Smart Cities: Chicago Develops in “Leaps” and Bounds

Symbolic of the new digital learning opportunity set, the director of New Schools For Chicago, Phyllis Lockett, spun out a new data analytics shop, LEAPinnovation, earlier this month and took the helm. For the last fifteen years, the best intervention was new school development; going forward, new tools that power new learning models is the emerging opportunity. “Tech innovation can empower teachers to pinpoint student needs, accelerate remediation, and help every student reach their fullest potential,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. This fall the LEAP Pilot Network will sponsor short cycle trials of four literacy products for grades 3-5 to pilot in six schools.

Chicago, not New York, is the second city for education innovation according to EdTech leader Christopher Nyren, “For over a generation, Chicago has served as the epicenter of for-profit, technology-enabled education entrepreneurship and investment.” Chicago has an impressive list of established companies, respected investors, and a big crop of promising startups.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s belief in the importance of early learning is homegrown. “Chicago is the leader in early childhood education–no contest,” said Ryan Blitstein, Change Illinois. Ounce of Prevention Fund advocates locally and supports Educare centers nationwide. First Five Years Fund is a new breed of data-driven advocates for integrated early learning services for low income children backed by Buffett, Gates, Harris, Kaiser, and Pritzker.  McCormick Foundation advocates for public policy that improves birth to three learning opportunities in Illinois.

Backstory. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) serves more than 400,000 students in 681 schools. Led by veteran school chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chicago was an early member of the Portfolio School District Network. After a period of uncertainty, Mayor Emanuel made clear a commitment to innovation.

Arne Duncan took over from Paul Vallas as CEO of CPS in 2001. By 2003, Duncan had crafted a coherent effort to support struggling schools and to close and replace failing schools (similar to Joel Klein’s Children First in NYC). In 2004, Duncan, the mayor and the business community launched new school campaign Renaissance 2010 which resulted in 13 charter networks, 70 new schools, and laid the groundwork for the next-gen models work New Schools for Chicago is currently supporting.

Margot Rogers, then a Deputy Director at the Gates Foundation, spent four years shuttling to Chicago to support new school development and secondary school improvement.  “Few places–perhaps no city–have the deep private and philanthropic support that Chicago does,” said Rogers. “There’s lots of support for innovation, trying new things, and thinking in new ways.” She went on to serve as Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff during his first 18 months in office.

Ron Huberman followed Duncan and spent a year as CEO.  He launched extended learning time pilots utilizing 1-to-1 devices and laid the groundwork for almost 60 schools with 1-to-1 iPads. Huberman is now an operating executive at Chicago Growth Partners and Prairie Capital.

Bright Spots. Tim Knowles created the best example of a university-based school improvement engine, under the umbrella of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI), with a research arm, a talent development shop, four charter schools, and a school improvement engine (see full Getting Smart profile). UEI is working in 55 cities and 23 states.  Knowles said, “We have some very cool new tools and diagnostics in pipeline–all aim to focus schools and public on things we know matter most.” UEI has been hiring recently and was just awarded a $10 million grant from the Kersten family for college readiness.

In 2007, they discovered the importance of the ‘freshman on track’ indicator–a better predictor of high school graduation than race, income, neighborhood, and prior test scores–combined. A consistent focus on this indicator has moved the percentage of ‘freshman on track’ to graduate from 57% in 2007 to 82% in 2013, according to the new On-Track website that details the process and the research. “The fact the numbers have moved so far — despite two mayors, strike, school closures, 5 superintendents in 7 years — suggests all cities in America could move their hs graduation rates by 20 points, quickly,” concludes Knowles.

Five Early College STEM schools were opened in 2013 in partnership with IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola, and Verizon. Dual enrollment opportunities were expanded in 17 high schools. CPS will support International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in 10 existing high schools.

AUSL turns around the Chicago Public Schools’ lowest performing schools and trains teachers using an urban teacher residency model. AUSL managed 25 CPS schools serving over 14,000 students.

The Chicago Math Initiative launched by MIND Research Institute in 2009 resulted in 11 point increases in the percentage of proficient students in the 23 schools implementing the blended learning ST Math program.

A foundation executive said, “The mayor is very powerful, loves anything having to do with innovation or technology and has made education his number one priority.”  The CEO recently appointed Jack J. Elsey Jr. Chief Innovation Officer.  Elsey said, “Embracing innovation and technology–two very likely drivers of progress–will be critical for the success of our city’s schools.”

Charters. “Early on, Chicago was known to be one of the best charter authorizers, winning kudos from third party evaluators and others for the strength of their review process,” said Margot Rogers.  “As a result, a number of high quality networks have flourished.”

There are 44 approved charters operating on 130 campuses in Chicago and serving 55,000 students–about 13% of the student population.

