Image courtesy of iZone

Starting this week, developers from a dozen high tech startups are entering New York City classrooms to help teachers brainstorm solutions to educational challenges. Among their projects: tailoring math lessons to middle-school students whose abilities may be grade-levels apart. The program is hosted by the New York City Department of Education’s Innovation Zone, or iZone, which works with schools to design and pilot new approaches to K to 12 instruction. Started under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010 with a federal Race to the Top grant and with funding from companies including Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, iZone was the first of a growing number of similar programs in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, California and other states. I spoke with Steven Hodas, executive director of iZone’s Innovate NYC Schools initiative, about this coder-educator partnership and about the growing role of technology in the classroom. A condensed and edited version of the interview follows.

Tell me a little bit about iZone’s origins and what it does.

When Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg was elected, he was the first mayor of a large urban district to get mayoral control of schools, and, with Joel Klein as schools chancellor, set about rethinking many of the basic assumptions governing urban education and education in general. Because he had full control and didn’t have to respond to local boards of education, he and Chancellor Klein were able to implement policies that hadn’t been seen before.

Pretty soon, with the policies they put in place, things improved: high school graduation rates went up, math and literacy scores rose. That was great, but soon the gains began to level off. There was still a lot to do, and they were looking for a way to swing for the fences with new untested ideas, to create an R&D lab for education.

Three years ago, the mayor started iZone with a Race to the Top grant. We started with 60 schools focusing mostly on the idea that the more you personalize learning the more effective it is for students, and the more you free up teachers to be creative and do what they came to school to do.

This year, we’re up to about 300 schools in iZone.

And you direct the Innovate NYC Schools initiative, which is part of iZone. What do you do?

My job within iZone is to be the bridge between the Department of Education and the early stage edtech community. What a lot of people have noticed in New York City as we’ve become a center for education technology is that, increasingly, the most innovative companies are not doing business with the Department of Education and, increasingly, they don’t want to do business with the DOE because the process for engaging them is so cumbersome and so not the way entrepreneurs think about their work, that they’ve chosen to shut us out. The smartest, most flexible, most innovative people aren’t helping us solve our problems.

What specific projects are you working on now?

Back in January we launched the first software challenge ever held by a school district [the Gap App Challenge]. Typically, if a district was identified as needing more help with math, the problem would be defined centrally at the district level with little input from teachers and put out as an RFP [request for proposals] and responded to by the same handful of companies that respond to district RFPs. Over many months, a small committee would identify which they thought was best.

We have an Investing in Innovation Development grant [from the U.S. Department of Education] and a component of it is school math. Instead of defining what the problem was in math ourselves, we went and talked to middle school math teachers. We hired [design company] IDEO to lead that process. What we learned was that the problem is not what students know or don’t know, it’s that the range of abilities of the kids coming into middle school in math is so wide that it makes it impossible to teach middle school math to any of the kids. We refer to that as the gap in skills. We issued an open invitation to the edtech community asking for ideas. We were hoping for 40 or 50 responses and we got 200 responses. That’s probably 10 or 15 times what you’d get from a typical RFP. And not only that, the ideas were really, really good. And not only that, but it was public. So that in itself addresses a real problem that educators have: it’s discovery. There are a lot of tools. People just don’t know what they are.

You had three panels of judges, which included teachers, Common Core experts, software developers, and venture capitalists review the 39 semifinalists. They then selected two first and two second place winners – one each for the best instructional app and one for the best administrative or engagement app – in June. What happens now?

We put every one of those 39 semifinalists before the 300 schools we work with and asked, “Would you like to invite one of these companies into your school this year to work with you to refine and iterate their product in the context of a real NYC classroom?” The really interesting output of the work is that a dozen software companies will be working with our educators, improving their software and their understanding of schools while also making our educators more sophisticated about software and what it’s like to be a maker and iterate on a short cycle.

We took a closed procurement process and turned it into a public event where everyone could follow the process and see the results.

