Q&A: How to improve urban schools
Boston and Chicago’s public-school systems
“share the tremendous challenge of serving large numbers of
poor kids at high levels,” says Timothy Knowles, head of the
U of C’s Center for Urban School Improvement (USI), but Chicago
has a particularly strong “appetite and a willingness to undertake
Knowles has inside knowledge of both systems.
After earning a bachelor’s in anthropology and African history
from Oberlin College in 1988, he taught in Boston and Botswana,
started a K–8 school in Brooklyn, and then headed to Harvard.
There he received a 1996 master’s in education and a 2002
doctorate in education administration, planning, and social policy.
He codirected the Boston Annenberg Challenge, a $30 million literacy-improvement
effort, and in 1998 became Boston Public Schools’ deputy superintendent
for teaching and learning. Since his August 2003 move to USI, he’s
become a leader in Chicago’s local reform efforts.
How does the center try to help Chicago Public
We aim to create incontrovertible evidence that
children in urban areas can learn at high academic levels. We approach
this goal in three main ways. First, we develop human capital—the
people who teach in and lead urban schools. We train aspiring teachers
and provide ongoing training for teachers, staff developers, school
leaders, and student-support staff from across Chicago.
Second, we develop ideas to support school improvement.
For example, our technology initiative designs and creates tools
to help educators improve instruction, to help social workers address
the nonacademic barriers to learning, and to support strong school–home
Third, we create exemplars of best practice.
The North Kenwood Oakland Charter School (NKO) is the first University-sponsored
school. It aims to provide an outstanding education to all students
enrolled and to develop aspiring, new, and veteran CPS staff.
Students at NKO are selected by lottery; 70 percent
receive free or reduced-cost lunch. The students surpass the city
at all grade levels in reading, writing, and mathematics and surpass
the state in many grade levels in writing and math.
How do you gauge school improvement?
First you measure key things you can count: results
on all kinds of assessments, attendance of students and faculty,
drop-out rates, suspension rates. Next you count things that people
often neglect: high-school acceptance rates—whether many children
get into high-quality high schools, high-school success rates, college-acceptance
and success rates.
The real test is whether a school is an interesting
place to learn—for adults as well as children. Measuring a
school’s intellectual quality requires going into classrooms
to analyze the caliber of instruction, assessing academic rigor—discourse
in and out of the classroom, student work. Ultimately, the litmus
test is the teaching quality. Thus one measure of school improvement
is the extent to which teacher learning and development is part
of the school’s daily diet.
You’ve compared USI to a teaching hospital.
How are the two alike?
The center is, in many ways, modeled after a
teaching hospital where clinical doctors treat patients, engage
in cutting-edge research, and prepare future generations of physicians.
In our case the clinicians are expert teachers, instructional coaches,
and principals who have dual roles—working directly with children
while helping adults’ professional development.
How might Chicago become a model for transforming
urban public schools?
Across the country universities are struggling
to define their role in understanding and improving K–12 education
and finding ways to connect their work more sensibly to the world
of practice. We have an opportunity to create an entirely new role
for a research institution—a role focused on building the
people, ideas, and sites of exemplary practice.
How is the center working with the city’s
plan to create 100 new schools by 2010?
We hope to focus on the new schools being developed
on the mid–South Side. It’s an opportunity to create
a model of what a small, effective, urban school district should
We anticipate supporting the schools’
incubation—helping with design, planning, and ongoing development
of the teachers, principals, and social workers. We’ll design
research that matters and evaluate the work as it unfolds. We are
not aiming to become a school district or create a new department
of education, but to shape a new role for research institutions
committed to improving the quality of education and to get real
results for students and schools as we do so.