Superintendents, chief academic officers and chief information officers work together to advance instruction through digital learning in their school districts. But how they work together can differ, depending on the organizational structure.

Both Miami-Dade and Arlington school districts view everything through the same lens: instruction. A closer look at their leadership models reveals how these three positions can work together to do what's best for kids. 

Miami-Dade: CIO reports to the chief academic officer

The fourth-largest school district in the country used to have its CIO report to the chief financial officer, who reported to the superintendent. At the time, this structure made sense for Miami-Dade County Public Schools because most systems in the district typically dealt with payroll, financial reporting and business data collection, said Debbie Karcher, the district's CIO who has spent nearly 17 years in IT.

After No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, school districts started dealing with its accountability and test data reporting requirements. Along with the increasing role of instructional technology, this shift made it clear that CIOs should spend more time understanding how they can support curriculum needs, Karcher said.

In recent years, Alberto M. Carvalho, the 2014 National Superintendent of the Year, reorganized the leadership structure so the CIO would report to the chief academic officer (CAO), who sits in his cabinet and reports to him. Innovation, academics, research, IT and school turnaround all fall under the CAO's domain, which allows them to collaborate as they come up with more effective ways to help students learn.

"Reporting to the CAO puts so much under one roof, and everyone understands everyone's business," Karcher said. "I just think it's really healthy for education at this time, and it kind of breaks down the silos." 

With the new reporting structure, the district's priority is instruction and doing what's best for kids with the help of technology systems, said Marie Izquierdo, CAO at Miami-Dade County Public Schools and member of the 2016 Chief Academic Officers' Advisory Council. Because the CIO reports to Izquierdo, Karcher hears about the district's digital learning priorities and sees ways that she can support instructional technology.

For example, Karcher can increase the bandwidth to support instructional technology purchases so that students and educators will be able to effectively use the tools. In turn, Izquierdo can let Karcher know when she finds bugs in the technology tools that parents have access to because she also uses them as a parent.

School districts that still have the older reporting structure reveal what's important to them, Izquierdo said. "If you're looking at an org chart where the CIO's reporting up to the CFO, to me, that's a telltale sign that health insurance and payroll and all those other things are a priority or should be a priority for IT."  While business systems are part of the CIO's responsibility, the focus should be on instruction, she said.

Every two to three weeks the district cabinet meets, and Izquierdo invites Karcher to those meetings when she sees something on the agenda that she can contribute to. Because the CIO is not part of the cabinet, she misses hearing about some of the needs or solutions that come up that she may be able to address, Karcher said. That's the one drawback to this arrangement, though the district is set up in such a way that most departments do include her when they want to adopt a new technology tool.

"We're an enabler, not a driver," said Karcher. "We can't make the decisions, we shouldn't be choosing the system; we should just be invited to the table to make sure that IT requirements are being met." 

As for the superintendent, Izquierdo keeps information in front of him constantly about what's going on in the academic and IT world through texts and emails. That way, he understands what they're working on and can help with any challenges they can't take care of, particularly around funding. She also frequently puts digital learning items on the cabinet agenda after doing her research and comes to the table with a rendering, a demo or another tangible way to share ideas. 

These collaborative efforts among the superintendent, chief academic officer and CIO help them understand each other's needs and work together through challenges to advance digital learning. Without this common understanding, it would have been difficult for Miami-Dade to roll out about 50,000 mobile devices in September 2014.

Arlington: Academic and IT leaders report to superintendent

In Virginia, one person in Arlington Public Schools doesn't call the shots. Instead, its leaders share different perspectives from their specific roles and make digital learning decisions together in weekly cabinet meetings, said Superintendent Pat Murphy, who was the 2015 Virginia Superintendent of the Year. Assistant superintendents for information services and instruction report directly to the superintendent in the district that serves 216,700 students.

Everyone in the cabinet is responsible for listening to the discussions and figuring out a way they can help, even if it's not in their area, said Murphy. The cabinet includes the superintendent, chief of staff and assistant superintendents for finance and management services, student services, school and community relations, human resources, instruction, information services, and facilities and operations.The cabinet is organized to help break down silos and show leaders their role in meeting instructional priorities, which results in a comprehensive plan of attack.

Instead of talking about ideas first, they talk about the needs they see and what they can do to address them, said Raj Adusumilli, assistant superintendent of information services.

"Breaking down that challenge is actually very helpful so even if it's not in my field, I'm able to contribute as a party there and also take away the fact of what I need to do," he said. 

The cabinet evaluates all aspects of school, connect outside of the meeting to gather input on potential ideas, and do their work before bringing a project to the cabinet. As the district IT leader, Adusumilli benefits from this arrangement because he hears the superintendent and assistant superintendent of instruction talk about instruction in the context of upcoming initiatives. The result: Everyone has the same understanding of how they'll carry out an idea through the lens of instruction.

Likewise, they all take on the responsibility to communicate the ideas and plans they talk about in cabinet meetings to others throughout the district, Murphy said. Good communication helps everyone stay on the same page, from the cabinet down to staff members.

The superintendent shares a weekly message with principals that includes upcoming events, key projects and initiatives that the cabinet members placed on the table. The cabinet members who are copied on that message pass it on to their department leaders so that everyone gets the same message in the same tone in the same way, Adasumilli said.

Murphy tells the county's principals,"I'm giving you this information. This information is no good if it only stops at your desk. So you have the responsibility to carry the ball to the next level and make sure it's dispersed and then understood so that others can get on board." 

Communication is considered so important that the district puts public relations liaisons in each school so they can find out the great things happening with digital learning, said Linda M. Erdos, assistant superintendent of school and community relations. Then the district office compiles that information and sends it out in staff newsletters. It also creates monthly #digitalAPS videos showcasing digital learning. 

These video messages reveal the district's priority: teaching and learning.

"At the end of the day, you're walking away with what does it mean instructionally, what does learning look like in the classroom and how is teaching changing in the classroom?" Adusumilli said.

Egos Left at the Door

In both of these districts, having these leadership structures in place doesn't mean that everything runs smoothly all the time. But they're committed to working through difficulties together for the good of students. 

Once leaders recognize their responsibilities, they need to lay their egos aside and figure out how to accomplish a goal together, Murphy said. After all, they're here because they're responsible for teaching and learning, and every position in the district influences that responsibility.

"The main thing is keep your eye on the goal: What do we do best for kids," Erdos said. "If you're all working toward that goal, it should be pretty obvious that you all have to work together. The car goes on four wheels, and you need all pieces working together to make it run."