School & District Management

Enter the Innovation Officer: Districts Design New Jobs

By Jason Tomassini — February 28, 2012 8 min read
Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, center, the Denver district's chief of innovation and reform, meets with Debbi Blair-Minter, the principal at Omar D. Blair Charter School, to tour the school and discuss upcoming statewide testing. Eighth graders Isaiah Nestor, left, and Isaiah Davis work on geometry problems during the tour.
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On the long list of education buzzwords—paradigm, experiential, accountability—"innovation” can be just as vague and all-encompassing as any other.

But it is a buzzword for a reason. New forms of educational technology, the growth of nontraditional schools, and new public and private funding sources are among the trends influencing and potentially even redefining K-12 education. All are broadly categorized as “innovation.”

Enter the “innovation officer,” a job title that is cropping up in school districts and state education departments nationwide. Often a top administrative position filled by a candidate from the corporate world, charter school management, or a district office, the innovation officer (or a variant on that title) might oversee a “portfolio” of schools, lead the integration of new technology into the classroom, and redistribute central-office services.

Data on how many of those jobs exist are difficult to come by, but many identified by Education Week began in the past five years, with the more recent ones loosely coinciding with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation, or i3, competitions.

That shouldn’t be a surprise, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va. During President George W. Bush’s administration, districts developed administrative positions around “assessment and accountability,” to garner favor and funds under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its test-centered mandates, Mr. Domenech said.

How Much Substance?

Now, the Obama administration has awarded more than $4 billion so far in Race to the Top grants, which reward initiatives like school turnarounds, charter schools, and technology-based reform. School Improvement Grants offer $3.5 billion in federal aid to districts that agree to aggressive overhauls of their worst-performing schools. This year, the i3 fund awards $150 million in competitive grants for innovative practices proven to boost student achievement.

Again, districts are responding, Mr. Domenech said, but will the administration’s leverage really have an impact?

“They are just basically recooking or rewarming the old school,” Mr. Domenech said. He added: “In the majority of cases, it’s just a new title.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s top innovation official, however, disagreed.

“I don’t think people are jumping in [to create the innovation officer positions] just because it’s trendy,” said James H. Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement. “I think districts are both seeing the upside of the opportunity and feeling the necessity that the pace of change should pick up dramatically.”

Attracting Money

Innovation officers interviewed by Education Week did acknowledge a focus on procuring and managing state, federal, and private grants.

“That is what I do. All of it goes towards that,” said Michael Haggen, the associate superintendent of innovative services for the St. Louis public school system, which enrolls 25,000 students.

Most of the time, Mr. Haggen’s office, which manages federal School Improvement Grants the district received in 2010 to turn around 11 low-performing schools, must come up with an initiative, prove its worth and practicality, and then seek funding for it, he said.

“We’re not going to write a grant with grandiose ideas,” he said. “We are only going to put in there what we can do.”

There’s a similar approach in a much-smaller district, the 8,500-student Missoula County schools in Montana. As budgets are squeezed, Matthew Clausen, the director of creativity, innovation, and technology, seeks district funds, federal grants, and private money to support initiatives.

“The kind of things we are trying to do—our state budgets don’t think about those things,” said Mr. Clausen, who was hired in October as the first person to hold the position. “Grant funding is one of the ways to get the resources, so we can show they are successful and work them into state funding.”

An undisclosed private foundation is supporting a pilot 1-to-1 iPad program for 120 elementary school students in Missoula, based on a similar Oregon initiative that is credited with helping to raise test scores.

Missoula’s initiative illustrates Mr. Clausen’s focus on technology. Before holding his current job, Mr. Clausen served in various district positions responsible for integrating technology into the classroom. It’s a priority shared by innovation officers in smaller districts that don’t have portfolios of schools or large federal support.

In Pennsylvania’s 2,500-student South Fayette Township district, near Pittsburgh, Aileen Owens, the district’s first director of technology and innovation, is focusing mostly on classroom technology and on the STEAM subjects: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. Her goal is to train a new generation of software engineers and computer programmers.

A new computer-programming course enrolls 160 students in grades 5-7 this year, and 26 South Fayette high school students are enrolled in an after-school program that develops applications for Google’s Android operating system.

While money for the programs is hard to come by—using free software and sharing costs with neighboring school districts are common—Ms. Owens prefers her small district. There, innovation can be nimble, as it should be, she said.

“When you need to be innovative, you need to grapple with things quickly and move,” said Ms. Owens, who was hired in July. “You don’t want to wait a year to implement something.”

Sharing What Works

In some large urban districts, new positions have formed to marry two new trends in education, “innovation” and school “portfolios.”

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the chief of innovation and reform for the Denver public schools, oversees a portfolio of about 35 charter schools and 20 “innovation schools,” which together enroll 18,000 of the district’s 80,000 students.

In most cases, including in Colorado, innovation schools are not subject to certain state regulations and collective bargaining provisions, but are still operated by the school district. Some states and districts, most notably New York City, have taken the concept a step further and created “innovation zones,” coordinated groups of schools within a district that pilot new programs and rigorously research them.

But rather than promote such schools as better alternatives to traditional schools, Ms. Whitehead-Bust aims to take what works in her portfolio schools—extended school days, for example—and scale it districtwide. The relationship works in reverse, too: A new initiative will allow charter schools to opt in to central-office services such as security, professional development, and English-language instruction, she said.

“It’s a tighter, more congruent system, where schools get what they pay for and pay for what they get,” said Ms. Whitehead-Bust, who was hired less than a year ago after working as an education consultant and founder of a charter school in Denver.

“It’s less about managing our portfolio of autonomous schools and more about creating district systems,” she said.

Innovation Stakeholders

Christine Fowler-Mack, the chief of new and innovative schools and programs for the 42,000-student Cleveland district, oversees seven charter schools either operated or sponsored by the district. That puts her on the front lines of a larger effort by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson to reverse plummeting student enrollment, establish new charter schools, and overhaul rules on teacher compensation and tenure.

But as positive as “innovation” sounds, the plan in Cleveland has been criticized. The Cleveland Teachers Union accused Mr. Jackson and the school district of excluding the union from the new plan.

“The notion of innovative schools isn’t at odds with us; it’s the troubling track the district is often taking to shut out the union when it comes to reform that’s related to innovation,” said David Quolke, the president of the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Both Mr. Quolke and Ms. Fowler-Mack highlighted successful innovation initiatives stemming from district-union collaboration, such as the 13 separate contracts agreed upon for Cleveland’s innovation schools. But Mr. Quolke also noted that Mayor Jackson and the district consulted with Cleveland’s business community when creating the new plan, highlighting what the union leader sees as the tendency for innovation to favor the private sector over teachers.

Indeed, for many innovation officers, building relationships with businesses is a large part of the job, a dynamic that can rankle parents and unions.

The Denver district, for example, will use an $800,000 donation from the Dell Foundation to train school leaders at charter schools to prepare them for jobs as principals at district-run schools.

St. Louis is looking to the private sector to support new charter schools, including one that will incorporate literature into all the curriculum and another dedicated to environmental sustainability.

“There’s no way to do this without the private sector,” Mr. Haggen, the St. Louis associate superintendent of innovative services, said.

As federal policy and, perhaps, the presidential administration change, so could these new positions. The comprehensive, all-encompassing nature of “innovation” in education, allowing for an agile approach but a great deal of uncertainty, appears to also apply to the daily work of its district-level stewards.

As Mr. Clausen said: “It’s certainly been a challenge to know what I’m doing every day. There’s limitless potential.”

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this article.

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Enter the Innovation Officer: Districts Design New Jobs

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