The iZone: The Evolution of a Central Office’s Approach to Fostering Innovations in Personalized Learning

As part of a series of posts on the evolution of organizations in New York City, the US, and other parts of the world including India and parts of Africa, this post explores the evolution of the iZone, a unit within the New York City Department of Education dedicated to “inspiring innovation in in NYC public education.” The iZone’s goals include designing “schools around the unique strengths, interests and needs of each student.” In order gain a better understanding of the possibilities and challenges for educational innovation iZone has encountered, we recently spoke with several former and current leaders of the iZone. They talked about the development of iZone’s work and vision as well as the constantly changing conditions in which organizations like iZone have to operate and adapt. 

What if the possibilities of technology could be harnessed to solve the organizational challenges of designing schools around the interests, needs, and strengths of students? This question animates the work of the Office of Innovation (iZone) within the NYC Department of Education. From its creation in 2009, iZone set out to create conditions that would enable associated schools to develop and achieve their own visions of personalized learning.  Positioning itself as an incubator of innovative educational practices, the office was organized around three main projects: iLearnNYC, iZone360, and InnovateNYC Schools. Through these projects, iZone has evolved from an organization that primarily strove to launch and replicate new schools designed around innovative practices in personalized learning to an organization that facilitates the adoption and adaptation of a variety of technologies, tools, and applications for personalized learning across existing schools. In the process, iZone itself has experienced the possibilities and challenges for both incubating new ideas and enabling those ideas to spread and have a significant positive impact on teaching and learning throughout New York City.

iZone 1.0 — Piloting New Student-Centered School Designs


iZone was launched several years into the administration of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein.  At the time, their approach to improving schools – which they called Children First –,was characterized by increased autonomy for schools and principals in exchange for greater accountability for student performance, small schools that would better engage students, and an embrace of educational technology. Ideas for an office dedicated to personalized learning enabled by technology represented a natural progression of the theories of change underlying these reform initiatives as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of early ed-tech start-ups at the time. The NYC Department of Education was already involved in a number of efforts to spur student-centered learning and innovation. The summer of 2009 saw the pilot of School of One (profiled by IEN in 2016) which tested the idea that technology could provide appropriate and responsive curriculum to meet each students’ needs. In addition, several new small schools in NYC were pursuing their own experiments with technology and personalization. In particular, iSchool, had been experimenting with online classes, allowing students to accelerate their learning by taking offerings that might not otherwise be available to them. These projects provided proof-points for the theory that technology could create flexibility in the traditional time and space constraints of schooling by freeing-up teacher bandwidth; easing pressure to staff courses; and allowing learning to happen anytime, anywhere. This meant, as then-Deputy Chancellor of Talent, Labor, and Innovation John White put it in a report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, reimagining schooling by treating time, space, and human capital as variables, instead of constants, in the educational equation.

iZone’s foundational project was iLearnNYC, a learning management platform which allowed students, through their schools, to access curriculum from several dozen vendors. 81 schools began using iLearnNYC in 2010-2011. Taking classes online allowed for more flexibility in when, how long, and where classes took place. Schools used iLearnNYC for credit recovery, advanced placement, and blended learning which opened up more time for project-based learning, provided opportunities for accelerated learning, or made a greater variety of courses available to students. Over the next few years, 200 schools worked with iLearn, with 80% of them continuing to use it beyond the first year of implementation.

iSchool, School of One, and iLearnNYC inspired ambitious plans for whole-school change. This became the work of iZone360: a community of schools committed to “reorganizing all aspects of their school, including budgets, staff, space, instruction, scheduling, and technology, around meeting the needs of individual students.” The Office of Innovation would offer technical, financial, and professional support to help schools innovate toward their uniquely defined visions of personalized learning. iZone also served as an advocate for the pilot schools by addressing policies that hindered student-centered design and developing resources and tools that could help foster their work.  For example, iZone appealed to the NYS Board of Regents to amend seat-time requirements to allow credit for online or blended coursework.