How many of your schools have implemented the winning instructional math product, an adaptive online program from New York City and Soeul, Korea-based startup KnowRe?

[It’s not at the stage of implementation yet.]

A dozen schools are engaged in prototyping and development. Dozens and dozens more will be talking with companies who are semifinalists about using their products. Our goal is just to keep track of what happens. Over the course of the next year we’ll see if this plays out in these products being adopted or not. The idea is not for us to say it’s the first place winner and we want everybody to use it. We want to say, this was validated by teachers as a really good piece of software, you should take a look at it.

We are not a technology product, and we are not interested in technology for its own sake. Innovation is not a “thing” but a way of moving. The innovation comes in a willingness to try new things in smart ways that let you learn from your successes and your failures. It’s much more about design and prototyping and iteration than it is about technology, and that’s something that can be very easy to miss.

That goes to my next point, which is that a lot of parents and educators remain skeptical of the value of technology in the classroom. What do you say to the argument that public school teachers would be able to accomplish what many of these software programs do – probably on a much higher level -- if only they had adequate resources and smaller classes?

My guess is that spending on technology is a minuscule fraction of overall spending in education. Most new technology is not coming out of the money used to pay teachers, but instead from the money that could have been spent on textbooks, or money that was dedicated to technology by the legislators who appropriated the funds. So I don’t think the question is, “ Is it better to spend money on an iPad?” The question is, “What can we do to support teachers and improve their work, and make kids better learners, to make kids happier?” It would be bizarre to say technology is the only or best solution for every problem. That would be a crazy thing to say, just like saying that smaller classes are the solution to every problem. The hallmark of our approach is not that we’ve got a hammer. We’ve got a lens. We’re going straight to stakeholders, letting them define the problem and putting that problem out to the community of problem solvers, and then bringing those solutions back to stakeholders--in this case, teachers--to let them decide what works and how to improve it further. I can’t think of anything that’s more respectful of teachers.

What do you think is driving all of the change in education now, from the Common Core standards to the Next Generation Science Standards, to the new partnerships like yours between departments of education and technology companies?

Some people might say it’s been going on since the 1980s, but certainly since No Child Left Behind. We’ve decided we’re going to pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in schools and to what kids are learning. We added high-stakes consequences to make sure everyone paid attention, because until there were consequences nobody really cared. After 10 or 12 years of people caring a lot and spending a lot more on schools, and a lot of magic bullets being tried and then not getting instant results that were uniformly positive, it makes some people anxious, it makes some people concerned with outcomes, and policy makers are looking for other ways to do things. We “tried accountability,” quote unquote, and found that even with accountability systems and people paying a lot of attention, that things were not changing fast enough for all kids. So now with Common Core and NextGen we’re looking at the content of what we’re holding people accountable for.

What makes the work that iZone does important?

It’s a good idea to have a safe space where a different set of values can come to the top of the stack and people have a chance to iterate new ideas quickly and inexpensively, where the stakes of failing are low, because it’s only in that situation where you’re ever going to get innovation and the openness to the risk-taking that all new work requires. Our goal is to be really, really open about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.

Our job has been to create models that other people can follow. We’ve proposed a panel at South By Southwest next year on this idea of flipping procurement via software challenges. Last year, at least a quarter of the South By Southwest education panels used the word ‘innovation.’

And “disruption.”

I actually don’t love that word for K12. I’m not sure it’s possible or necessarily desirable. There are reasons – good reasons -- why school districts are conservative. And one of the downsides of this embrace of innovation is, if you talk to teachers or principals who have been in the system for a long time, it’s, “Oh, yeah, we’ve been through this flavor of the month thing. There’s a big fuss, and then it will fail and we’ll wait it out.” And they see their job as being to close their classroom door and hope it doesn’t interfere with their work. There’s a need to understand among people who promote innovation, that innovation for its own sake is pointless. You don’t want to do something just because it’s new. You’re doing something new because you have a hypothesis about why it’s going to be better. We should spend less time thinking about the newness and more time thinking about the betterness. And we need to be respectful of educators.