George Lucas Educational Foundation

Knowledge in Action Research: Next Steps

The project is underway with plans to refine curricula, improve learning tools, develop formative assessments, understand challenges to implementation, and expand into additional subject areas.
Edutopia Team
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The Knowledge in Action (KIA) research is still underway. It embraces a collaborative, design-for-change philosophy to incorporate lessons learned to further improve outcomes during the project. During the 2013-14 school year, project-based Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science courses are being offered at the following research sites:


  • Washington: Bellevue (five schools), Seattle (four schools), and the Highline School District (one school)
  • Iowa: Des Moines (five schools)
  • California: the Envision Charter Network in the San Francisco Bay Area (three schools) and East Palo Alto High School

The team continues to refine the curricula with the goal of supporting greater engagement and learning in the discipline.

The team continues to refine the curricula, including embedding more learning supports, such as learning from text and engagement strategies within the projects, with the goal of supporting greater engagement and learning in the discipline. The project’s goal is to create courses that will help all students, including those who lack prior content knowledge and/or who struggle with literacy skills, thus giving them a better chance of success. Building learning from text strategies and other learning supports into the curricula that will also help teachers to teach those skills as part of what students need to know, rather than as extraneous items that compete with the enormous amount of content they need to cover.

Knowledge in Action:

Students in a project-based learning (PBL) Advanced Placement (AP) class at North High School in Des Moines, IA (above); an 11th grade PBL AP student at North HS (right).

Credit: Gabriel Miller

In addition, researchers will conduct a school contexts study to compare how schools within and across districts implement the same curricular innovations. This project will study how certain key district- and school-level policies and practices influence the ways in which the PBL courses are taken up and implemented. Beyond a general contrast between well-resourced suburban schools and poverty-impacted urban schools, districts differ in a number of potentially important ways, such as the level of support for innovation, the curricular coherence across schools, and the nature of other reforms attempted simultaneously. Despite different histories and demographics, there have been similarities among school districts in the district-level strategies for implementation that are important to study to take the kind of courses developed in the Knowledge in Action research to scale.

Incorporating a rigorous form of project-based learning can be an important strategy for improving student learning and engagement in advanced courses.

Additional next steps for the researchers include the following:

  • Testing and refining learning tools to help students become stronger collaborators, making the time they work together on projects as productively engaging within the discipline as possible
  • Developing ongoing formative assessments throughout the year to maximize the effectiveness of feedback and scaffolding that takes place during the courses
  • Studying more closely the different challenges that teachers face in their implementation of the courses to further guide and frame the teacher professional-development model
  • Expanding the overall project by creating additional project-based courses in AP Physics and middle school physics

Overall, the research team is encouraged by the results so far, which suggest that incorporating a rigorous form of PBL can be an important strategy for improving student learning and engagement in advanced courses. We hope that others who share our quest for deeper learning and engagement will find the approach, results, and future updates of interest.

Continue to the next section of the KIA research review, Resources.

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Thomas G. Fisher's picture

Why do Edutopia and the promoters of Knowledge in Action not care about HOW the program is implemented in local districts? After experimenting in five Des Moines schools, the students in an additional school, with extremely high AP scores already, are being forced into KIA programs in other schools. This was done without consulting with parents or existing AP teachers and was done at the last minute, seriously disrupting student schedules and planning. It was done without treating students, parents or existing AP teachers with even a modicum of basic human respect. The original designers of the University of Washington study reviewed and tried to alleviate student frustration, yet in Des Moines, the implementation was designed to create an enormously hostile environment. How can this be in the best interests of students or education?

Kristin De Vivo's picture
Kristin De Vivo
Executive Director, Lucas Education Research

Please note that the District's decision to add four new AP courses to a central location and to decentralize three AP courses is unrelated to the KIA project. It is our understanding that all AP courses are optional courses, not required courses for students. In addition, students choose (with his/her parent or guardian) whether or not to participate in the research project. The purpose of the KIA project is to evaluate the implementation of a Project Based Learning (PBL) approach to two courses, AP U.S. Gov. and Politics and A.P. Environmental Science. The KIA project is researching the impact that PBL has on students' engagement and performance. This research has taken place at the home school locations. It is my sincere hope that all students who may have been taking courses at a central location will continue to thrive when these courses are offered in their home schools.

