School District Leaders Speak Out On AI in Schools

An AI-generated image featuring a panel of district leaders from the perspective of an audience member.
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Will this year be remembered as Year 1 of a new era of AI in schools, or has the whole thing been overhyped? Do the benefits of personalization and automation outweigh the perils of privacy, security, and bias in popular large language models? What is the role of the educator in a world full of private tutors, real-time feedback, and individual interventions?

These are the kinds of questions district leaders are grappling with, not just in the moment, but likely for years to come. Our writers have spent months sitting in on the conversations that are driving innovation, taking the temperature of thousands of district leaders throughout the country, and watching from the front lines as new challenges and successes emerge. Here are some of the trends that have repeatedly risen to the top.

1. More Awareness is Needed at Every Level of the Learning Community

When we surveyed thousands of teachers at the end of last school year, we were not surprised to find that the majority felt out of the loop on what was happening and how it would impact their classrooms. That trend largely holds true almost a year later, but district leaders have prioritized closing those knowledge gaps. Teachers aren’t necessarily their only audience, either.

Pie chart showing a very small percentage of teachers who feel like they are in the loop about recent advancements in AI and LLMs.
Teachers were feeling out of the loop last year. That gap remains a challenge today.

“Before I begin to talk about AI with my teachers, or even with my administrators, I can’t forget [the students’] first educators, their parents, their guardians, their caregivers. And so that really has to come first…where you’re having talks with your families.”

Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez, Superintendent of Forest Park School District 91 in IL, Education Transformed: Enhancing Learning Experiences through AI (EdSurge, sponsored by AWS), 10/16/23

“To say ‘infancy’ is an understatement [regarding staff understanding of AI]…85% of my teachers are terrified and the other 15% are completely invigorated by it. So, I think that’s what my leadership challenge is, it’s not at first ‘how to use it,’ but ‘why to use it…’ For me, right now, I feel like I’m in sales mode, to be honest.”

PJ Caposey, Superintendent of Meridian CUSD 223 in IL, AMA Roundtable with K-12 Superintendents (Reach Capital), 6/2/23

“We’re used to having the answers and disseminating the answers, and we don’t know all the answers yet for this…Having an arena where we’re all learning together, I think is a great first step because it takes away the anxiety where I have to know everything about it before talking to you about it.”

Kelly May-Vollmar, Ed.D., Superintendent of Desert Sands Unified School District in CA, Artificial Intelligence and Generative AI: Empowering a Deeper Conversation (edWebinars, presented by CoSN and AASA, sponsored by ClassLink), 10/9/23

These are all encouraging signs—many district leaders have stepped up to be the advocates and champions for this new wave of technology. It is important to note, however, that quotes like these are subject to sampling bias. Based on our personal conversations, a significant number of administrators are still in the quiet majority who feel like they’re in over their heads. That’s why it’s important for professional organizations like CoSN and AASA to continue providing resources and transparency to their members. We have to close those knowledge gaps at the top before we truly see that understanding and confidence trickle down to the classroom.

2. Early Wins Can Help Alleviate Pressure

It’s been fun to see the light bulb AI moments experienced by district leaders in the past year. While early commentary focused on how AI was helping administrators become more productive and efficient in their work, those success stories have given way to how AI is supporting the work of teachers and students right now. 

“If you are like me, you’ve already gotten used to ChatGPT being part of your workflow. It has allowed me to work much faster and accomplish much more in a day than I used to.”

Dr. Joe Phillips, Chief Information Officer for Broward County Schools in FL, LinkedIn, April 2023

“As we get together and have conversations on instructional approaches, on how we incorporate AI…[and share] success stories about ways teachers have tried to incorporate some sort of generative AI into their classroom practices, I think the shoulders start to drop a little bit and everyone starts to relax a little bit.”

-Dr. Matthew Friedman, Superintendent of Quakertown Community School District in PA, Artificial Intelligence and Generative AI: Empowering a Deeper Conversation

“One of the techniques we’ve been trying to use is to highlight places where [teachers] have been using it [AI] every single day, they just don’t even realize that it’s AI.”

Tanya Wilson Thevanesan, Ed.D., Deputy Superintendent of Fairport Central School District in NY, Reach Capital AMA Roundtable

Communication continues to be a common theme. Much like any effective direct instruction lesson, the next step after defining a concept is modeling it. Many district leaders have been quick to incorporate AI into their daily work as a way of demonstrating the kinds of problems it can solve. Amplifying those successes in the office and at the classroom level can go a long way toward alleviating pressure. It certainly helps to show the whole learning community real-life examples of success with the new technology.

3. Administrators are Staying Cognizant of Potential Risks

From privacy and security to hallucinations, bias, and plagiarism, early iterations of generative AI have come with some caveats. District leaders have largely acknowledged that they are aware of these issues and are actively thinking about them. Some have pushed back adoption until these challenges can be addressed. Others are making conscious decisions about risk tolerance and professional education so they can continue to push forward.

“[On hallucinations:] We can control content and put guardrails on the AI…so that we can utilize our content and our curriculum and really confine what is true.”

David Miyashiro, Superintendent of Cajon Valley Union School District in CA, Artificial Intelligence and Generative AI: Empowering a Deeper Conversation

“[On privacy and security:] We’re not at the point where we’re putting students on the AI tools as they currently exist, just because the safeguards are not there yet. We’re definitely looking at how we can make sure that what we’re putting into AI doesn’t violate EdLaw 2-d (NY’s student data privacy law).”

Dr. Jared Bloom, Superintendent of Franklin Square School District in NY, AMA Roundtable with K-12 Superintendents (Reach Capital)

“The conversations I’m having with a majority of my teachers are around cheating. Like how will we know if a kid wrote this essay or AI wrote this essay…I’m trying to leverage it in a way to change instructional practice so we are preparing students for what’s to come.”

Tanya Wilson Thevanesan, Ed.D., Deputy Superintendent of Fairport Central School District in NY, Reach Capital AMA Roundtable

This is one area where there does not seem to be a strong consensus among district leaders. Some banned the technology until they could roll it out in a more structured way. Others have been more comfortable letting their teachers move forward.

Momentum is Picking Up, but Progress has been Slow

While these conversations are continuing to happen in districts with particularly forward-thinking leaders and communities, many have been slower to move on the issue of AI. All district leaders should strongly consider taking at least the most basic steps this year. Update use policies, issue high-level communications, and educate wherever possible.

In the meantime, those who are blazing the trail are doing great work to model what works and what doesn’t. That will be helpful when the rest of the country begins to catch up. AI is not just another fad that will blow over with time. The speed with which it is continuing to evolve is proof of that. It’s even fair to say that a large percentage of students are going to need to work alongside the technology in just about every career path imaginable.

By setting the table with strong policies and support systems now, district leaders can advance the safe, healthy, and intentional use of AI in schools later. For more on how to get started, check out the EdTech Evolved breakdown of the K-12 Generative AI Readiness Checklist from CoSN and the Council of Great City Schools here.

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