Yesterday’s news that Chicago’s city government struck a deal with software giant Microsoft for cloud (or remote) e-mail and desktop application services certainly garnered attention from those who follow and cover the tech sector. After all, the four-year contract once again served as a reminder of the software pioneer’s evolving strategy in the cloud services arena, as well as put rivals Google and Amazon on notice that it remains a formidable outfit which can leverage its overwhelming presence on the desktops of every corporate and public sector operation. The fact that Chicago city government has embraced the kind of less-infrastructure-is-more -productivity thinking about technology that is increasingly the norm among Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurial outfits (which, in some ways, hearkens back to the early days of computing when companies shared time and computing power on old-school mainframes) also points the way for other municipal and state governments struggling to serve taxpayers with less cash.

geniuslogoBut for the school reform movement, the Microsoft-Chicago deal is an important reminder that revolutionizing American public education extends beyond overhauling teacher quality and school leadership, building up blended and online learning opportunities, revamping curricula so that all children get college-preparatory learning; and expanding Parent Power and school choice. Revamping how districts and other school operators handle their back office and technology activities is also critical to ensuring all kids get high-quality education.

One of the less-discussed aspects of the nation’s education crisis is the woeful deployment (or, to be more-precise, non-deployment) by districts of technology and other capital-intensive activities. Reformers have spent time advancing efforts by states to develop comprehensive, useful school data systems such as those in Florida (where data from districts, state universities, and even workforce development agencies are combined to provide long-term information on student progress). They have also devoted energy to building online and blended learning options. But less effort has been put into addressing the low levels of capacity among districts to actually use technology in order to handle their back-office (and even front-office) operations in efficient ways. The woeful handling of data by small and mid-sized districts in California — including the use of Excel spreadsheets and FileMaker software to handle student performance information — that I documented back in 2008 in A Byte At the Apple remains very much the norm today. Even the nation’s big city districts fail to use their scale to make smarter IT decisions and spending purchases, or develop systems to better track such matters as textbook purchases. More often than not, a big-city district such as Chicago Public Schools can actually under-invest in IT, spending just one percent of a $5 billion annual budget on its technology infrastructure.

None of this is surprising. After all, inefficiency is endemic throughout American public education — and the technology inefficiencies end up inter-playing with bad decisions in other aspects of school back office functions. Spectacular episodes of back office mismanagement such as those in Detroit — where a 2009 audit found that Detroit bought  unused 160 BlackBerry smartphones and 11 motorcycles on the taxpayers’ dime — are just headline-grabbing examples of what happens in districts every day. As Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools documented two years ago in a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, some districts keep just 69 percent of school buses in operation throughout the school year; this can be a sign that either the districts have too many buses in their fleets or don’t have the capacity to repair those vehicles quickly. A district can spend as much $196 on each item they acquire through antiquated purchase order processes (which often involve teachers and principals going through central bureaucrats to pay for purchases as small as association memberships); these processes slow down the delivery of needed supplies, consume taxpayer dollars that can be used to improve teacher and curricula quality, and keep bureaucracies in place even when they are no longer needed. And then there are the inefficiencies that come from how districts manage school lunch operations and maintain buildings; Cincinnati, for example, found that it saved at least $10 million annually after it revamped its food and building services operations.

The consequences of antiquated IT management are devastating for children, families, and taxpayers alike. From payroll and human resource systems used to oversee the three out of every five dollars American public education spent on teachers in 2010, to the systems charged with keeping tabs on textbooks and other inventory, IT plays a major role in all aspects of education operations. The low quality of information technology services is likely one reason why districts and other school operators wastefully deploy the $23 billion spent annually on school transportation, and the $49 billion spent on capital maintenance. And in an age in which districts and states must make tough choices on handling $1.1 trillion in defined-benefit pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs — especially when Medicaid costs will squeeze education funding for the foreseeable future — better IT management equals more money.

But it isn’t just about wasted money. As Nook HDs and Kindle Fires take the place of print textbooks and notebooks, districts and other school operators must be able to support the use of such technology on a wide scale. Yet far too many districts struggle just to replace aging Macintosh computers, much less deploy new technology. This struggle (along with the resistance of National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers affiliates, and other public sector unions, to the use of technology that can result in lost rank-and-file members) is why few districts have followed the example of New York City in developing innovative instruction and curricula efforts such as School of One, or have taken on efforts to keep laggard early career teachers from getting near-lifetime employment.

