What is an Excellent Teacher? Responding to Arne Duncan and the DOE

Reposted from the TeachBoost blog

Announcing the Excellent Educators for All initiative, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Race and family income too often still predict students’ access to excellent educators. That is simply unacceptable. We must do better, and do better together.”

Watch the White House briefing here.

Reviving an unenforced mandate from No Child Left Behind, President Obama and Arne Duncan introduced three components to this initiative:

  • By April 2015, states must submit “comprehensive educator equity plans” that detail how they plan to put “effective educators” in front of poor and minority kids.
  • To help states write the plans, the Education Department will create a $4.2 million “Education Equity Support Network.”
  • This fall, the Education Department will publish “Educator Equity profiles” that highlight which states and districts fare well or poorly on teacher equity. (Huffington Post)

While the details of the plans and their assessment will emerge over time, we hope they are thoughtful, actionable, and well-supported. At TeachBoost, we will work tirelessly to help districts nationwide in meeting their proposed goals. As Duncan says at the end of his announcement, “All students deserve excellent educators.” Rich or poor, black or white, all students deserve the best education possible. The education community must work to put excellent teachers where they’re needed most.At the end of his announcement, Duncan shares what the DOE considers to be common themes identified among excellent teachers. He explains,

  • “Great teachers follow great principals.”
  • “Great teachers want to work on a team with other great teachers.”
  • “Great teachers need extra help and support, particularly early on in their careers.”
  • “Great teachers want to grow and take on additional leadership opportunities.”
  • “Great teachers absolutely deserve to be well paid.”
  • “Great teachers and principals are in it for the long haul.”

We’ve found dedicated professionals eager to grow, learn, collaborate, and lead in schools all across the country. One theme we’d add, though, is that these professionals are well-supported by a robust, efficient, collaborative, and targeted system of evaluation and professional growth.Even the best educators need support from their peers and administrators. An evaluation system that treats educators as the professionals they are is therefore vital to the success of the Excellent Educators for All program. We will certainly do our best to support the initiative on our end. We hope the DOE will as well.

A Response to Ariel Norling’s Story

Like many of my colleagues in edtech, I’ve been following the communal response to Ariel Norling’s surprisingly-unsurprising story. There have been some great responses, like Audrey Watters’s takedown of ISTE’s response.

There have been some disappointing responses as well. A lot of the negative response to Ariel’s post suggests that, if not to blame, she is at least partly responsible for what happened because of the poor decisions she made. Let’s think about that.

Remember your early 20s? Probably not. Probably because you were somewhere making bad decisions yourself. And if you are a man, those situations didn’t inevitably put you at risk of sexual assault. If you are a woman, perhaps you were more careful — but isn’t it crazy that you had to be careful?

Like Louie C.K. said, “there’s no greater threat to women than men.”  Whose fault is it if a young woman is at risk simply for drinking at a happy hour organized for a professional conference? Is it hers? Or the idiots around her?

Surely the latter. I’ve been to these same conferences. They’re boozy affairs that promote all kinds of mingling that blur the lines of professionalism. Yet, I’ve never once felt that I was in danger of being sexually assaulted. I’m sure I will never feel that way. Yet, for some reason, women do have to feel that way.

The two men in Ariel’s story made a choice. It was not inevitable. They decided to act in a way that did make her feel in danger. They didn’t just misread cues. They were older men, in a position of power, aware of the particular vulnerability of a young woman, drinking too much in an unfamiliar situation, who is likely to trust prominent figures like a well-known edtech CEO and principal. Who knows better how vulnerable young people are than an educator? I’d trust these guys if I were her. If I’m right about who they are, I’ve met them, and they did seem like nice guys.

How can you blame Ariel, at all?

It’s no secret that sexual harassment runs rampant in the tech industry. Edtech apparently is no different. Unlike the tech community, though, at least we can be a bit more thoughtful in how we address issues as they come up. Aren’t we supposed to be more caring, since we’ve dedicated ourselves to improving student achievement – a noble cause? We’re supposed to be better. So, before you criticize Ariel, ask yourself — is it really the victim’s fault for acting her age, or is it the men’s fault for taking advantage? Who is to bear the burden of protecting young members of the community, a 21 year old at one of her first conferences, or a CEO and principal, responsible for the well-being a hundreds or thousands of lives every day?

Seriously, folks. Thank you, Ariel, for posting your piece. Hopefully, we’ll listen.

Can You Just Tell Me What to Do?

Project-based learning (PBL) is pretty amazing when it works.

PBL units inspire kids to become a sort of paraprofessional, applying their learning in ways that actually make a difference. Well-executed PBL has students learning and doing. A lesson starts with a good question, which contextualizes all subsequent learning. Students identify what they need to learn to come up with their answer. Once they have an answer, they do something with it. For example, say the question is, “How can our town resolve its budget crisis?” Students will need to learn how a town’s budget works, what public resources go to, how citizens can become involved in city operations, the math involved in all of this, and a great deal more. Perhaps a group of students recognizes that there is a lot of money wasted in travel inefficiencies. Knowing when trains meet that leave from LA and NYC (or, local town A and local town B) at 10:25 going 25 mph and 32 mph becomes meaningful. So does their ability to give a presentation, since it’s not just their giggling, equally nervous classmates they need to impress; it’s the city’s council. The e-mails they will send to organize a visit from the local transportation authority require some pretty good grammar.

So why aren’t we all doing this?

