Back-to-School Breakfast Remarks from UEI Director Timothy Knowles: How Do We Know UEI is Having Impact?

August 8, 2011

Annually, the Urban Education Institute holds a Back-to-School Breakfast for its staff.  These are the remarks given by UEI John Dewey Director Timothy Knowles at the 2011 event.

Good morning and welcome. Shaiesha [Woodlawn Campus 2011 Valedictorian], thank you. There are three hundred and fifty people here, many of whom you don’t know. We are teachers, teacher trainers, school and university leaders, researchers, designers and support staff. 

We are all coming with you to Georgetown in the fall.  Because if you succeed, so will we.

Shayne Evans [director of the University of Chicago Charter School] often says we are here to demonstrate what is possible.  Over the last few weeks I have thought about what that means, and how we know whether we are achieving that mission.   

Much of what I’ve learned, I learned from the people here.

Like the faculty of our Carter G Woodson Campus and Jared Washington and Jarred Brown, who remind me about the power of a singular focus on teaching, or ambitious instruction.  Carter G. Woodson has made persuasive gains. On everything we can count.

And the faculty of our North Kenwood/Oakland Campus and Director Tanika Island-Smith, who have shown us in a few short years, how to take a school from good and make it great.

Like, Eliza Ramirez, and the Chicago UTEP team that trained her, who after only 4 years of teaching was one of only 7 teachers (of 25,000 in Chicago) to receive the Golden Apple award last spring.

And the Consortium on Chicago School Research team, who are taking a bold and important step in the weeks ahead - sharing nuanced reports to nearly 600 schools, designed to help the schools improve.  And not just sharing them with principals, but with parents and teachers and the city of Chicago as a whole.

Certainly, the people here anchor this place.  But what evidence do we have of our impact?

As many in this room know, several years ago CCSR tracked every student in the Chicago Public Schools from 9th grade through college.  What the Consortium found was stunning.  The results were banner headlines in the Chicago Tribune.

Six and a half percent of Chicago Public Schools 9th graders had a 4-year college degree by the time they were 25.  If you were an African American boy, the number was two and a half percent.  These data excluded students with disabilities. So, as few as 1 in 50 African American boys finished college by the time they were 25. 

This is criminal.  Why do I speak so bluntly? Because this has nothing to do with children.  Yes, conditions matter – poverty, deeply neglected neighborhoods, too many absent fathers fuel these broken odds.  But changing the odds does not depend on fixing these conditions.  Teachers, school leaders and how we organize schools, it turns out, are among the most powerful antidotes of all.  What we do matters.  Enormously.

How do I know?  I know because in 2006, the same year the Consortium published that study, we started the Woodlawn Campus.  We accepted students by lottery, from 48 elementary schools across the south side.  Seventy percent of the incoming 9th graders were at 5th grade reading levels or below.  And as of last spring, 4 years later, 98 percent of our senior class was accepted to a 4-year college.  And this spring, 95 percent of our second senior class was accepted to college.

What we do matters.

I also know because the Consortium has built 15 years worth of empirical evidence that demonstrate that schools – even those in Chicago’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods can thrive if they are organized for improvement.  They have to focus on five things:

Ambitious instruction, leadership, school climate, parent and community engagement  and the professional capacity of teachers. 

And when teachers and leaders attend to those five essentials, they are literally ten times more likely to make substantial improvement. And thirty times less likely to stagnate.  The message here?  This is firmly within our grasp.  Instruction, parent engagement, school culture – these are things we control.  Children rise – not based on where they live, their prior test scores, their color – but because of what we do.

But is this work possible at scale? Can we change the odds in significant ways for large numbers of poor children?  I am convinced we can.

After the headlines in the Chicago Tribune, the Consortium decided to find out precisely why so few students finish college – to identify the particular places we could intervene to change the odds.  The potholes on the path to college.

Remarkable things happened.

Teachers responded.  Shayne Evans created a course for his 7th grade class;  a course he simply called "High School".  Middle school students spent the whole year doing intensive research on the quality of Chicago high schools, learning which high schools would dramatically increase their odds of finishing college and what it would take to get in.  The result?  The number of students on the honor roll doubled.  And critically, that single course for a single class grew.  Today, the curriculum spans 6th through 12th grade.  Next year we will pilot it in 10 cities nationwide through 6to16.

The federal government responded to our findings as well.  The IRS streamlined the FAFSA (the byzantine application for federal financial aide) making it easier for families to overcome the biggest barrier to college: paying for it.  There was even a White House press conference: with the IRS Commissioner, the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Rahm Emanuel.  While the fact that the IRS responded to a band of educators on the South Side of Chicago still shocks me,  the real victory was this: in Chicago alone, the number of high school seniors successfully applying for federal aide has risen from approximately 65 percent to 87 percent.

And Chicago Public Schools responded.  The district built an early warning system for every student not on track to graduate.  Teachers, parents and school leaders all know who is at risk.  Schools are required to intervene.  And on track rates have risen from 50 percent to almost 70 percent. Six thousand more students will graduate from high school each year in Chicago.  Those graduates will live longer.  They will earn more in their lifetimes.  They will be significantly less likely to go to prison.  They will vote, volunteer and give blood more often.  And they will have children with higher levels of educational attainment. 

This is possible.  At scale.

But, it depends on us.

It depends on us to look clear eyed at the places we work – whether we are in the classroom, in the schoolhouse or at UEI – and ask, "Are we organized for improvement?"  And it depends on us to find and use our voice.  To challenge those that tell us children, particularly children growing up poor, can’t or won’t prevail.  We can change the odds.  It will take time to be sure.  There are no silver bullets.  But the opportunity is ours.  And the evidence is before us.

Thank you very much.