Back to the Lab Again

In which I visit Arne Duncan’s alma mater on the hunt for *secret sauce*

The University of Chicago Lab Schools

The University of Chicago Lab Schools which Arne Duncan attended from K-12.

Reader: you are almost certainly aware that our Secretary of Education, Mr. Arne Duncan, has many excellent ideas regarding how to enhance the excellence of our failed and failing public schools. But did you ever pause to ask yourself *from whence did those ideas come?* It’s field trip time and our destination is none other than the very school that nurtured young Arne’s spirit: the University of Chicago Lab Schools, the bastion of progressive education founded by none other than John Dewey himself in 1896. And since I know that you are, at this very moment, administering a high-stakes test, I recently took it upon myself to drop in on the school on your behalf.

*True education frees the human spirit*

*True education frees the human spirit*

Francis who?
My tour starts, where else?, at the entrance to the Lab Schools, where Francis Parker awaits ready to greet me. Who is Francis Parker, you ask? Only the father of progressive education who hated on all things standardized and rote, not to mention rejecting discipline of the harsh variety. If neither Parker’s name nor his *whole child* legacy rings any bells, don’t feel bad. Young Arne no doubt passed by Parker’s bust with its bold declaration that *True education frees the human spirit* countless times in his 13 years at the Lab Schools. Meanwhile some of Chicago’s most prominent reformers, bearing names like Pritzker and Emanuel, see Parker regularly as they drop their own whole children off here to be progressively educated.

secret-sauceSecret sauce
The next stop on my tour is obvious: I demand to be taken to wherever the secret sauce is kept, the elixir of excellence that has made the University of Chicago Lab Schools a top performer for more than 100 years. And there is no shortage of secret sauce storage spots to visit. There are the small classes, which, capped at 24 students, are far smaller than any I encounter on my visits to a half dozen Chicago Public Schools. There are the three libraries, staffed by certified middle school and high school librarians, and encompassing 40,000 volumes. And there is the new art complex, still under construction, that will feature a theater-in-the-round, plenty of naturally lit art studios and spaces for students to collaborate on creative projects. In other words, the Lab Schools’ is the kind of secret sauce that I’m pretty sure all students would savor. And yet the ingredients seem so different from the recipe for excellence so oft touted by the very Lab School alum whose size 13 footsteps I am here to retrace…

Teacher Darlene McCampbell

Teacher Darlene McCampbell

It’s time to meet Arne’s favorite teacher
The students I talk to tell me that their teachers are the real secret to the secret sauce. As one ninth grader explains: *Our teachers have character; they’re not automatons.* [Note: automaton is a *high-utility* vocabulary word and thus approved for inclusion in the new enhanced SAT]. One of these teachers is none other than Darlene McCampbell, whom Arne Duncan recently named as his favorite. As luck would have it, she’s here today—in fact she’s been here almost every day for the past 49 years, teaching writing, storytelling and literature. I’m going to type that once more for effect: Darlene McCampbell has been teaching at the Lab Schools for 49 years. After talking to her for a few minutes, I can tell that she would be my favorite teacher too. Fortunately for the current crop of Lab students, she has no plans to abandon them. *I’ll stay as long as I keep loving it,* says McCampbell.

The other side
By the way: Campbell isn’t even the Lab Schools’ longest-serving faculty member. That honor goes to Wayne Brasler, who heads up the journalism department and has been here for 50 years. He remembers Arne Duncan from his elementary school days—but there’s another reason I’ve been looking forward to meeting Brasler. He’s also a psychic and a medium. *We’ve met somewhere before,* he tells me when I finally locate him, deep in the Lab Schools’ basement warren. I perk right up. *In another life???* I ask, hopeful that my previous existence was college and career readier than this one has turned out to be. *No—in this one.* Today though Brasler doesn’t require any special powers to foresee that the future of public education looks pretty bleak. In addition to his work here he also edits one of the country’s only high school alumni newspapers, for Missouri’s Normandy High School, outside of St. Louis, which he once attended. He’s just put the finishing touches on the very last edition. The school and its district are broke and are being disbanded at the end of the year.

