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“We can’t blow it.” District leaders are optimistic about AI but urgently need help

Teachers learning how to use AI. Image generated by DALL-E.

AI is on the move, and it’s not slowing down. The education field is both excited and concerned about the lightning-fast pace of advancements in generative AI. Over the past several months, we at CRPE have interviewed dozens of district leaders across the country about how they view AI and what kind of support they want to make informed decisions about the inevitable presence of AI in learning. The short answer: leaders are excited about how AI could help improve educational outcomes, but they desperately need federal, state, and local support to prepare their teachers, administrators, and students for a rapidly-changing future.

School leaders are simultaneously optimistic about AI and pessimistic about the ability of their systems to fully realize AI’s potential. School district superintendents are largely very hopeful about AI’s potential to transform education in positive ways. Some are moving forward with pilots and new partnerships. At the same time, they have concerns about plagiarism and are seeking guidance and model policies from colleagues and trusted local organizations. They also worry about the implications for equitable access if AI tools become expensive. But by far, their greatest concerns center around training teachers, students, and central office staff how to effectively use and navigate fast-moving AI technologies in the classroom and in life. 

Our conversations make it clear: U.S. school districts are interested and hopeful about the power of AI to meet special needs, make teachers’ jobs easier, and accelerate student learning in ways we cannot even imagine today. However, these leaders say their districts are not yet prepared to realize these possibilities. They want help that goes far beyond policy guidance. They worry that without support, student inequities will widen, and only the most advantaged districts and motivated teachers will be able to prepare students for the realities of the AI economy and civic society. One district leader warned, “We can’t blow it here.”

District leaders are excited about the potential of AI

It isn’t surprising that these leaders are excited about AI, given they opted in to be interviewed. However, we were surprised at how strongly leaders felt about how AI could help their students and teachers, even leaders from small rural districts with only a handful of schools. 

They are most enthusiastic about the AI’s potential to make teachers’ jobs easier (e.g., by creating emergency lesson plans and making tutoring more efficient). They also believe AI can help central office and school leaders, address special education and personalized learning, and teach subjects in fundamentally different ways. Leaders see differentiation of instruction based on student needs becoming a real possibility. One leader of a small, rural district said, “I think for teachers it will be a giant time-saver once they learn how to use it … and use it wisely.” Another said that he is optimistic about the potential for AI to help teachers become more effective because the teachers themselves see the possibilities for helping their students with this emerging technology

A few leaders suggest that AI could and should transform teaching and learning altogether. Some foresee struggling students finally getting the personalized support that they need, while others suggest AI could close achievement gaps. Some worry that students won’t be prepared for future jobs if they aren’t taught how to use AI effectively. One leader said, “So that to me is the biggest reason to really forge forward … And integrate AI into our classroom so we can help prepare them for when they go to college or when they enter the workforce to be competitive and be able to secure positions.”

Training teachers is the top concern

Most district leaders report their teachers so far have very little experience with the newest AI tools, leaving them far from realizing even its basic potential. They fear their teachers lack a basic understanding of AI and that this prevents them from accessing training. One leader described the conundrum:

“I think people are too early into the process of truly understanding what it is … I don’t know whether you get that dialogue at a level that’s as deep as it could be because I don’t think there’s a knowledge level there for most of the people. For some, yes, but for most, no.” 

A few are concerned about their own understanding of AI and that their lack of expertise will make it hard for them to know how to assess training themselves. 

In some cases, teachers or central office staff have taken it upon themselves to offer informal workshops and the like. These sites have particularly robust technology staff or teachers who are “on fire about AI” and have taken it upon themselves to learn about AI tools and then develop training for teachers on how they can begin to incorporate AI-enabled tools in their day-to-day teaching. Some of these educator-led trainings emphasize how teachers can save time by having ChatGPT help plan their lessons and develop assessments.

Those without such staff are seeking best practices. Interestingly, they are not relying on state departments of education. Some would like to bring in experts—not vendors—to conduct professional development. Small rural districts express more desire for support, possibly by joining with neighboring districts. 

Secondary concerns include plagiarism, costs, equity, and more

The most common concerns cited by district leaders are, not surprisingly, cheating, plagiarism, and how to help students tell fact from fiction. Looking forward, they wonder whether  AI tools will dumb down student work since students will rely on AI instead of learning some of the “basic functions.” They fear students will rely on AI instead of learning the basics of reading, writing, and math. Fewer worry about student privacy or security, but those concerns are still present.

Some leaders raised existential questions about where advances in AI will lead. They worry about how to help students learn the skills needed for the AI economy and more. One leader described her district’s goal as “being future-focused” and said that as AI tools improve, they need to keep pace so that their students can “engage in the workforce and life in the future.”

