Tech Leadership

Abdication of Responsibility Isn’t an Option

by Milt Dougherty

Over the century-plus history of public education in this country, a multitude of responsibilities and expectations have been heaped high on the platters of school district leaders, but nothing has been more unfamiliar to superintendents than the technology being used in schools and our central offices.

As the use of personal and instructional technology becomes increasingly embedded into day-to-day operations, superintendents need more than ever to be intimately involved in the direction, decisions and deliverables of a school district’s technology initiatives.

More than any other responsibility, providing direction for a school system is the chief role of a superintendent. As our world becomes more technologically driven, no future-focused school leader can ignore this duty. While the district’s technology team should have input, it is the superintendent’s job to ensure technology remains a tool for arriving at the overall goal and that it not become the goal.

Horizon Scanning
I’ve worked with school districts in several states, most recently in central Kansas, where much time and energy has been spent working to implement a laptop initiative. The proponents behind these plans thought that once the technology was in place, their goal had been satisfied. Instead, the real vision was using technology to change the teaching and learning environment.

In too many situations, due to unfamiliarity with technology, superintendents not only delegate their duties in this area, they abdicate responsibility. To ensure a proper place for technology, the school district’s CEO must take seriously his or her role to scan the horizon to effectively prepare for students’ futures. That’s why it’s called leadership.

Understandably, superintendents may not be experts on the nuts and bolts of technology initiatives (admittedly, I don’t fully understand the difference between a SMTP and a POP server), but we must be actively involved in the decisions about how tools are used in our schools. I participate in the decisions on technology platforms, software, systems and training rather than simply handing over all those matters to a technology team. Superintendents can be overly swayed by a technology director with a more limited view of the big picture.

Examples abound of superintendents who’ve tried to create a culture for 21st-century learning, only to then engage in a battle about what access teachers and students should be given to the outside world. It’s important to consider the technology team’s concerns about MP3 players, social networking sites and cell phones in schools, but the leader’s job is to weigh those concerns against the bigger picture of preparing students for the future.

That comment is in no way intended to be derisive toward technology coordinators. But the facts are, that based on their positions within the organization, superintendents must have a broader view of the big picture, weighing one pressing need against another and another. A school system’s vision must weigh most heavily on decisions on the use of technology, not the other way around.

As superintendent, I’ve had to remind staff that our job is to prepare our students for what lies ahead, not maintain our status as gatekeepers to knowledge. While we do delegate power to others, we must not confuse delegation with abdication.

Changing Mindsets
The power and promise of educational technology is in its capacity to deliver meaningful, engaging personalized learning opportunities for students. Granted, other desired deliverables are designed to aid the business side of education, but educators have done well using technology in those areas for years.

One such effort our district has made in the teaching and learning arena has been to implement a one-to-one laptop initiative. While those are becoming more common in K-12 education today, we have been operating that way for seven years. The laptop project has never been about technology. It’s focused on creating an environment where we are better able to individualize instruction for students, while giving them experience with the tools they will be using beyond high school.

I admit this has not always been easy. Simple realities, such as financing large infusions of technology, changing people’s mindsets about the role of schools and continual upgrades and training, represent all-too-common barriers. The most difficult of these is changing people’s minds. I’ve found the best approach comes through quality professional learning communities where appropriate literature is provided and discussed and multiple perspectives are viewed as realistic options. This is the path we have taken, and we’ve worked to overcome those barriers.

As today’s superintendents accept the role of 21st-century leadership, we must add technology expertise to our profession’s long-held expectations in curriculum, personnel and financial leadership. In many communities, this may mean the superintendent must take back the mantle of technology leadership, an action that may sow a few seeds of discontent between superintendents and their technology directors. But it’s a necessity.

Milt Dougherty is superintendent of the Little River-Windom Unified School District in Little River, Kan., and president of Milt Dougherty and Associates. E-mail: