How Interconnected Technology Can Support the K-12 Ecosystem
Each district has its own unique ecosystem, or interrelated web of people and assets working together to promote student growth and development. Districts thrive when their ecosystems are in equilibrium. However, factors related to human capital and physical assets, like laptops and tablets, can quickly disrupt the balance and ripple through an entire organization. Functions related to human resources, like payroll and onboarding, lead to greater employee efficiency, engagement, and overall organizational success. COVID-19 brought a wave of technology into districts highlighting the importance of tracking and maintaining assets to enhance the teaching and learning experiences. Now that ESSER funds are set to expire, districts are navigating budgets to maintain, repair, and replace the now-needed technology. Together, the need for a suite of comprehensive software to manage human capital and physical assets has never been more important.
This white paper uses data from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute to illustrate the interconnectedness of a district’s human capital and assets. It highlights the importance of using software to monitor them to maintain district ecosystem health for the ultimate goal of maximizing students’ learning gains.
The District Ecosystem
An ecosystem refers to a system of organisms within a particular physical environment that interact with that environment and one another. These interactions create a delicate balance where each component depends on the others for survival and contributes to the overall health and stability of the entire system.
Like a natural ecosystem, school districts are dynamic and interconnected networks, composed of different elements, and situated within specific settings. Districts’ successes, whether defined as employee satisfaction, teacher retention, or student learning outcomes, depend on harmony between the elements and their environment. However, striking that balance can be challenging as each district ecosystem has its own distinct elements and interactions.
If you’re not keeping track of all those things, it’s going to cost you money. And I guarantee you that it’s going to cost you more money than it would’ve been spending the money on a system.
Dr. David Mack
Chief Administrator of Business Services
Elements of the District Ecosystem
Though students, whose growth and development give schools their purpose, are at the core of each district ecosystem, most other elements can be grouped into two categories: human capital and physical assets.
A district’s human capital refers to its employees and the knowledge, experience, and abilities they possess. It is comprised of:
- Teachers who facilitate students’ curricular access and shape their intellectual growth through instruction. Highly effective classroom teachers positively impact student learning outcomes. Investments in teachers’ growth and development, through professional learning opportunities, also positively affect outcomes like reading achievement (Didion et al., 2020).
- School leaders and administrators who ensure that the ecosystem functions smoothly and efficiently. Through school policies, they ensure that structures and procedures are in place for teachers and students to thrive. This includes safety and security measures, funding, faculty, staff, physical assets, educational materials and resources, technology, community partnerships, and transportation to name a few. A meta-analysis of 51 studies detected significant relationships between principal behavior and factors including student achievement, teacher well-being, teacher instructional practices, and school organizational health (Liebowitz & Porter, 2019).
- Noninstructional Staff who make the environment fit for instruction and learning to occur. Bus drivers reliably transport students to and from school, food services staff nourish employees and students, substitute teachers make sure that learning continues when classroom teachers are absent, paraprofessionals support teachers and students by increasing classroom inclusivity, and technology services staff ease digitally mediated learning and communication.
The Case for Strategic Human Capital Management in Education
The Cost of Human Capital
Human capital management constitutes the largest portion of K-12 public schools’ annual budgets with staff salaries and benefits accounting for nearly 80% of spending. In addition to spending on salaries and benefits, districts must also pay added costs related to teacher attrition.
3.1 million The number of public school teachers in the U.S.
13,318 The number of public school districts in the U.S.
232 The number of teachers per district, on average
90% The estimated percentage of teachers who remain in their district year over year
$1,600* The average amount districts spend on recruiting per teaching position
$2,000* The average per teacher cost of processing and onboarding
$82,800* The cost of attrition each year for the average district
*Costs pulled from the Frontline Education turnover calculator
Adopting a strategic human capital management approach is essential to attract, acquire, grow, and retain human capital and may also lead to positive outcomes like increased learning gains.
When I look back, I think, ‘How did we hire anybody?’ Now, if a teacher resigns, principals might already know who they want to hire to fill the position or what candidates were available before the central office is even notified of the opening. Without an online platform, that could never happen.
Human Resources Director
In addition to human elements, district ecosystems are also populated by physical assets which travel between the habitats within it. For instance, a laptop may travel from one school to another, from school to home, or from school to a computer repair shop. These assets also change hands throughout their life cycles. Many are passed from teacher or staff member to student and back (though not always!). Like human capital, assets enhance the environment enabling inhabitants to succeed. A list of physical assets appears in table 1, below.
Table 1 – Physical Assets Commonly Used by District Groups
- Assistive technology
- Document camera
- Lab, gym, art, band equipment
- Sports equipment
- Maintenance equipment
- Kitchen equipment
Using [Help Desk and Asset Management] together increases productivity and significantly reduces the amount of loss our district would have had in the past.
Reanna Fulton, Ed.D.
Assistant Superintendent for Student Services
The Cost of Asset Management
Districts spend millions of dollars each year on purchasing and maintaining the physical assets they need to ensure teachers are well-equipped to provide students with an optimal learning environment.
