Why One Innovator is Leaving the Public Sector

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Hiroko Masuike / The New York Times / Reuters

Students at the School of One program at Middle School 131 in Chinatown use laptops for math lessons in the form of quizzes, games and worksheets, NYC, July 7th, 2009.

Lately you can't turn around in education without bumping into someone talking about innovation. The President is asking Congress for more federal support for educational innovation in this year's budget, more and more school districts are naming "innovation officers," and just last week a group of Silicon Valley start-up veterans launched a new incubator for innovative education companies. But while innovation is a catchy buzzword, on the ground conditions are often anything but innovative. This week, the resignation of a school administrator in New York City who most readers have probably never heard of vividly illustrates that disconnect.

Joel Rose, 40, got his start teaching in Houston with Teach For America. After law school and a stint at Edison Schools, he landed at the New York City Department of Education leading a personnel strategy for that massive 1.1. million student system. Rose was struck, as many observers are, by how little technology had changed education relative to most other fields during the past few decades. So he started a program within the New York City Public Schools called "School of One" that uses technology to offer a completely customized schooling experience for each student.

Once derided as the "school of none" because of its seeming slow pace in launching, School of One is now a leading example of a growing number of "blended" learning initiatives that combine online content with live teaching. Its three programs (located in public schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn) currently provide math instruction to 1,500 students with results that outpace those for similar students. In addition to live teaching, content is provided online from more than 50 different sources. That enables customized programming for each student based on their ability and needs.

Each day when students arrive, large flat-screen monitors tell them where to go. Students then work with teachers, individually or online, or in small groups depending on where they are relative to the standards New York State requires all students to master. Quick assessments at the end of each day inform an algorithm that is married with the judgment of the teachers to determine what a student will do the next day. Although technophiles marvel at all the computers and the online content, the real breakthrough is how technology allows teachers to make sure no one is falling through the cracks. Students who are mastering material are quickly recognized and stretched while students who are struggling receive extra help immediately. Sounds obvious, but while good teachers can do this in their classrooms today, very few schools have figured out how to accomplish it on a school-wide basis.

So why did Rose quit?

School of One was developed by New York City but needs to spin out of city government as its own non-profit organization so the idea can be replicated elsewhere. But, as a city employee, Rose cannot negotiate the terms of that spin-off even though he's the person who should and will run the new non-profit. What's more, under the city's conflict of interest rules, he cannot even talk to the city for a year after leaving employment there. That makes sense to prevent undue lobbying, but how could you possibly launch or run a program in the city's schools without being able to talk to city officials?

The city could set-up a city controlled or "captive" non-profit, but most observers agree that's not a good idea over the long haul given the politics surrounding school administration. Run it from inside the city's Department of Education? Public sector bureaucracies and innovative ventures are pretty incompatible today because of a variety of rules and practices around procurement, contracting, and so forth.

Obviously, the public sector needs transparency and clear conflict of interest rules. But the issue here is different. School of One is an example of two powerful and promising emergent trends in public education. One of those is the move toward "unbundling" schooling so that schools can access the best tools and services to meet their needs rather than being locked into enormous publishing and content superstructures. The second is the burgeoning move toward more public sector innovation.

To effectively harness the energy from those trends, public school systems need to make sure that conflict of interest and other procurement rules are at once rigorous but also nimble enough to support genuine innovation by allowing new ideas to flourish, grow, and ultimately spin-off or travel to other places. Today, however, most investors are scared off because public education is so ill-suited to growing new ideas and new ventures. That's why a handful of giant companies reign supreme. It's also why cities like New York have to pay vendors to develop ideas like School of One rather than having more companies willing to put capital at risk to try new ideas that they could then spread elsewhere.

Figuring out the regulatory balance between innovation and public sector work is the mundane but vital task for fostering innovation in a publicly-controlled industry like education. We're obviously a long way from that goal if you have to quit your job in public education to be a public sector innovator in education.

Disclosure: Bellwether has consulted for Wireless Generation, a company that was instrumental in creating School of One. That work, however, was unrelated to the School of One initiative.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.