what-the-ivy-league-says-about-the-future-of-advertisingGr8 expectations
The ironic thing is that I came to the Lab Schools in order to see for myself the kind of progressive education in which young Arne Duncan blossomed, and yet the forces of Duncan-style education reform can still be felt even in this idyllic private school setting. Darlene McCampbell, for example, tells me that she worries that teaching is rapidly becoming less of a career. Other teachers note that the culture of the school is shifting to meet the expectations of wealthy parents from Chicago’s North Side for whom college readiness means an Ivy League school. There’s even a debate here about aligning parts of the curriculum to the Common Core. And while students here have no standardized tests to opt-out of, the faculty union (teachers belong to the AFT), recently issued a statement showing support for Chicago Public Schools teachers and families who chose to skip the ISAT.

friedmanThe Chicago school
My visit to the Lab Schools was nearing its end, and while I’d learned all about progressive education—and encountered gallons of secret sauce—the more I found out, the harder it was to connect the school’s tradition with the alum who’d drawn me here. Was it possible that my search for insight into what makes Arne Duncan tick had brought me to the wrong place? Historian Paul Horton thought so, and he was eager to escort me to a more appropriate location: the University of Chicago Booth Business School, located just a stone’s throw from the Lab Schools. *The market is like a religion here,* says Horton. And while you may not recognize the Chicago School of Economics by name, you feel its influence in countless ways, most notably in the market pressures that are, at this very moment, bearing down upon what’s left of your public schools. In fact, to stand in the middle of the two institutions is to occupy a battle of ideas between two completely different visions of the world: team Dewey vs. team Friedman. I don’t think I need to tell you which one is winning.

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  1. Let me wonder this aloud: would Mrs. McCampbell be as effective with 35 South Siders as she is with 24 Lab School kids?

    1. Darlene would be effective with all of the deformers in the room: with Arne throwing spit wads and and a shorter person bullying 45 more kids. She absolutely kills with kindness! She would have all of you loving Shakespeare in two seconds! If she were allowed in the same room with Valerie and Barack, she would have them singing another song!

      Pablo AFT 2063

      1. Well, I… I just. Um… what?

        Let me try again. Mrs. Campbell sounds great at what she does. I’m wondering if she’s great at something related but different: teaching a larger classroom populated by students with higher rates of ADHD and PTSD, much less socio-emotional support, a lack of academic success or intellectual confidence, mostly single parents, limited resources, poor physical and mental health services, etc., etc.

        I ask because our friendly neighborhood EduShyster seems to imply that rich kids at Lab School flourish mostly because of their top-class progressive schooling, while at the same time believes that poor kids at languishing public schools fail to succeed mostly because of poverty. It feels like she’s having it both ways. I tend to think that when you’re faced with millions of poor kids with such challenges–who, by the way, go to a school with a fraction of the $30,000 per year per student that Lab Schools gets–you have to start coming up with better, more tangible solutions than tend to get offered on this blog’s comment section.

        1. Actually if you take another look at what I wrote you’ll note that I didn’t say anything about the demographics at the Lab Schools, save that they’re changing and now include a greater percentage of students from wealthy families on the North Side (historically the school was for children of University of Chicago faculty). And the Chicago Public Schools I visited were all over the map both geographically and demographically and included a selective high school that’s among the highest performing schools in the state. I won’t speak for Darlene McCampbell (I’d like to put your question to her myself). But what I can say is that if she taught at a Chicago Public School on the South Side, she’d have more than just the poverty of her students to worry about. There’s a good chance that her school would have been closed last year. If it survived, its days are likely numbered now. As an astonishing number of teachers, parents and even administrators explained to me–including teachers at the Lab Schools–there isn’t a role in the *New Chicago* for neighborhood schools that serve high numbers of poor minority students, who are being pushed ever further south and west of the city. The South Side sits smack in the middle of redevelopment central, and the *New Chicago* means new schools (read charter chains) that serve a far more select population of students. The transformation of public education that’s being realized with astonishing speed in Chicago starts from the assumption that urban schools simply can’t help all students. Rahm Emanuel says there’s no hope for 25% of his city’s students; more candid reformers flip the equation and acknowledge that only 30% of these students will amount to anything. They would argue that they’re putting forward a *better, more tangible* solution. But an awful lot of teachers and parents disagree and are pushing back… I’ll be writing about this more in the coming weeks, by the way. So stay tuned!

