Rappaport Connects Gateway |
Follow Us |

Bryan Richardson: Data Driven

Rappaport Alum Bryan Richardson is Using Data to Improve Educational Opportunities in Marginalized Communities

Rappaport alum Bryan Richardson has made a lifetime of appreciating, harnessing, and utilizing the expansive power of technology and data.

Four decades ago, he was a wide-eyed kid marveling at the capabilities of the IBM 5150 purchased by his dad and the Apple IIe at school. He was later a Rappaport Fellow analyzing the allocation of funds at the City of Somerville Police Department as part of the Applied Field Lab at Harvard Kennedy School. And today, Richardson serves as a senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he optimizes digital learning experiences for students from historically marginalized communities.

Yes, he understands that modern technology is, at its core, an efficiency-booster and practical necessity in a business-minded world. But his focus is on how those same applications can be used as a catalyst for change to better serve the greater good.

“I’ve always been curious,” he said, “about figuring out what specific technologies will benefit the public domain.”

After earning a B.A. in International Studies from Emory University in 2000, Richardson briefly worked in cybersecurity, then moved to Washington D.C. to work for the United States Senate Committee on the Environment for Public Works. That experience inspired him to further explore how data and technology could be deployed in government by enrolling at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

“I had no experience in education or state and local government,” he said. “I couldn’t even tell you how a city was organized.”

Between his first and second year at HKS, Richardson had the opportunity to attend a guest lecture with then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley – an experience that changed his career path. Mayor O’Malley, borrowing from a New York City Police Department model which shared data between departments to create better operational systems, had recently begun a similar program in Baltimore called CitiStat, and Richardson was awed.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. “It was taking a disciplined approach to using data on the front lines of public service and enhancing a leader’s ability to do better by their citizens. I saw his presentation and thought, this is what I want to do.”

That evening, Richardson and O’Malley shared a few pints at an Irish pub in Somerville’s Davis Square. The next morning, Richardson received a call from the Mayor’s chief of staff, asking him to work for the City of Baltimore’s summer fellowship program.

During his ensuing interview with the Mayor, Richarson was asked where in Baltimore he wanted to work.

“Sir, what’s the worst problem you have?” he responded.

The conversation led to a successful summer in the city’s school department, where Richardson worked setting performance metrics for different departments in Baltimore Public Schools.

“It worked very well,” he said.

Richardson built on the experience during the following semester at HKS. Professor Linda Bilmes (“one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met,” he says) was offering the Rappaport Applied Field Lab course, and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone was in the process of bringing the Baltimore data model to his city with SomerStat – setting performance metrics for everything from filling potholes to the police department to vaccinations.

Through his Rappaport Fellowship, Richardson worked directly with the Somerville Police Department to develop a performance budget that included a mix of operational and financial information. His two most significant takeaways: 1. The city spent an inordinate amount of money on police overtime; and 2. Not all city employees were open to embracing new ideas and implementing change.

“We were caught up in our fantasy that our technical and analytic expertise would allow us to walk into these places and everybody would be equally inspired,” Richardson said. “What we ended up reflecting on was not how well our metrics were put together, but that we were these suit-wearing Harvard Kennedy School folks expecting everybody to defer to our expertise. Looking back on it, that’s a pretty dumb thing to do.”

“The Applied Field Lab had a huge impact,” he said. “It was a place where we were trying to assemble all these different things that we were learning at the Kennedy School, whether it’s leadership or financial analysis, statistical analysis, budgeting policy analysis, and trying to apply that in a real project with real people in real government agencies. It got me hooked.”

Bryan Richardson

The experience taught Richardson to look at every government and municipality as a “human puzzle,” and at the same time it strengthened his desire to pursue a career in public policy.

“The Applied Field Lab had a huge impact,” he said. “It was a place where we were trying to assemble all these different things that we were learning at the Kennedy School, whether it’s leadership or financial analysis, statistical analysis, budgeting policy analysis, and trying to apply that in a real project with real people in real government agencies. It got me hooked.”

After graduation, Richardson returned to the Baltimore Public Schools, where he launched SchoolStat, a data-driven performance measurement and accountability program based on the Baltimore CitiStat program.

Among the systems under the SchoolStat microscope were recruiting and staffing, and the data revealed a substantial opportunity to save money if human resources were able to process certain forms more quickly.

“There’s a form that school leaders are required to give to the central office to say that a position in their school is vacant,” Richardson said. “If HR office sits on that form, there’s a substitute teacher in that school for a week. This small process could have high leverage on a school’s instruction quality.”

SchoolStat worked to reengineer and expedite those processes, leading to 200 fewer teacher vacancies.

Meanwhile, Richardson’s work in Baltimore was being noticed. Such organizations as the Dell Foundation, Stupski Foundation, and the Gates Foundation, began sending grantees to learn from him. In return, such organizations provided grants which ultimately helped to create a data warehouse that integrated data from across the district.

The success inspired Richardson and his chief of staff to launch Urban Policy Development (UPD), a consultancy that helped school districts and state education departments implement complex management reforms. The company became a national leader in the field, developing performance management processes with school districts in Baltimore, Memphis, Paterson, NJ, and the District of Columbia, and the state education agencies of New York, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.

Among the highlights, Richardson and UPD worked in the Race to the Top Program, President Obama’s $4.4 billion competitive grant designed to spur and reward innovation and reforms in K-12 education – helping states write winning grants and implement school reforms.

And in August 2017, Richardson made his most recent career change, to the position of senior program officer for the Gates Foundation. He uses those two lessons from his Rappaport Applied Field Lab – the power of technology, and the human puzzle – in his current work, which is focused on both increasing the availability of data critical to R&D, and personalization to support the learning needs of traditionally underserved students.

The Foundation’s focus on black students, Latino students, and all students experience poverty is a significant transition of the past five year, Richardson said. “If you look at the data, the United States has a pretty good educational system for white students or students of means,” he said. “Where it’s at the level of Mexico, Greece, and Estonia is in the education it offers historically marginalized communities. That was a significant shift in our new strategy.”

In terms of information gathering, Richardson said that one silver lining of the pandemic was the reliance on digital resources in the classroom.

“Just by their regular use, these systems are collecting mounds and mounds of data,” he said, which in turn can be used to provide better instruction to students. For example, in the field of mathematics, which is known to be predictive regarding access to college and jobs with economic mobility, those mounds of data “can be used to understand better what it is about a curriculum that seems to help a student better understand the concept of adding or dividing fractions.

“We have a better idea of what can be done to make the content interesting.”

The Gates Foundation is reaching out to some of the largest educational technology providers in the math space, Richardson said, establishing partnerships with large school districts and researchers, and funding improvements in the data infrastructure to work on problems they’re mutually interested in solving.

The most exciting thing about his role, Richarson said, is using data – that very data he has marveled at his entire life – to change the learning experience for historically marginalized students.

“Part of our job as a foundation is to put money into things that need to be done for the social good,” he said. “These partners have been jumping at the opportunity to work more closely in the communities that really need a better education.”