Schools Worth Cloning in the Public Sector

Mar 19, 2013 by

We have heard much about charter schools for the last twenty years. In our larger cities hundreds of charter schools have been created. Some charter schools are doing well, and some are not. Many charters have access to more resources than their public school counterparts. Indeed, some charters are run by public school systems and others are autonomous start-ups financed, in part, by vouchers and private individuals and foundations, or corporate partners. Most recently, we have heard that KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Charter Schools have made some headway. The debate about charters has no clear winners now, but in the attempt to measure academic success; most states, most schools, The Department of Education, and the College Board that produces the SAT, have bought into the idea that we need to measure success by standardized assessments. This is a noble goal and a daunting task. This data-driven obsession is also morally bankrupt and rooted a dubious science of exclusion that masks the class privilege of those who tend to rise to the top in a post WWII “meritocracy.”


The history of such attempts to come up with standard units of measure to assess student learning is very complicated. Our best source on the history of such attempts is Nicolas Lehmann’s, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. The book attempts to unravel the tangled web of the evolution of SAT from an IQ test to a predictor of whether a given student will succeed in his/her first year of college. It turns out that the SAT does not predict this success and that this success is better predicted by one’s social class and an environment that is rich in complex word acquisition. Our problem with the SAT persists because colleges and universities require a statistical measuring stick to justify rejecting students in an effort to avoid lawsuits.


The problem of applying such measures to all American schools is proving to be more controversial than Affirmative Action lawsuits. Our culture has a tough time taking a hard analytical look at issues involving poverty and class.


Describing the politics of the “Roaring Twenties,” Historian Joseph R. Gusfield argued that when Americans are worried about the loss or closing off of upward mobility, they focus on “symbolic politics,” because our broader culture does not have the capacity to confront issues about downward social mobility, poverty, and class. This is not to say that there have not been periods when poverty and class have not been central issues—the 1890s and LBJs “War on Poverty” come to mind. What Gusfield argues, instead, is, that during periods of “prosperity,” political expressions become “symbolic” when the market model of legitimation is dominant. Today, although we are recovering from a deep recession, the market model of understanding our economy is the metaphor that most understand.


So, while President Obama’s rhetoric connects to the need for the larger role of government to protect our social safety net—echoing almost verbatim the words of his former colleague at the University of Chicago, R.G. Rajan in his book Fault Lines—when it comes to Education Reform, the President and his handlers embrace the model of the competitive marketplace. Gusfield would say that Education has become the “symbolic issue” that we agree to discuss rather than taking a hard look at poverty. So, the President channels Teddy Roosevelt’s idea of making a “Square Deal” for the American people, but he clearly accepts the idea that there are “good trusts” and that the 1% who serve the public interest are ok with him.


In today’s “Age of Fracture,” to use Historian Daniel T. Roger’s recent book title, the larger public cannot come to a consensus about the role of government because most people cannot reconcile the free market metaphor with a more complex idea about how imperfect markets might not operate perfectly. We are thus caught in limbo somewhere between Paul Krugman’s neo-Keynesianism and the University of Chicago School’s neo-liberal number crunchers.


When it comes to school reform, the number crunchers clearly have President Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s ear. Many of those who were among Obama’s first major backers, people to whom he is, as a result, the most loyal, have pushed for Corporate Education Reform. Many of these backers are bankers and financiers, they understand the world of the marketplace, and they demand the accountability of the marketplace. They fully support standardized testing and they support the expansion of the business of standardized assessment. They tend to see schools as businesses and they want to fire schools and people who do not succeed. These are the laws of the marketplace, what Joseph Schumpeter would call the dance of “creative destruction” caused by innovation that is at the core of the capitalist engine. Mr. Duncan was a practitioner of this business model as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. The money raisers prevailed when it came time to pick our Education Secretary in what seems to be an attempt to find an issue that would bring corporate moderate Republicans into the Obama fold.


I propose that the President, Mr. Duncan, and Mayors Bloomberg and Emanuel take a look at the charter school movement that succeeded and kept on going. This model, unlike the Common Core Curriculum and “Race to the Top,” has been tried, tested and proven. This model is the Progressive School charter model. The irony here is that the President, Secretary Duncan, and Mayor Emanuel have more direct experience with this model than the Corporate Education model. Our President enrolled his children in the flagship Progressive charter school in the country. The New Yorker described the nucleus of Obama’s early campaign in 2007 as the “Lab School mafia.” Michelle served on the Lab Schools Board and her brother, Craig, coached the high school basketball team. Obama’s campaign manager, his fund raisers, his two best friends and their families, some of his top economic advisors, all went to the Lab Schools in Chicago or had or have their kids in the University of Chicago Lab Schools. Mayor Emanuel went to a New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois that is famous for fully embracing the Progressive standard. His children also attend a Progressive School.


