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Revolutionizing Urban Education with Tim Knowles

TeachHUB Interview

Revolutionizing Urban Education with Tim KnowlesTim Knowles is the Lewis-Sebring Director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. UEI is an innovative education program that combines charter schools, teacher education and research in their quest to provide reliable, excellent schooling for children in urban America.

How did you become involved with UEI?

I came to UEI as a practitioner. I served as a teacher in Bostwana and Boston, a school leader in New York City and a district leader in Boston. Along the way, I helped start several non-profits focused on teaching and leadership in urban schools –including the Boston Teacher Residency, the Boston Leadership Institute and Teach for America.


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I came to the University of Chicago because it was doing something unusual. It was operating schools. It wanted to train aspiring, new and veteran teachers and leaders, for Chicago. And it was doing Research & Development (R&D) in a unique way - working closely with the Chicago Public Schools and school practitioners - and designing research, new tools and practice to inform policy and solve particular problems of practice.


I loved how the research, human capital development and school design was embedded in the real work. As I looked across the country, I quickly realized how rare it was for a research institution to be putting its stake so firmly in the world of practice. And I thought the absence of a school of education at the University of Chicago created an interesting opportunity to re-imagine what the role of higher education might be.


Can you describe one of UEI’s standout programs and the success you’ve achieved with it?

An interesting example of our R&D work is something we call 6to16. 6to16 grew out of the urgent need to find new ways to increase the number of urban students who are accepted and succeed in college. With support from the Gates Foundation, 6to16 supports students beginning in 6th grade through college graduation - grade 16. It provides teachers, counselors, non-profits and others with an online and classroom-based curriculum to help build the skills and knowledge necessary to persist and succeed in school. And it provides students, teachers and others with a web-based social network that allows mentors, families, advisers and peers to guide students as they build skills and complete milestones tied to college success. Think myspace or facebook with a purpose – in this case the purpose is college readiness and success.


6to16 was inspired by practitioners who demanded new tools and supports to help more first generation college going kids get to and succeed in college. It was shaped the work of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and by research on ‘resiliency’ – which says, among other things, that when the odds are stacked against children, and you look carefully at the lives of those who make it, they have reservoirs of social capital to tap. It could be a teacher, a minister, a mentor or a relative. But there are people in their lives who keep them on track and focused and help them dodge or deal with the things that might take them off course.


Based on your research and experience with UEI, what would you say are the keys to academic success for urban students and students in general?

Hard question. Those of us doing the work know there are no silver bullets – and we should be very wary of those who advocate for discrete strategies to improving the schools we work in.


That said, a few big things matter a lot. Clearly, the quality of people matters most. We can’t do this work at scale without effective teachers and school leaders. And we need radically new systems to support, develop and reward the kinds of people good schools depend on.


Second is time. Kids don’t need more time doing what hasn’t worked, but they DO need more time doing the things that do work. Put bluntly, if we are serious about getting children to much higher levels, kids need to go to school more. They need to do ambitious intellectual work at every turn. They need access to things outside the academic core – the arts, sports, music and digital media. The thinking that we can prepare kids for college, simply by getting them to meet standards on standardized math and literacy assessments is terribly short sighted.


Third - and this one is more complicated - we need to disrupt some of the norms of schooling in America. Teaching is still a private profession – one where a teacher often has the same responsibilities on the first day on the job as they do on the last day of your 35th year. Opportunities to learn with and from expert teachers are typically not part of the daily diet of the schoolhouse. Teachers seldom have the experiences other professions provide – regular, focused support from experts in their field; extended time to learn and practice new methods; consistent opportunities to use fine grained evidence to inform their work. Put another way, ironically, schools aren’t, generally, interesting places for adults and children to learn.


So what do we do? I think we start by creating a new expectation in our profession – an expectation that doesn’t cost money but upends the way we work. We make our practice ‘public’. We create an expectation in the schoolhouse that teachers will observe and critique each other’s work, deconstruct lessons and evidence to understand how children accomplish particular things - so the classroom and schoolhouse are the subject of ongoing, public inquiry. In the best schools I know this happens. It isn’t punitive. It is deeply collaborative. It is intellectually challenging. It is a much deeper form of accountability than results garnered from single point in time standardized test score.


But clearly, we should go further. We should create schools dedicated to training aspiring teachers and leaders – moving the preparation of the next generation of educators out of university classrooms, to the place where children learn. We should create schools dedicated to R&D – to creating tools and curricula and interventions - in partnership with higher education, non profits and commercial companies – where practitioners help shape and reshape the next generation of tools and curricula they will employ. And all along the way, we should open our doors. So the magic of the teacher in room 101, or the remarkable success of the school down the block, doesn’t stay there, locked up, behind a closed door. But is revealed, given a chance to observed, deconstructed, and codified in ways the rest of us can use.


In what ways can individual teachers help make those keys to success available to students?

Some things are relatively straightforward - and are happening in classrooms across the country: teachers can use formative assessment and student work to make decisions and adjust instruction; teachers can demand rigor, of themselves and their colleagues; teachers can teach in ways that are rigorous and relevant– leveraging the assets of the families, cultures and community resources of the children they serve – getting students to think and act critically in their world and the larger one.


Other things are trickier but no less important: teachers can take leadership in their schools – and demand such roles if they aren’t there, then make investigation of teacher practice and evidence instrumental to the work, whatever their role may be; teachers can organize - identify two or three of the best ideas they have, and push for them to be made manifest; and teachers should insist on leaders who know not only what good instruction is, but who are dedicated to the work of coaching, supporting, and developing teachers, to improve the quality of instruction school wide.


What unexpected challenges have you faced in implementing your research-based techniques in the University of Chicago Charter School campuses?

One fundamental challenge we face won’t surprise teachers. It is time. Teachers do some of the most complicated, important work in the world. And they have precious little time to reflect on their own work – let alone build tools, curricula, train aspiring teachers, or test new methods or models for what the future of schooling must be.


But to do this work without teachers and school leaders deeply engaged in the work is folly. So we must find the time and create the mechanisms for practitioners to engage in the R&D systematically.


Another challenge we face is imagination. Not that it isn’t there – to the contrary there is plenty of it in all sorts of corners of this country. Rather we haven’t brought it to bear. I’m not convinced we need models of schooling that tinker around the edges of our current design. We need to think like NASA, at its best. Develop missions that break barriers. Create designs that enable us to go places yet traveled - models for teaching and learning that create fundamentally different kinds of opportunities for children to learn. Models that upend how school is organized.


At UEI, we look for teachers, leaders, teacher developers, designers and researchers who have the imagination and expertise to do this work. But the nation needs more than just a few places undertaking R&D of this kind. We need a national strategy to do this work. Imagine, if we embedded the R&D and the work to develop new people in our schools – not only would the people, tools, designs and practices be stronger and more salient - we would improve the quality of schooling, and make the schools more interesting places to be, en route.

What strategies do you think will be most effective to improve urban education? Share in the comments section!

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