OPRF biology class. File photo, 2005.

Sometimes one sees familiar things most clearly by observing how others do them. This past winter quarter, I filled in for a renowned English teacher at University High School of the Laboratory Schools of the University of Chicago. It was a wonderful quarter of teaching for me, and I reflected on differences between U High and OPRF, where I taught for 32 years, retiring in 2010.

The school cultures are distinctive and seem to be moving in opposite directions. U High, of course, is a small private school with a student body consisting of U. of C. professors’ children and children of parents who can afford annual tuition of about $26,500. There are no bells at U High, the campus is open, students are startlingly civil and mature, they work incredibly hard, and quite a few of them have a genuine sense of remarkable personal destiny. Excellence in teaching is deep in the school culture; scholar-teachers are celebrated.

At OPRF, our large public school, the bells (or tones) are omnipresent, tardy rules (among others) have become increasingly rigid, trust between adults and students has diminished, student freedom and the personal responsibility that goes with it have suffered, and the daily student experience has become more of a grind than it ever was. Teachers are less trusted by the district than formerly; celebrating teachers’ scholarship is a thing of the past; a great teacher may now be passed over for hiring or lost to another school without institutional regret.

Maybe more telling than my own impressions are the numbers. I taught three junior-senior elective classes at U High, a 3/4 load for English teachers. At OPRF, English instructors teach five classes. U High classes meet four times per week (three periods of 45 minutes, one period of 75) whereas OPRF’s 48-minute classes meet every day. The size of such classes at U High is capped at 18. At OPRF, junior and senior honors English classes average about 28 students; classes with fewer than 18 students don’t run (that number has recently risen from 15).

I did some arithmetic. My U High classes averaged 17 students, a total of 51. A teacher’s full load at that rate is 68 students — which comes to a student contact number per week of 272 (17 students per class, four classes, four class meetings per week). At OPRF, the comparable student contact number for teachers is 700 (28 x 5 x 5). In other words, a full-time OPRF English teacher has considerably more than double the student load, or work load, of a U High counterpart.

About 20 years ago, English honors classes at OPRF averaged about 21 students. Today, OPRF’s English honors students write considerably less and probably learn less than they did when teachers taught seven fewer students per honors class and 35 fewer per day. Class size matters. A 33% increase must have a negative impact on academic quality.

Nevertheless, if you asked any teacher at OPRF whether its honors program today is closer in quality to U High or a typical CPS school, the answer without hesitation would be U High, and I would agree. Consider the implications.

The enormity of the range of school quality in the Chicago area is all but incomprehensible. The school reform movement, which is at the heart of the recent struggle in the CPS system, does not begin to address this range and the reasons for it, and the reform response is really nothing but a systematic lie about the situation.

Academically speaking, OPRF is not a better school than it was 20 years ago, and likely is worse. Teachers don’t have as much time to spend with students. Much of that stems from administrative decisions following board decisions on finance, especially since the successful tax referendum of 2002. The promise to the community from the 2002 OPRF referendum committee’s campaign was that no referendum would be needed before 2008. Since then, the date for the next referendum has been pushed to 2018 or beyond. The one-time “phase-in” opportunity bought some of the extension, but the most effective school-based way to accomplish such an extension is to sacrifice academic quality in the classroom by increasing class size.

Because of the vast range in school quality in the Chicago area, a school like OPRF can decline considerably before the change becomes easily apparent. An administrator has described the district’s moves to put off a referendum as an effort to accomplish a “soft landing.” A teacher has described the same process as putting a frog in a pot of cold water and gradually bringing it to a boil: the frog doesn’t notice until it’s too late.

No one wants higher taxes, and no one needs to be reminded about the weak economy. Board members and school administrators always struggle with issues of quality vs. cost. But the community’s educational stakeholders deserve clarity about key changes occurring in the school. Ideally, OPRF would emulate a school like U High, and not slip further from its traditional academic aspirations.

The teacher for whom I taught last winter, Darlene McCampbell, named by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the best teacher he ever had, has just begun her 48th year at Lab. She now winters in Hawaii, and I fill in for her. And she is not the longest serving teacher at U High. Wayne Brasler, arguably the best newspaper and yearbook adviser and journalism teacher in the country, is in his 49th year. Such longevity is inconceivable at OPRF, where teachers retire much earlier.

Steven Gevinson is a former English instructor at OPRF High School and a former chair of the English Division.

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