Consistent with the emphasis on autonomy under the Children First reforms, iZone’s initial plan was to recruit pilot schools by finding school leaders who were passionate about personalized learning. Each pilot school had the freedom to define what personalized learning meant to them and to set their vision for the next three to five years.  Successful pilot schools would then serve as models that could be scaled-up across the city. Ideally, the pilot schools would be embedded in networks of affiliated schools that would partner with and observe the work of the pilot school in the first year, adopt practices in the next year, and then continue to deepen their work through the sharing of best practices. In 2010, iZone presented its vision and plan to schools, recruiting applications. In 2011-2012, it launched 25 pilot schools, selected for their demonstrated interest and readiness to experiment with personalized learning practices.

These pilot efforts served as the foundation for what iZone’s leaders hoped would be more system-wide changes. But as then-Chief of Innovation Arthur VanderVeen explained, such “lateral diffusion” from a small number of pilots to a large number of partner schools is particularly hard to achieve in such a big district with shifting politics and priorities. While a pilot of 81 schools may be a large initiative in most districts, it reflects only a small fraction of the more than 1,700 schools in NYC. Furthermore, several national and state initiatives, including the development of new teacher evaluation policies and the rollout of the Common Core, made sustaining focus on innovative student-centered school models even more difficult. As VanderVeen explained, “getting the early success and recognition and building momentum around a vision for personalization so other school would want to take it on, was always challenging.” An additional challenge came when Joel Klein resigned in the middle of the 2010-2011 school year. According to VanderVeen, iZone’s theory of change relied on continued commitment and strong leadership—the ability to “encourage, drive, and support schools to move” toward this vision of personalized learning—at the system, network, and school levels. Without Klein, a strong proponent of technology and personalized learning, the future of iZone seemed to be in doubt. Under these conditions, White left in the middle of the year 2010-2011 school year, and VanderVeen left a few months later during the summer of 2011.

iZone 2.0 – Encouraging New Student-Centered Learning Solutions


New leadership, including Andrea Coleman and Steven Hodas, who joined Megan Roberts as Executive Directors of iZone, came in with strong backgrounds in technology, design and entrepreneurship, which influenced the direction of the office. While it continued to support and foster the development of innovative school designs, iZone also sought to change the conditions for the development of innovative products and services. This second phase of iZone saw a shift from implementing a vision of personalized-learning through school support services from traditional venues to working closely with users to identify key problems and develop scalable solutions by drawing on principles of design-thinking, rapid-prototyping, and market disruption.

In 2012-2013, iZone360 recruited an additional 25 schools, and iLearnNYC launched the Blended Learning Institute, a two-year certificate program in collaboration with Pace University that provided professional development in instruction and classroom management unique to personalized learning. Both branches of iZone continued to develop new means of supporting schools. In 2013, iLearnNYC worked with to add a computer science track to the Blended Learning Institute. iZone360 worked to empower educators with design-thinking process and low-tech solutions, through initiatives such as the Personalized Pathways Challenge for solving problems related to student-centered learning, Essential Allies Challenge for solving problems related to family engagement and iCamp, a 3-day conference that brings educators together to problem-solve and engage in competitions for pitching the next iZone Challenge topic.

Recognizing that challenges in the procurement process and bureaucratic layers between companies and schools hindered the development of targeted technology solutions to personalized learning, iZone also sought to have a greater impact in the educational ecosystem of NYC. A third branch called Innovate NYC Schools sought to influence the development and purchasing of ed-tech by facilitating partnerships between technologists and teachers. This would lead to developers solving more directly for classroom needs with feedback from teachers. It sought to marry the “start-up” mentality of the NYC-based tech scene in the budding Silicon Alley with the work of school improvement. Innovate NYC was housed in a co-working space for start-ups in order to break down the bureaucratic barrier between the office, schools, and developers and staged competitions to spur innovation, such as the Gap App Challenge. Companies partnered with schools for five-month prototype process, in which teachers worked alongside developers to share feedback on products for classroom use. Daily feedback alongside more formal data collection in Short-Term Evaluation Cycles provided information about the effectiveness of the product and areas for improvement. Many products were favorably reviewed, and teachers and entrepreneurs developed mutually beneficial relationships with each other that could continue beyond the formal structure of the challenge. Such partnerships signaled a broader vision for shaping the educational ecosystem: “The hypothesis,” Steven Hodas told Edsurge, was “that if you put teachers and developers together collaboratively for a long period of time, each of them will change.” This model of match-making between educators and developers was repeated in challenges like Music Education Hackathon and School Choice Design Challenge. For example, the Short-Cycle Evaluation Challenge partnership between East Bronx Academy of the Future and Listenwise (formerly Listen Current, a listening comprehension program featuring engaging, relevant content), resulted in a product that better met the needs of the school’s ELL learners and struggling readers. Through these initiatives, iZone sought to reshape the educational ecosystem by creating informal channels between educators and entrepreneurs and refocusing purchasing around the needs of schools (see Hodas’s (2016) report on the lessons of Innovate NYC for more on this topic).