Thomas G. Fisher's picture

Unfortunately, your understanding is not correct. Though AP courses are not required (are they required anywhere?), the district eliminated all non-KIA options for AP Statistics and for AP US Government including a one-semester option that some seniors were relying on to meet specific graduation requirements. That is not a voluntary program for these students. The district did not decentralize these AP offerings, it eliminated options for high-acheiving AP students without consulting with the teachers teaching the classes, the students taking the classes or the parents of those students. As a result, there are high-achieving students not taking AP classes who otherwise would--is this what Edutopia seeks in promoting the results of KIA? This effort was completely coordinated by the person running the KIA study in the district.

The noble goals of this project are trampled upon (I am not an education researcher, but doesn't this also affect the validity of the study?) when student needs are subordinated to the study. This PBL approach is designed to increase student performance and interest--it is designed to increase AP scores and substantive learning; it was not designed for classes in which a large majority of students are already achieving well-above the national average and made up of young people largely bound for highly selective national universities. It would be sad, indeed, to say that those students don't deserve the education they are capable of achieving. It is worse when a district has been providing that education and stops providing that education in order to promote KIA classes. There can be no reason for this other than to artificially boost the performance statistics of the study. So it is frustrating to read about KIA successes on this site when I know first-hand how badly it has divided our community.

Finally, the authors of the study took into consideration student frustration and redesigned curriculum to mitigate that problem. In Des Moines, the program plows ahead regardless of what the students want or need--which is an educational travesty in the name of Edutopia and Knowledge in Action. Don't take the word of the person implementing the study--come to Des Moines and interview the students, parents and teachers who have been affected before you continue to provide grants and process data and publish studies.

The original study authors acknowledged that implementation would have to rely on local circumstances: "[T]he successful migration to other courses in the AP stable, combined with the migration from suburban to urban schools, is far from assured. We believe it will need continually to involve the new teachers as collaborators--as adaptors rather than adopters. They best know their students, their courses and their school contexts. Relying on their agency and on-the-ground experience will be key."

What I am saying--pleading really--is that this program is harming students and should be evaluated by someone at Edutopia since Lucas Foundation is so central to funding this program: Come to Des Moines and talk to the people affected.

Greg Marshall's picture
Greg Marshall
Social Studies Teacher, Des Moines, IA

While we appreciate the individual's interest in the Knowledge in Action Project we, as AP US Government teachers in the Des Moines Public Schools, feel compelled to respond to the generalizations and unfair accusations made in the post above.

Our concerns stem from the fact that the individual above has never spoken to any of us who teach the PBL-based AP US Government course, nor connected with our students, to ask questions or learn about our methods. Instead, the individual belittles and dismisses the meaningful, 4 year partnership with the George Lucas Educational Foundation to implement project-based learning methods into our Advanced Placement courses.

All of us have been College Board trained, we collaborate with each other on a weekly basis, and have always aligned our work directly with the College Board curriculum framework for AP US Government & Politics. We balance PBL methods with traditional teaching strategies. The unit exams given to students always include released AP exam questions (both multiple-choice and free response). We use projects as the vehicle for learning how to apply these understandings in new situations. We are diligent in making our course both rigorous and far more relevant than a traditionally instructed AP course. We believe in active learning and this course requires it. We wholeheartedly believe in the methods used and the collaboration district-wide.

We were not privy to discussions at the central office regarding the expansion of AP courses and what courses would be offered in specific locations. The statement that this decision would "artificially boost the performance statistics" is completely false. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a Spencer grant, in addition to the George Lucas Foundation. Top-notch researchers are investigating the research questions. Allegations that researchers or teachers would act unethically are not only unfair, but unfounded.

In addition, we categorically deny the insinuation that this project has "created a hostile environment" or that "this program is harming students." Regular site visits by both Edutopia and the University of Washington provide us with feedback on our practice and support our implementation. US Government is a graduation requirement, but no student is required to take AP US Government and all students who do take our classes had an opportunity to decide whether or not to consent into the research study.

