DA op-ed: What superintendents need from their technology leaders

Strong leadership partnerships are key to the success of district tech initiatives
Ann McMullan is an education leadership consultant and FETC 2020 presenter.
Ann McMullan is an education leadership consultant and FETC presenter.

School district technology initiatives can succeed or fail based on the technological expertise of the superintendent who is leading the district. The days of having a superintendent refer all technology questions to the IT department are gone.

Today’s superintendent is responsible for ensuring that all stakeholders—both within the district and in the community at large—embrace transformative digital learning. In order for superintendents to walk the walk and talk the talk, a strong partnership with the district’s chief technology officer and other members of the technology department is fundamental for success.

A seat at the table

At the January 2019 Future of Education Technology Conference® and the recent CoSN Annual Conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with a panel of superintendents to discuss how they leverage the expertise of their CTOs to successfully lead the technology initiatives in their districts.

All superintendents agreed that a collaborative relationship between the superintendent and the CTO is essential for a digital transformation.

A top priority for the superintendent panelists was that the CTO be a full-fledged member of the district leadership team at the superintendent cabinet level. Since technology impacts the instructional and operational functions of a school district, the CTO needs to be at the decision-making table.

Read: DA op-ed: The changing role of the school district CIO

For too long, many school district leaders operated in silos with each major department functioning largely on its own. That no longer works. Open and honest communication and collaborative problem-solving is something that all the superintendent panelists said they expect when working with their CTOs.

Superintendents also look to the technology leaders to keep them up to date on new trends and initiatives around the use of technology. It is not enough to rely on the status quo. trong and engaged assistance in envisioning where things may be in the next five to 10 years is also a critical component of the superintendent-CTO working relationship.


Another element that the superintendents identified as key to superintendent-CTO partnerships is the understanding that every school district is in the learning business—not the technology business. For that understanding to exist, it is important for the CTO to have meaningful conversations with the principals and teachers in the district. If a teacher or principal makes a request for a specific digital program, the superintendent and CTO need to work together to determine if it is feasible. If it isn’t, they need to help the principal or teachers understand why, and work together to find a solution that will meet instructional goals, but will still work within the district’s IT infrastructure. The superintendent  panelists said they expect their CTOs to observe students in class regularly to see firsthand what teaching and learning look like in today’s classrooms.

Finally, the questions around cybersecurity and student data privacy are areas that all the superintendent panelists agreed have become more urgent with each passing year. Not only is it important to protect a district’s network infrastructure and data, but it is also crucial to have a well-thought-out response in the event of a cybersecurity attack.

Ann McMullan is an education leadership consultant, serving education leaders, teachers, nonprofits and firms doing business with schools and school districts. She assists with leadership and strategic planning targeted to making learning relevant for all students. McMullan is an FETC presenter.

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