Q&A with EP Alumnus Andrew Buher, New Chief Operating Officer of NYC Department of Education

This past April, 2009 EP alumnus Andrew Buher was named Chief Operating Officer of the New York City Department of Education, making him a top executive of the largest school system in the U.S. Promoted from his previous role as Chief of Staff to the Chancellor, Buher now oversees the operation of over 1,700 schools, the education of 1.1 million students, and the management of $24 billion – over a third of New York City's entire annual budget.

In this EP original Q&A, Buher discusses the roots of his interest in education, why he pursued a Graduate School Fellowship with Education Pioneers, and his major responsibilities and accomplishments to date with the NYC DOE. He also offers candid advice to anybody considering a career in education.

EP: When did you become interested in working in education?

Buher: I attended high school in a middle-class community that by every meaningful statistical measure – academic achievement, college and career readiness, and graduation rates – was average. Less than a mile down the road, a private school that is routinely ranked as one of the nation's best produced superior student outcomes. Why? Were the teachers more effective? Did the school's governance structure matter? Did more targeted resources flow to classrooms? Exploring the initial question – why – is what sparked my curiosity; being able to work towards a more level education playing field is what has sustained my fascination.

EP: When did you hear about Education Pioneers? Why did you decide to apply?

Buher: I heard about Education Pioneers during my first year of graduate school at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs through a second-year student who was an alumnus.

I applied to Education Pioneers because I wanted to poke, prod and ultimately strengthen my core ideals on education. Education Pioneers created a space for deep personal reflection that was driven by interactions with a diverse group of leaders from across the field and a cohort of peers who constantly challenged me to question and assess what I believed in and valued.

EP: What was your EP experience like?

Buher: My Education Pioneers experience was defined by the outcome: enduring professional relationships and friendships. While my cohort had our differences – and there was, at points, vigorous debate – our stimulus was the same: we all believed deeply in the power of education to change the arc of children's lives. This shared motivation was the perfect foundation for the development of a group of friends and colleagues whom I have grown to greatly trust, admire, and rely on.

EP: Tell us about your work as COO of the NYC DOE:

Buher: My team is responsible for the management, oversight and support of the Division of Finance, the Division of Instructional and Information Technology and the Office of Family and Community Engagement. Together, my direct reports – the CFO, CIO and Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement – manage hundreds of employees. The Department's $24 billion budget makes up roughly one-third of the City's budget.

More generally, my team is responsible for cross-functional coordination of work across the Department and the support of our Deputy Chancellor's to ensure that they can focus on their respective instructional portfolios.

EP: What are the best things about working in education?

Buher: The best thing about working in education is the people. While there are a few cynical and sometimes disparaging voices – they tend to be the loudest and least productive – the critical mass of individuals working in education care deeply about children, their communities and their country. There is nothing more motivating than being a part of an association of people doing such important work.

EP: Tell us about the impact you're making in your work.

Buher: My highest priority as Chief Operating Officer has been to ensure schools have as many resources as possible – as early as possible – to prepare for the significant pedagogical shifts that will happen in classrooms across the City next school year as the result of the implementation of a new teacher evaluation and development system and the adoption of a Common Core aligned curriculum. To that end, school budgets were released earlier this year than any other time in the last five years in order to give principals more time to plan. We also continued to cut money from the central bureaucracy, bringing total spending centrally to its lowest point under Mayor Bloomberg's leadership. This allowed us to make a number of significant investments including:

  • $100 million to support implementation of Common Core standards and a new teacher evaluation and development system; including nearly $40 million allocated directly to the schools to support professional development for teachers.
  • $13 million to increase funding equity across schools – 316 schools received budget increases via our Fair Student Funding methodology.
  • $10 million across schools serving grades 3-8 to support academic intervention services.
  • Backfilled $79 million in federal funding losses due to sequestration and census changes to protect schools.

We also made a number of investments that are important steps in ensuring more students are graduating college and career ready. They include:

  • $20 million for 4,000 new full day pre-kindergarten seats for the 2013-14 school year, accommodating more of the City's youngest learners in high need areas.
  • $4 million for a variety of work happening with English Language Learners including: training for teachers on best practices for ELL instruction and new support for principals; new grants to high schools so they can offer extended day options, online courses, expand bilingual programs and buy additional instructional materials; and partnerships with local universities to train more teachers with expertise in bilingual education.
  • $2 million to expand our Middle School Quality Initiative, a program that focuses on strengthening literacy instruction in grades 6-8. This fall, 40 additional schools will take part in this initiative – bringing the total number to 89.

Our work over the course of this administration has concretized the fact that extraordinary change requires extraordinary people. Therefore, another key priority has been the implementation of a comprehensive employee engagement initiative for central administrative staff called "LEAD" -Leadership Exploration and Development.  We believe deeply in continued opportunities for staff growth and development and think this work is particularly important during times of transition (which we are quickly approaching). Initiatives under the umbrella of LEAD include Office Hours with Deputy Chancellors – an opportunity for junior staff to engage in informal conversations with senior leaders about strategic initiatives happening within their divisions – and Tweed Talks which feature industry leaders from across the spectrum of sectors who share their insights and experiences.

EP: What would you say to someone who is considering applying to an EP Fellowship, or considering working in education?

Buher: Be impatient with the status quo, but commit to being flexible, ready to listen and learn, and willing to collaborate.

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