The incompetence of districts in handling technology also complicates support for systemic reform. District bureaucracy snafus contribute to the lack of confidence among teachers — especially traditionalists already opposed to all aspects of systemic reform. From their perspective, why should they trust a district to provide comprehensive objective data-based teacher evaluations properly when it can’t even get the e-mail servers to work properly? This, in turn, also reinforces unsophisticated mindsets about the use of data in structuring instruction and teacher performance management, which then plays into traditionalist arguments against overhauling evaluations and other efforts. Meanwhile the failures on the technology front also complicate efforts to move away from the traditional district model (which would be obsolete even if districts got better at IT management) to the Hollywood Model of Education. A state education agency or municipal government overseeing a collection of independent school operators would need the technology infrastructure and expertise to handle the tough work

Certainly the fact that districts are government agencies, and thus, don’t yet have the same levers for accountability such as loss of customers (and their dollars) is a culprit. The fact that rural districts often have less-than-adequate access to high-speed broadband — which is key for availing the use of cloud-based services — is also a factor. Then there’s also the reality that district procurement processes, like other public-sector purchasing regimes, focus more on cost-effectiveness than on balancing spending considerations with quality concerns. And let’s not also forget the influence of iron triangle relationships between districts and existing vendors (who often know how to work procurement bureaucrats, who themselves want to make sure they can move over to a firm once they tire of public service), which also explains why some technology firms continue to get contracts despite their almost deliberate unwillingness to control costs.

Yet as Chicago has shown, governments can make smart technology decisions when leaders make doing so a top priority. Rules governing procurement processes are often structured to favor preferred vendors over others; they can also be crafted to promote more-balanced approaches to technology decisions that aren’t just about costs or favoritism. The problems of IT-decision-making within American public education are ones of thoughtlessness, lack of sophistication, abysmal leadership, and a mindset against the use of outsourcing (and the private sector operators) that defies logic.

The first problem lies in the fact that school operators don’t put much the kind of thought into IT spending that is the norm for private sector peers. Two-thirds of districts surveyed by Grunwald Associates on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking never used return on investment calculations as part of their technology purchasing or evaluation activities; only one in five districts use student test score data in evaluating the efficacy of their technology efforts, while just 43 percent even think about the cost of deployment and maintenance of technology purchases in their decisions. It is little wonder why a district can end up overspending on antiquated BlackBerrys when they could simply deploy more-effective (though security breakdown-prone) approaches such as bring your own device — or under-spending on technologies that can actually make operations effective such as the cloud-based data storage services Amazon provides. It is also why many districts under-invest in IT infrastructures and even delay much-needed technology updates.

The second is one endemic throughout American public education: The lack of sophisticated thinking about using data in making IT and other operational decisions. This shouldn’t be surprising. Districts are just beginning to use teacher evaluation data (and the underlying value-added analysis of student test growth) in making performance management decisions and restructuring how teachers work in order to maximize high-quality talent (as well as make teaching a more-rewarding profession). The fact that most school leaders aren’t trained in such principles of business management as organizational planning — and that most principals and superintendents come from the teaching ranks — also complicates matters. As Contributing Editor Steve Peha pointed out two years ago, it is difficult for teachers to deal with the transition from managing classrooms to managing teachers with whom they feel residual sympathy; so it isn’t surprising that school leaders would also struggle in other aspects of management. The continuing fetish among some traditionalists and reformers that principals should only be focused on being instructional leaders ignores the reality that school leaders must work more like corporate division executives who must be focused on making everything at the building level work well for kids and teachers.

Then there is the fact that far too many school leaders shouldn’t be in those jobs. When school leaders are failures, they fail in all aspects of their management. As seen in Detroit, one should as much expect failed school leaders to mismanage IT matters as they abet educational malpractice. Former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein also proved in his tenure running the Big Apple’s schools, savvy and strong school leaders are also people who understand how technology impacts all aspects of school operations, and works diligently to embrace smart approaches to handling technology. For all the talk among some reformers about the importance of embracing “cage-busting” leadership, there is surprisingly little discussion about the need for school leaders to master the basics about managing IT operations that can do plenty to ruin their efforts on the ground.

Finally the resistance to outsourcing aspects of school operations — an extension of the traditionalist belief that any involvement of the private sector in education is an anathema — also makes it difficult to use IT in effectively managing school and district operations. Forget for a moment that this conceit ignores the reality that American public education is already dependent on Corporate America for tax dollars that sustain operations as well as for providing goods and services necessary to run schools. By ignoring the economic and operational benefits of handing off IT and other functions to corporate firms, American public education is failing to use techniques that can allow them to focus more on improving the quality of teaching and curricula provided to the children in their care. One can easily argue that districts shouldn’t even be doing more on the IT front other than managing those contractors providing the services (and holding them accountable for results). In fact, by yielding savings from managing back-office activities properly, districts could then use those dollars to build cultures of genius in which all kids learn.

Certainly reformers are doing plenty to overhaul school leadership, push for the development of data systems, promote the acceptance of the new fiscal norm in education, and battle failed mindsets that have burdened education for far too long. Yet reformers still haven’t focused enough on the mismanagement of IT activities. The efforts undertaken by the Council of the Great City Schools — including the development of a system that helps districts analyze and make decisions on operational activities — are important steps. There needs to be more of them. The kind of institutional reform outfits like TNTP that predominate in the teacher quality arena should also become prominent in education IT management. There’s no reason why think tanks such as American Enterprise Institute (which has done plenty of work on the school efficiency front) don’t focus more on technology.

While all this happens, school leaders should rip a page from Chicago’s decision to let Microsoft manage key aspects of its IT infrastructure, as well as learn from the growing number of firms and governments outside of education that have moved toward cloud-based IT offerings. There’s plenty that can be done to make IT work for supporting the high quality work that helps our children.