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.
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.