The responsibilities of the modern school superintendent may already seem boundless, from making the most of shrinking budgets, to working 21st-century skills into the K12 curriculum, to meeting the escalating standards of NCLB testing. But thanks to the initiatives of two national organizations dedicated to improving the use of educational technology in schools, the job description just got longer.
Last July, the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) released an updated version of "Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent," a blueprint for seizing the technological initiative in areas ranging from better integrating technology into classroom instruction, to creating professional learning communities for teachers, to inventing more complex assessments of student work. While these themes are already high on the agenda of many districts, CoSN's document makes the case that nowadays the effective use of educational technologies is crucial and provides action steps for superintendents to take.
In April, the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) launched ISTE Learning, an online resource designed to help leaders implement new technologies in the classroom (see sidebar).
CoSN's Master Plan
The 21-page CoSN document, first released in 2008, describes five imperatives for superintendents: (1) modeling the use of new technologies in communicating to students, teachers and the general public; (2) ensuring that technology becomes integral to teaching 21st-century skills from critical thinking and problem solving to collaboration and information literacy in the classroom; (3) boosting Web 2.0 applications and tools as key components of student learning; (4) offering professional development in these technologies and deploying the online tools that help teachers create learning communities among themselves; and (5) requiring better balanced assessments of student work—including project-based learning enhanced by technology tools—in an age driven by NCLB-oriented testing and better use of data from the assessments to help students improve their performance.
The revised edition also includes a self-assessment for superintendents to evaluate how far their districts have come along the technological curve. CoSN's CEO Keith Krueger explains that his organization's research shows that many district leaders are behind that curve, and the new document opens with a letter: "Of all the challenges you face as a superintendent, technology leadership may be the one that leaves you feeling the most unprepared, uncertain, and vulnerable. You are not alone," Krueger says. "All too often, superintendents and the folks they reported to didn't care about or know enough about educational technology."
So he and his staff recruited a panel of superintendents from around the country to identify solutions, the first of which is to lead by example in using technology to communicate and conduct business. "The no-brainer of the five is that superintendents need to have the skills themselves," says Chip Kimball, the superintendent of the Lake Washington (Wash.) School District.
Kimball served on CoSN's advisory panel and helped analyze its findings. "It's now become apparent to everyone that if schools aren't using technology to improve student learning, they will fall behind," agrees Jayne James, ISTE's senior director of education leadership.
Getting the Word Out
Kimball has become one of CoSN's primary messengers in spreading the word that superintendents need to promote technology throughout their districts, which he concedes may be easier said than done. In recent months, he's presented his thoughts at national administrators' conferences. "It's the right agenda to be talking about," Kimball says.
He believes the challenge today is how to make these items actionable, especially since "superintendents today are hounded by everyone thinking that their agendas should be the district's top agenda." Douglas Reeves, who founded the Leadership and Learning Center and has consulted with superintendents on leadership issues for almost two decades, agrees that today's superintendent is stretched in too many directions.
He cautions that the large-scale changes CoSN is advocating are most likely to happen for district leaders who are not engaged in dozens of other initiatives. "Everybody wants the superintendent to be in the middle of everything," Reeves explains. "The real acid test is whether you can execute the 'not-to-do list,'" adding that superintendents need to resist establishing too many priorities.
Each of the five areas featured in "Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent" includes a set of resources and a series of action steps for superintendents and district leadership teams. For instance, in the 21st-century skills section, leaders are urged to improve their own such skills, create a vision for integrating them into K12 instruction, audit the district's strategic plan to see which might be missing and adjust professional development accordingly.
"I think it's a way to organize," says Suzanne Freeman, Trussville (Ala.) City Schools superintendent and early adopter of CoSN's step-by-step approach. "As a superintendent, you can be bombarded" with many publications and books.
She adds that the steps recommended by CoSN "simplify things without oversimplifying."
Krueger notes that there's something in the overall plan for every superintendent. "Clearly you're going to have to play more of a role because you may not have a chief technology officer," he says. "But there's an upside. Once a leader in a smaller district knows where he or she wants to go, change can happen more quickly than in a mid- or large-size district."
Krueger adds that, in the absence of in-house technical support, district leaders can get help from regional educational services agencies, state education networks, and CoSN's own Small School District Leadership Initiative.
