If you ask Richard Culatta about his standing as Rhode Island’s chief innovation officer, he’d likely joke that he is a man with a certain reputation — and depending on who you ask, it’s not always a good one.
What Culatta does that tends to irk people satisfied with the way things are is cultivate new working relationships, the kind not typically found in traditional government institutions. And this means putting people in unfamiliar situations that for some are, well, just plain scary.
But for every naysayer who thinks things are good enough as is, there are also those who have witnessed the positive effects of cross-silo cooperation and embraced the Culatta way of doing things.
When he was first appointed in January 2016 by Gov. Gina Raimondo to head up the state’s innovative efforts, he was looking for ways to take the ideas he had seen percolating at the federal level and actually implement them in an environment where they could thrive.
In his former role as director of the Office of Educational Technology with the U.S. Department of Education, Culatta said coming up with new ideas was not an issue, it’s just that implementation was not the federal government’s strong suit.
“At the federal level, one of my goals was to really say, ‘How can we create a context, an environment to accelerate education through technology?’” he said. “While it’s fantastic to see all of the great things that are happening and make great creative contacts, implementation does not happen [at the federal level]; it happens at the state level. I really wanted to have a chance to try to do that.”
Now, Culatta will have his chance in the laboratory of state government. Rhode Island mirrors national education averages for student performance levels in science, math, reading and writing, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The state stands 34th in the nation by the center’s count for 2015 — a number Culatta no doubt hopes to boost. At the high school level, the state reports graduation rates at around 83 percent for 2015.
The best innovation happens when you have people working across the traditional boundaries.
Given his past efforts to bring teaching and learning tools to remote portions of Guatemala with the Rose Education Foundation (a nonprofit that supports educational opportunities for disadvantaged children in the country), it’s no surprise that Culatta has a passion for seeing good ideas through. To hear him tell it, bringing Internet connections to Latin American mountain towns in the early 2000s was a feat that opened the door for the area’s youth and opened his eyes to the true potential for technology in education.
“Back then that was a pretty crazy idea. I said, ‘Why don’t we try to connect these schools to the Internet and bring in some opportunities that way?’” Culatta recalled. “Even just the process of how we did it at that time was pretty remarkable, being able to get Internet up into some of these mountain regions of Guatemala. But, as soon as we did, we actually gave these kids a shot and for once they had a pathway that could lead them to a sustainable life, which they had never had before. No other approach was going to be able to bring that to them.”
That seemingly unattainable mission all those years ago is what he credits for his leading-edge approach and steadfast commitment to education technology today.
“I originally got into this space because I had several experiences where it became clear to me that technology, when used appropriately, which is a big caveat … could be one of the most powerful levers to close equity gaps that we’ve ever had.”
And Rhode Island just may be the perfect place to inject innovative ideas into the mainstream. While it doesn’t have the technical reputation of larger, more industry-heavy states, its small size makes it an ideal proving ground for things larger states would be too afraid to attempt.
“Rhode Island, just because of its size, I thought could be such a great lab for innovation in government in general. Education is one [area], but broadly just doing things differently and trying new approaches. That’s why I was excited to try this out.”
Take the state’s computer science initiative, for example. The plan is proof of Culatta’s sensible yet out-of-the-box thinking: Give all students, at every one of Rhode Island’s some 300 public schools, access to computer science courses by 2017.
“Some of the issues, whether you have two schools or 20,000 schools, are going to be the same and you are just going to have to deal with. For example, one of the challenges is the traditional government process; the traditional process is just slow,” he said. “If you are dependent on legislation, even if it’s great legislation, even if you get all the support behind it, the fact that you have to go through that is a slow process.”
“If it works, we’ll be the first state in the country to offer computer science in every school,” he said.
Even in the smallest state in the U.S., such a well intentioned plan could be difficult to implement though traditional means. That’s why Culatta doesn’t focus on only doing things through the normal channels.
In a time where governments everywhere are under the proverbial microscope, the Rhode Island innovator is working around the roadblocks and finding alternate routes to the end goal.
“People either love me or hate me for that, but it is true that I definitely pull people across traditional silos to work together. The advantage of it is that you can get more done more effectively with better solutions. The challenge, of course, is that sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable working across silos.”
Rather than wait on legislation that may or may not fall in a project’s favor, or battle unions for the ability to launch a promising initiative, the innovation office opts for pooling resources and working with partners that have not customarily been approached for their insights and skill sets.
He points to one of his general rules: Have someone from private industry, the nonprofit sector and government working on each project. “Having those three at the table just leads to better solutions,” said Culatta.
While the government may be limited in what it can do quickly, the nonprofit and academic corner of the partnership triangle might not have the same constraints. It becomes more about leveraging available resources than fighting for new ones.
“What we were trying to do, and what our strategy has been, is let’s find opportunities to get stuff done through nontraditional approaches that don’t require us to tackle some of those time-consuming initiatives,” he said.
Additionally, Culatta said the state’s willingness to embrace the memorandum of understanding and compelling opportunities for partners has been an effective approach so far.
While some might think that Culatta’s ideas sound great on paper, he practices what he preaches. Even his office, located on the campus of Rhode Island College, is a testament to working across the institutional confines of old-style government.
“I believe that the best innovation happens when you have people that are sort of working across the traditional boundaries,” he said. “If I’m running around saying, ‘Hey, we should work together across silos.’ I felt like one of the best ways to show that was to demonstrate it.”
One benefit of his geographic location at the college is the access to faculty and, perhaps more importantly, students with fresh ideas and an unjaded way of seeing the world around them.
When it comes to what the innovative leader is working on next, Culatta said his team is looking at how to drive personalized learning to new levels and the potential to make learning materials open source.
The roughly $8 billion a year educational publishing industry has
put what he sees as unnecessary limitations on educators with international copyright standing between the teachers and their ability to customize materials for their students.
“We’ve outsourced our intellectual capital, and I believe we need to take that back,” Culatta said.