Well, PBL has its flaws. Most obviously, it takes time. As adults, we know how long it takes to schedule a meeting, discuss an issue (no matter how uncontroversial it may be), and have someone with some authority make a decision on it. These processes don’t fit nicely into an already overbooked school day or curriculum.

It also requires there to be someone who wants to attend those meetings and hear from kids. If a 13 year old can do a better job than full time employees, then perhaps government bureaucracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Oh, wait…)

The pressures to perform on state tests and meet standards ostensibly is an obstacle too, though PBL advocates will be the first to tell you that students often learn even more when they take active ownership over their learning. How much have you learned in training sessions versus on-the-job, trial by fire? Exactly.

Even with the right problems to solve, adequate time, a receptive audience, and open-mindedness on the part of administrators and evaluators, there is the remaining problem of the habits of teachers and students. Teachers need a great deal of training and practice (and willingness to fail miserably for the first time since their first year of teaching) to fully understand how to design a good PBL unit, support students through it, and ensure that important content and skills are taught by its end.

Fortunately, despite their reputation, teachers can and do change. Though schools may be built on an old model, teachers aren’t really doing the same thing as they were fifty years ago. The overall educational paradigm hasn’t shifted, but teachers’ approaches and resources have shifted within its confines. They could change again. Hop on an #edchat on Twitter. You’ll see just how many teachers are ready to take the plunge.

But there is another, real, oft-overlooked obstacle: the students themselves. Children like to play, we think, so they will take to a less rigid classroom like ducks to water. Wrong. We forget that children have learned to play school a certain way. And this game is actually easier than PBL.

When I helped to introduce a faculty, student body, and parent community to PBL, I learned just how resistant to change the student constituency could be. Through much of the year, PBL wasn’t the most popular instructional framework with students and their parents. The hardest working students chafed at having to work with their less driven peers. Students who had mastered the version of school that defines success as memorization of content and following explicit instructions struggled with the openness of this new format. I’d often hear, “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

In PBL and other open-ended, student-centric instructional models with an emphasis on “real world” or “authentic” assessments, students chart much of their own path through the learning. Teachers and the community offer the materials, opportunities, and guidance they need to acquire knowledge, develop skills, and apply both toward some meaningful end. But the onus is on the students to do the labor, physical and intellectual. It’s hard.

Adopting these instructional models requires training of faculty, of course. But it also requires significant training of students. We need to scaffold the development of collaboration skills. Students need to learn how to act on a good idea, and how to discern good ideas from bad. Schools need to introduce social norms instinctual to adults but foreign to kids.

Traditionally, the dreaded “real world” taught college graduates these skills (though many adults never learn them, as I’m sure we can all attest). Now, if schools are to really evolve as advocates of PBL hope, we need to do more than send kids out into the real world to apply their learning. We need to bring the real world into school. Project management, collaboration, manners, professionalism, and more need to be taught as thoughtfully and deliberately as multiplication.

This recommendation does raise an important question: is this what schools should be doing? On the one hand, schools are supposed to prepare students to succeed in the very environments for which these new lessons will prepare them. On the other, schools offer students a sanctum from the “real world” in which they can stockpile knowledge and skills to be employed later on. Is there value in this separation, this distance between learning and doing? Is there a deeper reason for moving away from apprenticeship education than the transition to an industrial economy?

Perhaps. Having seen PBL at its best, I believe expertly designed units with serendipitous opportunities for authentic assessment to become meaningful can combine the best of the new and old. Still, it takes a great deal of time, resources, and energy to get students to a place where they seize these opportunities, instead of insisting that the teacher just tells them what to do. It’s work we need to do. Will we do it?

Most important article on edtech I’ve read in a while

EdSurge’s MaryJo Madda wrote a terrific piece on Hybrid High’s implementation of blended learning, which went from failing to flourishing with some important tweaks. Autonomy, high expectations, and accountability for students and teachers alike remedied the problems with the initial implementation. Hybrid High’s story offers helpful lessons to all of us in edtech. Definitely worth a read.

There are lots of great nuggets in the article, but I especially loved the following idea:

Teachers are using these “flex funds” to purchase the edtech that they feel best suits their needs. Enthusiasm for the tools they’re using may spread, influencing the choices made by other teachers. While the administration purchases large-scale edtech products (i.e. Hapara and Illuminate) with the school budget, teachers can purchase other curriculum materials as they see fit–from pencils to curriculum user accounts.

Whole thing here.


Please Consider Reading This Book!

My good friend Ibrahim Kamara published a short book detailing his experience as a child soldier and his journey to becoming a school founder. It’s a gut-wrenching, inspiring read. You can read more about my work with him here in my post “The Best Unit I’ve Ever Taught”.


Five lessons learned about productive startup-teacher relationships

Update: The Podcast from the talk that inspired this article is featured here. 


This article was originally featured on EdSurge

There’s a gulf between educators and entrepreneurs. It’s time we do something about it. In this spirit, I had the privilege of leading a workshop at SXSWedu this year in which we paired educators and edtech entrepreneurs to share their trials and tribulations and discuss how to bridge the gap between them more often. Here are five lessons we learned.

1. How you treat customers will reach a much broader audience than you expect.

Two great stories shared in our session illustrate this point. First, one teacher commented on a company that asked his school to be the primary beta tester. Teachers, administrators and tech integrators worked regularly with the company to give feedback that was incorporated into the 1.0 release. Once it hit the market and started growing, the company told this teacher and his school that the relationship was over. He received no discount, no thanks, and even when running into each other at a conference, no acknowledgement of the hard work. Hearing this story, the room was soured on the product.