iZone 3.0: Supporting Student-Centered Learning and Teaching  


Toward the fall of 2014, iZone reached a “crossroads” as journalists at Chalkbeat put it, when a new mayor and Chancellor took office. Coleman, Hodas, and Roberts left, along with other senior staff. In addition, funding from Race To The Top (an initiative of the Obama administration) ran out (although there was still some funding from another federal initiative, i3 grants, though that funding ran out in 2015). The confluence of changes in leadership, funding, organizational structuring, and pressures of Common Core implementation shaped the evolution of the iZone, as it adapted strategies to achieve its mission under these new conditions. Although incorporated back into the NYC Department of Education’s organizational structure with a smaller staff and less funding, iZone in this third phase continues to add to its existing programs and aims to incubate ideas that, if successful, will get scaled up through other divisions in the New York City Department of Education. For example, the Mastery Collaborative, a professional community of practice around the idea of mastery-based learning, generated sufficient interest from schools that it was moved into the Office of Postsecondary Readiness, Teaching, and Learning, a professional development program that support schools in designing student-centered learning, for continued support. iZone also continues to support schools through professional development initiatives such as the Blended Learning Institute and Affinity Groups, which offer a space for small groups of educators to gather around shared problems. iZone also continues challenged-based programming, such as #SharkTankEDU, in which edtech startups pitch their ideas to and receive feedback from the education community. iZone has also begun a third cycle of Short-Cycle Evaluation Challenges teams for the 2016-2017 school year. At this point, support for schools and mediation between the tech sector and schools are key pillars of iZone’s work. As current iZone members describe it, the first two phases of iZone generated feedback and ethnographic insights that helped iZone understand what support schools needed—such as professional development, new policies, and different procurement processes.

Reflections and Implications

iZone, like many organizations in the 2000’s, originally aimed to advance personalization through the development and replication of new school models. With changes in policies, politics, and funding, iZone evolved into an organization that, as it currently describes itself, “works with schools, the edtech marketplace and policy makers to design and scale promising learning models that prepare all students for college and careers.” Throughout this evolution, iZone itself has experienced the possibilities and challenges for an organization intent on both incubating new ideas and enabling those ideas to spread and have a significant positive impact on teaching and learning. iZone’s efforts may provide particular lessons for those who seek to connect teachers and schools with entrepreneurs and developers to create the tools and resources that respond to the students’ needs.


Lead the Change interview with Andrés Peri

Andrés Peri

Andrés Peri

Andrés Peri holds a Ph.D. in Sociology with a specialization in Demography from the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches at the Universidad de la República del Uruguay where he received his bachelor degree in 1990.

Dr. Peri has worked as a consultant and researcher for many organizations including CEPAL, CELADE, UNFPA and WFP. He is the director of the Research and Evaluation Department at the National Administration of Public Education of Uruguay (ANEP) .

