Leadership and Organization for Technology

by Douglas B. Reeves

Turn back the clock 100 years. As a superintendent in the early years of the 20 th century, you must deal with the latest technological innovation, the No. 2 pencil. How will you respond?

Will you put the pencils under the care of the business manager? Might you go a step further and create a Department of No. 2 Pencils? Will you evaluate your success as an educational leader based on the quantity of No. 2 pencils in the cabinet at the end of the school year?

While these questions may seem preposterous, the answers take on serious consequences when we recognize that in the early years of the 21 st century, computers are simply the No. 2 pencils of our era. This analogy has some specific implications for school leaders who wish to maximize the impact of technology on learning.

Who’s in Charge?

Get organized.
If technology is a tool for learning, then the central-office departments responsible for the selection, use, training and maintenance of technology must be subordinate to the chief academic officer of the school district. Placing technology departments within the business office made sense perhaps when the district had one computer and its primary purpose was accounting and payroll.

Today, the primary purpose of technology is to support teaching, learning, assessment and analysis — all functions that must directly support instructional leadership. Astonishingly, many districts still organize the central office as if they owned one computer and the business manager owned it.

Don’t let Hal take control.
In the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the human-like computer Hal takes over the spacecraft, dooming the astronauts aboard. Hal’s chilling words, “I can’t let you do that, Dave,” could have been spoken today to a superintendent. For valid instructional reasons, school leaders want to merge data bases that include classroom grades and state tests, adjust grading practices to avoid the use of the average, or make individual student records accessible not only to the classroom teacher, but also to teachers in previous and succeeding grades.

But in response to such reasonable requests, some computer programmer is ready to say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” The first time that happens, it’s time to pull the plug on Hal and make clear that the educational leaders, not the programmers, are in charge.

Find the weakest link.
What would you think if the director of food services always avoided the school cafeterias and preferred to eat lunch at an elegant restaurant? How about technology directors who can make new programs work perfectly on the newest and most sophisticated computer in the school district — perhaps the one residing on their desks — but they utterly fail when the program is deployed to principals and teachers.

Require vendors to demonstrate that their product will work on the equipment in your oldest and most poorly equipped classroom. If the proposed product cannot pass this “weakest link” test, then you will never achieve systemwide technology success. Better yet, ensure that requests for maintenance, training and delivery of new equipment give priority to the classrooms and schools.

Paper still matters.
In observing schools in all 50 states and on five continents, I remain surprised at the value of hand-made charts and graphs showing student progress. In the Norfolk, Va., Public Schools, Superintendent Denise Schnitzer combines technological sophistication and web-based accountability reports with hand-made classroom-based charts that show student progress on a monthly basis. These handmade charts are not owned by a single “data guru” but are the product of collective work of many teachers, administrators and students.

Researchers have noted the power of the somewhat messy, manual and dissentingly non-technological power of frequent assessment of student work, immediately followed by adjustments in teaching practices, curriculum, scheduling and assessment.

Data Discussions

Ask “so what?” every day.
Any technology initiative is only as good as the ability of teachers and principals to make meaningful decisions based on the data. Districts are drowning in data created by a superabundance of technology reports. But in many cases, teachers will spend hours looking at data and assembling notebooks full of paper and then return to the classroom and do the same thing that they would have done without the data.

Every conversation about data, whether large-scale analyses from the central office or an individual student analysis from within a school, must conclude with the “so what?” questions. What will we do differently next week? How will our lesson plans change? What different teaching strategies will I use? How will the agenda of our next faculty meeting change?

When teachers and principals are asking and answering these questions, then we should expect to see messy lesson plans, reflecting mid-course adjustments. Most importantly, we should expect a direct answer to the question, “What are you doing differently this month based on the information you have about your students?”

Weed the garden.
We invest in technology because it promises to offer efficiency and save precious time. Too frequently, however, technology initiatives become just one more layer of work for administrators and teachers. For every new technology initiative, we should ask the question, “What can I stop doing as a result of this new tool?”

For example, once I have e-mail for all faculty members, can I stop the time-wasting practice of making oral announcements in faculty meetings? Once we have e-mail for all parents and students, can we stop plundering the forests to provide paper announcements? Advances in computerized grade books, assessments and other programs must be accompanied by explicit reductions in other activities.

Douglas Reeves is chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment, P.O. Box 246, Swampscott, MA 01907. E-mail: dreeves@makingstandardswork.com. He is the author of Accountability for Learning: How Teachers and School Leaders Take Charge.