New York: An EdTech Hotspot, A Stalled District

With 1.1 million students and 1,700 schools, New York City is the largest district in the country and the most diverse and mature system of school choice. By opening 528 new schools since 2002, New York was for a decade the most aggressive city at closing and replacing failing schools (a strategy validated by a Study).  The city remains a hotspot for startups but for three years  this district has been adrift and the innovation agenda appears to be withering.
Backstory. Innovative new school development began in the 1970’s. Seymour Fliegel, first as the Director of Alternative Schools and then as Deputy Superintendent, changed the education landscape by creating a network of small schools as an alternative to traditional schools. Fliegel won an Astor Award for his contribution and continues to lead the Center for Educational Innovation, Public Education Association (CEI-PEA).
I remember reading Fliegel’s Miracle in East Harlem as a new superintendent in 1994. Rudy Crew may have recommended it, he was superintendent in neighboring Tacoma and a mentor before becoming Chancellor in NYC in 1995. One of the innovations that Rudy introduced was the Chancellor’s district, a differentiated approach to supporting struggling schools — a foundational strategy for the portfolio approach common in most urban districts and the basis for federal School Improvement Grants.
Harold Levy followed Crew as Chancellor in 2000 (he’s now attacking the under match problem at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation). With help from Gates, Carnegie, and other foundations, new school development accelerated under his leadership. There was a charter school cap, so all the new schools were district schools but supported by an array of high capacity intermediary organizations (below). The Julia Richman complex was the best early example of small autonomous schools sharing a large facility.
New schools. New York benefits from numerous high capacity intermediary organizations. New Visions for Public Schools has been the most productive intermediary in the country, supporting over 200 new schools in the last decade.  These days, they support 73 district schools and 4 charters.  EDesign Lab was an effort to crank up their innovation agenda.
[10/17/14 note: MDRC issued an updated evaluation of new school development in NYC noting the improved graduation rates of the new schools–often twice that of the schools that were closed and replaced]
New York is home to great school developers: Urban Assembly, Expeditionary Learning, Asia Society, Internationals Network, and National Academy Foundation, the network of 460 career academies (that recently launched a partnership for real-time student data).
Turnaround for Children knows what school turnaround really takes. They recently published two reports that outline robust student supports.
When Joel Klein took over as Chancellor in 2002, he had Mayor Bloomberg’s support to close failing schools and open new schools. Klein assembled a world class team of educators including Michele Cahill from Carnegie. Leaders from Klein’s cabinet have gone on to lead districts and states around the country. Klein’s decade of leadership made NYC the most important and innovative in the country. But all of the innovation and new school development seems to have ground to a halt with the new mayor and chancellor.
Great Charters. The charter cap was lifted in 2010 leading to high growth for a couple years. Charters account for about 5 percent of public school students in NYC (there are 110 school districts where at least 10 percent of students attend public charter schools). New York is home to some of the best school networks in the country including Achievement First, Democracy Prep, KIPP, Success Network, and Village Academy.  Their world class performance makes charter antagonism obviously political.  New charters are supported by the New York Charter School Center and a great state association.
Charter development has been supported by facilities developers like Civic Builders (read this great feature on founder Brian Olson) and by advocacy groups including Democrats for Education Reform.
Talent Development. Wendy Kopp launchedTeach for America nearly 24 years ago in NYC. This year there are 800 corps members in over 250 schools. The hidden impact story is the 3,800 alumni in the area and two thirds are still active in education and 190 leading schools.
John Schnurr launched New Leaders in 2000 with the goal of building a cadre of great school leaders and transforming leadership preparation. In their first decade they trained 800 leaders nationwide including 125 New Leaders in NYC.
The Education Pioneers alumni network is now over 180 strong in the New York Metro area and multiplying quickly. They hosted their biggest graduate school fellowship cohort ever in 2012 with 77 fellows in NYC and Newark supporting the work of 30 organizations including the DOE, charters, and edtech innovators. Analyst fellows continue providing analytic capacity various organizations.
Innovation Agenda.  New York City is second only to the Bay Area in importance as a source of innovations. As the financial capital of the world, NYC is home to many scaled education industry participants and the private equity firms that support them. More recently NYC has blossomed as the second most important EdTech hotspot.
Education Idea Exchange NYC is a community of edupreneurs with monthly meet ups organized by  by 4.0 Schools, a nonprofit that brings together a similar community of people experimenting with new ideas in education.
New York is a creative city—a place where “aspirational energies could anchor and thrive,” said Steven Hodas, tech entrepreneur now serving as Executive Director of InnovateNYC for the NYC Department of Education. InnovateNYC received a federal i3 grant to build an ecosystem connecting school needs with solution developers. It’s part of the NYC iZone, an innovation hub and change management model that started as 81 schools in 2010 now includes nearly 300 schools from across the city.
Two iZone initiatives of note include the Blended Learning Institute, which serves as a two-year certificate program with the goal of preparing teachers to lead 21st century classrooms and the Innovation Challenges, an open call to iZone360 schools to propose ideas that they want to test using a user-centered design process that aims to tackle a sharp and focused aspect of a problem in an innovative way.
Last year’s Gap App Challenge resulted in positive collaborations between NYC schools and 12 software companies to iterate and improve products for use in large urban districts. It was the first time a school district had used an open challenge as a procurement alternative.
Last year, the iZone worked with NYC’s Office of Student Enrollment to run a two-month School Choice Design Charrette in which a half-dozen developers created apps to help families through the city’s high school decision process. Additionally, iZone is working with several DOE offices and other NYC agencies to support the NYC BigApps event, with themes including family engagement, discovery of after-school and pre-K programs, and student access to mental health services.
Other ongoing iZone work includes its Asynchronous Learning Pilots, in which ten schools award credit based on mastery of learning objectives rather than strictly seat time; support for new teachers through the Blended Learning Institute; and the anticipated opening this fall of the iZone Academy.
In a sector where a good idea won’t walk across the street, New York’s iZone was a thoughtful and productive large scale R&D efforts, but after the mayoral election the head of the iZone left the department for a local philanthropy–and there doesn’t appears to be much support for an innovation agenda.
Education Industry. The following are the larger and more notable education companies in NYC:

  • Pearson’s U.S. headquarters is in New York. North American K-12 and professional revenues are about $6 billion. A big part of the curriculum team across the river in Upper Saddle River is moving to Hoboken.
  • McGraw Hill Education was spun out and acquired by Apollo; since the spin out they acquired the rest of ALEK and super gradebook Engrade.
  • Scholastic is the fourth largest publisher with widely used titles like Read180.
  • Building on NewsCorpsWirelessGeneration acquisition, Joel Klein and Larry Berger are building out a cool tablet bundle at Amplify.
  • Knewton, the adaptive learning folks (see blog about developmental math at ASU).
  • Mosaica Education, one of the larger charter management organizations, has a growing online learning operation, and an integrated elementary humanities curriculum, Paragon.
  • has been tutoring online since 1998.
  • BrainPop creates animated content used at school and at home.
  • 2U, the public higher ed online learning partner, has an office at Chelsea Piers near Noodle, another company founded by John Katzman .

EdTech Startups. Below are a few notable NYC edtech startups:

  • General Assembly is a cool coworking space with collaborative learning in tech, business, and design.
  • Skillshare allows anyone to teach anything anytime for free.
  • eduClipper is a well-executed Pinterest clone for education.
  • Avenues is Chris Whittle’s global private school network. Here is NY Magazine feature.
  • Late Nite Labs provides science lab simulations for online blended learning. This is dramatically increasing access for students in schools without formal science labs both K-12 and Higher Ed.
  • Chalkable aims to be the best web app store for education. If they pull it off and add rating features, this could be pretty innovative.
  • Knowledge Delivery Systems provides teacher professional development.
  • Unbound Concepts is building a proprietary natural language processing algorithm that can understand authored content in a deep ontological fashion. Their first app, BookLeveler is an iOS-based App that provides a format for educators to share real-time, first-hand input on books and content used in the learning environment.
  • Learn Bop provides a one-on-one tutoring experience that is completely personalized. It guides students step-by-step through solutions so that they can immediately learn from their mistakes. Teachers can author content, choose from a wide variety of user-generated content, and get immediate feedback and data about their students performance.
  • Kinvolved is a simple automated mobile platform, which allows teachers to inform parents and guardians of student absenteeism in real time. Through immediate communication of attendance information, Kinvolved aims to increase student attendance and family engagement in education, especially in disadvantaged or underserved communities.
  • ShowMe offers an elegant iPad authoring tool that enables the development and publishing of user-generated lessons.
  • HireArt helps companies gain a deeper understanding of applicant skills with work samples and video interviews.
  • Storybird are short, art-inspired stories you make to share, read, and print.