Dr. Peri was also responsible for the development of the SEA (System of Educational Assessment) and contributed to the Monitor of Primary Education (a system of statistical reports for every school). He is the delegate of Uruguay to the PGB of PISA and the National Coordinator of the LLECE study of UNESCO. He was a speaker at TEDxMontevideo 2014 entirely dedicated to Education.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Peri shares his thoughts on the achievements of public education in Uruguay:

…we were very successful in providing primary education for all, but now the challenge is to have the same accomplishment at least up to the end of high school. The current government has set a high bar to achieve: everybody should finish lower secondary education (up to grade nine) and 75% of a cohort should finish high school. These are very high expectations since only a little more than 40% of each cohort finish high school today—in many cases with a large delay with the theoretical age given the large retention rate in primary and secondary school.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

Summer break

Here at IEN we are taking a short break at the end of summer so that we can gear up for the new school year. Please check back with us in September when we will share new posts.

Common ground for reducing school suspensions/expulsions?

Recent debates over school discipline in the United States have centered on whether or not districts/schools should eliminate suspensions. The latest AEI Express from Rick Hess presents two different views on the subject. Max Eden, from the Manhattan Institute, argues that unilateral elimination of suspensions, while well-intentioned, may do more harm than good. Hailly Korman, from Bellweather Education Partners, makes the case that there are effective ways to reduce suspensions in general and address racial inequities in suspensions as well. All their points deserve thoughtful examination, but it is fascinating to see Eden, a self-described “conservative” side with the President of the New York City Teacher’s union, Michael Mulgrew. Mulgrew criticized Bill DeBlasio, the Mayor of New York City, for imposing a unilateral ban on suspensions in kindergarten through 2nd grade. As Eden put it: “Mulgrew wouldn’t have broken so publicly with the man he helped to elect if he didn’t have a good reason” (although couldn’t that reason include unwavering support for the teachers Mulgrew represents to make their own decisions whatever the issue?). Korman, for her part, highlights that “The vast majority of incidents leading up to suspension or expulsion are non-serious or non-violent infractions, disruptions, and misbehaviors.” Notably, the decisions about whether and when to suspend students for these minor infractions are often subjective and end up disproportionately affecting African-American, Latino and Native American students, especially boys. One can imagine that both Eden and Korman might agree (as well as others they cite including researchers like Robin Lake and school leaders like Nancy Hanks) with efforts that focus attention on eliminating suspension/expulsion for minor infractions and establishing clearer criteria that limit subjectivity and bias. As Korman puts it, we all need “a more robust toolkit to respond to disruptions and frustrations” that provides a safe and constructive learning environment for all.

Thomas Hatch

Does preschool need PISA?

In his recent IOE Blog post, Peter Moss describes a new OECD study, called the International Early Learning Study (IELS), which is set to begin piloting in 2017. As Moss points out, while government officials are aware of what’s in store, few in the early childhood education field are. Moss and his colleagues have written an article intended to spark a broad conversation about this study will mean for early learning and they have identified five areas they view as causes for concern. Among their concerns, the authors point to the complexity of all educational systems and the potential harm of applying one standard to many different countries. To quote the IOE Blog post:

The IELS, and similar testing regimes, seek to apply a universal framework to all countries, all pedagogies and all services. This approach rests on the principle that everything can be reduced to a common outcome, standard and measure. What it cannot do is accommodate, let alone welcome, diversity – of paradigm or theory, pedagogy or provision, childhood or culture. The issue raised – and not acknowledged, let alone addressed by the OECD in its documentation – is how an IELS can be applied to places and people who do not share its (implicit) positions, understandings, assumptions and values.

As we often scan education news from around the world, this week we share links that provide some information about the issues and concerns facing several countries on the issue of preschool, or early childhood education. Here is a short list of articles that have been posted by online news organizations this summer.



Why we need more men working in our creches

Preschools issue warning over free childcare scheme



Bill to increase free pre-school childcare in Scotland – BBC News

How will early years be affected by Brexit? | Nursery World



How the U.S. Is Failing Its Youngest Students



Reimagining NSW: tackling education inequality with early intervention and better research

Why We Need To Teach Our Kids About Money In Early Childhood



Study to gauge standard of English at preschools – Community | The Star Online

Skills upgrade for pre-school teachers – Community | The Star Online



What goes on in the (not so) secret world of 4-year-olds

Free child care may limit options, increase burden on taxpayers: MSF



Preschool or Child Care Market in India to Grow 21.84% by 2020 – Increasing Implementation of Childcare Services at Workplace – Research and Markets | Business Wire

