Ruchi Thiru on Using Data for Education Reform

Editor's Three Key Takeaways:
  1. If you want to make an impact but don't know how to do it, just jump right in and figure it out as you go.
  2. In the real world, sometimes there are too many unknowns to make a decision. You just need to be confident in your choices anyways.
  3. Education reform takes A LOT. It's important to separate the grades from the social issues and personal growth.

Ruchi graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business in 2006 with a BS in Economics concentrating in Marketing and Management and from the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Business in 2011 with a MBA in Social Enterprise, Management, and Marketing. She is now the Managing Director of Operations & Information at KIPP Bay Area Schools.

Editor: Education reform always resonated with me as one of the most impactful issues to rally behind. However, outside of going into teaching or politics, I wasn't sure how else to get involved. Ruchi really put into perspective how college students can use their skills to make a social change.


So you went from consulting to the Clorox Company to data in education — wow. To start off can you give us a quick preface of your interesting career journey.

I started off doing marketing consulting. Marketing is an area that people often treated as very fuzzy, but I knew that there was a very analytical side of it, and wanted to learn it. After a few years in New York City, I went back for my MBA at Kellogg to move into brand management.

When I decided to make a career switch, I had a family situation. I lost my father, and it made me take a step back from my career and really think about what I wanted to do. During that time I realized that I spent a lot of personal time volunteering in the education space, but I had never thought about it as a career before. So I just decided to jump in and see how I could contribute.

My first role in education was on the data team for a network of charter schools called KIPP. Now I oversee the operations, tech, and data departments here.

It’s quite a shift to jump from private sector into public sector. Did you use any resources to help you make that transition?

I joined the Broad Residency, which is a project funded by billionaire Eli Broad. They find people at higher levels of talent in the private sector and get them to switch to the education industry. Through this, I got a master's degree in Education Leadership. It was a rigorous program but worth it — it helped me make connections with different school districts and charter organizations that if I had applied to right off the bat, they likely would not have understood my previous private industry experience. There's also a program called Education Pioneers that takes in people of all levels.

What's the most challenging analytics project you've done so far?

Everything is really challenging. It’s not like university research in which you have thousands of students that you're running regressions off of. Right now in education, there's a big trend around blended learning through the use of technology in schools and programs like Khan Academy. (Editor's note: Blended education is a style of teaching that combines online video instruction with instructor-led practices)

We're always trying to understand if that has a positive impact on our students’ education. But, I think the lesson learned is exactly as you stated — there are so many things going on with individual students that it's hard to come up with broad generalizations. It's not as simple as this group of kids used the program and this other group didn't. In reality, they have different teachers, they might have used the program differently for a different amount of time, or they might have started at a different level than another class. So there are just so many factors that it's really hard to understand the benefit of some of these programs when they're used so differently.

One of the things I’ve learned from that is not to get too caught up in needing statistically significant regression analyses all the time. Oftentimes, you can get quick directional learning that is enough to make you feel confident to make a decision without getting everything perfect.

It's like that mantra that “perfect can be the enemy of good”, and it can get in your way if you try to do something to the T.

What are some metrics you have to see how successful KIPP is being in engaging the students, outside of just traditional test scores and performance?

First of all, we try to get teachers who look like our students because they can connect better. There is a difference when you're a young black boy and you have a black male teacher. We want them to have role models and see the world of possibilities and professions there are for them.

Beyond that, we think a lot about being what we call “culturally competent”. Kids know when you genuinely care about them. A lot of our focus of being culturally responsive is to not use the textbooks that are written by the winners.

In the U.S., a lot of the winners are white, so we try to have a lot of different texts in the classroom written by authors that are Latino, African American, Native American, or Asian American — just all different backgrounds.

We want to compare other narratives and perspectives with every moment in history we’re teaching about. The core thing is building relationships and recognizing that education should reflect and celebrate their background as well.

How much of a role does KIPP try to play in tackling social issues these kids face that interfere with their education (e.g. poverty, racial discrimination, parental incarceration)?

One of the biggest things we do is focusing as equally on culture and character-building as we do on academics. Ninety percent scores on a state test doesn’t necessarily mean students will automatically thrive if they went to a school like Penn. We build their character up to help them succeed anywhere, focusing on curiosity, social intelligence, self-control, and independent thinking.

