Mar 17 2015

CoSN 2015: Inside Houston's Powered-Up CTO-CAO Partnership

Two of the minds behind Houston ISD’s ambitious PowerUp initiative share how their plan began.

The first step of a digital transformation in schools must begin by mending the gap between academic and IT departments.

Houston Independent School District CTO Lenny Schad and district Chief Academic Officer Daniel Gohl led a spotlight presentation at CoSn 2015 on Tuesday, sharing how their district has created a culture of collaboration through its PowerUp campaign.

A theme at this year's conference is that instruction must drive engagement, and technology is the accelerator. Houston ISD's PowerUp campaign, now in its second year, exemplifies this relationship. Led by Superintendent Terry Grier, the district is in the process of distributing Microsoft notebooks to thousands of students in its schools as it transitions to a new, digitally powered model for education.

"This vision has to be jointly established and jointly supported," Schad said.

Houston ISD

Houston ISD CAO Daniel Gohl and CTO Lenny Schad.
Credit: D. Frank Smith

The relationship started through conversations between Schad and Gohl. The infighting and game-playing that traditionally occurred between departments came to an end shortly after others realized their bosses were on regular speaking terms, Schad said.

"The tightest relationship — the one where there is no defensiveness — has to be modeled by us," Gohl said. "The marriage of technology and academics must ensure that we have trust."

For the PowerUp initiative to take hold, their relationship had to cascade down to other levels of school management, including the principal at each of the district's 282 schools. That warranted a new kind of leadership, Schad said.

The principal must be both the instructional leader and the change agent on campus, Schad said. Those responsibilities cannot be delegated to someone else, which is often the source of disconnect between administration and schools attempting to carry out these transformative visions.

One of the largest departures involved in undertaking PowerUp was the transition to an all-digital learning environment. Starting in the fall, Houston ISD will be moving away from paper-based textbooks and curriculums. Digital tools are the future, Gohl said.

Abandoning paper-based instructional materials required their teams to become experts on drafting requests for proposals. Pulling that off successfully required reliance on the newfound partnership between Gohl and Schad’s departments.

“We did not leave the tactical decisions to others. We dove in and mapped out in gory detail what was gong to be necessary, and who was going to say what, and when,” Gohl said.

Responding to the potential for pushback among teachers and parents in moving to a digital platform, Schad said it’s a defeatist argument to try to justify technology for technology’s sake. But getting students acquainted with these devices must be the foundation for a digital education.

“We know for an absolute fact that we need digitally competent students graduating high school. Kids need to know how to live and operate in a digital world,” he said. “I don’t think you can go back and ask, ‘What does technology do to achieve that?’ I say that’s the wrong question.”

Two years into PowerUp, Schad said the district is well on its way to success.

“We’re still not anywhere near where we want to be, but after two years, we’re very pleased with our progress,” he said.

EdTech is providing continuous coverage of CoSN 2015, including video interviews and session reviews. Keep up-to-date on all of our coverage by visiting our CoSN 2015 conference page.