Take It From the Top: Making Superintendents 'Future Ready'

column | Policy and Government

Take It From the Top: Making Superintendents 'Future Ready'

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Nov 5, 2014

Take It From the Top: Making Superintendents 'Future Ready'
Superintendents gather at a summer 2014 focus group to discuss Future-Ready.

You’ve likely signed a pledge at some point. But have you ever followed through on it?

Sometimes, it helps to have a little push. And right now, the U.S. Office of Educational Technology and the Department of Education (DOE) are outlining a roadmap of supports and activities to make sure that superintendents fulfill a blended learning pledge that launched in September 2014.

More than one thousand superintendents have lent their signatures to the Future Ready Pledge, a list of blended learning stipulations that includes several top commitments: transitioning to high-speed internet, empowering educators with PD, and providing all students with universal access to quality devices.

But the pledge isn't just designed to drive individual district change; the pledge is part of a larger Future Ready initiative to get superintendents, and subsequently districts, talking and planning together.

"So many organizations and districts are on islands--maybe they're focusing on professional development, maybe on technology… Future Ready is bringing these groups together to do it collectively for the benefit of our nation and the future of the lives of our children," shares Tom Murray, State and District Digital Learning Policy and Advocacy Director at the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE), one of the organizing bodies of the Future Ready initiative.

But are superintendents--and subsequently top-down changes--the best channel through which to guide schools toward savvier blended learning instruction?

Why this emphasis on superintendents?

“Personalized learning” (PD) applies as much to teachers as students. And many educators are self-organizing professional networks in the form of Twitter chats and Edcamps to learn and drive their own PD. But according to Director of the U.S. Office of Educational Technology, Richard Culatta, many teachers say that in order to really affect substantive change in their everyday practice and culture, they need support from the leadership.

“During 2013's Connected Educator Month, teachers told us that if they don't have support from the top level of the district, it's really hard to make changes," he shares.

Throughout the 2013-2014 school year, Culatta, a former technologist and U.S. Senate Education Fellow, had been engaged with superintendents for some time around the country, and realized that the general edtech community had been failing to involve superintendents in the conversation about how to transition schools through technology.

At ISTE 2014, he pitched the concept of a connected superintendent network to Murray, who was a former teacher and administrator before joining AEE. The DOE and the Alliance subsequently decided to run a focus group. “We decided to pull a working group together of 30 superintendents over the summer. We brought them to the Department, and saw what they wanted to know from us,” Culatta explains.

The conclusion? Superintendents had a tough time operating in silos and wanted a professional learning community (PLC). “It was very clear that the room had all the answers, but not any one superintendent. When we brought superintendents around a table--even without external experts--they had all the answers they needed,” Culatta says.

And so, Culatta and Murray decided to take three big steps: Bring more superintendents together at physical events, catalyze mentorships between tech-savvy districts with those that struggle with lower budgets, and provide superintendents with the resources they need to be Future Ready.

Three crucial stages of becoming Future Ready

1. In-person Summits

With a date that the USDOE will reveal on November 10, a Superintendents’ Summit at the White House will bring together 150 120 superintendent pledge signers who have been designated as champions of edtech change to meet, discuss best practices, and receive PD on blended learning.

But this single Summit is just the first step: “After this main Summit, the Alliance will run twelve Summits across the country with a coalition of who's who in the edtech realm,” explains Murray. Ideally, superintendents from the inaugural Summit will travel to lead regional Summits, where up to 300 district representatives from those regions will come to meet.

“The regional meetings are not just for superintendents as the White House event is,” Murray shares. “In fact, we’re pushing for teams of 3-5 attend from each district.” A model team for these regional Summits, Murray notes, might include a superintendent, tech director, curriculum director, high school principal, and/or director of professional learning.

Along with AEE and the Department of Educational Technology, a slew of organizations are stepping up to provide the professional development support, resources and input for these Summits. As of November 3rd, a total of 21 nonprofit organizations have signed on to help, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Clayton Christensen Institute, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), EducationSuperHighway, The Learning Accelerator (TLA), ISTE, and National Association State Boards of Education (NASBE). See the full list to the right.

