To Spark and Scale Innovation Across School Districts, ‘Every Day Is Day...

EdSurge Podcast

To Spark and Scale Innovation Across School Districts, ‘Every Day Is Day One’

By Tony Wan     May 22, 2018

To Spark and Scale Innovation Across School Districts, ‘Every Day Is Day One’
EdSurge managing editor, Tony Wan (L) with Sujata Bhatt, managing partner of innovation at Boston Public School

Running a lemonade stand may be the most entrepreneurial project that many students get to experience. But increasingly, schools leaders want to take the spirit of these old-fashioned projects and create more—and more meaningful—opportunities for students and teachers alike to think creatively and build skills that will prepare them for future careers.

In districts like Boston Public Schools, officials have set up new teams devoted to rethink everything from professional development and instructional design to class schedules and school culture. These efforts are often lumped into one overused term: “innovation.” (But what does it really mean?)

We recently sat down with Sujata Bhatt, managing partner of innovation at Boston Public Schools, to learn more about what exactly a district innovation job entails, and what it takes to get people to not only adopt an innovator's mindset, but to execute on new ideas.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

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EdSurge: Sujata, as the managing partner of innovation at Boston Public Schools, what does that title actually mean?

Bhatt: That’s a great question. It worked, right? If they see “superintendent” or “assistant superintendent,” your eyes glaze over. “Managing partner of innovation” is a newly-created role. I report directly to the superintendent. We sort of think about it in terms of this: 80 percent of the organization is making the trains run on time, 15 percent is thinking strategy about a year out, and then 5 percent is thinking innovation, which is the longer horizon. So my role is to manage that 5 percent.

But how does that actually manifest or get realized to impact students, teachers and learners?

We think of innovation as building the capacity to design new solutions at every level of the system, from classrooms to the school level to central office. My job is to figure out ways to grow that capacity, and really it’s about growing adults so that they can help our children grow.

If, in the future, everyone is slightly entrepreneurial and very design-focused, how do we grow that in our workforce? Boston is one of the heart of the innovation economy in the United States. We’re also the oldest school district in the system. We’re a city with a deep belief in tradition, and an economy driven by innovation. So, how do we do that together?

People need to be aware of [the changes] driving our workforce and what the economy of the future looks like. It takes system-wide conversations, although how each school redesigns itself in relationship to those changing forces has to be local. We’re always opting people in. It’s never a top-down initiative because capacity needs to be built locally. As schools are interested in doing something different, we help partner them with the right opportunities, and provide technical expertise to help them grow to where they want to become.

Can you give me a couple of examples of what’s changed?

One of our high schools is called Another Course to College. There’s a team of teachers there who came together, all interested in designing an expeditionary learning experience for kids. They designed something where the entire 11th-grade class goes out to Hale Reservation, which is like a nature preserve outside of Boston, every single day for the winter semester. In the snow, everything. They do math at school, but everything else is done out at the reservation.

So we take that and say, “What can we learn from this experience so we can scale this to other schools and other partner organizations?” Maybe there’s an 11th-grade semester at the Museum of Fine Arts, or at the ballet. What can we invest in this experience and then from that, build out a playbook or a mechanism so it can go elsewhere?

There’s another example where we’re working with a team from MIT to help rethink what STEAM could look like in one of our grade 6-12 schools. The school itself is open-admission, focusing on personalized learning and teacher-student relationships. The team from MIT is thinking about how to make the science curriculum hands-on. MIT’s motto is “mens et manus,” meaning “mind and hands.” So they're partnering together to redesign high school to bring active learning into a high-school curriculum.

How do you think about this issue of ensuring equitable access to these kinds of new experiences?

Equity is fundamental to what we do. What the Office of Innovation is working on is [tackling] an innovation opportunity gap that goes beyond test scores and basic curriculum and basic opportunities. How can all of our kids have access to the kinds of jobs that are not going to be pushed out by artificial intelligence? And how can we redesign our schools so that a maximum number of kids get access to those opportunities, not just a gifted strand or not just the kids who are already at grade level? Innovation is not seen as the icing on the cake, but it’s baked into the cake. That’s the equity piece.

What is the vision of the future that Boston Public Schools is preparing students for?

College, career and life readiness. The city of Boston has just come together. The Catholic schools and the charter schools in the district were convened by this organization called the Boston Opportunity Agenda, and they created a college, career and life readiness definition for students.

It’s really simple, which is its elegance. You need to be able to set a vision. You need to be able to set a course, to change course, to grow competence, and to collaborate with others. It’s broad enough that each school can arrive at its design in a different way. But if you put student agency at the heart of the definition, then you equip students to deal with a changing world rather than a static world.

Speaking of student agency and innovation, you had a pretty interesting idea for a school out of Los Angeles not too long ago…

My baby… That was the Incubator School. It came from about 10 years of teaching and experimentation. I came to understand what drives kids forward is when they feel like they’re driving, and it doesn't matter if they’re first graders or if they’re 12th graders. They were most excited when they were doing entrepreneurial projects, like lemonade stands or reselling things. That was something that made them very, very interested in becoming an adult.

As a student, I used to resell candy from Costco boxes…

Totally, right? Every high school has that…

So, I was trying to put these different impulses together in designing a school that could help middle-schoolers because that's where kids drop out, or at least where they drop interest in school. So, how can we redesign middle school where kids could take that entrepreneurial energy and actually put it into practice? Then, in eighth grade, they would launch startups within school.

They would start a business?


Were they filing paperwork? How serious were they?

No. Well, they were different kinds of things. The most interesting ones were platform plays. One wanted to create a school-supply platform—like, almost Etsy meets school supply. We had a kid who was all about scooters, and so he was modding scooters. We also had 3D printers, so kids would get those $50 drones for Christmas and then they could spend some time in school to mod their drones and then print out the parts and play around with things.

As a kid, that sounds great. What was the reception from the parents or the community?

I think people self-selected. If you thought it was crazy, you wouldn’t send your kid there. But this was in Los Angeles, with a lot of entrepreneurial parents. Still, we were careful to make sure it was integrated. Entrepreneurial parents could be parents who are running gardening services, who are first-generation immigrants, or they could be entrepreneurial in the sense that they work for Google. And it was fun to bring those cultures together and say, “Wait, this is all the same impulse, right?”

Is the school still around?

Sadly, no. It closed this June. It survived for four years. I think it really changed the landscape of what was possible. We built a playbook, so all of our learnings, everything was open source. We have everything out there that people can access.

What were the challenges, and how did the lessons learned inform your current role?

Education code is a complex beast, right? It exists to protect kids and districts, but then it can also stymie innovation. One of the things we came up against was, if you're 12 and you're trying to launch a business during school hours, we were in violation of child labor laws. So there were always things that we had to figure out how to design around, or there are places where you couldn’t design against. It’s law.

What I bring from that experience into my current position is: If you give people ownership to design something, this shows, “Hey, this is possible. Take your ideas, your community, bring your kids into your design process, and you can do something.”

There’s a lot of momentum to rethink or redesign high school. But what does it take to actually implement and put a radically new school design into place, and make sure the doors are open on day one?

So, there is no day one. Every day is day one. It's an ongoing process. You move along the Rogers’ innovation adoption curve, starting with your innovators and your early adopters. Giving teams of people access to design-thinking opportunities, so they become engines of innovation that build excitement and catalyze change in their schools. I really believe that what it takes is local ownership rather than saying, “Here’s the plan, now you implement this and we’re going to hold you accountable.”

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