Noble Network had 9 of 10 top performing non-selective high schools in the city–nothing innovative, just top talent and great execution. Chicago International is a mini-portfolio of 16 neighborhood schools including game-based ChicagoQuest. Perspectives operates five high performing 6-12 schools.

Chicago Virtual Charter School was named one of Chicago’s best high schools by Chicago Magazine in their September issue. K12 Passport, another K12 supported school, is designed to assist students who have dropped out of high school recapture credit and earn their diplomas. K12 also supports the High School Diploma Program which provides computer-based high school classes for credit to inmates.

The three KIPP schools in Chicago have converted to blended learning. The 975 students from low income families are served by three blended learning models on four campuses (see feature). Executive Director April Goble found that actionable data, professional development, and strong classroom management is key to ensuring success of instructional technology. KIPP Create, a middle school opened in 2012, employs a large, flexible lab model. KIPP plans six K-8 schools serving 5,000 students by the end of the decade.

Foundations College Prep, a new 6­–12 school opening 2014, combines a rotational blended model with a teacher residency program.  Intrinsic Schools is also a new 6-12 blended model combining adaptive learning and expert teaching. CEO Melissa Zaikos is a star with deep CPS experience as a Broad resident. Both Foundations and Intrinsic are NGLC grantees (see profiles).

Charters in Illinois are support by an association headed by a talented attorney, Andrew Broy, recruited away from the Georgia superintendent’s office.  To my list of great charters, Andrew added LEARN Charter School Network, UNO schools, and some great single campus charters: Rowe Elementary; Locke Elementary; Polaris Charter Academy; Institution Career Academy; and Chicago Math and Science.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is based in Chicago. NACSA launched an aggressive quality improvement effort urging authorizers to non-renew low performing charter schools.

Growth in charter enrollment means lots of empty or below-capacity district schools–more than 150 according to some facilities experts. Chicago illustrates the need to separate school operations from provisioning facilities.

Foundations. The Chicago Public Education Fund, run by former TFA exec Heather Anichini, is investing in talented principals and enabling effective educator teams to reinvent classroom learning. Last year their Summer Design Program enabled a cohort 16 principal-led district and charter teams to work with experts to confront specific instructional and engagement challenges (see video). The goal is to create up to 75 citywide proof points. The Fund supported the blended math program Teach to One in two CPS schools (see feature).

Chicago is home to a number of foundations with education focused missions:

Impact Partners.  Pat Ryan launched the Inner-City Teaching Corps in 1991 and the Alain Locke Charter School in 1998.  He launched a leadership development program in 2011 and rolled them all together this year. Rob Birdsell joined The Alain Locke Initiative as its first Chief Executive Officer in December 2012 after leading the urban Catholic high school network Cristo Rey.

Chicago is also a huge after-school market. After School Matters is a non-profit organization that offers Chicago high school teens innovative out-of-school activities. Orion’s Mind is the active after-school tutoring program. One of the largest Girl Scout Troops in the US has a cool digital learning space.  Innovative young youth development orgs include Free Spirit Media and the Chicago Youth Voices Network.

Josh Anderson leads TFA Chicago which has 500 active corps, 1786 alumni including 109 school administrators. New Leaders has trained 200 leaders over the last decade.

Education Pioneers’ Chicago and Midwest site developed over 40 Graduate School Fellowship projects with most of the regions top impact players. This year EP will expand into local and state policy partnerships.

Social emotional learning “teaches the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work, effectively and ethically,” says Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (See feature.)

Other youth resources include:

“We are having a big conversation in the city about how we do diffusion between school and not-school. The arts folks already did this. STEM folks trying to figure it out,” said Kemi Jona, a prof at Northwestern and fellow iNACOL board member.  Jona said the active conversation is, “What is the role of out-of-school? To be an incubator for innovation or to babysit kids?”

Jona adds, “Don’t forget our world class universities: Northwestern, University of Chicago, UIC, NU, Depaul, Rush, IIT, and Loyola.”

The Illinois drag. Some cities benefit from productive state policy, not Chicago. Illinois perpetuates inequitable funding–kids in affluent district get about $1000 more than kids in poverty. Digital Learning Now gave Illinois an F grade for education policy given the lack of student access to online and blended learning including a moratorium on virtual schools (see page 13 of Keeping Pace for a visual image of how bad online opportunity is in Illinois). A national policy insider said that Illinois has a “real lack of leadership on EdReform generally much less digital learning.”  Illinois does get some credit for leadership on early learning.

Illinois Pathways, funded through Race to the Top, is a state-led STEM education initiative designed to support college and career readiness. Illinois Pathways hosts Learning Exchanges in ten industry clusters and the Illinois Shared Learning Exchange (ISLE) is a promising planned build out on top of Shared Learning Collaborative.  All of these big collaborations sound promising but complicated.

