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Christian Bason

Innovation machine helps New York schools

By October 22nd 2012

This article has previously been published in the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen.

As a consequence of poor results in New York schools, the city council has established the iZone organisation. It has led the schools through a thorough change, in which responsibility and freedom go hand in hand. Now the next paradigm shift is waiting.

A couple of months ago I blogged on humble policy development, about how we often assume that new public policies, regulations, budgets and programmes  automatically become the reality we imagine. But I also wrote that the truth is often otherwise: It is often the case that at the end of the day there has been no noticeable change for the people.

So, we must find smarter ways from policy to practice. The question is how?

Recently in Denmark we were visited by an organisation which I believe shows the way from strategy to concrete change in the public sector. New York City has established the organisation iZone under the Department of Education as a tool for transforming the public school system.

iZone is the culmination of a transformational process that has brought the New York schools from crisis to consolidation. Now the focus is on real innovative thinking about what a school can actually be.

The school crisis, which was at its worst ten years ago, meant that only 40% of a class year in the New York public schools obtained their diploma.

The consolidation was a matter of holding school administrators accountable, yet freeing them. It was made possible to dismiss administrators who did not achieve results. Direct review of the schools’ academic performance was implemented, with publication of results for the best and worst institutions alike. On the other hand, administrators were for the first time allowed to manage their own budgets, and were given much greater freedom to set up their school’s structure and teaching as they wish.

The accountability meant that the worst administrators were removed, and their was great pressure to produce results. At present a good 60% of a class receive their high school diplomas. That is a vast improvement, but naturally not good enough. So how does one carry out the next paradigm shift?

Innovation is the answer, and that is precisely the phase that the New York schools have entered. This is taking place on the basis that administrators are having difficulty using their newly accorded freedom to think differently in practice. Therefore, the New York Board of Education concluded that they need help – innovation help.

iZone, or the New York City Innovation Zone, was founded with the aim of formulating a number of central principles for school reform, then actively helping schools to transform the principles into local changes.

The idea is to help more than 200 public schools to rethink their efforts. Here are three principles iZone is following which I believe could inspire Danish politicians, top officials and public developers:

  • Establish a main idea. iZone puts citizens at the centre of how schools will create value. The main principle for the reform work in New York is individualised learning, i.e., the idea that every student has his or her own way and pace of learning. The idea is not just attractive, it is also supported by comprehensive scientific evidence. iZone has made great efforts to communicate the concept clearly to the schools.
  • Start with the administration. According to iZone vice-director Stacey Gillett, iZone’s success will stand or fall according to which administrators will commit to the programme. This entails, for example, that a school cannot get by with merely sending in a formal application to participate in iZone. The school will also be visited by the iZone team, and the school principal and key staff will be thoroughly interviewed about their ideas for changes at the school. The purpose is to ensure that there is genuine commitment and sufficient competence to bring the new measures to life.
  • Invest in the innovation process. The very central premise of iZone is that the board invest significant resources to support the school’s efforts to find its own solutions and measures that work best for it. This involves extensive process support, partly from a central team in New York consisting of former school principals and others with deep sector experience, in an ongoing dialogue with the schools, and partly from a wide variety of designers and innovation experts who can facilitate the schools’ own local processes by rethinking and redesigning teaching forms, physical facilities and the use of technology, for example. the schools themselves choose whom they will work with. Even experts from Sweden and Great Britain have been invited to help. Just think about that point for a minute: The Americans are asking Europe for help in rethinking public service…

iZone is thus an innovation machine. It is a break from the notion that if we just provide the right economic incentives, the people “out there” will surely figure it out. Nonetheless, iZone is investing significant resources to make the vision of “focus on the student” a reality.

According to iZone’s Stacey Gillett, around $200,000 (1.5 million kroner) is being used in each school over three years for process support. With 200 schools (25% off the total in New York) in the programme, the sum corresponds roughly to one-thousandth of the city’s overall annual school budget. Altogether, it is a matter of around 75 million kroner annually, when we are talking about 200 schools. The funds come partly from the city, partly from independent foundations such as the Gates Foundation.

This leads me to a central question: Are we in Denmark ready to invest as much as one-thousandth of our overall operating budgets in process support  in the social sector, the health sector, the education sector – in order to increase the likelihood of succeeding in what we want to do?

If the answer is yes, then let us see some more innovation machines on the Danish public landscape. Only in that way will we go from policy to practice.

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