Preschool skills may predict kindergarten math success

Pre-school boys should be treated more like girls, says study | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis

34 per cent Muslim children have never been to pre-school: UNICEF : News

Deirdre Faughey

A Tale of Two Countries: Improvement in Germany and Decline in Australia’s Educational Performance

This post by Dr. Stephen Dinham offers his observations and reflections on educational policy and performance in Germany and Australia. Dinham has over forty years of experience in Australian education as a teacher and academic, and has been visiting Germany since 2008 under the auspices of the Robert Bosch Stiftung [foundation]. A visit of three months in late 2014-early 2015 as a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy enabled him to spend a longer period in Germany visiting schools, observing classrooms, teaching, presenting, interviewing in schools, universities and various government departments, and engaging with educators, relevant ministers, officials and others. The focus of his fellowship was on comparing the German educational landscape with that of Australia, including structural and regulatory arrangements, policy, and current trends and developments. This is the second post in the Leading Futures series, which is designed to share different views on the process and practice of changing education systems for the better. The first post in this series, by Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians, focused on the success of the educational system in The Netherlands.

When I first visited Germany in 2008 I was struck by several concerns many Germans had about their educational system.

The first concern grew from the ‘PISA shock’, still being felt from Germany’s results on the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000. Germany had believed its education system to be amongst the most effective in the world. PISA indicated otherwise.

The second, possibly related concern, focused on the educational attainment of growing numbers of migrant and refugee children. Many of these children had non-German speaking backgrounds, from nations such as Turkey, Russia, Poland and the Balkans, and some wondered whether they might have contributed at least in part for the unexpectedly unfavourable results.

My other major impression of German education was that of its tightly regulated nature, in contrast to Australia.

Today, in 2016, however, I am struck by the contrast between Germany’s steady improvement in international measures of educational performance and Australia’s general decline. Below, I explore these differences in performance and then describe some of the major similarities and differences in the two systems.

Comparing Educational Performance in Germany and Australia (2000-2016)

The “Pisa shock” in 2000 reflected the fact that German policy makers and the general public were of the opinion that Germany had one of the most effective and highest performing education systems in the world. Although there were warning signs that were largely ignored when Germany first took part in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1995 and the nation scored relatively poorly, the first PISA results made it clear that many German schools were under-performing compared with other participating countries. Germany reacted strongly to these adverse findings, however, and Germany’s PISA results have improved in every iteration since 2000.

The OECD summarised the major factors contributing to Germany’s strong recovery and improvement on PISA since 2000:

  • Changes made to the structure of secondary schooling to enable greater accessibility to the various qualifications including the Abitur and other measures aimed at overcoming the effects of socio-economic background on student achievement, which are greater than for any other OECD country.
  • The high quality of Germany’s teachers including the strong focus on initial selection, state-based examinations, training and certification.
  • The value of Germany’s dual system whereby workplace skills can be developed in children before they leave school.
  • The development of some common standards and curricula guidelines and the assessment and research capacity to monitor these.

Because of near universal public education in Germany, coupled with strong Land control, it may have been easier to introduce reforms across systems and schools than might be the case in a more diverse and less ‘controlled’ system such as Australia, which has a large (by world standards) and growing non-government school sector.

International tests are only one indicator of teaching and learning achievement but the following comparisons between Germany and Australia may be instructive.

While Germany’s PISA results have shown steady improvement since 2000, that is not the case for Australia, where PISA results have been in general decline and measures such as PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and TIMSS have recorded primary school results that are inferior in comparative terms to Australia’s secondary TIMSS and PISA results.

In fact, on every aspect of TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA – with the exception of PISA Reading Literacy where Australia narrowly leads Germany and with the difference in performance not significant – German students now outperform their Australian counterparts, a startling turnaround from the beginning of this century.