Leading by Example
Some of CoSN's panel participants, including Freeman, already serve as role models. Freeman, who uses a blog to communicate with students and parents, points out that her own active use of technology in the 4,200-student district has helped create a norm for others to follow.
When it came to creating interview questions for recruiting new teachers and redesigning the format of parent meetings, Freeman had teachers and administrators collaborate online. For a recent presentation to parents on district initiatives, Freeman used Elluminate Web conferencing software, in which parents asked questions via instant messaging.
"I learned these new skills by participating in the professional learning opportunities offered by our school system. I'm learning these tools alongside of teachers," Freeman says, noting that she does not hesitate to seek out the district's technology integration specialist for additional training.
Pamela Moran, the superintendent of Albemarle County (Va.) Schools, wasn't on the CoSN committee, but is considered one of the top-10 tech-savvy school superintendents in the country. From Skyping with educational consultants at distant universities, to e-mailing and tweeting teachers, to publishing her own blog, Moran says she has deliberately kept technology front and center. "A number of our schools have Twitter and Facebook accounts," Moran points out. "And our principals are starting to blog."
High-Tech Students and Teachers
Moran is also expanding technology across the curriculum, especially in the form of Web 2.0 innovations, such as the free communications application Skype and the collaboration tool Edmodo. "I've seen kids from two separate elementary schools use Edmodo to comment on each other's work," Moran says.
Teachers can insert comments, reinforcing the student editing and offering some suggestions of their own, she continues, adding that they can do multimedia collaboration using Voice-Threads, which allows for voice, video and slide shows. "It's as important to educate kids as well in negotiating the Web 2.0 skill set as we used to teach them how to negotiate libraries," Moran says.
And Moran stays personally involved, says Blair Davis, a teacher at the district's Red Hill Elementary School. "When she finds that you're using a particular program, she'll log on. And we'll get e-mail from her connecting us to other teachers doing similar things in their classrooms."
Albemarle County's professional development efforts are aimed at introducing a host of Web 2.0 applications to teachers. As a result, teachers use the Web-creation tool Moodle to post assignments, run student forums, set up questionnaires, and maintain wikis online, and they are even encouraged to use pedagogically appropriate examples from YouTube.
"The kind of learning we expect 21st-century teachers to achieve is the intersection of content pedagogy and technology," Moran insists. "We expect them to support kids using iMovies and Skype, as well as [conferencing applications] WebX and Elluminate. Today I have teachers who actually text message each other on what's going on in their classes at that moment and Twitter homework assignments to students."
Kimball, of Lake Washington, says that professional development for his district teachers extends to data-driven decision making. "You can no longer take on a professional development agenda without a technology component," Kimball argues. "We know that professional learning communities are not effective without everything—from access to student data to the tools to analyze it."
The Highest Hurdles
Those invested in and practicing CoSN's suggestions agree stumbling blocks remain, even for the most advanced. District leaders still face challenges to breaking down the traditional walls between pedagogy and technology, says Reeves. "What you find is that technology remains on the operations and business side of the organization," he says. "CTOs (chief technology officers) are still outside of the instructional loop, and that's a grave error."
Freeman says that she and district leaders are fulfilling most of CoSN's five objectives, but not the one seeking more comprehensive and balanced assessments. "Our state achievement test measures lower-level skills, not thought processes," Freeman says. "We're still trying to find ways to assess what we know we morally should. We know that students need to be competitive in a global environment."
That kind of assessment, she continues, would take into account skills such as distinguishing between fact and opinion and learning ethical behavior.
The message, says Krueger, is not to be scared by NCLB testing requirements and to develop additional instruments to measure 21st-century skills, global learning, and whatever school districts determine is important to learning.
"We have quite a distance to stretch in assessment," adds Moran, although her district recently installed an instructional system from Schoolnet that provides rubrics for more open-ended tasks and allows teachers to score them accordingly.
Moran adds that teachers could evaluate students on how they break down the demographics to identify potential consumers, build a business plan to launch a product, and create spreadsheets to manage their efforts. "We want to help teachers see an easier route to assessing critical reasoning, creative problem solving and teamwork," Moran concludes.
Fulfilling CoSN's prescription is a tall order, admits Krueger, but he says it's encouraging that superintendents are getting involved in filling it. "We don't have all the answers," Krueger concludes. "The power of what CoSN has done is to have a conversation about questions such as 'How can we better engage students?' and 'How can we get to the authentic, real-time assessments we want?'"
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.