For instance, purchasing or leasing devices for a new district-wide initiative, like a 1:1 technology program, could alone cost districts upwards of a million dollars:
5.6 Schools The average number of schools per U.S. district
526 students The average number of students per U.S. school
$650 The median cost for a personal electronic device like a Chromebook, laptop, or iPad
$20 The median internet access cost per student per year
$2 million The cost of Implementing a 1:1 technology program from scratch, for the average U.S. school district
A comprehensive approach to asset management will help districts anticipate escalating costs related to assets. Repairing broken or malfunctioning assets and replacing lost assets will cost districts an additional $40-$1000 a piece, not to mention the disruption to student learning if teachers depend on devices for instruction and assessment.
Asset Management ROI Calculator
Checking the Pulse of Your District’s Ecosystem – Identifying Disruptors
The health of the district ecosystem depends on the balance between human capital and physical assets. It is essential that districts have the right people in place and that they provide the right physical tools for those people to succeed in their work.
Like a biological ecosystem can be disrupted by a host of environmental factors, such as pollution, invasive species, and changing climates; disruptors to the district ecosystem can negatively impact teaching and learning. See Table 2 for a list of ecosystem disruptors.
Table 2 – District Ecosystem Disruptors
Human Capital-Related Factors
- Unfilled teacher absences
- High teacher turnover
- Leadership transitions
- Teacher disengagement
- Shortage of teacher and noninstructional staff candidates, and
- Ineffective professional learning activities
Asset Management-Related Factors
- Outdated technology
- Unreliable wireless internet
- Lost Chromebooks
- School buses in need of repair
- Broken instruments
- Missing textbooks
The teacher shortage has long disrupted many district ecosystems by challenging districts to fill positions with a low supply of qualified candidates and at times forcing them to increase average class sizes. However, the shortage has also had positive effects. For instance, 23 states have proposed bills to incentivize teaching by raising salaries and providing bonuses. Other states are trying to entice teacher candidates by proposing bills to pay student teachers for their apprenticeships.
District ecosystem disruptors may not always appear to be negative by nature. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many districts applied relief funding towards the purchase of new assets to make teaching and learning from home possible. In fact, according to a 2021 survey by Edweek, 90% of secondary schools and 84% of elementary schools reported that they had implemented a 1:1 technology program whereas prior to the pandemic just 66% of secondary schools and 42% of elementary schools had programs in place. Figure 1 visualizes the results of the survey.
Figure 1 – Survey Results Indicating Increased Assets Post-COVID-19
While increased access to school technology is typically lauded, the 1:1 tech-integration rippled through learning, instruction, assessment, and communication. For many districts, these new assets necessitated new hires to support technology integration at the district and school level. According to data from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, there was an increased demand for technology teachers and informational technology support staff both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the years following. Tables 3 and 4 display the number of job postings for technology teachers and IT support staff for the past four years created by nearly 1,100 school districts nationwide.
Table 3 – Number of Job Postings for Technology Teachers from 2019-2022
Number of Total Postings
Percent Increase from 2019
Table 4 – Number of Job Postings for IT Support Staff from 2019-2022
Number of Total Postings
Percent Increase from 2019
In addition to the surge in technology-related job postings, the influx of assets increased the need for professional learning opportunities that would provide teachers with guidance to successfully implement the newly acquired pedagogical tools. For instance, immediately following the school shutdown in March 2020, Frontline Professional Growth users completed more than two times as many professional learning activities than they did just before the pandemic, in February 2020.
An analysis of the professional learning activity titles completed before and during the pandemic illustrates the waves that the introduction of new technology and the shift to virtual learning caused. Prior to the pandemic, the most popular professional learning activities were about content area topics, including literacy, mathematics, science, and English language arts. During the pandemic, topics related to web-based tools like Google Drive and Google Classroom topped the list.
While purchasing new assets to implement a 1:1 technology program can affect human capital, decreased access to assets can also have strong effects. An inadequate number of assets, like laptops or tablets, decreases teachers’ willingness to embrace initiatives that require their use, seek professional learning to support their use, and implement them on a regular basis in their classrooms. Lost or broken assets that are not replaced quickly can increase teacher stress and ultimately lead to disengagement and turnover. Similarly, technology adoption programs are prone to failure even when assets are readily available but teachers are inadequately trained to use them.
With the rapid growth that we were experiencing, it became more important to be able to show the [school] board as well as the finance department, ‘Here’s how much money we’re spending on each campus and each department. Here’s the impact that these bonds are having as they relate to technology.’ It just became more and more apparent that we weren’t going to be able to get by on spreadsheets alone.
Technical Project Manager
Using Software to Maintain Ecosystem Equilibrium
Districts can carefully manage their human capital and physical assets to mitigate the negative effects of ecosystem disruptors. Software systems can help districts by:
- More accurately forecasting future purchasing
- Ensuring that staff and students have what they need to be successful
- Onboarding staff with the right assets from day 1 and beyond
- Ensuring accuracy of inventory upon staff separations from the district
- Respond to audits with reliable data
- Maximize existing resources
- Minimize the cost of replacing lost assets
- Didion, L., Toste, J. R., Filderman, M. J. (2020). Teacher professional development and student reading achievement: A meta-analytic review of the effects. Intervention, Evaluation, and Policy Studies, 13(1), 29-66.
- Liebowitz, D. D., & Porter, L. (2019). The effect of principal behaviors on student, teacher, and school outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Review of Educational Research, 89(5), 785-827.
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