The Age of the School CIO

In March of 2000, the Harvard Business Review asked, “Are CIOs Obsolete?” Experts from the business world and academia responded to that curious question, with almost all predicting a sweeping expansion, not the gradual obsolescence, of the role. No longer would CIOs be seen as simply the top technologists of the organization, they said, but rather as business managers and strategists who worked side by side with the CEO. Four years later, K–12 school districts are coming to this same conclusion. Sure, the scope of the district technology leader still varies dramatically—in some locales, he or she is primarily a techie who deals with boxes and wires. In others, that person is a senior administrator who focuses on big-picture planning and budgeting.

There is today, however, a sense the job carries new weight. Until recently, CIO was a practically nonexistent title in schools. While still novel (and usually interchangeable with chief technology officer, technology director, deputy superintendent for technology, and a handful of other monikers), the CIO name symbolizes the shifting realities and mindsets about the critical role technology plays in every aspect of running a district. Not surprisingly, then, we’re seeing more and more districts giving their CIOs a much-deserved spot in the superintendent’s cabinet—just as the Harvard Business Review prophesied corporate CIOs would work with their CEOs.

In making the parallels with business, however, let’s not forget school CIOs are also grappling with fundamentally unique issues. How do you measure return on investment when the “product” is something as complicated and nuanced as human learning? How can you compete with for-profits for first-rate IT talent? And how do you operate in an environment where it isn’t a given that everyone has universal access to technology, or that everyone knows how—or wants—to use it?

Add to this the complexities of No Child Left Behind, with its data gathering, analysis, and reporting requirements, and it’s no secret that technology has become essential to the business of schools. District IT staff are being forced to figure out how to relate data from various functional areas, from transportation to human resources to instruction, with the aim of improving student and school performance. And they’re being asked to do all this while simultaneously juggling security threats, privacy concerns, and public expectations for 24/7 access to information.

If any of this sounds familiar, then this newsletter is for you. Our mission is to provide insight, resources, and strategies around issues specific to district technology leaders, whether it’s fresh research that will help you justify an investment or, as we explore in this issue, approaches to connecting legacy systems. In addition to highlighting resources applicable to your job, we also want to foster an ongoing dialogue among peers about effective tools and best practices. With these goals in mind, we invite you to make these pages your own by letting us know what keeps you up at night, innovative approaches you’re taking to the challenges facing your schools, and topics you’d like to see addressed here. Give us your scoop at

Amy Poftak, Editorial Director