Until 2012, Steven Hodas spent his career outside public education, most recently as an entrepreneur and an adviser to startups.
Now, he’s bringing his entrepreneurial spirit and energy “inside” the nation’s largest school system as the executive director of Innovate NYC Schools, a district initiative to discover and expand educational technologies with high potential for transforming classrooms toward more personalized, student-centered models.
His group works within the iZone, a community of nearly 300 public schools in the city committed to personalizing their learning environments to accelerate college and career readiness for students. But he’s also reaching out to software developers and connecting them with the problems the city wants to solve—from below-grade-level mathematics performance for 60 percent of 6th graders, to helping students and parents wade through the often-overwhelming high school choice process.
Mr. Hodas, 53, is chipping away at the monolithic procurement system in New York City by directly connecting developers with the end users who need help solving their problems. His main tool thus far has been introducing competitions in which small and midsize companies are invited to tackle challenges faced by educators, students, or parents in the school system. The winners receive cash prizes and the chance to pilot their technology in the innovative schools with educators. In a way, Mr. Hodas hopes to bridge what he calls “the moat” between the needs of the school system’s 1.1 million students and 135,000 employees and the hundreds of companies that would like to provide programs and products to meet those needs.
The Gap App Challenge was the first of the district’s competitions to benefit the iZone, and eventually other schools in the district. Through that challenge in 2013, 200 software developers submitted ed-tech strategies to address the performance lag in middle school math. Educators from the city’s public schools were on the panel of judges. Winners shared more than $100,000 in prizes and the chance to be considered for school-based pilots. Today, software-development teams are working with students and educators in 50 schools and “improving how [each] product works and the way teaching works with that product,” Mr. Hodas said.
Toward an ‘Ecosystem’
The partnership derails the typically adversarial procurement process, where “what’s good for me is bad for you,” Mr. Hodas said. “Part of the goal [of the challenge] is to make developers smarter.” Instead of a zero-sum game, he is dedicated to an “ecosystem” in which partners learn, grow, and benefit as much as possible.
Following the math challenge, the iZone set up a one-day Music Education Hackathon that produced 40 music education tools, and then a School Choice Design Challenge, in which six teams produced technology that could eventually help 80,000 8th graders and their families find and choose a high school from among more than 700 program options.
Each of the challenges began with defining the problem by the people who grapple with it every day.
“When we talked to middle school math teachers and curriculum coaches, we asked, ‘What’s the problem with middle school math?’ Nobody said, ‘fractions’ or ‘percentages,'” Mr. Hodas said. What makes teaching middle school math so difficult is the wide range of abilities within a given class, and the gap in proficiency, he said.
Mr. Hodas is the first to say that he did not invent this sort of “user-centered design,” but he can be credited with applying the approach to New York City’s schools. Instead of creating a specification, as is typically done in procurement, the “problem statement” becomes the rallying point for creative solutions. For the music “hackathon,” developers were asked to provide solutions for music teachers that would help students better understand the technicalities of volume and pitch, encourage students’ collaboration and practice, track progress, and give educators a new way to work with parents.
“Steven is about 10 years ahead of where everybody else is in his thinking about how the iZone can scale innovation to a large number of schools,” said Sara A. Schapiro, the director of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of 40 school districts and education agencies committed to demonstrating, evaluating, and scaling up innovations to find better results for students. New York City’s iZone is a member.
By initiating an open call to developers to bring their ideas to schools, New York City has been able to identify technology solutions that would not have been discovered through a traditional request-for-proposal process, she said.
Some of the bureaucracy prevents the smaller companies from doing business in New York City. They wouldn’t have the time or resources to get a vendor number there,” Ms. Schapiro explained. “We look to New York City as an inspiration as we consider how to move forward in districts around the country.”
Mr. Hodas’ work outside schools reflects long-running ties to education. At NASA, he built a website to connect teachers and students with scientific resources. He then created websites for high school and college students. Ten years ago, while an executive vice president at Princeton Review, an education services company in Framingham, Mass., Mr. Hodas presided over the development of a large-scale formative-assessment platform for school districts.
“We went from having no business and no product to having New York City as our first client,” he said. Working closely with the city’s education department, Mr. Hodas became intrigued by the institution. “I was really impressed with the scale of everything, the dedication of the people doing the work,” and how often they couldn’t get their issues and ideas to surface in a way that could be addressed, he said.
The fact that Mr. Hodas had two elementary-age children in city schools at the time raised the stakes. The experience “planted the seed of really wanting to be on the inside.”
He noticed “the moat” after he began working at other companies, consulting with accelerators and incubators, and grew more familiar with how school districts operate. “The [district] has all the kids, all the teachers, all the infrastructure, the problems, and the money. On the other side of the moat is this growing community of small, innovative, nimble, clever companies that are desperate to help the district solve its problems, but because of the moat, it doesn’t happen very often.”
Mr. Hodas fully expects his team’s initiatives and the iZone will begin to have an impact on the labyrinth of formal procurement in New York City schools. “If it doesn’t, then we won’t have accomplished very much,” he said.