Unfortunately, the individual posting is putting his own political agenda above what we believe is best for students - all students. We serve all students who have an interest in taking our AP course. We believe in equity of access for the diverse student population in Des Moines. All students, regardless of whether or not they qualify for gifted and talented services, deserve instruction that will develop 21st century skills including teamwork and problem solving.

We sincerely hope that this individual's posting will not jeopardize the partnership we have had with Edutopia and the University of Washington. The Knowledge in Action Project has revolutionized our teaching. It has dramatically changed student experiences for the better. We are 100% committed to this project.

We instead encourage the individual to communicate directly with us. We are happy to meet with him and learn more about his concerns. We wish we would have had the opportunity to do that before reading the posts on this page.

AP US Government and Politics Teachers: Gregory Marshall, East High School; Sherry Poole, North High School; Adam Arthur, Lincoln High School; and Jason Danielson, Hoover High School
Des Moines Public Schools, Des Moines, Iowa

Thomas G. Fisher's picture

As a start, there has been more public discussion about what is going on in Des Moines on this website in the last two days than there has been public discussion in this district in the last five months.

In fairness, two people involved in the administration told me today that the KIA project was unrelated to the other decisions made by the district, echoing what Ms. De Vivo wrote on this blog. Documents and email conversations tend to show otherwise, and it is a matter of simple fact that students who want to take certain AP classes that were once offered with an astounding success rate will be given no option of taking them anymore; if they want to take those AP courses, they must take the KIA classes. That is not voluntary and on that point, what Ms. De Vivo wrote is not correct. As a result, some students who would likely do very well on an AP exam are opting out of AP. This does not seem like a good result to me. And it does not seem in the spirit of what the designers of KIA are trying to accomplish.

The teachers are correct that I never talked to any of them. They are not correct that I belittled them or the KIA program. And I have not accused a single one of them of acting unethically. I do not know any of these teachers and have no reason to belittle them. The ones I know by reputation, I have heard to be excellent teachers and well-liked by their students. The one known by one of my children is described using superlatives.

I certainly have never said or written that any of them lack proper training or certification as AP teachers. I encourage them to re-read my first post. Meeting with them will not solve any of these issues.

The issue is implementation and the limitations of KIA. The people making those decisions (I don't think it was the teachers) do not have Iowa Gifted and Talented Endorsements and they did not bother to inquire into the success of the existing AP classes that were cut. They did not consult with the teachers actually doing the teaching. I also regret that the administration belittled (and the word is appropriate here) the concerns of students and disruptions that were caused. I assume that the teachers who posted here, none of whom teach at Central Academy, do not have any way of knowing the scheduling upheaval caused by the timing and implementation of AP class cancellations. I am aware of those disruptions, as are the other parents and students affected by these decisions.

The KIA program looks like a good project to me with, as I said earlier, "noble goals." It was designed to help students perform better on the AP tests in an era when the number of students taking AP exams have surged and an increasing number of students are not passing. I am all for a program that improves AP scores--and all for grants to assist that. Why would my inquiry damage the successful relationships raised by these teachers?

I turned to this site because it has discussions of the successes, without any discussion of the limitations. In Des Moines, we have a program that is consistently outperforming traditional AP programs It takes place in a very specific environment and is most certainly not for every student. The administration, working with the person implementing KIA decided to force students out of that program and into KIA. This site seems to be a good place to discuss the limitations of the KIA program, especially since the district itself does not see fit to publicly discuss those limitations.

Indeed, it is interesting that the program designers worked so carefully to implement their study in Washington State and then Edutopia refers repeatedly to its use in Iowa without implementing it as carefully here. I am not an educator, but I read their articles and this site thoroughly before writing here. And I read emails about the debacle of this implementation. Families and students have been hurt unnecessarily.

What is wrong with Edutopia investigating or at least discussing a program implementation while it touts the real good that the program has accomplished? Does every program have to be that black and white? Is it really such a threat to the program that it might not be universally appropriate for every student?

As for a political agenda, these teachers know as much about me as I know about them. I accused them of nothing and am surprised they are so ready to accuse me of anything.

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