Culture is a big part of our school because of the unstable home conditions that many students may come from. We have a lot of school support, including psychologists and mental health professionals. We try to focus on restorative practices, emotional learning, and anything to keep students involved in school instead of outside. If a student misbehaves, instead of suspending them, we keep them in the school community and teach them why their behavior is wrong, how to respond to conflicts in a non-physical way, and ways to solve them. School is a safe-haven for these students. We train our teachers on classroom management and how to deal with these types of issues. There’s a lot going on in these students’ lives and we need to give them an outlet here.

Do you have a certain memory or anything that you keep to motivate yourself every day to keep striving in this role?

I think of my dad a lot. When my dad passed away from cancer, I reflected on my career and committed to making this change. We are an immigrant family and he worked so hard to get me access to the education that I had. My parents instilled the value of education in me forever. In my household, it was when you go to college, not if you go to college. Growing up, I never realized that could be different from other families and took it for granted. I think of him and tell my story often because it's important for other people to know why I’m committed to this work.

Even though I haven't been much of a teacher myself, I chose this very consciously and believe in it because education has leveled the playing field for my family firsthand.

I'm sorry to hear that. It's great that you were able to turn it into such strong motivation. What do you try to work on now to advance the future of education?

Technology's got to be a critical part of education because it's a critical part of our everyday lives. A lot of our students don't have access to computers in their home. If we didn't have Chromebooks in our classroom, then we would be missing out on the opportunity to give our kids exposure to what they may see every day at work.

One part will be universal basic access to technology in a classroom. Then the second part is using that technology to provide good teaching content. Our teachers are absolutely incredible, and they work so hard. To have access to materials that could make their job a little bit more sustainable, so that they're not always creating lesson plans from scratch is a big deal.

Part of this comes with the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The idea that people all around the world can have access to quality education is great. I hope that we leverage it more.

It’s interesting you mention MOOCs. Some people love that they can replace formalized education and allow anyone to gain skills on their own. But one big issue they're running into is the low retention rate, low engagement rate, and accountability problem.

Can I add to that? I think MOOCs have a different goal. MOOCs want more access. They're breaking that barrier to access and giving a broad range of people access to content they wouldn't have access to otherwise. It is achieving that, but like you said, there's a major retention problem.

When we're talking elementary, middle, and high school, we're talking about the core content of public education. So the goal isn't just access. It’s to actually master the content. If you just leave them on their own with the material, you don't have that interplay to really understand if they're mastering the content. It's more of how do we layer this with the teacher to give people different ways to interact with the material and master the different skills that we're trying to teach.

Shifting to the careers side, what do you suggest students interested in working in education do to prepare?

They should get exposure to what the classroom looks like and getting in front of kids, whether it's through a volunteer assignment or student teaching. By getting in front of kids regularly, you can understand if that's what motivates you. I taught English just one summer abroad, and it was hard! I was exhausted every single day and it was rewarding in a lot of ways, but I also came out of that experience with some good clarity that this isn't the best way that I can contribute to this space.

You have to be the kind of person that can actually get energized from that. When I see that lightbulb go off for a kid, that's the best thing in the world.

If you're doing more of the behind the scenes work, you can be very mission oriented and practice different skills. But, you have to be okay with having a little bit more distance from the student. You're working on more systems and processes, and working more through the principals and assistant principals than you are in the classroom with kids.

Were there any activities or classes you leveraged at Penn around education?

I loved volunteering, and the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project was my first exposure to working in schools in West Philly. I also took this class with Professor Richard Shell on advanced negotiations. Classes like that make you reflect and think about material in a different way. (Editor's note: Professor Shell's negotiations classes include OIDD291 and LGST206).

Are there any books that influenced you or inspired you most?

Well, I read a ton of education books. If people are interested in understanding a little bit more about KIPP, there's a book called How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. It talks about research done by Angela Duckworth from Penn on grit and the role of perseverance in your life outcomes that KIPP has used. (Editor's note: Angela Duckworth is a distinguished psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania).

If you want a new perspective on what our African-American population goes through in the U.S., there’s a book called The New Jim Crow that talks about how even though we did away with segregation, there's still a lot of structural ways that African-Americans have been oppressed in our country.


Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent KIPP or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.

Header photo courtesy of KIPP Charter Schools.

Laura Gao

Aspiring designer, entrepreneur, writer and everything in between.

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