School & District Management Opinion

Q&A: Tim Knowles on Making Education an Evidence-Based Profession

By Tom Vander Ark — July 08, 2012 8 min read
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It was a shocker when Tony Bryk announced that he was leaving University of Chicago for Stanford almost a decade ago. Bryk ran the best research shop the country--one known for making local observations with such clarity that they were always of national importance.

UC turned to Tim Knowles, another guy that raises the average IQ in the room when he attends a meeting. I met Tim in Boston in the 90’s where he served as Tom Payzant’s deputy in what was America’s best run urban school district.

Since the last time I visited Tim, he’s created the best example of a university-based school improvement engine, under the umbrella of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute

(UEI), with four high functioning units:

1. Rigorous applied research lead by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research;
2. Developing urban teachers and leaders through the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program;
3. Four campus K-12 network called the University of Chicago Charter School; and
4. Powering national school improvement efforts with innovative tools and learning opportunities UChicago Impact.

On the latter, Dr Knowles has a great start-up story to tell with exciting early results.

TVA: You had a full plate, why did you start UChicago Impact?

TK: If we want America to be truly great, we have to run hard and full tilt at schooling - and do it at nationwide. For UEI, that means building a mechanism to have impact at national scale. While still very much in start-up mode, we have lots of demand and really encouraging results.

TVA: I love the tagline: ‘Tools for reliably excellent schooling’.

TK: We’re building tools and training to make schooling a legitimately evidence based profession. Our tools focus on literacy, college readiness, and improving school organization. The main aim is to build tools that link diagnosis (what is going on with my child, my classroom or my school house?) with prescription (what should I do about it?). We make that link and really good things happen.

TVA: Your site suggests good school share “5 Essentials”.

TK: UEI’s research group has 15 years worth of hard data indicating there are 5 essentials for school success: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environments, and ambitious instruction. That isn’t rocket science - any good educator would tell you those things are key. What might surprise you is the power of getting the essentials right. Schools that address three of the five are (literally) 10 times more likely to make substantial improvement than schools that do not - no matter how disadvantaged the school community may be. What UChicago Impact does is provide school by school reports on the 5 essentials. The web-based reports are specific, actionable, show progress over time - and are designed to drive improvement. These are leading indicators, not lagging ones.

We have educators, parents and policy makers using our tools across Chicago - and along with our homeland security style reporting (red your bad, green your good) - we are seeing thousands and thousands of regular hits. We are using the 5 Essentials tool in Baltimore, in public, parochial and private schools in Detroit, in Boston, the Twin Cities and Michigan City. Next year, Illinois will make the 5 Essentials part of their report card for all schools.

TVA: Say something about the literacy work you are doing.

TK: We have built preK-3, common core aligned, literacy assessment, data management tool and training designed to improve instruction - and we have a team of extraordinary practitioners to deliver support nationwide. The literacy tool is called STEP 360 - and is an educational Trojan Horse. It is designed to impact everything that happens in the school house - what and how teachers teach; how school leaders approach supervision; the focus for professional development; how schools align academic and social supports for children who need it and; a tool for engaging parents. There are high performing CMOs using STEP 360 nationwide (e.g. KIPP, Uncommon, Achievement First) as well as an increasing number of big urban systems (eg. Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, New Haven). The really good news is we significant effects in schools using our tools - twice the improvement rates in 3rd grade literacy results.

TVA: That sounds like a straightforward agenda, but like a lot of work. Where do schools usually fall short and how to tools help?

TK: There are two big problems. First, schools are awash in a sea of data, but not much of it is very useful for improving the core technology of schooling - teaching and learning. We are trying to close that gap - providing teachers and school leaders with evidence they can use not just to identify gaps, but to get better at what they do so they can close the gaps overtime.

Second, there is a pathological churn of programs in urban school systems. Chicago has had 4 superintendents in 4 years, each bringing with them a raft of new initiatives. Despite good intentions, the impact of such shifting terrain can be distracting at best, catastrophic at worst. Our tools are program and school agnostic - they are designed for any school context (charter, turnaround, traditional) and intended to drive improvement of practice in ways that outlives and outflanks the churn.

TVA: What role will technology play in promoting evidence-based practice?

TK: Technology can do (at least) two critical things. First, strengthen the link between diagnosis and prescription - by providing data to educators about children, classrooms and schools in real time and by providing direct guidance to teachers and leaders about the precise practices they should employ in response to the diagnoses. Second, technology can put the right interventions in front of the right kids, dramatically increasing efforts to individualize instruction.

TVA: That sounds like improved execution--doing things right--what role will innovation play at producing quality education at scale?

TK: We shouldn’t downplay execution. A significant part of our problem is failure to execute. That said, to improve results at scale we need innovations that create agency among educators. Agency is the opposite of control and compliance - it is ownership over improvement. Schools where agency is the norm get results. And they are much more interesting places for children and adults to work and learn. If we can build and scale innovations that promote ownership over improvement we go remarkable places.

TVA: What about agency in kids? Isn’t that what we should really shoot for.

TK: Of course. We have a tech-enabled college readiness program for 6th to 12th grade in the hopper (we call it 6to16), which we are piloting with KIPP nationwide, and in charter and traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago. It is designed to build student agency, so they become the instrumental variable in persisting through high school, entering college and succeeding when they get there.

6to16 is a classroom and online high school and college readiness program for grades 6 to “16" (the completion of the undergraduate degree).

TVA: Did you raise money for Impact?

TK: Yes. We have individual, foundation and university investors. We have raised approximately $4 million, and expect to raise $4 million more in the coming 18 months. The main aim is to create an LLC that is self-sustaining, and over time returns 15% of overall revenues to UEI, so we can undertake R and D for the long term, and continue to deliver useful tools to schools. We’re taking a “go slow to go far” approach, picking partners carefully, only partnering with states, districts and charter networks that have an appetite to dig in deeply, overtime. Today we are serving 75,000 students. In the coming year, we expect to serve up to 200,000 students.

TVA: Where is Impact working?

TK: We’re in 33 cities and 19 states as well as some well known charter networks nationwide.

TVA: Who is Nick Montgomery?

TK: Nick the CEO of UChicago Impact. He is a talented young computer scientist who was straddling research and education practice. He is very good at making sense of research for practitioners and a genius at building usable tools that display data in accessible ways.

TVA: What have you learned running a school network?

TK: We operate the University of Chicago Charter School -- comprised of two Prek-5th grade campuses, two 6-8th grade campuses and a 9-12th grade campus. We serve African American children from across Chicago’s South Side. Our work in school keeps all of UEI’s work rooted in reality. The tools we build are not just empirically based, but practice-proven; the teachers we train are prepared by our own exemplary practitioners; and the applied research we pursue is shaped and used by our teachers and school leaders every day. Over 100 years ago, John Dewey started a school at the University of Chicago called the Lab School. In our view, his idea of ‘learning by doing’ was right. It enabled him to develop educational approaches that shook our country to the core. In many ways we are building on that legacy. Learning by doing in the realest sense - developing people, tools and knowledge that we expect will help America get the education of poor children right in the 100 years coming.

TVA: You’re doing good work!

TK: I love this work. The creation of UChicago Impact means some of the work we do on the ground in Chicago can reach the nation. Even if we only have 50 years left, I am convinced we can get this done. We have the evidence. We are building better tools. Technology is catching up to the real needs of children. And the national appetite for radically improving the quality of schooling is genuine.

TVA: Thanks Tim!

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.