Bureaucrats rock!

It’s a commonly-held view that bureaucrats block or resist change. When a new government comes to power, the first target is the bureaucrat. They tend to get the blame for any failings in the system and for stifling innovation and change. While I’m sure we have all experienced this first-hand, fortunately not all bureaucrats are made equal. Gregg Betheil, executive director of school programs and partnerships for the New York City Department of Education (DOE) breaks the mould.

Gary Brown, Anna Dickinson, Paul Meldrum and myself on the steps of the DOE in New York City

On meeting Gregg last week, my colleagues and I were impressed to find the DOE is informed by a powerful theory of action that places students’ learning at the centre of their work. They are committed to improving student learning by building the capacity of teachers; ensuring good leadership; and using a range of data sets and evidence to drive change.

To give you an idea of the DOE context – here are some key numbers:

  • 1,800 schools across the five Burroughs that make up NYC – Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island
  • 1.1 million students
  • 75,000 staff
  • $23 billion operating budget
  • The ratio of students in the US who attend school in NYC is 1:50
  • In the last 10 years, there has been an 80 per cent turnover in principal positions

For several decades, graduation rates in NYC schools had stagnated – only 50 per cent of students were graduating and in the lowest 50 schools, only 1 in 4 students. Today, the graduation rate is up around 67 per cent and the lowest performing school graduates 50 per cent of its cohort. This is a remarkable result which looks set to improve further.

The context Gregg is working in now is referred to as the ‘post Joel Klein era,’ because much of the work started under Klein’s leadership (2002-2011) continues today. Leaving aside some of the more controversial aspects of the Klein agenda, central to the work of improving schooling in the US is a commitment, to not only build a robust school system, but a robust system of great schools.

The DOE recognises the school’s central role in ringing in education innovation and change and as such, gives schools the freedom to innovate and change as they do the work. The role of the DOE then lies in articulating the expectations and, as an accountability measure, in defining standards for school performance. The work of Robert McClintock (1996) helps inform the work of the DOE.

McClintock argues that it is the teachers taking advantage of the digital tools in doing the work where innovative practice can emerge and spread.

As new communications technologies take hold in practice, educators sense that new developments become feasible through them. As diverse educators act in diverse ways on the basis of this shared sense of new potential, they begin to change the character of general practice. (McClintock, 1996)

McClintock also makes the point that with technological innovation basic skills that were once an outcome of education – such as to calculate, spell, remember, visualise, compare and select – are now a given at the outset making for an ‘epistemologically interesting cultural development’.

Knowledge consists primarily of cultural resources that people can store and retrieve on demand, as the need for it arises… People can use digital media both to acquire ideas and to express their thoughts in these diverse ways. As a result, educators will find it increasingly difficult to favour the linguistic modality over all others and they will need to broaden the norms of academic excellence. (Robert McClintock, 1996)

Given the digital revolution is rapidly changing the way people live and work, it is essential for schooling to keep pace with these developments. It was good to see that the essential nature of ICT is recognised in NYC schools as a powerful tool and enabler for learning and teaching. A lot of this work is being implemented using a range of mobile devices but, like all of us, the DOE face similar challenges around vendors, copyright, business models and digital ecosystems.

We found plenty of common ground in meeting with Gregg, the key themes being:
• Building great schools relies on the schools themselves
• Innovation is the lifeblood pumping through quality schools that leads to improvement
• The system has a responsibility for disruptive innovations – i.e. innovations that change the paradigm
• Systems need to remove the blockers for change

It is great to see there are educational institutions with the commitment and intent to drive innovation and change in schooling and a bureaucrat who is leading the way.

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