Germany, along with Mexico and Turkey, are the only countries to have improved in both PISA mathematics and equity since 2003, with these improvements largely the result of better performance amongst low-achieving and disadvantaged students, and with Germany’s performance in mathematics, reading and science now above OECD averages. Possibly the one negative amongst this pattern of significant improvement is that PISA data show Germany also has one of the highest rates of grade repetition among OECD countries (in 2012, one in five German students had repeated a grade at least once). However, some might argue the improvements in performance are partly attributable to this repetition.


Similarities and Differences in Educational Policy and Organisation

Germany and Australia are similar in that constitutionally education is a state responsibility. In Germany there are 16 Bundesländer/Länder educational ‘systems’ rather than one, with each state determining its own educational policies, regulations and mechanisms for standards, innovations and quality assurance. Similarly in Australia there are eight states and territories with primary responsibility for school education, although since 2007 there has been more of a nationally consistent approach in the areas of national testing, national curriculum, professional teaching standards, teacher development, teacher appraisal and certification, and the accreditation of teacher education courses.

Thus, while some aspects of education and schooling in Australia have become ‘looser’, for example government funded independent schools, greater school autonomy, moving teacher education to schools, and a greater emphasis on ‘choice’ and the free market, some aspects have become more uniform, regulated and ‘tighter’ as a result of national agreements and developments.

In comparison, Germany does not have the same level of federal involvement in education as Australia, although there has been greater federal and Länder ‘soft’ cooperation since 2001 in areas such as aggregated national reporting on education, along with reporting on special issues such as diversity and inclusion, commissioning of international and national studies into certain priority areas and the collaborative formulation of national standards for students at three levels, although the adoption and utilisation of many of these initiatives has been optional and thus take-up has been varied across Länder.

While federal authorities in Germany provide funding to universities for initial teacher education, there is little federal involvement in continuing professional development for teachers, which is commonly regarded as the responsibility of Länder and schools.

A key difference between the countries is in the proportion of students attending government schools. In 2012, around 65 per cent of school age students in Australia attended government schools, a small proportion by world standards and one that is falling. In Germany, the proportion of students attending non-government schools is increasing slightly, but fewer than eight per cent of students in Germany attend such schools.

Another point of difference is that local government in Germany plays a more active role in school education than in Australia, with local government taking substantial responsibility for the provision and operation of schools, apart from teachers’ salaries. This involvement of local government extends beyond financing, however, with local elected officials and communities demonstrating a high degree of engagement with and ‘ownership’ of local schools.

In both Germany and Australia there is thus a lack of direct federal government influence and control over education, with a commensurate need to gain consensus among the states/Länder in order to implement uniform national policies, structures, programs, standards and change agendas.

A Critical Difference: ‘Tracking’ versus ‘Comprehensive’ schooling

The most significant difference between German and Australian schooling lies in the organisation of primary and particularly secondary schooling.

In Germany primary schooling (Grundschule) begins at age six and ends at the age of 10 (grade 4) after four years (except for Berlin and Brandenburg where students leave primary school at 12), whereas in Australia there are seven years of primary schooling – Western Australia and Queensland have adopted this structure in recent years – from the ages of five to 12, ending in grade 6.

Whilst comprehensive secondary education was progressively introduced in Australia from the mid-1950s, it is still rare in Germany. While comprehensive secondary school is an option in some places, it is not universal, meaning such schools are not truly comprehensive in the usual sense of the term.

Traditionally in Germany, entry to the secondary ‘tracks’ was determined by primary school staff after students’ completion of grade 4. More recently, parents in some cases now have a choice in (or try to influence) the type of school their child will attend. Some educators I have spoken with see this as a retrograde step, in that the decision has been taken out of teachers’ hands, with greater pressure now being exerted by ‘pushy’ and/or ‘middle class’ parents. In some communities, entry to the highest status and more sought after Gymnasium schools is through ballot.

