In October 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the chancellor of New York’s public schools, Joel Klein, announced the launch of “Children First: A New Agenda for Public Education in New York City”. This initiative spearheaded a new approach to education reform in the city after public schools had experienced decades of poor performance, and sought to create more leadership, autonomy, and accountability at school level, for example by giving more responsibility to head teachers.
Graduation rates increased but the mayor recognised that there was still a long way to go. While many schools had improved, there were some with considerably better results, their success appearing to stem from the commitment and innovation of their principals and teachers. This suggested that a new initiative was required so that the improvements reached all the public schools in the city.
In response, in 2010, New York City’s Department of Education (NYCDOE) launched its innovation strategy – the iZone. It was the first such initiative in the US. The iZone acts as an incubation lab and works on three levels: supporting innovation in schools, creating and stimulating external markets, and fostering wider systemic innovation.
Its overall objectives are to:
- Transform the learning experience for the one million students in New York City’s public schools.
- Design schools around the personalised needs, interests and motivations of individual students.
- Accelerate students’ progress to college and careers.
Rather than replacing the Children First programme, iZone works in tandem with it, creating a community of over 300 schools, influencing policy reforms and testing innovative methods of improving education.
The public impact
Three of the iZone’s projects indicate the scale of its impact on the city’s schools:
- iZone 360 – more than 20,000 middle and high school students are engaged in “personalised learning models”. Over a two-year period from 2011 to 2013, iZone360 students made significant gains in their ability to study and communicate.
- iLearn NYC – increasing student access to online learning. The numbers engaged in online learning rose from 7,400 in 2010/11 to more than 22,000 two years later. iLearn schools saved the city US$6.5 million annually in the cost of software licences when compared to schools purchasing the same licenses at cost on their own.
- Gap App Challenge – 12 city schools are piloting software tools and working with software developers on “a project funded by the US Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation award, [which] drives smarter investments in education technology (edtech) on the part of the district, schools, funders and vendors, in order to maximise the potential of the edtech market”. 
The “School of One” programme is seen as a particular success, using “daily skill assessments to monitor student progress, and algorithm-assisted assignments that adapt a personalised learning plan to best meet students’ needs in middle school maths”. 
Public Confidence Fair
In April 2010, Mayor Bloomberg achieved a good popularity rating: 56 percent of those surveyed said that he was doing a good job, while only 13 percent said he was not. A majority of those surveyed – 53 percent – also believed that the quality of life had improved under the mayor.
In 2014, the high schools that form part of iZone’s community, said that they were taking advantage of the iZone experimentation programme, though they were “‘ready to adapt’, said Brooke Jackson, principal of the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, an early iZone high school”. 
Stakeholder Engagement Fair
The main stakeholders are the mayor and city hall, specifically NYCDOE, the chancellor, the city’s public schools and their teachers and students. The iZone team works closely with their colleagues across city hall, in particular with staff at less senior levels. However, at its height only 300 of New York’s 1,700 public schools had joined the iZone.
Once in the iZone, the public schools receive funding to:
- Help them implement new technologies or programmes.
- Provide them with implementation support from staff in NYCDOE.
- Offer them technical support from private vendors.
In return, the schools participate in evaluation activities.
However, wider system engagement with students and parents – the extended community of the city’s schools – was only partially achieved, because not enough capacity or attention was allocated to the activity.
Political Commitment Fair
The iZone had strong political commitment from Joel Klein, its sponsor and key advocate, and Mayor Bloomberg. However, there were risks that its continued support would be jeopardised by changes in leadership and by a lack of commitment within NYCDOE. Within a year of the launch, Joel Klein left, as did his deputy, John White, who had been the driving force behind the innovation strategy.
In 2014, for example, there was a great deal of administrative turmoil in the iZone’s leadership and staffing. “Earlier this year, iZone CEO Andrea Coleman ... stepped down to join Bloomberg Philanthropies ... Last month, three more top iZone directors left the education department: Steven Hodas, Megan Roberts, and Seth Schoenfeld. Since January, the iZone has shed 10 staffers — or more than a quarter of its employees — though officials said many will be replaced.”  There was a shift in focus within NYCDOE towards other programmes, such as PROSE.
Clear Objectives Good
When it was established, the iZone had three main objectives: transforming students’ learning; personalising education; and accelerating students’ progress to college and careers. Since its establishment, the iZone has expanded its focus from the design and testing of personalised learning models to addressing some of the systemic barriers that prevent effective approaches to education.
The iZone was developed in the light of insights from other cities and countries via participation in the Global Education Leaders’ Programme. It is data-driven, and uses evidence rigorously in designing projects and in evaluating their impact.
There was a carefully designed and evaluated launch programme for the iZone. “There [were] 81 pilot schools in the initial launch of the iZone. All pilot schools applied for participation ... in one of three types of school change. Thirty [were] testing specific instructional or organisational designs and [were] participating in a randomized controlled evaluation of these designs. These pilot ideas came mostly from private sector entrepreneurs and vendors of online courses, such as Pearson SuccessMakers and Time to Know.” 
Several concerns such as timelines and HR issues were not evaluated and only took shape while the projects were being rolled out. “It was always going to be a stretch to get iZone360 up and running to plan for Fall 2011 implementation. Its first year was characterised by some of the ... challenges faced by many significant innovation and system transformation initiatives – identifying and hiring key personnel; securing resource strands in a timely manner; developing effective communication mechanisms; building out the design and implementation model….and negotiating reasonable indicators or evidence of success.” 
There was a significant amount of initial funding – the federal Race to the Top grant money that helped finance iZone’s launch and two federal Investing in Innovation grants worth millions of dollars. However, these had both run out by 2015, and this loss of funding is a challenge to the programme’s feasibility.
There were management issues in the beginning. However, a suitable committee was established over the course of the project, the iZone Leadership Council, which was intended to help communication between principals and NYCDOE. There were also working groups, taking staff from the public schools themselves, to solve the problems of implementation and practice.
The degree of management churn within the iZone, particularly in 2014, made it difficult to achieve stability.
The iZone uses tools and metrics to conduct an end-to-end evaluation of its projects’ performance, and uses this data to evaluate and scale the overall approach. The set of indicators includes:
- Educational return on investment – to estimate the outcomes from an investment compared to the likely outcomes in other settings, using inputs of cost and student/teacher outcomes.
- Administrative data – comparing the performance of iZone schools to other NYC schools by using standardised government data, such as on assessment scores or graduation rates.
- Formal trials, such as randomised controlled trials – these trials were applied to later stage innovations that had already demonstrated cost-savings.
The iZone evolved over the course of its implementation. However, it began with severe lack of alignment and coordination between teams, and there was also inconsistency in the delivery of the programme. Attempts were made to align the approach and there was some improvement, in working closely with the iZone staff’s colleagues elsewhere in city hall. However, it never had the full commitment and cooperation of NYCDOE and all the city’s 1,700 public schools.