Education is ripe for disruption – just like every other industry. Technologies will allow educational institutions to run operations more efficiently, including human resources, talent management, budgeting, finance, facilities management, scheduling information sharing and every other aspect of running a school. 

To date, innovations have been piecemeal. An entrepreneur comes up with a good idea to increase efficiency or effectiveness, and schools adopt them piecemeal. The big guys like Pearson and Google roll up these little companies over time, and the big guys’ bandwidth increases with each roll up. Communication has never been systematic and efficient between educational professionals. It has been easy for students to get lost in the system. For a long time, the odds that a student’s math teacher knew the student’s English teacher were slim.

Information sharing and the capacity to act quickly on new information will improve with Learning Management System improvement. Those improvements are coming quickly. Top of the wish list is adaptability. An LMS that adapts curriculum to individual student needs will provide teachers, coaches, tutors, parents and other dynamic support people with the information they need to more closely align their work with individual student needs.

Digital tracking of student progress continues to improve. A decade ago, schools had some data to track year-by-year progress.  Though that data was less than reliable, it was all the schools had. Increasingly year-by-year data is improving. More importantly, there is the possibility of semester-by-semester, week-by-week and day-by-day tracking. This is good news.  Digital technologies are becoming increasingly personalized and, soon, everyone will expect them. Schools and school leaders know this is coming. The question is whether it will be imposed on schools from the outside as a disruptive event or whether existing schools will be able to adapt to the improvements.

Schools are deeply adaptable.

Schools are adaptable and have the potential for absorbing would-be disruptions. It is true that schools have not changed much from the schools of fifty years ago - at least structurally. It helps to put that quick criticism into context. When people say that schools looks similar today to schools from long ago, they are typically talking about a few key features. First, the school year still generally follows the agrarian seasons, i.e., students are off in the summer. Second, schools still meet for around eight class periods daily, just as in the past. Third, attendance is still the primary measure of school, teacher and student success. Attempts to clearly define performance, student achievement and accountability have been fraught with politics and uncertainty, so the Carnegie Unit continues to prevail as the way schools are funded and measured. Fourth, instruction and assessment are still quintessentially separate. As one teacher colleague used to say, "every day we teach them or we test them," just schools have done since at least the 50s. 

Having these same structures in place signals to the nothing-has-changed crowd that schools cannot change and are ripe for external disruption. Looking only at these structural consistencies misses the deeper innovation that occurs within those standard structures. Putting aside the major structural consistencies that make schools look boringly similar to schools of the 1950s, innovation does occur frequently in most schools. The issue is not that schools lack innovation; they lack the ability to scale successful innovations. When school systems learn to scale their successes, they will preclude outside disruptors from stealing the show. Some districts will be better at this than others.

Which districts can transform?

Identifying the school systems that can transform and preclude disrupting legacy schools is the question on the mind of every school leader and ed tech CEO. Where can companies and school leaders look to forecast the future? This article proposes that there are two powerful clues in existing school systems that help identify which districts will absorb disruption and which will be disrupted.

The importance of school board leadership

Effective school boards permit management to make the tough decisions needed for change to occur. Without school board resolve, a school district cannot make intentional progress. This is true not only for technological change but every form of school improvement. Split boards, weak superintendents, technocrat managers and personally interested board members are chronic problems in most school districts. The dark side of local control of schools are these weaknesses. The number one reason schools are fundamentally structured as they were in 1950 is because every change prompts a response from locals, and when the heat gets turned up, most boards flip. Prior decisions frequently crumble under political pressure. This is the sign of democratic responsiveness, but it is also a sign of inability to follow through on commitments. Anyone running for or sitting on school board needs to understand this.

The role of a good school board member is setting policy and hiring a good CEO. Beyond those duties, leaders need to be given the latitude to get the work done. This is not a popular position for parents running for a board seat, for example, to give their child an advantage over the child's peers. It is, however, central to effective board governance. Additionally, boards that set clear policy, hire a good CEO and avoid micromanagement have an additional advantage. Those are the districts likely to adapt to technological disruptions. 

The lesson of technology departments

A second indicator of success in the face of future disruption is in information technology departments. These departments have gone by many names: information services, technology, information technology, audio-visual, digital services, network services and others. The growth of this department in a district signals how that district handles technological change.

Different districts have wide varieties of hardware and software, from end user operating systems like Apple and Windows through network software. A decade ago, platform decision-making was a momentous decision school districts. Although choosing a platform today is an almost insignificant concern, in the early 90s web-based software was less prevalent. It was very expensive to get hardware and software that worked across platforms to keep an entire school district functioning. If the school district in the early 90s was able to have an information services department with enough persuasiveness to provide a standard platform for technology, those districts will likely be among the survivors in the face of future disruptions.

The pick-a-platform decision of the early 90s signals the capacity of a school district to change. If a school district is so absorbed with its internal processes and incapable of making a unified decision in terms of technology, it is unlikely the district will be able to adapt when a major disruption arrives.

Districts that make clear policy decisions and apply them even-handedly will do well in the future. The story of past technology adoption is a signal for the future. Excellent leadership at the board and CEO levels means consistent application of policy decisions in all areas: governance, hiring, budgeting, contracting, labor relations, technology decisions, curricular design and every other aspect of school leadership.

An organization making even-handed decisions is a good sign. The same decision-making processes apply to creating and enforcing budgetary constraints, HR decisions and curricular standards. The ability to make solid technology decisions a decade ago indicates a likelihood the district will be able to avoid disruptions in the future.

Finally, the third and possibly the most important clue as to the future success of a school at absorbing disruptive technologies is the integration of information services into operations. The average story over the last decade has followed this storyline. When computers first came into the schools, no one wanted to take responsibility for them. In fact, they were viewed as so specialized that only computer scientists or engineers could manage them. Computer engineers and computer scientists were the experts, and the superintendent's office, English department, counseling department, business department and human resources department wanted no part of running, installing, managing, budgeting for or learning about computers - at first.

Computer technology departments were created because no one else wanted the responsibility, and that continued through the early 90s. The departments grew quickly because every time anything touched a computer, it was given to that department. The problem is that as technology became ubiquitous, the matters that had been handled by the English department, the science department, the physical education department, the human resources department or another department never returned from those booming information technology departments. Looking at staff trends, information technology departments grew wildly disproportionately to every other area.

A district that was capable of scaling back the size and scope of their technology departments and distributing those responsibilities to other departments are likely going to be able to absorb disruptive change. Those school systems know how to look at new technologies and integrate those decisions to the entire institution. Today, there is significant variability in the size and scope of IT departments. One of the first places to look to gauge the adaptability of a school system is those departments. 

The lessons of the past are good indicators of future behavior. School leaders that have responded wisely to past technological changes are poised to better absorb future disruptions and, possibly even create new ways of working without simply reacting to changes thrust upon them. Leaders that have let isolated departments, especially IT departments grow without integrating their work into the work of existing legacy departments signal systemic inability to change.

The goal of all school systems is to provide the best possible learning environment for every student. Schools have always had brilliant innovation inside their walls. The challenge now is grabbing those good ideas and giving them to every student. 


John Heintz and the Second Rail team provide this resource to aspiring and practicing educational leaders - like you. Second Rail never sells your personal information. Nothing here is intended to be taken as legal advice, and, should you need legal advice, Second Rail encourages you to contact an attorney sooner than later.

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