School District Leaders Discuss AI for Improving Teaching

Written by Jeremy Roschelle

Key Ideas:

  • School leaders want to see emerging technologies optimize the time and efforts of teachers.
  • Leaders considered how AI could help teachers to coach students to write better essays, examining both opportunities and risks.
  • Finding time to analyze student data and notice important patterns is an obstacle for districts.
  •  Building trust among all educational constituents is important for safe and effective AI.

To engage school district leaders around the opportunities and risks of AI in education, I recently led a session at the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools 2022 convening in Los Angeles California. Approximately 50 district leaders from many regions of the United States attended. To kick off the discussion, I gave a brief presentation entitled “How will AI change leadership now and in the future?” The presentation shared definitions of AI, the risks of AI, and ways AI might be used in schools. Here are four ways that AI might support teachers:

  1. AI can provide teachers with voice assistants that reduce the burden of routine administrative or classroom management tasks, such as transitioning between classroom activities. 
  2. AI might help teachers to review and reflect on discussions in their classrooms. 
  3. AI could augment or extend formative assessment practices with students while keeping teachers in the loop. 
  4. AI might help teachers to “orchestrate” small group activities among students, making sure the students have the right resources for each activity and helping teachers stay aware of which groups need attention. 

During and after the presentation, my colleague Jenny Bradbury and I took notes from the discussions among district leaders, who were seated at round tables. Below we share some key ideas about AI in education that we heard from the leaders.

School district leaders in attendance at the 2022 Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools convening in Los Angeles California. Photo Credit: 

Prioritizing AI to Support Teachers

Engaging at roundtables, school leaders from across the United States were enthusiastic about exploring the potential of AI. The leaders expressed a preference for a definition of AI that was less about human-like reasoning and more about how AI could assist teachers and students in pursuing educational goals. They also felt strongly that “making teaching jobs better” had to be a priority, given the pressing need to retain more teachers in the profession. “We’re all looking to optimize teacher time” was one common sentiment. Some worried about the potential for surveillance of teachers, as voice recordings and other forms of data become available through in-classroom automated assistants.

They also indicated that their families and communities would need to understand the why, how, and what of AI in schools; leaders expressed that every major decision about technology is now one their communities want to be informed about and involved in.

Considering How AI Can Help and Harm Student Work

The leaders were familiar with the foundational AI technology “GPT-3,” which can automatically write essays, given prompts. One of the major threads of conversation was about this capability. Some district leaders were highly supportive, noting that it was really difficult for teachers to rapidly grade student essays. Even if AI was restricted to grading just one aspect of essays, like structure, teachers could spend more time on other aspects, like intellectual content. Some noted that this was an extension of tools, such as Grammarly, that are already widely in use. Others discussed the need to think with their teachers about assessment practices, to make sure teachers were measuring what really matters and aligns with the district’s goals for their graduates. Some leaders worried about new motivational issues that might emerge among students as they discover that AI can help to write essays; how would teachers motivate students to learn writing skills? 

Supporting Data Analysis Needs

Leaders also expressed their needs for data analysis support. School districts today have reams of data about students, but often don’t have enough central staff who are talented at data mining. They felt that while they obviously pay attention to major patterns in their data, they sometimes are too slow to notice smaller patterns that still merit attention. For example, they wanted help in noticing subgroups of students who might need specific supports, in order to achieve their district’s equity goals. They also wanted to get recommendations based on what was already showing signs of promise in their district, or a district with similar characteristics.

Working Toward Safe and Effective AI

Overall, the district leaders felt strongly that they wanted to learn more about AI and wanted more time to think about the opportunities and risks. They recognized the need for time to build trust in their communities and asked for case studies to drive further deliberations.

Through the Engage AI Institute and its other initiatives in AI, Digital Promise looks forward to supporting district leaders in their quest for safe and effective future of AI in teaching and learning – indeed, the role of the League of Innovative Schools is to provide a forum for the most forward-thinking district leaders in the country and to facilitate their collective work on shared educational priorities. 

If you’re interested in learning more about AI and the future of learning, feel free to contact us.