Investors & Bankers. Hundreds of investors and bankers make New York hum; here’s a few active in EdTech:

  • Rethink Education is a new edu venture capital firm formed by a couple early Wireless Generation investors. (See Boosting Impact, a white paper we co-authored.)
  • Expansion Venture Capital is an active seed stage edtech investor.
  • Spark Capital has invested in a couple education deals including, Altius Education, DIY, and Skillshare.
  • City Light is an impact investor and backer of 2U (which went public in March 2012)

Foundations are plentiful in New York. Carnegie has been a partner with Gates on school turnaround and new school development. Robertson, Tiger, and Robin Hood have been a big supporters of charter schools and youth and family services. The Ford Foundation supports innovative secondary school developers in NYC including Steve Barr’s Future is Now and Generation Schools.
Higher Ed. The EdLab at Columbia Teachers College is an R&D center for an “education sector that is attuned to the emerging post-industrial, information-based world.” Projects that will have a broad impact include their Vialogue series ,Launch Pad, and New Learning Times.
City University, NYC College of Tech, and IBM supported the design of an innovative 9-14 STEM school first deployed at a school called P-TECH and now is serving as the basis for additional schools throughout the city, state, and nation. NYU’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation holds three annual venture competitions.
Bank Street College has a well regarded teacher preparation program. Relay GSE is a new innovative independent competency-based school (featured in Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning) with new branches in New Orleans and Denver.
Council for Aid to Education administers an innovative value-added college assessment while also reviewing Coursera courses for credit.
Smart City. New York is the financial capital of the world and the largest school district in the country; until recently education and finance had little to do with each other. The high profile launch of Edison almost 20 years ago proved to be a false start but did lead to a wave of innovative school developers. The EdTech boom that fired up in 2010 doesn’t rely on top down decision making as much as viral adoption by teachers and students.
Despite state barriers to online learning, young people in NYC are taking advantage of anywhere, anytime learning. The NYC Department of Education has been slow to improve student access to technology. The iZone was the largest blended learning initiative in the country but its future seems in question. Outside the district, the learning revolution will continue. The confluence of money, talent, culture, and growing demand for learning will ensure that NYC will remain a edtech hotspot. Just sign up for a General Assembly class and get a glimpse of the future.
This post is a compilation and update of several older posts.  eduClipper, General Assembly, ShowMe, HireArt and Storybird are portfolio companies of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Tom Vander Ark

An insider (via email) compared early reforms to benefit of Bloomberg/Klein reform, "it was approached systematically and at a large scale. Systematically means as a competition against design elements,using school developers, with an HR strategy to staff well with principals and teachers, and engage community and civic partners in an organized and coherent way and work for continuous improvement."

Tom Vander Ark

I forgot, a cool artifact collection and portfolio system

Tom Vander Ark

I left off, a nonprofit R&D shop powering Teach to One (School of One in NYC), an individual rotation model now powering 15 middle school math programs

MAK Mitchell, Consensus Now!

Having been part of the leadership in NYC from 2003 to 2012 I found this to be a great summary, but missing a focus on governance tactics which were essential to the school reforms. We viewed schools as the unit of change AND we understood the importance of gaining support from the Panel for school closures. That governance structure was strategically designed by Bloomberg and Klein and it was relentlessly focused on gaining equity for all DOE students despite the fact that their parents and unions fought just as relentlessly to keep failing schools open. Without this structure and orchestration of productive conflict, the small school and charter reforms with their network structure would not have been possible.
A second, less obvious grass roots governance structure was the Campus based Building Council, designed to create a coherent form of governance on large campuses were multiple schools and charters shared space. Almost 900 schools were eventually part of this effort, and without it, the powerful personalized learning reforms that took place inside these small schools (later captured in the MDRC study) would not have been realized.
So the lessons learned from these governance strategies may be important in creating conditions of learning for such reforms elsewhere in the US: Instructional implementation without coherent governance conditions is useless.

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