          1. 173,000 students attend traditional Chicago Pubic Schools vs 23,000 at charters. But that number doesn’t convey the heavy concentration of charters in particular neighborhoods, especially in the south and west. Lots of good stuff being written about how charter growth intersects with race and gentrification. (I recommend University of Illinois professor Pauline Lippman in particular). Ps: loving your use of *market* and *seats* 🙂

        2. Dear Ross,

          I think that Ms. McCampbell is just as concerned about these issues as you are…and that we all think sharing the wealth is a good idea. I live in a neighborhood where most of the public schools were closed. The point is that we have to come together, join forces, raise consciousness: the neoliberal thing is not working. The Arne and Bill show just is not working out. Many of us are fighting pretty hard….Darlene is on your side!

          Pablo AFT 2063

          1. Gotta use the jargon or the straw men don’t even have a timber backbone!

            I won’t touch the charters-and-gentrification issue except to say that it’s been a pretty common correlation in the last 30 years in big cities like Chicago that the poorer and browner a school is, the worse the outcomes for students are. If KIPP goes into a ghettoized neighborhood and says, “Hey, we’ll try to give this a shot,” and the school ends up 99% black, it seems like a totally unfair indictment of charter schools or “choice” initiatives to blame them for the demography of their school. Where parents choose to live and send their kids (both hugely limited decisions for many parents) is the sociological factor at work in school segregation, not anything endemic to the charter movement.

          2. KIPP et al. limit who they can market to because most white parents –and there are plenty in Hyde Park– would not choose to send their children to a no-excuses military style test prep factory.

    2. Cosmic – are you implying that the white families “know better” than the families of color, and therefore avoid KIPP schools? Yikes.

      I would suggest that many of those white families have different (wait for it) choices at their disposal.

  2. EduS–Of course, we all know that “The Secret Sauce” is comprised of–

    Lots of donor $$$ spent on the school + excellent faculty +freedom for that excellent faculty to teach as teaching should be done + SMALL class sizes +
    availability of the arts, enrichment,P.E., creativity + “cream of the crop” students + tuition $$$ + parental involvement + NO endless test prepping & testing, testing & more testing. (I’m sure I’ve left off more, but you readers all know what those would be.) Thus, this “secret sauce” is NO secret, but it is only exclusively available to those well-off parents (&, admittedly, SOME scholarship students) who can afford the sauce.

  3. The final line of the article, “Dewey vs. Team Friedman”, is confusing to me, if the Friedman reference is to education reform by business. The primary tenet of free enterprise is the concept of risk taking by entrepreneurs. In corporate reform of education, the business owners are promising good jobs for better education. The risk in the equation is absorbed by the taxpayers funding the charters, Common Core/Pearson curricula and testing, etc.. The risk is not assumed by the businesses. The corporate plan would be an anathema to Adam Smith and presumably, Friedman. (Money spent on politicians to get them to choose a product for the taxpayer is the most obvious, but not only, glaring example of how corporate reform is in a universe, unrelated to capitalism.)
    One answer to better align of corporate reform and capitalism is for the businesses to set up an escrow account to cover the promise of high paying jobs. If the high paying jobs aren’t available to “better” educated students, in significant numbers, the businesses forfeit the money.
    Thomas Piketty, in his best seller, explains job creation won’t occur because. there’s too much concentration of wealth at the top. “The financial sector, including hedge fund owners doubled their share of GDP since the 80’s. It grew faster than either the flow of savings it channels or the assets it manages, wasting 2% of GDP.” For every 1% growth in GDP, approximately 1 million jobs are created. The financial sector knows how to enrich themselves, gutting jobs.
    So, their education reform product is something similar to a false cure for cancer.

  4. Excellent analysis as usual. If there’s anything in America that can stand to be socialist, it’s our schools. It is unfortunate that the neoliberals and republicans have busted our public schools in the name of a ‘market’ model that is most unruly for those most in need.

  5. An interesting fact to be added as “background”: The University of Chicago has discontinued its Department of Education, responsible for the preparation of teachers. The Lab School continues.

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