry: “Widening that achievement gap when we don’t have that access for all students, especially in rural areas, is a big concern.”