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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: An Insider’s Perspective on Urban District Innovation

Steven Hodas (@stevenhodas) is a veteran of both the New York City Department of Education and the edtech industry. In this blog series, School District Innovation: When Practice Collides with Policy, he provides insights into the challenges, struggles, and opportunities of large-district attempts to reform longstanding practices and change cultural norms. This series is part of CRPE’s ongoing examination of innovative school systems.

Policy versus Practice
Policy versus Practice

For about ten years, beginning in 2002, I harbored an unusual desire for a life-long entrepreneur: to become an employee of the NYC Department of Education (DOE), the nation’s largest school district and perhaps its most notoriously bureaucratic. I wanted to become one of those bureaucrats.

Allow me to explain.

In 1999 my daughter started kindergarten under the 40-year-old Board of Education system, run by local school boards and community superintendents. Kids went to their closest neighborhood school, there were no charter schools, and “school choice” meant moving to a wealthier, whiter neighborhood if you were able to. As a parent your universe was your local district, not unlike the medieval village that was the entire world for its serfs. Everything that mattered about schools sat right there, for better and for worse.

In 2002 Michael Bloomberg became the first mayor to gain control of his schools. He brought in Joel Klein to initiate what is to this day one of the most radical and sustained campaigns of systemic change ever attempted (for Klein’s account, see his new book, Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools). A year later my son started first grade and so we now had two kids bobbing on the sea of a far-reaching and tumultuous educational upheaval. Testing, accountability, and unheard-of private-sector notions of management featured prominently. Parents were murmuring on the playground, skeptical and concerned.

My vantage point was somewhat different from those of the other parents. As an executive at The Princeton Review I had recently built a platform for formative assessment and personalized learning, the first of its kind. Joel Klein became our customer and I was having my first experience as a vendor to a large school district (our customers grew to include six of the ten largest U.S. school districts, before we flamed out a few years later).

If you’re not a big company like Pearson or Scholastic, becoming a vendor to a large school district is a test of endurance and a kind of ritual indoctrination, like Hell Week for aspiring Navy SEALs but longer and with less sand and vomit. If you make it through, you enter a world governed by values and practices that most civilians cannot imagine. You see how decisions are made, how difficult things get done at great scale, how the organization defines its missions and sets its priorities. It’s often inspiring and often not very.

As a vendor on key projects you have one foot in and one foot outside the organization, retaining some of the outsider’s objectivity while appreciating how little outsiders really understand. It’s a fascinating place to sit, especially since our work on assessment and personalized professional development—both key components of Klein’s early efforts to upgrade teaching and learning—was at first little-understood both inside the traditional DOE cultures and by the circles of increasingly restive playground parents.

That project and others—which ended up lasting five years and spanned levels from the classroom up to the Chancellor’s Cabinet—fed my fascination with the good, the bad, and the ugly of how districts deal with complex political and logistical challenges and the wildly conflicting agendas of their stakeholders. Given how hard so many people there were trying (or not), it seemed like we should be able to create better environments for teachers, parents, and students.

I left Princeton Review in 2007 and joined the nascent edtech startup scene, launching a couple of my own and advising others on how to build useful products and do business with large districts (sadly, there is often little connection between those two goals). For me this is a public good because schools have to buy things and having better tools in the hands of educators and administrators makes a difference, just as it does in every work place. As I’ll show later in this series, it’s extremely difficult for a new, small company to break into large districts and, so districts end up buying from the same large, entrenched vendors over and over, and getting the same results.

At the same time I was trying to work the demand side of the equation, to get people inside the bureaucracy to see the value of working with more agile, more innovative, more customer-focused companies. That effort yielded precisely nothing because of the nature of the problem itself: if you’re outside, you’re Outside, and no one inside particularly cares what you think, no matter how relevant it may be to their jobs.

In 2012 I got my chance. New York was the recipient of a $3M Investing in Innovation grant that could be used to work on this problem, which I had come to define as one of “smart demand:” how could you help large, inflexible, bureaucratic organizations use their market power for good? How could you help them to do a better job of defining their problems and finding the best solutions? How could you make them be, not just more effective, but also more empathetic and user-centered?

For the next two years I served as executive director in the DOE’s Office of Innovation (also know as the iZone). Along with a set of amazing colleagues we did things that no district had tried before and set examples for how they could better engage with their stakeholders, the marketplace, and innovator communities of all kinds.

As a parent, I came to understand why my kids and I had some of the baffling experiences that we did. As a bureaucrat, I was able to experience from inside the organizational logic and culture that so often drove behavior in directions that were at odds with our nominal goals. As a bridge to the community of startups and their investors, I was increasingly able to make sense and use of my own experiences as a vendor years before.

In this series I’ll explore what I learned about school districts, filtered though my perspective as a parent, vendor, and bureaucrat/policymaker, and offer some ideas on how we might collectively remake school systems to be more effective, more personalized, and more humane for everyone involved.

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