Palo Alto school district hires new data director

Months-long vacant position filled by director from superintendent's former school

The Palo Alto school district has hired a new director of research and assessment: Chris Kolar, who since 2011 was the director of institutional research and effectiveness at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora, Illinois, where Superintendent Max McGee served as president for six years.

Kolar fills a key district position that has been vacant for months, since Diana Wilmot left last June to serve as principal at Jewish Day School in Los Gatos. The district briefly hired a new director in January who suddenly resigned after about one week on the job.

Chris Kolar, the Palo Alto Unified School District's new director of research and assessment. Photo courtesy Palo Alto school district.
Kolar comes with a long career at the intersection of technology and education, from studying psychology and educational technology to working in computer-based learning and teacher professional development.

Before taking on the role of director of institutional research and effectiveness at IMSA – a prestigious and STEM-focused boarding school for grades 10 through 12 – Kolar since 2001 served as the school's coordinator of research and evaluation and coordinator of information and technology integration.

"Within these roles, Kolar led efforts to improve student placement, tracking of student progress and identifying both academic and psycho-social measure that support individualized learning and student success," a district press release reads.

He has also taught education courses, led technology integration at the university level for several years and held leadership roles in the Illinois Education Research Council, the National Committee for Advancement of STEM Specialty Schools and the National Association for Gifted Children.

At IMSA, Kolar oversaw a large-scale, national "Longitudinal Cohort Study," which was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and aimed to study the long-term outcomes of thousands of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) high school graduates at 30 schools. IMSA served as the key pilot site for developing instruments to be scaled out nationally.

"It was the first 'rigorous' research conducted on the outcomes of students post-high school graduation," Kolar said in an interview with the Weekly. "We looked at them after they graduated from college – were they more likely to persist in the STEM pipeline? The thing that connects all of these together is looking at things like persistence and continuity and why do people initiate an interest in the subject and what is likely to make them succeed at high levels?"

He said they evaluated individual programs at IMSA in great detail to analyze what elements made it more likely for students to pursue and succeed in STEM fields.

McGee said the study, which collected data from alumni up to 20 years after they graduated from high school, led to program improvements at the school.

"The idea was, you're probably not going to go out and build a new STEM school tomorrow, but you can identify practices that are effective in helping meet those goals that can be scaled throughout other schools," Kolar said.

Kolar said he's particularly motivated by looking at performance gap issues with different populations of students. As a state-funded public school, IMSA serves students who come from both resource-rich and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

"For me, the question was, can we identify the things that are likely to give (less advantaged students) trouble and then think about what the interventions would be in terms of helping them succeed?" he said.

Kolar also developed an evaluation plan for several new IMSA field offices that McGee opened during his tenure as president. The offices house outreach programs such as a service-learning program that helps local high school students teach and learn STEM concepts and an after-school STEM program that targets underserved elementary and middle school students with particular talent in math and science.

Kolar said he's drawn to Palo Alto's data-driven, tech-centric environment and appreciates that the school district and community understands the importance of data. He said he doesn't yet have a "list in his hands" or things he's supposed to hit the ground running on, but a first priority will be to listen, learn and get to know people throughout the district, he said.

"For me, this role is very much (one) that collaborates with the people who are the strategic decision makers and implementers. It's not a person in a room who is putting sheaves of paper under the door for people to get. For me, working with data and trying to understand programs needs to be very hands-on and collaborative.

"My goal would be to start off by meeting people, finding out what they need and then looking to see if things are structured in a way to deliver and help them be effective," he said.

Kolar arrives at a critical time in the district, with efforts already underway to evaluate consistency in curriculum, assessment and homework practices at both high schools as well as world languages districtwide. He said reviewing the reportedly uneven implementation of the board's homework policy has already been mentioned to him as a priority.

McGee will recommend Kolar's appointment to the school board at its next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 10.

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9 people like this
Posted by improving
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 3, 2015 at 8:38 pm

I hope McGee will be bringing in his own team for Assistant Superintendent and Head of Student Services and Special Ed, too. The current AS is way too good at not using data.

1 person likes this
Posted by Retreads
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 3, 2015 at 8:54 pm

This is the best out there? I didn't know that Diana Wilmot had jumped ship in June, add her to the long list of failed Kevin Skelly hires. But bringing in Max McGee cronies doesn't cut it. Not good enough! And you will not get another Associate Superintendent because he has a three-year contract with a raise. I believe our board 5-0 rubber-stamped that. Only if another district will hire him will his spot open up, but judging by Wilmot's move to a principalship, it doesn't look promising. These are not good times.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 3, 2015 at 9:52 pm

@Retreads - If McGee is worth hiring (so far so good), then the people he has hired before are worth hiring. Everyone is a retread, it is called a track record. Unless you want to hire out of high school.

7 people like this
Posted by Analysis
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 3, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Hi Chris and welcome to Palo Alto.

I look forward to new expertise in data analysis. Previous work on data surveys floundered for a lack of precision.

Questions tended to average responses across teachers, grades, and classes in such a way that no actionable data could be extracted.

Rather than this:
'Please indicate your homework load from all your teachers: low, medium, or high'

We would like to see specifics;
'Please indicate the amount of homework your math teacher assigns this quarter: 10,20,30,40,50,60,70,80,90,100,110,120,120+ minutes per night.

You see all prior data analysis framed questions in a manner that could not nail down very narrow problems of specific issues.

Welcome and good luck!

Like this comment
Posted by improving
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 3, 2015 at 11:44 pm

I asked how many absentee days in total for one of our schools last year, simple number, and was told it was too hard.

it would be hard to do any worse than now. Until McGee replaces the others, tell the new guy to bring a kevlar reinforced vest. At least for his back.

Like this comment
Posted by Improving
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 4, 2015 at 10:58 am

That didn't sound too friendly, sorry. Welcome, Dr Kolar. This is a great community. Really looking forward to what you can do. The above was a clumsy way of telling you to watch your back at 25 Churchill,, though you may be too busy drinking the koolaid... Why can't McGee just bring in a whole team and out with the old?

5 people like this
Posted by Is the Doctor In?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 4, 2015 at 12:49 pm

I'm waiting for the other board members and McGee to refer to Ken Dauber as "Dr. Dauber." As I recall, Dauber has a PhD. If eveyone down there insists on being "Dr" (Even Brenda Carillo who actually is still years from any doctorate is called Dr. or even hilariously "future Dr."). So let's all give Ken the respect he deserves and refer to him as Dr. Dauber, Melissa. Especially since he clearly knows as much or more about educational data as Dr. Young and future Dr. Carillo and probably this guy as well.

And let's do the same with the speakers who come before the board during public comment most of whom have PhD's or MDs. Let's give the community the respect it deserves and remember who is in charge (the public).

7 people like this
Posted by Improving
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 4, 2015 at 12:56 pm

@Is the doctor In?

Most of the public work in industries where you will be looked at like an empty suit idiot if you insist on people calling you by your title, including Dauber.

I'd give Carrillo a doctorate tomorrow if it would mean she would go inflict herself somewhere else, preferably where she would have nothing to do with vulnerable children, and the job didn't require at least a modicum of acquaintanceship with being trustworthy.

7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 4, 2015 at 1:05 pm

Some suggestions for the new data guy:
- Make the district's data publicly accessible. That means, at minimum, disaggregated data in Excel sheets, not locked up in PDFs or pie charts. The public should be able to do its own data analysis if it wants to.
- Get more staff. One data guy for a $180 million organization is silly.
- Go beyond descriptive statistics. Even simple regression is beyond the capacity of the district. That's dumb.

And I don't care what you call board members or other "doctors". I wouldn't call someone without a Ph.D a "doctor", unless they could set my arm if it broke.

2 people like this
Posted by Improving
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 4, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Oops, didn't mean to make it sound like Dauber has ever insisted on using titles, he hasn't. That's because if people call you "Dr.' in tech, it's usually to mock you...

I wasn't mocking the new IT director, it was just a nod to the culture in the district. I don't know how long the practice goes back, but it came across as insecurity by district people. They seemed to need it, I wasn't going to argue with them.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 4, 2015 at 10:19 pm


The new Dr. Kolar is not the new IT Director, he's the new Director of Assessment. The District hired a new CTO (IT Director) this summer. He's never been seen or heard from again after he was introduced. The district has other data people. The director of assessment has a staff. They must do something, right?

1 person likes this
Posted by Retreads
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 4, 2015 at 11:01 pm

Often a superintdent will hire former colleagues to have someone to trust and watch his back. Kevin Skelly hired several administrators for this purpose and he was rewarded with seven years and over two million dollars of compensation. That Max McGee is using the same playbook does not bode well. The novelty of his video messages and other used car salesman hoopla has grown old quickly.

Like this comment
Posted by Improving
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2015 at 11:44 pm

Paly Parent,
Seriously? I thought Charles Young produced those charts about how every records request is too much of a burden to fill all by himself.

I would rather get McGee's former colleagues than continue with the poisonous ones Skelly left behind.

3 people like this
Posted by Dee
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 7, 2015 at 9:21 pm

I think he's a wonderful adddition and a fox.
Welcome Chris, good things ahead ;)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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