In contrast, another teacher shared a story where one day in class, the product simply did not work. Ten minutes of troubleshooting in class revealed a clear software glitch. The teacher tweeted at the company, the company dedicated a developer to this problem that night, and next day the teacher redid the lesson with a working product. The kids thought their teacher was a wizard and the teacher was deeply appreciative. The attendees at our session were as impressed as the students.

Good or bad, word of customer service experiences travel far and wide. Teachers like to talk. You’re not dealing with only one school or teacher; you’re dealing with their whole network.

2. There can be tension between pleasing individual teachers and scaling. It can be resolved by having one nimble product and one staid product.

As companies improve their customer service, they have to deal with pleasing two very different sets of teachers. Some teachers are eager to use beta products and are prepared for tech failures. These are probably your early adopters and most vocal advocates. To innovate, you need these folks.

Other teachers just want a reliable product. These are the teachers who pay your bills. You need to keep both happy. To do so, go beyond just offering your innovators a beta version. Dedicate engineering resources to a wholly separate product that will evolve according to their needs. As it evolves, you can incorporate some of its features into your core product, but keep innovation alive at the same time. Think of it as beta+.

3. Startups need teachers to advocate for them and inform product development. Hire academic liaisons and have them focus their efforts on less techie teachers.

Teacher advocacy has to extend beyond tales of customer service wins and failures, though. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: teachers will be happy to offer their time and expertise to helping you if they believe in your product.

The teacher you hire as your academic liaison should advocate for your product at conferences, on Twitter, and in his or her professional learning community. Your academic liaison should also identify seasoned educators. Power brokers in faculty rooms are these revered, wizened teachers who have survived several administrative regimes and educational fads. If they begin using your product, your work is done in that school. A good academic liaison will know exactly how to talk to them; they’ve mastered “teacherese.”

(And to answer a question that came up a few times at the session: you should pay your academic liaison! Teachers don’t need internships! It doesn’t have to be much, but give them the respect they deserve.)

4. To paraphrase my co-speaker Martin Moran, too much of edtech is solutions looking for problems.

An academic liaison’s value is their intimate knowledge of how schools function, and they know better than edtech companies the problems teachers face. Every teacher can list a number of pain points: the logistics of scheduling and following up on parent-teacher conferences, the lack of reliable, vetted OER content, making assessment metrics meaningful, and so on.

Unfortunately, these problems aren’t communicated effectively. They float around faculty rooms, never to reach the ears of the very people who can solve them. If we could just get teachers to compile a giant list of their pain points, whiz kid developers and entrepreneurs could dream up solutions for many of them. We need more of this collaboration and communication. Educators can and should lead product development, but someone needs to step in to help.

5. Teachers are less skeptical of profit-motive than is their reputation.

I’ve heard many entrepreneurs bemoan the distaste for profit-motive among teachers. They fear that the moment they ask a teacher or school to pay, they’ll somehow be marked with a scarlet dollar sign. Teachers are less naive than you may think. Whenever I work with teachers to implement Ponder, they ask, “How can we pay you? What do I need to do?” When teachers believe in a product, they don’t care that it costs money. They just care that it helps their students. If they don’t want to pay you, it’s because they don’t believe in the product, not because they’re anti-capitalists.

These five lessons are a snapshot of the awesome ideas shared at our session. Beyond these points, though, is the most important one: Teachers and edtech companies want to team up, but just don’t have enough opportunity to do so. We can change that. Together, we can bridge this gulf.

How to Make Edtech Startups Investable

Edtech is a double bottom line industry. The noble ambition of improving education motivates any edtech company worth paying attention to. Profit comes second. Problematically, though, VCs tend to see edtech as a worthwhile investment only for the social capital it affords a firm, not the financial gains that motivate investment elsewhere. It is awfully difficult for many promising edtech companies to get funded for this reason. VCs can only do so much charity. It’s not their fault.

The reality of our economy is that if we want innovation to scale, that innovation also needs to be profitable. For it be profitable, schools have to be agile, efficient, predictable consumers to which lots of edtech companies can sell. For schools to optimize in this way, they need to see tremendous value in edtech. But most products haven’t proved their value to schools, so schools have done little to foster a competitive market, and companies continue to have trouble getting in the door. In turn, VCs avoid it like the plague.

Further complicating matters is the power wielded by the good ol’ boys in edtech – namely, the big publishers and LMSs.  They’re optimized to fit this market and, in so doing, ensure that there is no incentive for the market to change. Schools keep getting what they want, however inefficiently they behave. The big publishers’ and LMSs’ appetite for acquiring any intriguing startup solidifies their position for the foreseeable future.

Until more startups build tools that improve student achievement right away, schools will never focus their energies on cultivating a competitive edtech marketplace. Right now, optimizing to allow more edtech companies in the door is a waste of time and money that could be better spent on offering basic learning necessities to students and teachers.  But companies need time to iterate, pilot, and learn how technology can really impact education. Time costs money… money we have already established is extremely hard to get.

So what can we do?

My recommendation to startups facing these obstacles: stop treating edtech as a siloed industry. Develop products that transfer to other industries well. The benefits afforded to students by good educational technologies – encouraging individualized learning, increasing productivity, motivating deeper reading and clearer writing, increasing access to resources and information otherwise inaccessible, providing data that reveal interests and needs, to name a few – also transfer beyond education. Internet publications could use these same tools to increase engagement with their content, to learn more about their readers, and to build more efficient ad products. Social networks can leverage these technologies to introduce new ways of interacting with connections. Banks and financial outlets can use them to better educate users. Where edtech works, it’s often because it addresses human needs, not needs peculiar to students. And, best of all, edtech companies can make money with their technologies in all these other industries. They finally become investable.

Of course, this approach means that, in the short term, there will be less innovation in edtech because companies will have to learn other markets as well. The educational value will be developed over time. In the long term, companies will have the resources to refine their educational value will delivering a return to investors in the meantime. Since most products aren’t improving student achievement now anyway, this long incubation period would serve the industry well. In general, we don’t know how technology can help motivate better teaching and learning; we just all believe it can. Let’s find it out while also making some money. In other words, paradoxically, if edtech companies prioritize profit over educational value, they will be able to deliver real educational value more efficiently.


Three Lessons Ben Horowitz’s New Book Teaches About Edtech

In his new book The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, famed venture capitalist and rap enthusiast Ben Horowitz offers a wealth of practical, honest advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. You can read helpful reviews from the WSJ and PandoDaily. Daniel Freedman of the Journal writes, “The honesty is both refreshing and compelling, and readers will enjoy being taken through challenge after challenge alongside Mr. Horowitz” and Sarah Lacy adds that parts of the book read like a “scandalous true crime novel .”  I wholly agree with both reviewers. It’s a good book – as a book – and a helpful Idiot’s Guide to being a CEO. It also offers the edtech enthusiast a helpful lens through which to examine our industry.

1) Parts of edtech are in a bubble, but the “companies that make sense” will survive.

Horowitz weathered the dot-com crash, barely. The chapters that detail these months and years are certainly those to which Lacy was referring. In VC Matthew Greenfield’s piece linked above, he explains that digital textbook companies comprise the edtech bubble. He writes, “…there is a bubble in ideas that won’t work and a dearth of capital for ideas that can work.” Yep. There was a similar bubble in the whole tech industry about 15 years ago as well. To avoid the misery Horowitz and others endured, though, we should reflect honestly on edtech now, before it bursts. Let it change shape gradually instead.

2) Sexy doesn’t equal successful.

The best part of the book is definitely in the retelling of Horowitz’s hiring of Mark Cranney, a poor cultural fit and unglamorous head of sales. Horowitz describes his conversation with then Chair of his Board (and now the other half of Andreessen Horowitz) Marc Andreessen:

I let Marc open the conversation…by listing his issues with Cranney: doesn’t look or sound like a head of sales, went to a weak school, makes him uncomfortable. I listened very carefully and replied, “I agree with every single one of those issues. However, Mark Cranney is a sales savant. He has mastered sales to a level that far exceeds anybody that I have ever known. If he didn’t have the things wrong with him that you enumerated, he wouldn’t be willing to join a company that just traded at thirty-five cents per share; he’d be the CEO of IBM.” Marc’s reply came quickly: “Got it. Let’s hire him! (Horowitz 98).

Cranney was the best hire because he knew how to do the job. Though he didn’t look the part, he was the part. Horowitz was proved right in hiring him.

So many edtech companies introduce exciting technologies to education that are a complete mismatch with what actually happens inside classrooms. Most of these companies are founded by and funded by people who are looking to build products that reimagine education as they understand it from their memory of being a student. These 16-year-olds in 35 year-olds bodies do not understand education like an actual educator does. While it may not be a good cultural fit to hire a veteran educator to do some marketing or product development, a seasoned educator can be an extremely valuable member of an edtech startup team.

I can also assure all edtech entrepreneurs that there are more educators interested in filling these roles than they could imagine. The responses I’ve gotten from educators around the world to my EdSurge articles on this very topic make this clear. Like Cranney, you also have to appreciate that the very “deficiencies” that make them hard to find, make them a poor cultural fit in a small, lean startup, and keep them in the ed side of edtech are those qualities that make them valuable team members in the first place: they know and love education, not business. If they had entrepreneurial instincts and self-promotional ambitions, they probably would’ve crossed over and started a company themselves. But as teachers become sold on the potential of edtech, more and more are intrigued by their ability to support it. You will find educators interested in crossing over for the right company. You’ll just have to go to them; they won’t come to you.

3) All that said, teacherpreneurship isn’t an absolute good.

A lot of bloggers who echo these sentiments about the value of bringing the educators into edtech champion the relatively new phenomenon of teacherpreneurship. I’ve been as guilty of anyone of over-selling this point. But let me be clear: not all teachers make for good CEOs. They won’t all make good product managers or marketers or sales people. Many can’t even make coffee well enough to be a great intern. Great teachers have many  skills that transfer well to entrepreneurship – charisma, intelligence, organization, empathy – but nothing is guaranteed. As Horowitz writes, “The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running company” (201). Bringing educators into the fold is not a bulletproof solution to building a great edtech company by any means.

One problem that I’ve noticed of late is teacher-led companies that solve a very particular “teachery” need, but are in no way built to scale or monetize. These products should not be honored as the pinnacle of edtech. They’re great hobbies, and thousands of educators are thankful they exist. But edtech’s future depends as much on products’ marketability as their usefulness.

Let’s heed Horowitz’s advice, reflect honestly and critically on the industry, and ensure its growth by making the right – but not necessarily the popular – decisions.




EdTech Needs to Focus More on the Ed, Less on the Tech: SXSWedu Reflections

SXSWedu 2014 has been an interesting experience. Through the networking, butt-kissing, and partying… oh, and the sessions and panels… a clear narrative has emerged: EdTech will “save” education if we can just focus EdTech on the right problems.

Lost, however, is the more important conversation about where EdTech stops helping and starts to hurt what’s best about education as it’s always been. The conversation between teacher and student and among classmates can take place online or off, but it’s still not affected by technology in any significant way. Pondering big ideas will never be a digital endeavor. The writing process will not fundamentally change, wherever it takes place. EdTech can change superficial aspects of these activities, but it won’t affect their essence.

Yet, the conversation throughout SXSWedu suggests a revolution is afoot. I’m less optimistic. EdTech, as it exists today, will not cause any revolution. There’s a reason MOOCs died before they even really began. Khan Academy is the most traditional educational model I can imagine. Fancy LMSs just automate logistics problems. Where’s the revolution?

Ambition is fine if it yields positive results, but it can also be a distraction. This conference suggested that money and energy is focused on the wrong technologies, at the wrong time. We need to evolve education slowly. Guiding us, though, should not be technological triumphs but instead a clear understanding of what’s essential to and best about education as it’s always been. These fundamentals should inform the development of educational technologies. Until then, the same conversation about EdTech’s revolutionary potential and complaints about the difficulty of getting teachers to adopt the tools will continue.

The onus of fitting EdTech into classrooms is on EdTech. To fulfill this obligation, EdTech should start focusing more on the ed, and less on the tech.

Fighting Tradition: Technology Integration in an 18th Century School

This paper responds to a hypothetical scenario of a very old, well-renowned private school working to integrate technology. What is the role of an administrator in this scenario? The scenario is a compilation of my experiences at different schools and my imagination.


Successful technology integration in secondary schools requires considerable planning, training, and institutional change (Gülbahar 2005). Leadership is especially vital to such significant undertakings.  As we might expect, administrative support has a significant impact on technology integration (Table 2., Murphy and Gunter 2006). However, poor leadership can be as detrimental as good leadership is impactful. In this study, we will identify the nature of the administrative support most likely to yield positive results by examining the ideal role of a principal in a school’s efforts to integrate technology.

Institutional barriers like a lack of time or resources can thwart even the best ideas. Leaders must remove these barriers before moving forward (Senge 94). The most common barriers to technology integration in schools include teachers’ time, beliefs about technology and pedagogy, access to technology, professional development, and school culture (Kopcha 2008). Peggy Ertmer (2005) argues that, of these the first four[1], teachers’ beliefs are currently the most significant impediment to successful technology integration. Both the No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform emphasize technology use as priorities (U.S. DOE, 2003, 2010) along with promises to afford teachers opportunities to implement these tools (Ertmer 2005; DOE, 1996, 2001, 2003). With adequate support from these sources, these barriers will require planning and resources to overcome. Teachers’ beliefs and a school culture, however, are far more complex. Hence, we will focus on the principal’s role in cultivating a school culture and changing teacher’s beliefs in a way that supports technology integration.

Before he or she has any influence on teachers’ beliefs, a principal must model the behavior that he or she wishes to promote (Lumpkin 2008). Accordingly, principals’ own expertise in technology can play a key role in its successful curricular integration by teachers. Modeling appropriate use of technology is especially effective (Dawson and Rakes 2003; Chang 2012). Dawson and Rakes found that a principal’s age and training in technology were significant indicators of successful integration. Principals between the ages of 41 and 55 were most likely to integrate technology effectively, perhaps because principals in that age group have the requisite balance of energy and experience. The same study also concludes that principals with at least 51 hours of training produced significantly different results from those with less, substantiating a consistent claim across the research that technology professional development be sustained to be effective. Furthermore, Flanagan and Jacobsen (2003) argue that successful technology integration requires principals to be “technology leaders.” If not, they cannot appreciate the pedagogy associated with successful integration. These administrators, it is argued, focus more on purchasing equipment and restricting access to it. Innovative practice remains otherwise unsupported and haphazard.

A principal modeling technology integration and providing training for teachers is inadequate to achieve successful integration, however. Zhou and Frank (2003) make clear that teacher’s effective and sustained use of technology is significantly correlated to teacher’s beliefs, which in turn are most significantly impacted by fellow teachers. While we often assume that more professional development can change beliefs, H. H. Tillema (1994) demonstrated that teachers’ learning in training or professional development contexts is significantly correlated to the alignment of teachers’ beliefs with the focus of the training. Therefore, it will only be effective if teachers already agree with it. Interactions between and among teachers, not more training, shift teachers’ beliefs.

These findings help to explain the success of decentralized technology integration models. In particular, distributed leadership can be quite effective. Marks and Louis (1997) argue that decentralized leadership through teacher empowerment can have significant results on student achievement. Similarly, other technology integration models, such as Mississippi’s C-R-E-A-T-E project, employ teacher collaboration and peer mentorship to integrate technology (Whitefield and Latimer 2002) with minimal administrative oversight. In these models, administrators attend professional development and express support for their teachers. However, their role is essentially a passive one.

How do we reconcile the impact of the principal as technology leader with the need for collaboration among teachers and the alignment of their beliefs with technology integration generally? Transformative principals, Moolenaar, Daly, and Sleegers (2010) show, are trusted by their teachers and occupy a central position in the “social network” of the faculty. Through their position in the social fabric of the school and embrace of the vision shared by the faculty, these principals are able to cultivate a culture of risk-taking, collaboration, and innovation (Moolenaar et al. 2010). In so doing, they can cultivate the mindset requisite for reimagining curriculum to take advantage of technology. These findings align with Peter Senge’s argument about the development of a shared vision, which, he writes, “takes time to emerge. They grow as a by-product of interactions of individual visions” (Senge 201). The establishment of a shared vision, including one that supports technology integration, ought to be an organic, slow, collaborative process.

The principal’s role in this process demands a balance of formal leadership and informal relationship-building. Coburn (2001) demonstrates that a principal can establish the formal structures in which teachers will exchange ideas and allow their individual visions to interact. Perhaps more importantly, “Reform leaders also played a powerful role in shaping the direction of sensemaking by creating pathways that brought particular messages from the [school] environment into teacher conversations, by privileging certain messages over others, and by framing interpretations in powerful ways” (Coburn 2001). Like any skilled teacher, a principal can encourage discussion while steering it. In so doing, he or she can direct the evolution of a shared vision that incorporates and builds upon the beliefs of teachers.

Research therefore indicates that technological and pedagogical skill are necessary for a principal to understand the inherent issues in creating a vision shared by faculty that supports technology integration. Equally important are the behaviors he or she models, his or her place in the social network of the faculty, and the trust the faculty puts in him or her. Having established these relationships, a principal can at once empower teachers and also lead them.


 John Marshall High[2] is a 300-year-old independent school with $40,000 tuition. A young principal was hired with an expectation of “bringing the school into the 21st century,” according to the president of the Board of Trustees. Other schools in the area had already moved to a one laptop-per-student environment (1:1). Previously, administrators never saw fit to advocate for such extensive technology integration, because it was not apparent that the school’s academic offerings would improve as a result. However, it had become clear to the admissions office and, consequently, the Board of Trustees that applicants viewed Marshall’s lack of technology as a deficiency, not an asset.  Accordingly, they hired a young, enthusiastic principal with experience at more progressive schools to lead this change. Having studied educational leadership extensively, the principal knew that his ideal role in technology integration required a delicate balance among friend, mentor and leader. However, the difficulty of fulfilling this role was compounded at Marshall by the school’s particularly conservative culture, an older faculty, and its reputation for rigor.

Entering his first year, the principal knew he had one asset. Research indicates that a principal ought to have significant technological expertise to facilitate technology integration efforts (Dawson and Rakes 2003; Zhou and Frank 2003). Having taught in several 1:1 schools, the principal had significant experience with educational technology.

He also had the support of a technology integrationist, who was hired two years earlier, although she had only made slight advances and only with a few teachers. Many teachers, especially older ones, viewed the integrationist as a threat, questioning the need for integration in their otherwise rigorous and, for the most part, beloved classes. Teachers’ beliefs significantly correlate with the efficacy of technology integration campaigns, and the integrationist had failed to change them so far (Ertmer 2005).

In fact, each successful instance of technology integration was a result of a new teacher implementing something he or she had tried at their previous job. Many of these instances were class projects in which students could choose digital alternatives to traditional creations like a fictional essay or hand-written poster. Others leveraged the school’s learning management system to digitize assessments and host online discussions. Several teachers used their interactive whiteboards on a daily basis. The four laptop carts and computer lab were generally used for in-class writing. Clubs that met every other week after school used other hardware like cameras, scanners, and robotics equipment. Rarely had curriculum adapted to exploit the technology fully, something the principal understood to be essential.

Also complicating matters was the haphazard approach to hardware purchasing in the past, which reflected the school’s lack of a coherent vision for technology integration generally. Devices were bought ad hoc as teachers requested them. In the school’s laptop carts, there were four different laptop models, all of them PCs. Most were over three years old. Often, students brought in their own MacBooks, because they insisted, “Macs are so much better!” and that “these laptops never work!” Teachers generally turned a blind eye, because, in fact, students did work much more quickly on their own laptops. When he first met with students, several students asked if they could “do what my friends’ schools all do and get everyone a MacBook?” The principal owned a MacBook as well, but he knew that they were more expensive than PCs and that the school’s IT department was not prepared to support a 1:1 program, especially if it was on a whole new platform. Regardless of the devices they eventually would choose, the principal recognized that he would have to ensure that his faculty would be supported properly for them to trust him or the technology.

Besides the few young faculty members who had asked for different gadgets, most faculty members rarely used any technology in class at all. The mean age of the faculty was 50, a significant challenge for the principal. He rightly assumed that their resistance to the integrationist was born of resistance to technology generally. Having experienced it himself to a lesser extent, the principal knew what it was like to be outpaced by one’s own students as well as colleagues. He feared that his older colleagues would view him the same way. Moreover, the commonly held view that enrollment and finances motivated technology integration and not academics hardened many teachers’ resistance. Furthermore, the principal knew that many teachers were largely unprepared to use technology even if they wanted to. When many colleagues did not respond to his introductory e-mail at the end of the previous school year, he was surprised to learn that most of the faculty members over 50 did not use e-mail. These same teachers were also the favorites among students, as their teaching style and ability had secured their position at an otherwise cutthroat work environment. They saw no compelling reason to change their practice.

Many parents who were especially influential in this institution were wary of technology as well. Word had spread over the summer that the Board was interested in changing the Marshall’s reputation for technophobia. In his first open parent meeting, six of the first ten questions were about technology. Parents were worried that course offerings and requirements might change with the influx of technology, and the best colleges expected certain kinds of transcripts. Similarly, many parents were worried about a rumor they had heard of the Math Department Chair wanting to implement project-based learning in 9th and 10th grades.[3] Promisingly, however, one set of highly influential parents also asked why the school had not yet allowed students to bring their own devices.

The principal knew that he could not answer these questions in a way that dictated some new policy that his faculty had not yet endorsed. The vision he established had to be shared (Senge 201). Yet, everything he knew about teachers’ views on technology came second-hand. Whatever his answers to these specific questions, it was clear that he needed to fulfill the expectations of the Board of Trustees and of his teachers while maintaining the best interest of the students. Teachers would not support any of his efforts if they did not trust him. Even then, they would need to be sold on technology as something that would enhance their instruction. Finally, he knew that technology integration required curricular adjustments, professional development, time, and patience. In short, he knew he had his work cut out for him.


 The principal deflected these questions with the sort of diplomacy necessary to be an administrator at an institution like John Marshall. However, he knew that he needed a substantive answer soon. A disciple of Peter Senge, this principal identified the need for a solution that accounted for the whole of the institution – that is, he needed to engage in systems thinking. Although his primary constituents were the teachers, he was also accountable to students, parents, and other administrators. Curriculum and students’ academic performance formed a network that linked these groups together. Culture emerged from this web when it was infused with the beliefs, skills, and goals of the people involved. Together, these components formed a single institution that had so far failed to deeply integrate technology. Each piece had to change in a way that produced a different culture and, therefore, a different result. He needed to examine the system and identify its strengths, weakness, fixtures, and elements ripe for change.

In other words, to change this culture and ensure widespread support for change, the principal needed to identify what the barriers to technology integration were. Because he was new to the school, he did not need to “recondition [his] perceptions so as to be more able to see the leverage in those structures”” but could immediately “see the leverage in those structures” in order to “suggest areas of high-and-low-leverage change” (Senge 94).

Despite the school’s efforts in hiring a technology integrationist and purchasing hardware to ensure unlimited access to high quality technology, innovative practices remained few and far between. The former principal reported a brief period in which this hardware had been purchased and the integrationist hired where it seemed the adoption of technology would happen organically. However, it plateaued. What was the “balancing (or stabilizing) process” the prevented further uptake? (Senge 95).

He decided to go straight to the source and ask the teachers who had not adopted technology why they avoided it. Besides his interest in their answers, he knew that consulting the teachers in this way would lay the groundwork for later building of a shared vision. A shared vision, or an institution-wide embrace of a long-term view, is

…a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power. It may be inspired by an idea, but once it goes further… then it is no longer an abstraction. It is palpable. People begin to see it as if it exists. Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as shared vision. (191)

This powerful force would unite the faculty in pursuit of the goal, which he was hired to realize. Hence, if technology integration was to become an institution-wide practice, he needed commitment from all the teachers, not just the early adopters. Moreover, a vision “is not truly a ‘shared vision’ until it connects with the personal visions of people throughout the organization” (Senge 200).  Taking seriously the teachers’ particular views on technology and pedagogy was a first step toward identifying their personal visions and enlisting them in the development of a shared one.

  The teachers who had not used technology reported six reasons for not having integrated technology: their inability to use technology; unreliable hardware; distracting quality of technology; inadequate time to get through established curriculum; a belief that technology did not add to and even took away from what was best about their instruction; and, finally, a belief that technology integration efforts were motivated by economic, not academic, motives.

 These last two points were related; the belief that technology did not add to instruction was reinforced by the initial impetus for its introduction of the classroom – admissions and related financial concerns. These beliefs had manifested from the outset among the most experienced and, therefore, most influential teachers. As Senge writes, “Resistance to change is neither capricious nor mysterious. It almost always arises from threats to traditional norms and ways of doing things” (Senge 88). Although he was unsurprised that these teachers felt this way, he was relieved to have identified the balancing force that stalled out the first wave of integration. Now, he needed to change their view. He needed some leverage.

Fortunately, the tradition of excellence at this school allowed them to hire the most qualified and talented teachers from around the country and, in fact, around the world. Every faculty member exhibited what Senge calls personal mastery, which he explains, “is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision,” allowing people “to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them.” In so doing, they are committed to “lifelong learning” (7). These older teachers worked as hard as the younger ones, attending numerous conferences, workshops, and training sessions to improve their teaching. If they were not adopting technology, it was not because they were lazy, “checked out,” or simply stubborn. Rather, they did not incorporate it into their personal vision because they did not believe technology to enhance what was most important to them – namely, good instruction.

Instead, integrating technology distracted them from realizing the results that mattered most deeply to them. To value technology, they had to believe it to be a means to their desired end. So far, their lack of technological proficiency combined with few examples of effective technology integration served to solidify these teachers’ perceptions of technology as a distraction or annoyance rather than an asset. In other words, they were right to not try to integrate it; their instruction was better without it. The principal recognized that these teachers had “an accurate, insightful view of current reality” (Senge 143). To change their views and show them that integrating technology aligned with their personal visions, he needed to change their current reality.

The obvious candidate for effecting this change was the technology integrationist. The principal learned that the integrationist introduced teachers to examples of project-based learning (PBL) units, showing them multiple videos from Edutopia. He also had been working tirelessly to make the technology easy to use for the teachers, but their adoption had mostly remained minimal at best.  Aware that “many people, even highly successful people, harbor deep beliefs contrary to their personal mastery” (Senge 144), the principal asked what the teachers’ responses to PBL were. The integrationist said that teachers thought they could not teach that way, that their lectures were superior because they could control what the students learned, and that the PBL model did not teach students the skills they would need in college. The principal thus realized that the faculty found technology unhelpful when trying to fit into their “mental model” (Senge 163) of pedagogy and learning. To change their view on the helpfulness of technology, he needed to persuade them that student-centric learning was superior to teacher-centric learning.

 To this end, he developed three professional development sessions for teachers during his first in-services. The first session was dedicated to establishing the teachers’ beliefs about their purpose in educating children. Teachers generally agreed that moral and intellectual edification of students was their paramount objective. In the second session, teachers examined their own practice to identify the ways in which they were or were not meeting that standard. Often, teachers recognized that they did not focus on every student and spent more time on content than on intellect or character development. In this way, he helped teachers “[face] up to distinctions between espoused theories (what we say) and theories-in-use (the implied theory in what we do)” (Senge 175). Finally, he allowed the technology integrationist to present another example of PBL by showing a video from a classroom at High Tech High in San Diego. Teachers wrote down their reactions and shared them with the group. The principal led them in a discussion of how their reactions related to their previous two sessions. While the teachers were reluctant to speak, many approached him afterward appreciative that he made them reflect on their practice in a new way.

Next, it was incumbent upon the principal to leverage this opportunity to inspire the teachers to entertain a new pedagogical model – namely, student-centric teaching and learning. He did not want to be advocate, though (Senge 182). Aware that the technology integrationist had the potential to be a leader and that delegating this task would help him maintain a more positive and equal place in the social network of faculty (Moolenaar et al. 2010), he asked the integrationist how he thought it was best to proceed. Impressed both by the principal’s ability to motivate the teachers to introspect as well as the teachers’ commitment to better education (he had previously doubted it when teachers were reluctant to adopt any technology), the integrationist said that he could help the teachers explore progressive pedagogical models. If he could prove that student-centric learning achieved greater moral and intellectual development in students, then he could align technology integration with their shared vision. For them to be truly committed to technology integration, they had to choose it in this way (Senge 206)

Together, the principal and integrationist developed a professional development program for their teachers in which they would work together to analyze a variety of pedagogical models while identifying what was or was not working in their instruction and assessments. The integrationist worked with the principal to ensure that he could facilitate the conversation in a way that yielded more dialogue than discussion, as the goal of the first year was primarily to encourage open-mindedness (Senge 230). To empower the teachers, the principal did not attend these meetings. He only appeared at the first one and said, “I want you to determine what a John Marshall education looks like.” Then, he left. He hoped that the teachers would be empowered to engage in team learning to “connect with the core of the business” (Senge 302).

 In so doing, he also meant to embrace Fullan’s axioms, “Reculturing is the name of the game” and “redefine resistance” (Fullan 34). If teachers were empowered to think about what they love and make decisions about how to do it better, then they would create a culture that suited their vision. Until that point, the culture of the centuries old institution seemed immutable. The principal freed them from these restrictions so they could finally feel ownership of the school to which they had dedicated their lives. At the same time, he refocused their energies on defining good pedagogy rather than resisting technology. The narrative shifted to defining academic goals and learning whether technology could support or enhance them. Teachers still resisted technology occasionally, but they did so for well-reasoned arguments about the value of doing a lesson without it rather than from an emotional, fear-based reaction. By empowering a passionate, intelligent, and dedicated faculty, the principal lit the fuse that exploded a culture marked by enthusiasm and open-mindedness.

The cumulative effect of these efforts was not a coherent vision for technology; instead, it was a coherent vision for pedagogy, which was made possible by but not for the sake of technology. The committee, led by the integrationist, agreed that they needed to adopt student-centric pedagogical models. Rather than commit to any particular technologies, they recognized that a shift in pedagogy would allow them to always leverage new tools as they emerge, to meet students’ needs, and allow them to accomplish their academic goals in ways best suited to their ever-changing students. The few teachers who had been using technology before the new principal arrived were also empowered to push the boundaries in their classrooms. One teacher created a MakerSpace and became a full-time technology instructor. A science teacher developed a full STEM curriculum with her math colleague. The culture accommodated these teachers as well as the English teacher whose sole integration of technology was an on-line discussion board that had been available on the LMS for ten years. “All that mattered,” the principal always said, “is that you always focus on what matters.”

With the teachers now comfortable with technology, the principal sought to relieve the teachers of their hardware troubles. One teacher said, “The kids all have MacBooks. Can we just let them use their laptops?” Encouraged, he asked IT if they could support such a program. They said that their wireless network and security could handle it, but they were not prepared to repair the computers. Teachers also commented that they often would prefer to not have the laptops in the classroom sometimes. Students and parents were therefore asked to sign a form that required them to register their computers with the network for monitoring purposes, to acknowledge that their computer could be taken by the school should students not respect teachers’ .requests to put them away, and to be responsible for all repair.  Students and teachers alike wholly embraced the new rules.

The MakerSpace, STEM room, robotics club, and new devices permitted in the building made the school look like a school of the future, despite its 300 years of existence. Admissions officers were pleased, and so was the Board. Further, student performance remained mostly the same, but students were much more excited about their schoolwork; parents, therefore, were also pleased. The principal also made these changes with a single policy and a committee in which teachers were encouraged to think seriously and honestly about what they do. In other words, the school changed dramatically with minimal leadership from above. He encouraged his teachers to engage their deepest passions, and he hoped, through the right sort of encouragement, they would discover the value of technology on their own. Their visions aligned, and change happened without any edicts from on high. Instead, the principal ignited a dimming flame in many teachers, forming a conflagration of new, exciting pedagogy.


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[1] She does not mention school culture in this article. See Ertmer and Ottenbreit-Leftwich

[1] (2010) for a discussion of culture.

[2] Imaginary school

[3] In truth, the Chair had suggested the idea to several colleagues but never discussed it with the administration.