Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Systems upgrade: Central offices join the tech revolution

The COVID-19 pandemic forced decades of technological innovation on schools in the span of one year. As classes moved fully online and into hybrid modalities, teachers across the country adapted in a variety of ways: learning to instruct and facilitate collaboration over Zoom; hosting virtual parent-teacher conferences that enabled families to participate from any location; using learning management systems to assign work, provide feedback, and monitor progress; and devising creative methods for virtually celebrating big and small wins. 

In many instances, these feats have been highly visible—seen, experienced, and applauded by families across the country and covered widely in the media. 

But there is a separate set of technological innovations outside the public eye that is equally promising and worthy of building upon in future years. In response to pandemic lockdowns, entire school systems, beginning with central offices, had to operate remotely. The system itself outside of and adjacent to classrooms experienced a digital revolution, one that can help shift limited resources away from administrative tasks and toward the provision of individualized supports needed to ensure all students, especially those who have been traditionally underserved, grow and thrive.

One of the encouraging developments proximate to the classroom has been the spread and deepening of virtual professional development, including online coaching. This has opened up more frequent and deeper possibilities for cross-classroom, cross-building, and cross-system collaboration, expanding opportunity and access to unevenly distributed resources. For example, school systems took advantage of easily accessible classroom recordings to increase peer observation, and remote participation eliminated travel time and other logistical barriers to in-person professional learning opportunities. This “anywhere, anytime” professional development (recorded and watched by all) was the most frequently selected innovation that a national panel of district leaders say they plan to continue after the pandemic. 

Other innovations are less proximate to the classroom yet still affect school systems’ instructional efforts. Those include overhauling administrative practices and adopting fully digitized operating models that enable efficient coordination of communication and resources.

Take, for example, a small urban district in New England, not dissimilar from many school districts in its surrounding cities and states. As a result of the pandemic, the district discovered numerous operating efficiencies that increased its agility and responsiveness to student and family needs. These included some low-hanging fruit, such as saving travel time by using Zoom to connect with staff and students in various buildings throughout the district to discuss topics ranging from operations updates to college counseling and the availability of new enrichment opportunities. This embrace of video technology is another shift that the surveyed national panel of district leaders plan to carry forward post-pandemic. 

In the wake of the pandemic, the same district also moved some of its major systems—including recruitment and performance management—fully online, a shift that brought clear benefits. An administrator explained:

"The pandemic forced us to leave behind the paper and the pad or the old way of doing hiring and to move into the more modern age. . . . And I’m sure many, many districts are faced with that same thing. And we’re embracing it. We’re not going backwards on that type of stuff. So operationally, we have gained tremendous efficiencies because we learned how to use the tools that we have. We were using them at 25 percent capacity. But now, we’re ramped up to 75% capacity. . . . What that also does for the organization is it gains efficiencies for the people who are out in the field. . . . [A] principal no longer has to do a reference check by calling up the three references. It’s an automated process now that’s much easier and straightforward. That principal now has 15 minutes they invested, multiplied by the number of hires they do, returned to them to really do what they’re supposed to be doing, which is impacting the lives of kids, not just taking care of pieces of paper."

This digital revolution extends to central office communications systems, which previously relied on people power for customization and translation. For example, staff at another small urban New England district began using KINVO, a tool that enables educators to communicate directly with parents and caretakers via text message in over eighty languages. Staff used KINVO’s dashboard for such tasks as monitoring student attendance, sending automatic messages based on early signs that a student would benefit from additional support, and customizing communication for students.

A New England special education administrator emphasized that the ease, speed, and accuracy with which her messages could be translated into languages other than English helped her to ensure that all families received the precise information needed to understand and contribute to the goals set for their children. In previous years, the administrator noted that she had relied on her own basic Spanish knowledge and other free translation tools that were time consuming and of questionable quality, meaning that not all families had access to information required to best support their children’s development at home. One administrator explained:

“[I] really try to create a very important bond . . . with the parents. So from the beginning, I always make sure they understand what our goals are. . . . I like the fact that [with KINVO] I can send out mass text messages to the families. But what I really like about it is a lot of my families don’t speak English, so it translates [the text messages] for me. . . . [I appreciate that] I don’t always have to use Google Translate because that is not always accurate.” 

These findings are reflective of national trends. District leaders across the country found that using technology to communicate with families and the public strengthened school-family and school-community partnerships. For example, leaders reported that moving public community meetings online, together with more structured strategies for engagement (e.g., online communication platforms and surveys), improved their responsiveness to family and community needs. These leaders increasingly recognize the crucial role parents and caretakers play in supporting student learning and growth, and many plan to leverage technology post-pandemic to improve collaboration with families and communities.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether and in what ways technology should permanently occupy space in classroom instruction. There should be no debate, however, about the value of leveraging technology to improve system operations within human resources, family and community engagement offices, and special education teams, among other central office departments. Systems should build upon operational advances that yield efficient and equitable operating practices and responsive and timely decision-making. No longer burdened by the pandemic, this type of technological revelation can fuel systems’ efforts to deploy their resources to maximum benefit, to partner with families and communities, and to prioritize and implement instructional practices that meet the needs of every student.

Elizabeth Chu is the executive director of Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership.

Maddy Sims is director of consulting and legal strategy at Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership.

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