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Audit: DOE did not gather data to justify expanding tech initiative

The Department of Education never checked to see whether an initiative to transform city schools for the 21st century that was announced with a splash in 2009 was paying off, according to an audit released today by Comptroller John Liu.

The audit is the latest in a series by Liu’s office to conclude that the department does not adequately evaluate its programs and initiatives, which the Bloomberg administration has always delivered in rapid succession.

The audit also has the department insisting that a technology initiative once billed as “the most exciting work we are now embarking on here in New York City’s public schools” was actually a “small educational initiative” in just a handful of schools.

The initiative, called NY21C, was unveiled in May 2009 at the iSchool, a centerpiece of the department’s efforts to rethink schools using technology. Then-Chancellor Joel Klein said the program, which the city billed as a “research and development project” in promotional materials, would quickly expand across the entire city.

The initiative did expand — but it also quickly evolved. In 2010, NYC21C became the 81-school Innovation Zone, and seven of the original 10 schools were dispersed into different branches of the zone. Since then, Klein and John White, another official who championed the Innovation Zone, have left the Department of Education, and the department’s focus has shifted away from innovation and toward making instruction more rigorous in all schools through new learning standards.

Figuring out just whether NYC21C accomplished the goals set out in its original five-year plan was lost in the shuffle, the audit concludes.

Liu’s office found that the 10 schools did receive an infusion of hardware, but they did not get special funding or resources to help them change their practices, and the department did not track their technology inventories. Officials at three schools told auditors that they did not think the department had communicated with them sufficiently about their innovations.

More broadly, the auditors concluded, the department never had a clear vision of what success in NYC21C would look like and thus never measured whether it had been successful. Certainly, Liu’s office concluded, the department did not have data to back up its decision to turn NYC21C into the much larger, much costlier Innovation Zone.

“The DOE suffers from acute amnesia when it comes to empty promises made when this initiative was announced,” Liu said in a statement. “The DOE should stop taking shots in the dark with untested pet projects and get serious with providing real tools for education, complete with measurements for success.”

The audit’s first recommendation is a sweeping one: The department should “establish and specify firm measurable goals, objectives, and guidelines for all future DOE projects.”

The department says Liu’s office misunderstood the point of NY21C. The program was meant to convene like-minded principals to talk about how to use technology and other innovations to solve shared problems, not to infuse the schools with vast new resources, according to the department’s response to the audit, included in its release.

“Not every small initiative to bring together school leaders to discuss ideas and challenges or to receive professional development around pedagogical strategies necessarily warrants a distinct standalone set of measurable benchmarks or a checklist of new mandates,” the department’s response states.

The Innovation Zone audit was one of the first Liu, a potential 2013 mayoral contender, initiated last year after holding town hall meetings in which New Yorkers suggested topics for investigation. In the past year, Liu has found problems with the department’s Office of SchoolFood, pre-kindergarten funding, physical education instruction, space planning, handling of teachers whose jobs were eliminated, and data warehouse.

The complete audit is below: