The Chicago Teachers’ Union strike has drawn fresh attention to “the school Rahm sends his kids to,” University of Chicago Laboratory School, where students receive the kind of nurturing and expansive education all parents wants for their children: rich in arts and intellectual stimulation, with a strong counseling staff for social supports — and explicit rejection of high-stakes testing. As a teacher at Francis W. Parker School, a private school founded alongside the Laboratory School a century ago, I see students of every background who thrive in these conditions – and who spend significant time in classes critically analyzing the disparities they see between their education and that of their CPS peers.
They wrestle with the fundamental question of critical thinking: Cui Bono? WHO BENEFITS? When schools are closed over the protests of the students and the community, and trusted teachers are torn from children’s lives, surely it is not the community’s benefit the Chicago Public School Board has in mind. When schools in poor neighborhoods are staffed with new, inexperienced teachers who get overwhelmed and have to leave, surely that’s neither to the students’ benefit nor to the benefit of the young teachers.
Our students ask these questions, knowing that they may shake the comfort of their own lives, as a good number have wealthy and powerful parents. At these private schools, engagement with the current problems of the world, and all their messiness and contradictions and complexity, is what is considered meaningful learning – not skill and drill testing. Students at schools like The University of Chicago Laboratory School and Francis Parker School know they are already members of democratic society; their lives and words and acts are part of their education. Every day they practice Dewey’s philosophy of education:
“The first need is to become aware of the world in which we live; to survey its forces; to see the opposition in forces that are contending for mastery; to make up one’s mind which of these forces come from a past that the world in its potential powers has outlived and which are indicative of a better and happier future.”
These are not abstract and historically distant questions; the progressive philosophy our schools are built on challenge us to respond to what is happening in the here and now, through careful study of the present moment and commitment to the “better and happier future.” Education that avoids this challenge leads to ignorance, hypocrisy, and oppression.
As Parker’s archivist Andy Kaplan explains,
Col. Parker and John Dewey drew an explicit connection between the experimental work they wanted their schools to develop and the democratic mission of public schools… The private school in particular must be able to use its advantages to become the laboratory for the public schools of the future: that’s one of the main meanings of his use of the word ‘laboratory’ for the school he founded.
These progressive schools were founded as laboratory schools in order to experiment with and practice educational methods for the benefit of the public school system. They were not designed as havens for the children of the elite, to protect them from the rotten conditions these elite tolerate for “other people’s children.” The public schools were in Dewey’s time, and are now, the foundation of democratic society; the private schools are adjuncts to the public schools, and all educational rights that the students of progressive schools enjoy belong equally to their public school counterparts.