What gave the Progressive charter school movement such staying power? Parents who were tired and are tired of regimented curricula and standardized rote learning have flocked to Progressive schools like the Lab Schools for over 117 years. These parents wanted and want something else for their kids. Students in Progressive schools are not obsessed with standardized tests. To the contrary, in the words of pioneering Progressive reformer, Francis Wayland Parker, “The road to success is through constant blundering,” not perfection on the SAT. At Progressive Schools we want to find a student’s passion and run with it. I have a student who cannot sit still, but she is exceedingly bright. I told her about the History Day competition and about where she could find Enrico Fermi’s papers three blocks away. She has spent the better part of the last three weeks going through Fermi’s original notebooks and working with our Physics teacher to produce a paper on Fermi’s work in Chicago. A colleague and I are guiding four student editors in putting together a school history journal. Another student is working one on one with his teacher to understand World War One in East Africa and will produce a unit to teach younger history students. I could go on and on: another student is researching and writing a paper on the first underground family planning center in the Midwest; and another young lady is doing original archival research on Aimee Isgrig Horton, the second wife of Highlander Folk School and Civil Rights activist, Myles Horton. It turns out that Ms. Horton saved Highlander Center by acquiring funds from a Chicago Foundation to allow the Center to continue its work when the state of Tennessee revoked the Folk School’s tax-exempt status. The course of the Civil Rights movement could have been altered without Highlander say many, including John Lewis. This student has become a historian and has produced an original, publishable piece!


Progressive charter schools have been successful for so long because we do a good job of respecting kids and giving them the opportunity to follow their own passions. We treat young people like the precious responsible adults that they will become. I don’t mean to say that all teachers in all kinds of schools don’t do this, they do; but we have more time for this kind of thing because we don’t have to worry about standardization and measurement of young people’s souls with numbers. Progressive philosopher and student of John Dewey, Randolph Bourne, summed it up best: “Work that appeals to pupils as worth while, that holds out the promise of resulting in something to their own or the school’s interest, involves just as much persistence and concentration as the sternest advocate of disciplinary drill.” (The Gary Schools, 140)


The argument can be made that Progressive Schools are too expensive, that most people cannot pay the tuition for most of these schools. I propose that here is no reason why the Progressive prototype cannot serve as a model for smaller public schools. Progressive schools require creative teachers who are willing set high standards to guide the creativity of their students. They require the building of what Myles Horton called “islands of decency,” classrooms and schools that recognize and respect the value of the potential contributions of each precious young person to the potential greater community. Standardized testing reifies each young person and isolates individuals in a vision of market competition that defines student potential as “human capital” that is prepared to compete in the marketplace. We need to examine what we want from our schools: do we want students who will fit into the vision that corporate reformers have designed for America? Or do we want students to have the skills to help build a vibrant democratic culture? Ideally, of course, we want both, but the market model neglects one half of what we have historically sought from schools Creating schools that are true “Laboratories of Democracy” that strive to create what Progressive educators might call “The Beloved Community” require committed parents, teachers, and students.

Another issue leveled at Progressive Schools and the Progressive School movement of the 1920s and 1930s was that it was/is too student-centered and not academically rigorous. Historian of Education Diane Ravitch carefully and critically examined this unsuccessful scale-up of John Dewey’s vision. But while these criticisms might have held some truth for the Progressive School movement in the 30s, contemporary Progressive Schools have been forced to adjust to the expectations of their current clients who want students who are prepared for the most rigorous colleges and universities. I have heard more than one University admissions officer say, “I would take more kids from your school than from the best public school with the most AP courses every time. You teach kids to think and to see the world in new ways.” While many students who come out of Progressive Schools do well on standardized tests, they are attractive to most college admissions officers because they are taught to think critically and creatively. The verbal culture of such schools is very rich, athletics are clearly not emphasized to the extent that they are in most public schools, and nerds and individual creativity play a much more significant role in shaping student expectations and culture. Students that would be marginalized toward social obscurity in the typical public school setting, set the tone for what is cool in a Progressive school setting.


There are clear downsides to the Progressive school environment. These schools struggle with classism and creating enough cultural and class diversity. Some parents can be overly assertive, making these schools tough to administer. But as an alternative to large public high schools dominated by cliques, athletics, tracking, and standardized testing, they make a great deal of sense for high schools of five hundred students.


There is no reason why we cannot create more schools of the kind that our leaders choose for their kids for the broader public. If we can reduce administrative and IT costs and invest more in the potential of students than we do on standardized testing and other mass marketed educational products produced by profiteers, we can work to build more “islands of decency” that will resist the iron cage of modern corporate bureaucracy and its very limited vision of our future. Open minds, creativity, and commitment, are the keys.


Barack and Arne, there is no reason why you should not promote an education like the education that is available at Sidwell Friends and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools as a part of the public solution in education. We need to get beyond the obsession with testing and stop listening to the profiteers to begin to see some solutions that make sense for more parents and more kids. Mr. Duncan, the next time Mr. Shelton (James Shelton III, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, Dept. of Education) visits with Bill Gates, please ask Mr. Shelton to ask Mr. Gates about how many standardized tests they take at his alma mater, Lakeside High School. Let’s get past thinking about markets and begin to focus on kids, not products or “data.”


Paul Horton, History Teacher, The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools


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