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March 13, 2018

From Superintendent to Startup

Devin Vodicka, Chief Impact Officer

On March 13th, I gave a speech at the annual CoSN conference in Washington, DC, on the experience of transitioning from the role of Superintendent of a 100-year-old, 25,000-student public school district to a four-year-old startup that was founded by a former Google executive. In both cases, there are some significant similarities—particularly in terms of my focus on accelerating student learning—and there are also some striking differences in the organizational cultures.  

Last May, I began my current role as Chief Impact Officer at AltSchool, a public benefit corporation and certified B-Corp that has a “double bottom line” to serve stakeholder interests as well as to be financially sustainable. We operate independent lab schools in the Bay Area and in New York City and in these schools we bring in researchers, designers, and engineers to work with educators to build a comprehensive and flexible software platform that we believe will be the foundation for whole-child personalized learning. In the initial weeks of my transition, I did some journaling to track my insights as I settled into my new environment. During this period, I noted some key differences between a public school context and a startup environment.

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Public Schools Are Designed for Stability and Inclusion

The stability of the enterprise is manifest in numerous policies and procedures that are designed to codify practices and establish boundaries. The multi-layered, participative structures of advisory committees and open governance of school boards are both a stabilizing component and also a representation of the desire to ensure inclusivity. Transparency laws are another mechanism to ensure that community members have access to information regarding process and increased accountability measures ensure that outcomes are similarly available to the public.

Startups Are Designed for Speed and Innovation

In contrast to the rigid hierarchies of public school systems, startups embody the “flat organization” where performance is more important than status. Open office concepts, informal attire, and other nudges to promote frequent interactions among employees are all intentional shifts to ensure that the focus is on productivity. The lack of “authority” empowers every team member to assume responsibility for his or her own actions, and a highly visible performance framework ensures that there is clarity around goals, outcomes, and initiatives.  

The Best of Both: Schools and Startups

When I consider what I would do differently in the role of Superintendent after having experienced a startup culture, several key actions come to mind:

      1. Reconfigure space to promote openness, flexibility, and virtual collaboration
      2. Model informal attire
      3. Shift from annual to quarterly time horizons

I would enact these changes with the adults in the system as well as students, in order to better prepare them for success outside of school. I should note that the first two actions focus on extending collaboration, which is essential in developing the social-emotional habits and skills that students will require to thrive in our rapidly changing world. The last is an interesting way to shift away from the annual, agricultural cycle that we currently inhabit in education toward a faster, more iterative model that is better aligned with brain research as well as with the rhythms of the workforce. 

There are clear benefits and disadvantages in each of these organizational approaches. The tradeoff for inclusion in a public school setting is that the pace of change is very slow. As technology and other forces such as globalization are accelerating the rate of change outside of schools, the gap between the reality within schools and outside of them creates severe risks for learners in that they will be unprepared for life beyond their educational experience. With that said, the tradeoff for the speed of startups is that the less-inclusive, more distributed decision-making process allows for wider variation in the quality of those decisions. In some cases, that results in great insights and innovations, but the risks of more significant failure are also increased.  

My vision for the future is that we should combine the best of both of these worlds to better serve our learners. Innovative startups that move quickly have the ability to adapt and partner with public school systems that embody community inclusivity. This collaboration is a great model for magnifying our relative strengths and mitigating our risks. Just as collaboration is essential for young learners, we as adults should lean into the opportunities to deepen relationships and learn from one another.

I look forward to connecting and learning together.  Our kids—and our collective future—depend on it.  

Read more by Devin Vodicka: What Is Personalized Learning?
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