One leader who is trying to implement AI-driven changes in teaching and learning suggested that the core challenge ahead is moving not just educators but parents and students past immediate concerns over cheating and privacy issues and toward understanding how beneficial AI will be to students:

“And that’s the struggle… [that] paradigm shift for teachers … There’s also a paradigm shift for parents and the community too … So how do we soften [the AI discussion] so that maybe the adults don’t get so panicky and then we can truly teach the kids what’s the right way to utilize this new technology that will be [with them] throughout their lives?”

Several worry that while some of the tools they find useful, like Magic School, are currently free, but will eventually become unaffordable or that the monthly fee structures many AI tools currently use will balloon out of control. “If I can’t find a financial model that makes sense, then it really doesn’t matter. I’m not going to be able to move it forward.”

Concerned leaders connect these tactical issues to broader observations about inequity and access. They fear AI tools and training may become available only to those districts, schools, and families who can afford them.

Many openly worry whether their teachers will be able to embrace these tools and shift their approach to teaching. Doing so, they expect, will require large-scale training and potentially expensive expert consultants. Still, many teachers—especially those who do not embrace technology—may resist leaving student education around AI up to the whim of each teacher rather than a coordinated district effort. One district leader put it bluntly: “So my worry is that … Our staff does not have the wherewithal to just open their minds and say, ‘Alright, what are possibilities?’ Instead of focusing on what the kids are using it for, how can we utilize it?”

Policy is less important to district leaders than getting support for teachers

Some districts are in the process of developing policies in response to AI, but many have stalled because they are waiting for guidance from state school board associations, national organizations, exemplar districts, or others. 

Some leaders feel their current plagiarism policies are enough. Others are hesitant to enact new policies for several reasons. First, AI is changing so quickly, and policies can be difficult to amend. Second, stakeholders’ opinions and concerns are so divergent that it’s difficult to get everyone on board with new policies and strategic directions. 

One leader said his district is navigating these issues by advocating for a policy that creates bright lines that shouldn’t be crossed but allows and even encourages AI usage in classrooms. He said it is difficult to “define something that is sort of eternally redefining itself.” Another remarked, “So that’s kind of where we’re stuck on the wordsmithing because you want the policy to be as general as possible but speak to a variety of situations that could occur, and there’s conflict within our organization about how far to go or not go.”

Many would like to see model policies but are more interested in getting practical support for themselves, their staff, and their teachers and principals so they can better understand how to use AI to its full potential, where the technology is headed, and how to prepare for the future.


Among the dozens of district leaders who spoke with us about AI, a few described noteworthy efforts their districts are implementing. 

  • One district is asking teachers to identify “essential questions” for each content area and grade level, then will use AI to examine the extent to which their current curriculum matches what students need to learn to answer those essential questions. 
  • In another system, staff are using AI to improve measures and assessments, including using it to craft test questions that students can’t easily use AI to answer. 
  • Another leader described using AI to provide live instructional support to virtual tutors. After AI bots analyze student work and identify mistakes, the tutor can use this information to tailor their coaching to students. 
  • Leaders in two systems are developing AI-enabled tools that can both help students create projects that mix their interests with specific learning targets and identify their strengths and talents.

We need to follow these early experiments to see what helps and hinders these districts as they realize AI’s potential.

Meanwhile, other countries are moving more quickly than the U.S. in helping their K-12 systems maximize the promise and minimize the perils of AI. They are investing in large-scale teacher training programs, online AI curricula for students, tools to help make teachers’ jobs much easier and more effective, and more. U.S. education leaders also say they need and want this kind of large-scale assistance. Without it, it seems likely that teacher uptake will be sporadic, opportunities to customize support for students with unique needs will be missed, and inequities will grow.

The implications are clear: district leaders and educators recognize the potential for AI to help them address the challenges they and their students face. They want help navigating policy, but they primarily want practical tools and guidance to help teachers leverage AI to improve and transform how they prepare their students for the future. It’s time for large-scale federal, state, and local investments to deliver that kind of help. Specifically, educators want: 

  • Innovative delivery models for teacher training so districts do not have to shoulder the time and cost burdens.
  • Targeted support for high-poverty and rural districts.
  • Guidance and support to help educators and system leaders adopt the most effective uses of AI.
  • State and local policy guidance that can be tested and adapted as the field learns more and as AI continues to develop.

One district leader summarized well the pragmatic perspective that pervaded our conversations: 

“So, we have to figure out how to make [AI] a positive force because it’s not going away. We’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle … So, I think we have to figure out ways to make it part of learning and embrace it as part of learning. We have no choice.”

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