With the shift to personal digital learning, Chicago kids would benefit from coherent state policies aimed at equity, options, and innovation.

Education Industry.  Chicago has a long history of learning innovation. DeVry launched career schools more than 75 years ago and was one of the first to serve returning vets under the GI bill. Chicago is also home to Career Education Corporation which serves 90,000 students from 90 worldwide campuses and online.  The University of Illinois developed PLATO system, the first computer assisted instruction system about 50 years ago.

“Chicago is a leader in the ‘profitable-but-boring’ category in the education sector,” as one local observer said. Those boring companies have been fetching 5x revenue in 2012 transactions. Chicago is the home of the School as a Service business model with nearly all of the leading players in this segment (excluding 2U). Two Chicago-based big higher education services firms were acquired in October.  Wiley bought Deltak, a higher ed services firm, for $220 million. Pearson purchased EmbanetCompass for $650 million. A more targeted partnership model,  All Campus, spun out from its former parent in October 2012 and has since added a dozen new university partners. Everspring, providing full-service, customized online educational solutions, is yet another example.

In the ‘speaking softly’ category, when you hear Follett you may think library, but the $3 billion private company provides universities, schools and libraries a wide range of tools and services from content to e-commerce. Last June Follett launched a $50 million venture fund, managed by Atrium Capital.

In the ‘wow, are they still around?’ category, Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book are both headquartered in Chicago and both of are experiencing strong traction selling curriculum and research products to school districts and libraries.

Start-Ups.  Chicago is home to a diverse range of companies leading the shift to digital:

  • PrepMe (now a part of Ascend Learning) provides adaptive learning across K-12, while its founder Karan Goel is now launching his new venture GetSet
  • BenchPrep provides mobile B2C test prep solutions that are moving toward BTB
  • VLinks provides the corporate learning solution LearnCore
  • MentorMob supports development of learning playlists
  • MediaChaperone is a parent engagement platform
  • Youtopia a student engagement platform that provides gamification tools
  • supports interest networks
  • DigEdu enables teachers to design and delivered personalized learning on any device
  • eSpark Learning makes sense out of elementary iPad learning
  • Wowzers is a game-based elementary math solution from the Brain Hurricane team
  • Collaborative Learning helps teachers align instruction and curriculum standards
  • SchoolTown is a social learning platform
  • ThinkCerca supports Common Core aligned literacy instruction
  • SkateKids produces elementary reading and thinking games
  • Starter League will teach you how to code and market web apps
  • WyzAnt will help you find a tutor and, with a whopping $21 million in funding from Accel, is going global and mobile.

Investors and Bankers.  “Chicago-based funds have completed over 15 venture investments,” according to Christopher Nyren, “in the education market and represent over $2 billion in combined assets under management.”

Leading venture investors and some of their current education investments include:

Additionally, Chicago is home to one of the leading education super angel investors, Deborah Quazzo, who has separately invested in more than 25 EdTech startups including Clever, Degreed, DreamBox, ImagineK12, Lightside, MasteryConnect, NoRedInk, NovoEd, Parchment, and Presence Learning.

“Chicago private equity funds have also completed over 30 separate platform investments in the education market and those funds still focused on this sector represent over $6 billion in assets under management.” said Nyren, “No city features more such experienced investors as right here with Sterling, Chicago Growth, HCP, Concentric, Maxim, Prairie, Prospect, and more.”

Chicago is home to talented advisors and merchant bankers including GSV Advisors and Christopher Nyren of Educated Ventures (who, in addition to his advisory work, has also invested in local Chicago education start-ups All Campus, MentorMob, Get Set, and Wellspring Higher Education).

“Overall tech space is getting hotter with the creation of TechStars Chicago and 1871, and the impact investing/angel investing is scene is growing centered around The Impact Engine,” said Ryan Blitstein.

Chicago has great universities and generous foundations supporting innovation in early learning and afterschool. UC’s Urban Education Initiative is driving improvement locally and nationally. There are great charter networks and a few bright spots at Chicago Public Schools. Phyllis Lockett’s move from schools to tools is symbolic of the EdTech explosion in Chicago which rivals New York and may be second to the Bay Area in EdTech startups and funders. Lockett will help connect teachers to the tech sector while advancing short cycle trials and iterative development. Keep an eye on Chicagoland.


This post contributes to the #SmartCities Series- for more information on the upcoming book, see here.

Thanks to Tim Knowles and Cornelia Gruman, Phyllis Lockett, Christopher Nyren, Ryan Blitstein and other contributors.

DreamBox, MIND Research Institute, and PresenceLearning are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.  MasteryConnect, NoRedInk, NovoEd and Udemy are Learn Capital portfolio companies.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Impressive standard set by the state. The state is now investing in education technology as it has done to education.

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