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Retooling the District Operating System for Dynamism
I’ve written extensively about the “District Operating System (DOS):” the set of unsexy, below-the-radar functions like procurement, contracting, IT, and HR that determine the look and feel of what schools do. Ultimately, it also determines how effective and responsive schools can be, since it is through the DOS that districts define their problems, seek their answers, and acquire their tools. “Tools” are simply the means to an end. They might be policies like school choice, or personnel like teachers, principals, and coaches. They might be frameworks, like school report cards, or enrollment systems, or open-data policies. They might be curriculum, or software, or ways of providing meal services. All of these—every single thing that districts do—are enabled by, defined by, and limited by the DOS.
In Redesigning the District Operating System, the final paper in our series on school system innovation, we look underneath the big structural questions to the inner workings of a school district.
I believe that the reason we are dissatisfied with our schools is not because they do the wrong things but because they do things wrongly, whatever the thing is. And that is because of the DOS.
When an HR office will only interview candidates one day every two weeks between the hours of 1:00 and 5:00, that is the DOS ensuring that only the worst candidates will apply. When parents must take time off from work to get basic information about their kids, that is the DOS ensuring they will remain frustrated and unengaged. When teachers are allowed to choose where they work based on seniority, that is the DOS guaranteeing that the most challenging schools will have the least experienced staff. When vendors have greater rights to an “open” procurement process than instructional leaders do to purchasing the products of their choice, that is the DOS filling school storage closets with untouched and unwanted equipment. When an endless stream of new initiatives are imposed on—rather than designed with—teachers and principals, that is the DOS setting up “innovation” for cynicism, resistance, and the kinds of stupid failure from which nothing is learned.
While it’s convenient to blame No Child Left Behind, Title I regulations, or the union contract for all our woes, the fact is that the vast majority of district and school constraints are entirely self-imposed, the organizational equivalent of the poet William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles,”which shackle creative thinking. Further, as artists and innovators well know, constraints are not the enemy of ingenuity and delight but rather their precondition. That is if—and it’s a big if—you have a set of values and an operating system that optimizes for ingenuity and delight. Granted, those are not terms you often hear used to describe government bureaucracies, but they are precisely what’s needed to come up with effective, durable, and socially legitimated solutions to difficult problems.
Let’s step back for a moment. The DOS as we know it did not set out to suck. If you claw your way through the briars you’ll find the fossilized remains of Progressive-era good governance themes like “stewardship,” “fairness,” and “best value” at its core. The problem is that over time those themes have become funhouse (or madhouse) caricatures of themselves. They have gnarled up into hard, joyless knots of risk avoidance, standardization, and low-bid purchasing in ways that miss the forest for the trees and make impossible any real framework for return on investment, however defined. The end result is a system that ends up optimizing for absolutely nothing. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Suppose we took the lessons learned over the past 15 years from nearly every endeavor outside of government and used them to inform a modern, dynamic DOS (call it the “dDOS”). This dDOS would optimize for responsiveness over compliance and for local improvements over grandiose “one-best” solutions. It would achieve a measure of fault-tolerance and anti-fragility by placing many small bets through processes of proliferation, iteration, and failing forward. It would model empathy and respect for parents, students, and its own workers through simple well-established practices of user-centered design. It would acknowledge the fallibility and uncertainty of all human endeavor by building in optionality and being mindful of second- and third-order effects. Finally, it would leave itself open to unexpected high-value approaches by lightly specifying its needs and embracing crowd-sourced responses as part of the solution-gathering process.
This is what we were moving toward at the NYC iZone. In a fairly short time we were able to generate numerous examples of how this new dDOS could invigorate the work of educators and administrators in ways that were more effective and, yes, more delightful. It worked in the classroom. It worked in procurement. It worked for school redesign, and enrollment systems, and parental engagement. To the best of my knowledge, no laws or collective bargains were harmed in the making of those improvements and what we learned has spread across the country via the Innovation Cluster movement.
What we failed to achieve was perfusion. Perhaps it’s inevitable in an organization the size of the NYCDOE (135,00 employees and a $21 billion operating budget) that it would take more time, something we ran out of—along with political capital—when the administration turned over. The two elements required to achieve organizational transformation—increased alignment and decreased fear, according to Seth Godin—are scarce during regime change. This makes it all the more important for those who seek a new dDOS to collaborate early and often with practitioners in schools and in the central office to groove these new habits so that they become second nature, unsexy, simply “the way we do things here,” as invisible and determinative as the old, broken DOS they replace.
Three new policy memos provide recommendations to start a discussion about how state leaders can ensure these shifts lead to better teaching, learning, engagement, and well-being for students.
School system leaders can draw lessons from small pandemic learning communities to better support their students’ well-being and learning.