2. Online mentoring network

Merely putting superintendents in a room isn’t enough to push blended learning practices. The Future Ready initiative wants to create a widespread mentorship network, where tech-savvy superintendents will take others under their wing, share lessons learned, and helps them avoid that terrible syndrome known as "reinventing the wheel."

Superintendents in smaller, more disconnected regions are already sharing their excitement at the prospect of connecting with others in comparable leadership situations. In Wisconsin, where half of the 425 school districts have a superintendent who been in the position for four years or less, one superintendent explain his happiness at the prospect of growing his network.

“Wisconsin is relatively small, and there are only about 15 superintendents that I'm connected to,” says Joe Sanfelippo of Fall Creek School District in Fall Creek, WI. “We're in silos, and it gets so lonely.” But Sanfelippo is optimistic:

“I want to continue to develop relationships-- learning is ALL relational. I'm looking to create a connection with who it is that's starting that. And as opposed to hoping that I can go to a conference and learn a few things, at this Summit, there will be a hundred people that are doing ridiculous things in their schools.”

Sanfelippo isn’t just excited about learning from others; he’s jazzed about sharing his own edtech initiatives, such as Fall Creek’s EdCamp-style teacher PD. A few states over in Pennsylvania, Bridget O’Connell is equally excited. O’Connell is Superintendent of Palisades School District, a district with edtech programs that she’s proud to share.

“We start the cyber program at the high school. We’re offering courses that allow brick and mortar students flexibility in their schedule,” she says. In her 1,800-student district that covers 100 square miles, O'Connell recognizes how useful a virtual program can be--and she's keen to share it with others. "We can take the best of what we're doing and be willing to collaborate with others," O'Connell adds.

Like Sanfelippo, O'Connell is looking forward to the give-and-take relationships she'll gain from these networks. "Now, I don't have to waste time trying to figure out how to implement [edtech programs]. Here are some things that worked really well. We can all learn what other systems are doing," she says.

3. Resources, including Future Ready self-assessments

According to Murray, establishing and strengthening relationships and partnerships is only half of the Future Ready battle. "Signing a pledge and coming to a two-day Summit is not going to transform everything," he says. So, the Future-Ready forces are putting together a collection of resources like MOOCs and edtech rollout guides to give superintendents the extra "oomph" they need to prep themselves to get the most out of these Summits, and all resources are put through a vetting process to identify the best of the best. Those 21 partner nonprofits listed above will play an integral part in that process.

"Part of what we're going to do is compile a large set of resources to give districts a one-stop shop for a technology infrastructure help," Murray explains. "So many of the high-quality education groups we're working with already have so many of these resources."

One particular tool in the works is a self-assessment that superintendents can take to identify just how future-ready their district is. Currently, the Department of Education is working with American Institutes for Research (AIR) to create a comprehensive self-assessment for school districts to evaluate their current levels in a variety of different areas, including budget and resources, PD, infrastructure, use of time, and connectivity outside of school).


Though Future Ready has a huge degree of supporters, some are concerned whether this initiative may be too top-down. It begs the question: Where do the principals, teachers and students fit into all of this?

Jimmy Casas, an Iowa principal prevalent on Twitter and other social media channels, knows the power of becoming a part of a group of professional educators, having joined Twitter to "connect as many islands as [he] could." As such, he wonders where the voice of principals and teachers will come into play during this Future-Ready Initiative, and even relayed to Murray the importance of having a Principal's Table at Summits. But it isn't just about the principals.

"These things, these changes really start with classroom teachers--even sometimes start with kids," Casas told EdSurge.

Other educators share their own concerns via other channels, including during Monday's #edtechchat this week.

But Culatta is confident that when it comes to change, it's important to support the top of the edtech food chain just as much as the bottom. "Just because we're doing this focus on superintendents doesn't mean that other district leaders aren't essential to making this happen," he says. In fact, this initiative has been a long time coming: "We have not been involving superintendents from the conversation about how to transition schools using technology--we realize now that it's focus to important on them."

UPDATE: On November 13, the White House announced the official date of and specific details regarding the White House Superintendents' Summit.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updates to this article have been made to reflect accurate superintendents RSVPing for the White House Summit.

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