German secondary education varies from Land to Land and regionally within Länder but typically there are now five major forms. The first three types are the traditional pathways or forms of secondary schooling in Germany. Although it is possible to change tracks, this is usually ‘downwards’ and not to a ‘higher’ track):

  1. Gymnasium (or grammar schools) – the most ‘academic’ schools, operate until grades 12 or 13 and enable those who meet the general standard for entry to university (Hochschulreife) and passing of the Arbitur examination to qualify for university entrance. (The Arbitur – a combined written and oral examination – guarantees admission to a university but not to a particular field of study.)
  2. Realschule – grades 5-10 with the Mittlere Reife exit exam and Realschulabschluss
  3. Hauptschule (Main School) – the least ‘academic’ stream usually ending in grade 9 (with the qualification of Hauptschulabschluss and in some cases Realschulabschluss after grade 10, and in the case of Mittelschule [grades 5-10] combining Hauptschule and Realschule in some Länder).
  4. Fachoberschule – vocational/technical school, [sometimes leading to a Berufsschule that offers academic study combined with an apprenticeship] with admission after grade 10 until grade 12 (or 13 in some cases), with the Arbitur available/obtained subject to certain conditions.
  5. Gesamtschule – grades 5-12 or 5-13 comprehensive/community school effectively combining the three main types of secondary school. The Arbitur is available/obtained subject to certain conditions.

An overall impression is that Germany has and continues to place great emphasis upon formal education and training. There is compulsory school attendance (Schulpflicht) from age 6 until 15 and home schooling is illegal. There is strong belief in the contribution effective public education makes to personal, social and national prosperity.

There are pathways to obtaining certificates, diplomas, degrees and other qualifications that are long established and well-known, including the highly regarded ‘dual system’ with industry. (As OECD explains it, “Germany’s dual education system … combines apprenticeships in a company and vocational education at a vocational school … In the company, the apprentice receives practical training which is supplemented by theoretical instruction in the vocational school. Around 60% of all young people learn a trade within the dual system of vocational education and training in Germany.”) Training for any occupation is usually lengthy with the payoffs being tenure, security, salary and status.

While Germany is prepared to invest in education and training, In Australia governments are moving away from supporting technical education through cutting funding to traditional technical and further education (‘TAFE’) colleges, encouraging alternative vocational education and training (VET) providers and importing skilled labour rather than training local people.

Two Different Approaches: The Roles of Regulation and Deregulation

While it could be argued that strong traditions and tight government regulations in education might hinder innovation and change in Germany, these can also act as a form of protection from international trends and forces and ensure that standards are not compromised. Whilst Australia is moving down the road of greater deregulation, there is strong resistance to this in Germany. As noted, federal agencies in Germany are relatively less influential in education than is the case in Australia and this might also act to protect the country as a whole from some of the fads and fashions that are becoming endemic in other countries such as the USA and England.

There is no context free recipe or model for educational success, however defined and measured. Australia is not Germany, nor Finland, Singapore or Shanghai for that matter. However Germany has been successful in lifting its performance at a time when Australia’s is in decline, and so there may well be lessons to be learned.


Whilst challenges remain for education in Germany and educators and officials express dissatisfaction with the current performance of schooling, there are impressive features that contrast with the current state of education in Australia.

Overall, the education sector in Germany is highly valued, well-supported financially, tightly regulated and stable, yet it has shown itself to be responsive, serious about and capable of reform.

Finally, the strong emphasis within German education on regulation, standards, evidence, reform and improvement appears preferable to the current situation in Australia where there seems to be a headlong rush to deregulate, dismantle and open (public but also private) education to market forces, without, or at times despite, available evidence, whilst overall performance and equity are declining.

Accountability in decentralized systems: rethinking how we evaluate schools

This week, Dr. Melanie Ehren expands upon her most recent research on accountability and decentralization in Scotland’s schools. Here she provides background on a project she touched on in last week’s post, in which she explored the connection between testing and teaching in UK schools. This piece also follows a recent post IEN published on Chris Chapman’s work with school improvement efforts and learning partnerships as well as earlier posts on “centralized decentralization” in Singapore. Dr. Ehren has also written about her work in a project on school inspections in Europe and in an earlier IEN post comparing school inspections in England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Ireland and the Czech Republic.


