Can Districts Learn to Innovate? Lessons from NYC

We at CRPE have been watching the evolution of New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) “iZone” for years. Betheny Gross and I did a paper on the early days of the iZone, when the district was asking about 200 schools to radically rethink their instruction, assessment, and staffing to revolve around personalization and customization for each student. NYCDOE later went well beyond this “school design” approach to personalized learning, understanding that schools can’t really innovate unless districts do, too.

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As part of the iZone effort, the district looked for new ways to procure novel solutions to instructional and other challenges in the school system. This new attempt to connect entrepreneurs with educators and curate new solutions, called “Innovate NYC Schools,” is the subject of the paper we’re releasing today. Steven Hodas, who managed the Innovate NYC effort, writes about why the district took on this challenge and what he and his colleagues learned from the experience. Little things, like locating the office among tech entrepreneurs and doing hack-a-thons and video challenges, rather than traditional RFPs, are examples of how hard Steven tried to shake things up.

Steven’s paper should be essential reading for any school district interested in clearing a path for innovation through a bureaucracy built for another purpose entirely. The iZone effort in NYC shouldn’t be considered a paradigm, but rather a pioneer effort that certainly should inform other district innovation efforts.

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