In his 1961 speech to Congress, President John F. Kennedy laid out his vision to put a man safely on the moon by the end of the decade. What may have seemed an unlikely feat became a reality, when in 1969 Apollo 11 safely landed on the Moon. To this day, Kennedy’s bold dream serves as a defining example of the power of leadership.

Now, over a half century later, our K-12 education system finds itself on the brink of systemic transformation. Technology has unlocked vast possibilities in fundamentally changing not only how our teachers instruct and students learn, but the role school systems serve in our society and economy. These possibilities are both remarkable and overwhelming.

Yet, as district leaders around the country continue to discover, leveraging technology’s potential is no easy feat. Too often initiatives are perceived as myopically focused on technology, failing to provide the competencies teachers need to facilitate its use. Too often new solutions are abandoned after failing to produce intended outcomes, thus further reinforcing frustration and resistance.

Though not an exhaustive list, these symptoms are all too pervasive, and most superintendents can claim they have experienced them. But there is a new way forward, one that starts with setting a new agenda designed around a compelling vision like the one Kennedy set in 1961.

It Starts with the Tone from the Top

Had Kennedy not laid out his vision, would Neil Armstrong still have landed on the moon in 1969? Would NASA’s engineers and space scientists still have felt the same sense of urgency and remained coordinated in developing a spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to and from the Moon safely?

It’s hard to imagine they would have.

Success for Armstrong and NASA began with Kennedy’s direction, just as success for districts starts with the superintendent’s call to pursue personalized, modern learning. This vision must include a clear and succinct articulation of what the district is attempting to accomplish. It must also motivate, engage, and inspire stakeholders to embrace it. Setting this direction contextualizes efforts that may otherwise seem disjointed, whether investing in a new device or learning management system. It also ensures stakeholders remain aware always of the ultimate goal they are working toward.

Inclusion is Key

Yet equally important is the invitation for stakeholders to participate in defining what the change will entail and co-constructing the vision of the personalized, modern learning environment. It’s not enough for superintendents to set the direction and expect everyone to follow. Kennedy, after setting his bold vision, left it up to a team of experts to figure out exactly how to travel to and from the Moon—from the design and development of the spacecraft, to its navigation, etc.  

Superintendents also cannot create the personalized, modern learning environment on their own. They need the collective participation of administrators, educators, curriculum writers, instructional coaches, parents, students, community members, etc. It’s important that district leaders invite these stakeholders to develop a shared vision of the personalized, modern learning environment, such as its mission and purpose, which should serve to inform all future decisions.

Setting the vision and inviting stakeholders into the process are fundamental requirements needed for the personalized, modern learning environment. Both set into motion the moving parts needed to make the transition, a systematic and ongoing process known as Digital Convergence. For school districts, Digital Convergence represents the integrated work and progress of five major components of the school system: leadership, instructional models, modern curriculum, digital ecosystem, and professional learning. At a national level, it represents the collective work of those inside and outside of K-12 education as they seek to transform our school systems through technology adoption. Notably, leadership serves as the most crucial driver of Digital Convergence at the district level, and paves the way for truly achieving personalized learning at scale.

So, no matter the success of the past, the path forward starts with setting a new agenda for district leadership. Whether setting the direction or eliciting participation, this new agenda ensures districts can begin to realize results.