Many countries have given schools more autonomy over the last decade, according to the OECD. Examples are the Netherlands where schools have autonomy in allocating resources as well as in making decisions about curricula and assessments and England where publicly funded independent academies and free schools have freedom in setting pay and conditions for their staff, decide on how to deliver the curriculum, have the ability to change the length of terms, and set their own school hours. The assumption behind greater school-level decision-making is to give power to make decisions to those who have first-hand knowledge of the challenges they face and what they need to solve those challenges. Greater autonomy often goes hand in hand with increased accountability as national governments want to have a safety net in case schools misuse their freedom. The combination of decentralization of decision-making with centralized accountability creates an interesting paradox of freedom with greater control, which can, according to the OECD, lead to improved student outcomes if combined intelligently.

Decentralized decision-making, centralized accountability

In a recent comparative EU-funded study we have started to look at what such intelligent combination might look like, analyzing countries that have recently implemented more locally embedded inspection models, often alongside existing centralized inspections of schools. Newer models are inspired by ‘theory-driven evaluation,’ which take the purposes of the evaluation and how these purposes are expected to be achieved, as a starting point. The foundation for theory-driven evaluation were laid by Peter Rossi, along with Carol Weiss and Huey-Tsych Chen who explained how programme theories and logic models can be constructed to guide an evaluation. Mayne’s ‘contribution analysis,’ also focuses on the causes of outcomes by gathering various perspectives on the degree of impact on observed results. Finally, Michael Quinn Patton’s developmental evaluation provides relevant approaches that help people to learn to think and act as evaluators with a goal of ensuring that evaluations have a lasting impact. This approach encourages those involved in an initiative to constantly assess their work, to reflect on whether it has the intended outcomes, and to make adjustments.

In our EU-funded study we are mapping examples of countries that have incorporated such models in their accountability systems. One of the interesting examples comes from Scotland where the Inspectorate of Education (Education Scotland) is collaborating with other stakeholders in Scotland’s ‘School Improvement Partnership Programme’ (SIPP); an approach that clearly features ‘developmental evaluation.’ In March 2013, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning announced the SSIP as a solution focused approach to tackle the steadfast link between socio-economic deprivation and low educational attainment. The aim of the programme is to make explicit links to strategic improvement planning in schools and local authorities. The School Improvement Partnerships is described by Education Scotland as an approach based on action research and a process of collaborative inquiry. Schools have been asked to take the lead in developing projects around a number of key themes (e.g. differences in achievement by gender, improving transition, differences between small and large schools); projects are also expected to operate across local authority boundaries (cross-sectoral, multi-disciplinary, partnerships with independent sector) and involve a partnership with local authorities, Education Scotland and other agencies. Each partnership is expected to share and try out effective approaches and to indicate what success will look like, with a strong focus on impact in making a difference to young people’s achievement and ultimately life chances. Each of the partnerships develops a structured, collaborative inquiry approach along three phases of preparation (analyzing the context and agreeing on inquiry questions and purposes), exploring the evidence and testing change.

In this approach, evaluation and accountability are key drivers for change and improvement, but they are framed by local questions and local issues instead of centralized frameworks. The programme also offers support to build evaluation and improvement capacity by a trio of named individuals from Education Scotland, local authorities and university researchers who each undertake their own inquiry to explore how the partnership project contributes to the overarching programme inquiry. Education Scotland’s role is to coordinate the development and implementation of the programme, deciding on which partnership gets funding, brokering national partnering and making links across authorities and university researchers and visiting partnerships to identify key challenges in and monitor developments of the programme. Its role is also to provide assistance in collating statistical information about the schools and partnerships to inform their decision-making; supporting a database and communication system to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and resources within and between partnerships, and bringing partnerships together to share experiences at appropriate points within the programme. According to Education Scotland, “This ambitious programme seeks to harness the professional creativity and innovation that exists within the Scottish education community. The programme provides exciting opportunities to rethink roles and relationships within the system and generate and share new practice.”

Expanding the menu of school accountability to include such decentralized approaches allows for greater flexibility in implementing evaluations that fit different purposes and inform system-wide improvement in an ever changing education landscape. The next step in our project is to understand the impact such decentralized accountability models have in improving student outcomes in schools and education networks, but initial results are promising.

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