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GRAPHIC:  Campus News 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 bold reform.”

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 Schools?

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 connections.

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 look like.

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.


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