HYDE PARK — Charter schools can work, and work well, but they need to be kept on a short leash.
That's according to Timothy Knowles, who is ending his 13-year tenure heading the influential Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, where he has had the ear of CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Office on major education policy decisions since 2003.
Knowles, who advised Emanuel's transition team on education issues in 2011, is leaving Feb. 1 and says the city has a good idea of what works when it comes to education.
The institute is known for churning out reports on what social science research shows works, particularly for low-income urban students, then testing the ideas in the university’s charter schools and training principals to put it to work at other schools.
Knowles said one of the things he’s discovered in his 13 years studying education in Chicago and the country as a whole is school districts are getting the charter school debate wrong.
“I’ve always thought charter schools are not a panacea, and we’ve seen that borne out in the data,” Knowles said.
Knowles is a charter school supporter and the institute runs four charter schools on the South Side. But he said he’s worried the conversation about charters now misses the point.
He was critical of charter schools that cherry pick the best students and try to push out poorly performing students that drag down the school’s ranking.
He said he is carefully watching the president-elect Donald Trump’s appointment to head the U.S. Department of Education, Besty DeVos, who believes that more charters and school vouchers will fix the nation’s education problems.
He said charter advocates have become too convinced that getting out of union contracts and making schools compete with each other will be the answer. He said the public has increasingly turned away from school choice as the answer, particularly in Chicago, over the last five years.
“I think people are reacting to the messianic language of some charter advocates,” Knowles said.
He said school districts should be more aggressive about closing charters that can’t prove they’re benefiting students and accept the institute’s research that good schools can be created using lots of models, including charters, neighborhood public schools and other types.
“Don’t stand in the way,” Knowles said to charter advocates. “Charters should be on a short leash.”
Knowles said that in his 13 years at the institute some of the it’s big revelations in education include the importance of measuring success by graduation rates and giving more attention to attendance over test scores in predicting which students will make it to college, finish and thrive in a career.
“I’m actually more hopeful now than I was when I started my adventure at the University of Chicago,” Knowles said.
He said the rise in graduation rates, which he said the institute has tested and retested to make sure CPS is not gaming the numbers, is a sign the school district is doing something right.
Knowles said on of the institute’s big successes in Chicago, which is now spreading to other districts, is convincing policymakers to rely more on surveys of how students and teachers feel about their schools and put more emphasis on the value of the school climate, engaged parents, teacher collaboration and effective principals.
Those metrics, which the institute calls the 5Essentials, are now published alongside test scores and other data by CPS
Knowles said the next battle for the institute is to convince CPS that a student’s attendance rate is far more predictive of their future success than standardized test scores and to invest more in good principals.
“If there isn’t a strategy for finding good leaders and building them, the schools are not going to be great,” Knowles said.
He said that he thinks there are as many as three people in every school that could make great principals, but they are intimidated by the difficulty of the job and the lack of support. He said CPS needs to be better at identifying potential leaders and supporting them.
Knowles will be putting many of these lessons to work in his new job.
He said he has partnered with Mark Walter, CEO of Guggenheim Partners, to start a new education organization that is focused on building a pipeline for low-income urban students to succeed from kindergarten, through college and into a successful career.
Knowles is taking with him Shayne Evans, CEO and director of the university’s charter schools, to start the enterprise.
The institute’s director, Sara Ray Stoelinga, is also leaving in July to take a job as president of Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis.
Ashley Szofer, a spokeswoman for the institute, said Knowles' position as chairman will be eliminated.
“UEI will be in good shape,” Knowles said.
Marielle Sainvilus, a spokeswoman for the university, said Evans will continue advising the institute through the end of the school year and the university is working to make the transition as smooth as possible.
She said Tanika Island, the managing director of the institute, will step in as the interim CEO for the charter schools.
A nationwide search by the university to fill the vacancies is expected start soon.
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