‘We’re going to have to be a little more nimble’: How school districts are responding to AI

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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation.

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A few weeks ago, we took a look at generative AI’s potential to change teaching and learning on college campuses around the country. This week, I spoke with experts and educators in K-12 to see what they think about these new tools.

Jeremy Roschelle, an executive director at education nonprofit Digital Promise and the lead researcher on a new report on the topic from the Department of Education Office of Educational Technology, recommends that schools and educators spend the upcoming school year in a phase of cautious exploration of generative AI.

Roschelle said he wants to see school leaders and educators experiment in ways that don’t carry big risks for students, such as changing a few lesson plans. “I personally would advise school districts not to rush into buying a particular product, but really treat this year as a chance to educate yourself,” he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Richard Culatta, CEO of ISTE, which recently published a guide on AI in collaboration with AASA, the School Superintendents Association. What schools need to do, he said, is provide teachers with a better understanding of what AI is and share examples of how to use it.

“Don’t try to make a policy. Don’t try to make a decision. Don’t try to rewrite or curb your curriculum,” he said. “Just dedicate the time to exploring what it can do, what it can’t do.”

Superintendent Louis Steigerwald said that’s exactly the plan in his district, Norway-Vulcan Area Schools in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While he’s heard from teachers who’d prefer to simply ignore AI, he doesn’t think that’s realistic. Instead, he’s encouraging teachers to use the summer to explore AI, in part by selecting an AI tool of their choice and thinking about how it could be incorporated into the classroom this fall.

The district is also planning to hold several professional development training sessions to help educators learn how to use AI in the classroom, he added. He anticipates that some teachers will be hesitant.

Related: How college educators are using AI in the classroom

“I can almost guarantee you that the first questions are going to be, ‘What are we gonna do about kids who use it to cheat?’” Steigerwald said. His response: The district’s policies around cheating and plagiarism remain unchanged, and the district plans to educate parents and students about the honor code. In addition, teachers are encouraged to use software company Turnitin’s AI detector to check for plagiarism.

Benjamin W. Cottingham, associate director of strategic partnerships at Stanford University’s Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), who recently co-authored a brief urging school districts to use this summer to develop clear guidance on AI use, said there’s little evidence right now that AI detection tools are effective. “It’s maybe a tired cliche, but it’s kind of like the wild west right now,” he said.

Steigerwald, though, said he hopes that if educators acquaint themselves with tools like ChatGPT, they’ll begin to see the limits of AI writing: It lacks the “voice” of student writing.

For now, he said he doesn’t think generative AI tools will have an immediate impact in early elementary classrooms, either as an instructional tool or a cheating risk (“You can’t fake knowing your ABCs,” he said). But in middle school or high school, he said AI could aid teachers by analyzing student work and giving suggestions for improvement, or serving as an aid for students who need remedial help.

“The biggest thing that’s scary right now about AI is how fast it’s come upon us,” Steigerwald said. “We’re not the nimblest of industries typically. We’re going to have to be a little more nimble than we’ve been in the past.”

According to Roschelle, new generative AI tools build on existing AI tools, like intelligent tutoring systems, that educators have used for years to help work individually with students. ChatGPT and other generative AI go steps further, and can create personalized lesson plans and conduct human-like conversations with students.

But, he noted, there’s virtually no research yet on the new tools’ efficacy, so educators need to proceed cautiously.

PACE’s Cottingham recommends some low-risk ways of using the tool, such as for helping students understand misuses of AI, like plagiarizing, or for drafting essay outlines. Cottingham said he’s seen teachers encourage students to use ChatGPT or other generative AI chatbots to help write a first draft of a report, but then require them to write the full essay in class without the tool.

Kusum Sinha, superintendent at Garden City Public Schools in New York, said AI is here to stay — and she wants the educators and students in her district to be prepared to know how to engage with it. This is why providing educator training on how to incorporate generative AI tools, especially for her high school teachers, is a priority for her district this year, she said.

The district has already held sessions on the different types of AI, and how educators can use AI tools to help with lesson planning, administrative tasks and creating materials tailored to a child’s educational needs. Her district has also started introducing generative AI to some of its high school students and plans to develop courses on AI learning for students next school year.

At the end of the day, “AI can’t replace a teacher,” Kusum said. As AI becomes readily accessible to students, it is going to be up to educators to really teach kids to take a cautious, informed approach to AI, she said.

“Because AI [does] not always [have] accurate information. You may get some insights, but you still have to read, you still have to understand the topic that you are referring to. AI doesn’t replace people,” Kusum said.

Read all three reports on AI in K12:

  • Artificial intelligence and the future of teaching and learning: Insights and recommendations — The Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology report provides insights from months of listening sessions with school leaders and educators on how they want to see AI influence teaching and learning and what they believe are the biggest risks.
  • Bringing AI to schools: Tips for school leaders — This guide from ISTE; AASA, the School Superintendents Association; ASCD, the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals; and the National Association of Elementary Principals is a good place to start for educators just beginning to explore AI. Not only does it break down the various types of AI technologies, it provides examples of tools that can be used in schools.
  • The urgent need to update district policies on student use of artificial intelligence in education — This policy brief from Policy Analysis for California Education, at Stanford’s School of Education, provides a summary of action items that districts should be thinking about ahead of this coming school year. It recommends adopting a clear policy on AI, rather than simply banning generative AI tools outright.

This story about AI in K-12 classrooms was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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