What superintendents need from their CTOs

Communication and trust are critical in the relationship between a school district’s chief technology officer (CTO) and superintendent, said panelists at a Nov. 19 webinar that focused on what superintendents need from their CTOs for districts to integrate technology successfully into all facets of education.

School districts with successful educational technology programs have a strong superintendent, a strong CTO, and a strong relationship between the two, said Chip Kimball, superintendent of the Lake Washington School District in Redmond, Wash.

A former CTO himself, Kimball brought unique experience to the webinar, which was hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Most superintendents are concerned first and foremost with student achievement, and they’re often thinking about ways to boost achievement, he said. CTOs should keep that in mind when explaining the value of school technology projects.

"[Explain] how this technology is going to solve some specific problems that [superintendents] would deal with on a day-to-day basis," Kimball advised ed-tech leaders. "Give them the ability to communicate their vision around teaching and learning."

Making sure they understand the technologies you’re proposing will help superintendents and other district leaders see the need for these technologies, participants said.

"Clean up your language" and avoid overly technical terms, so that others can relate to the technologies you’re proposing, suggested Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer for Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools.

If school board members and other district leaders don’t understand the need for certain technologies, illustrating that need is the surest way to explain it to them.

"We created a digital story, took footage [of students using the technology], and wove it together to show how technology changed the learning environments," said Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services for the Round Rock, Texas, Independent School District. "We showed those to the committee and let them know that was how we were proposing to use the technology."

Showing a superintendent how similar initiatives are progressing in other school districts is another strategy that CTOs can use, Zaiontz said.

It’s important for technology leaders to demonstrate the value of technology to a district’s instructional leadership, said Mitchell.

And while technology is important, superintendents often have much more on their plates.

"Superintendents live in a political reality–they are at the will of the board, of the people, of a governor or state legislature, so there’s a very real political component and that should be considered," Kimball said.

He added: "[Having] data means everything, and the more data that can be delivered to a superintendent, the more effective [a CTO] can be."

In addition to data and accountability, trust is paramount.

"Trust between a CTO and superintendent is essential," Kimball said, whether it concerns spending, opinions, or other day-to-day issues.

Trust is important, but so is the ability to disagree on a civil level, participants said.

"There needs to be a comfort level if the superintendent and CTO disagree," Zaiontz said.  "They need to be able to share the disagreement and talk [through] the differences."

Making sure your superintendent is engaged in the work will help drive technology initiatives. Although it can be empowering for a CTO to maintain total control over technology projects, it doesn’t always benefit the district, Kimball said.

CTOs play a key role in a district’s technology plans, and by implementing professional development around technology, a district’s leadership team can better collaborate on the district’s needs, focusing more intently on how technology can support those needs, said Joan Kowal, superintendent in residence at Nova Southeastern University.

"Every district has to look at what they must do to implement technology-based professional development, and each district is different–but looking at where you want to go and then providing the necessary technology [is a start]," she added.

After the superintendent and CTO determine together which direction they want to take their district, creating communities of practice, looking at what other schools are doing, developing best practices, and examining "pockets of excellence" in the district are all crucial, Kowal said.

"The whole notion of professional development is crucial … so that both superintendents and technology directors are really helping to lead and drive the results of the organization," she said.

A natural part of a CTO’s job is "to connect people, networks, and departmental silos," Mitchell said. "The CTO has got to cultivate a continued network with a set of leaders–it’s the relationship architecting that I think the superintendent comes to depend on heavily."

Understanding that a superintendent is a CTO’s No. 1 student, whether the CTO realizes it or not, will open lines of communication, he said.

"In working with superintendents, there has to be lots of patience and communication, and as a CTO, you need a certain level of passion that might rub off on the superintendent as it relates to the value of the [initiatives] you’re proposing," Mitchell said.

The webinar was part of CoSN’s Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent initiative, which was created to help superintendents develop a vision for using technology to expand teaching and learning opportunities while meeting the needs of changing school systems. eSchool News is CoSN’s media partner for this initiative.


Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent