Beyond the Classroom and School: District Technology Integration

Over the years, I have written about differences between complicated and complex (see here). I pointed out the differences in those top-down, command-and-control organizations that launch rockets into space and keep cities safe and those open, loosely-coupled organizations that provide health care, administer criminal justice, and offer public schooling that are vulnerable to their political and social environments,  heavily dependent upon relationships, and individual discretion.

For the past year, I have described best cases of classrooms that I have visited where technology integration was in the background, not the foreground (see here, here, and here). I have also posted descriptions of schools identified as exemplary in integrating technology across all of their classrooms such as the Summit network of charter schools.

But I have not yet profiled districts that have integrated technology on a systematic basis. In Silicon Valley, including most of the Bay area, there are 77 school districts. All have technology plans for their schools. These districts buy lots of hard- and software, wire and WiFi schools, provide classroom carts of laptops and tablets, offer teacher workshops and then cross their fingers that teachers will step up and use what the district has provided for daily lessons.Voluntary participation is the rule which means that great variation exists not only in every single school but across these districts heralded as embracing high-tech.

Only a few districts, however, have gone beyond a plan, buying devices, and crossing their fingers that teachers will use all of the available hardware and software. Only a few districts adopted policies that nudged all teachers in every school to use new technologies, blended learning, and personalized lessons.  Only a few districts have built a systematic infrastructure of broadband and WiFi, incorporated newly-developed software, sponsored professional development, and provided technical assistance to support (and push) teachers to integrate technology into their daily lessons. In Silicon Valley I found two such districts: Mountain View-Los Altos and Milpitas.

In the Mountain View-Los Altos district I profiled two of its schools and described 10 classroom lessons I observed in these schools (see, for example, here and here) . In Milpitas, a dozen miles away, two principals invited me to observe their primary and upper-elementary classrooms and interview teachers. I did observe classes and interview teachers at each school as well as interviewing a district administrator.

Knowing that each level of schooling–classroom, school, and district–contains its unique complexities and knowing that districts are not command-and-control organizations, using a tri-focal lens one can come to appreciate, if not understand, that changing what classroom teachers do, altering how schools operate daily, and improving  district performance  is no easy walk in the park.

Each of these three systems are nested in one another. Each level affects the other as teachers go about doing what is expected in classrooms, school staff wrestle with instruction and curriculum, and both individual teachers and school staffs connect to the district school board, superintendent, and administrators from which policies and resources flow downward. These three levels of schooling are Siamese triplets that are separate and interactive but cannot be severed.

There are so many moving parts in these loosely-coupled system called a district.  So much interaction and overlap in these nested communities nonetheless depend on continuity in student/teacher relationships, principal/staff cooperation, and school board/district administrators working closely together. Sure, there are top-down directives that flow into schools and bottom-up actions that trickle upward in the organization.

Furthermore, there are constant search for resources and support from groups inside and outside the system. Include, then, among the moving parts, the ever-changing political interests that have their own ideas of what is a “good” teacher, what is a “good” school, and a “good” district. Enacting public schooling is political drama with conflict, tears, hurrahs, and disappointment. And that is what makes school reform a complex endeavor. District work is not for the faint-of-heart or those who fail to grasp that complexity across and between three organizational levels.

The fact is that classrooms, schools, and districts are open systems with permeable boundaries that can be easily crossed by outside groups such as single issue advocates, state officials, national lobbies, etc. It is one fact that policymakers, researchers, and parents have to not only grasp but also know it in their actions.  If  educational decision-makers cannot give up their vision of command-and-control organizations and wrap their minds around open, loosely-coupled places established to help students (not customers), these top decision-makers will continue to stumble their way through school reform.

Consider, for example, all the factors and constraints teachers face putting a planned lesson into practice.  In a 50- or 60-minute lesson, teachers make hundreds of decisions, some planned, many unplanned, anchored in the content and skills to be learned, the technologies used, relationships among students and between the teacher and students, and the norms and rituals  within the class (e.g., teacher counting from 10 to 0 to get quiet, rhythmic clapping of teacher and students to get attention, students listening to one another and taking turns).

The deep knowledge teachers have of subject matter, cognitive and social skills, details about their students all come to the surface in the questions teachers ask, how they determine who will be with whom in small group activities, and when–clock watching is an occupational tic with most teachers–to segue from one part of the lesson to another. The inexorable unpredictability of student response to a lesson often calls for instant decision-making, for example, when a student unexpectedly rants or cries; when snow starts falling outside the windows and students get restless. Or an assistant principal enters the room to observe the lesson. Or an incident of bullying during recess that spills into the class, and on and on. Teacher’s tacit knowledge of all of the above forms the bedrock of the relationship with students which is the core of their learning both in and out of classrooms.


As one teacher told me “just managing the complexity of teaching a lesson can be overwhelming.” Looking at all of the above factors that come into play when a teacher improvises or goes ahead with a planned decision is often what staggers newcomer to teaching and researcher.

So too the complexity deepens when one moves from the classroom as the unit of analysis to the school. Grasping the sheer number of factors that influence a school’s  organization, culture and relationships among adults and with students is tough enough. Schools with 10 to 100 classrooms, credentialed and non-credentialed staff, diversity of students, parental involvement, and dozens of other factors come into play. Then consider that one school is multiplied by 1o to 50 to 100 to form a district and how the complexity of each level multiplies when one considers the cross-cutting factors that come into play when the district is the unit of analysis. Each level embedded in the other has a structure, culture, and entwined relationships. Look at the figure below that tries to capture just a fraction of myriad moving parts.


All of this discussion of complexity brings me to the Milpitas Unified School District a system of just over 10,000 students (45 % Asian, 21% Filipino, 21 % Hispanic, 7% white, 3% black) distributed among 14 schools from pre-K to senior high school. Thirty three percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunches.  Nearly 800 staff strive to reach the goals that the school board and superintendent seek to achieve (see here, here, and here).

Thus, Milpitas is a system of embedded organizations (e.g., classrooms, schools, and district office) interacting daily with one another often in loosely coupled arrangements. Then consider how the city of Milpitas (over 100,000 residents), Santa Clara County in which the city is located, the state of California, and the federal government also interact in small and large ways with the district. Yes, this is complexity with a capital C.

In the next post, I will describe how one superintendent, Cary Matusoka, spent five years  (2011-2016) trying to move an entire district to redesign the way its teachers taught and students learned through integrating new technologies.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

4 responses to “Beyond the Classroom and School: District Technology Integration

  1. Dear Larry,
    I read your article and reviewed your frameworks with great interest.
    They indeed included many of the complexities influencing districts,
    each with various schools, and each of these with numerous classrooms. The complexities of these relationships alone make implementation of any reform a very difficult, complex task.
    Suggest you surround all of this with changes over time in the organizations, surrounding societal
    institutions, technologies, groups, Individuals, and the weather of values
    and beliefs.
    Reminds me of navigating the ocean liner on a long trip through ice
    flows in unsettled weather. Oh yes, with the aid of ice breakers and tug boats as needed and appropriate.

    Happy Hoildays to you
    and your family.

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