Comparing U High Lab School and OPRF

Opinion: Columns

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Steven Gevinson

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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Reader Comments

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Stinky - Class of '04  

Posted: November 26th, 2012 7:51 AM

To OPRFHS Parent - It is somewhat unfair to lay all of the blame for the state of the English department on Dr. Gevinson's doorstep. He continued many of the policies from his predecessor, but at least Dr. Gevinson acted as a positive role model.

Concerned Oak Parker from Oak Park  

Posted: November 6th, 2012 2:38 PM

Well, I guess the ONLY solution is raise our property taxes AGAIN! You know, for the children...

Future OPRFHS parent  

Posted: November 6th, 2012 11:41 AM

This is very encouraging regarding the quality of education at OPRFHS:

Future OPRFHS parent  

Posted: November 4th, 2012 11:07 AM

Thanks to Mr. Gevinson for getting this conversation started, and the earlier discussion of parents pushing for honors placements. One issue he touched on that I see dragging our kids down is immaturity, which seems to be community wide, across racial lines. Many kids are too focused on socializing in class, which prevents teaching and learning. When kids goof off, they are being disrespectful to both their teachers and classmates.

OPRFHS Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: November 4th, 2012 9:56 AM

Here's what we can do: 1. Block schedules - few transitions make for good learning, time for discussions, inquiry and projects. Lower the class sizes - but really, if you run a project based class and have a couple of hours with students, class size doesn't mean as much as 30 kids five times a day with is exhausting, ineffective, and frankly, works against learning and community. It's not good for teachers or students. Thanks, Steve, for bringing up this topic.

OPRFHS Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: November 4th, 2012 9:49 AM

Here's what else I think I know: the new superintendent and assistant principal for curriculum and instruction seem to be more constructivist and student centered (the Lab schools approach to learning), but the other administrators are not, believing that standing in front of a class talking is actually teaching. Since the administration is not on the same page, change will not happen easily. Teachers will not change until the leaders are able to lead.

OPRFHS Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: November 4th, 2012 9:45 AM

This is what I know: There are English teachers at OPRFHS who do not assign writing. There are OPRFHS teachers who assign writing, but have unclear assessme policies and/or return assignments back late or not at all. Here's what I think I know: The department Mr. Gevinson built is the worst department at the school. The current chair inherited a horrible department, and because the administrative team seems to be not one the same page (old school v new school) there's not much he can do.

Stinky - Class of '04  

Posted: November 2nd, 2012 9:24 AM

There are surely lessons that OPRF could learn from the Lab School to improve the learning environment (especially w.r.t. better aligned incentives for students and teachers), however, OPRF will never become the Lab School. Still, this article is woefully incomplete as Dr. Gevinson fails to discuss his tenure as head of the English department, arguably the weakest academic department at OPRF. He should share what he did in that capacity to make students' time in the English classroom worthwhile.

melrose from Oak park  

Posted: October 21st, 2012 6:15 PM

I take issue with the negative tone of this piece. While there are differences between the two schools, I am disappointed it ended with such a negative tone. I have a senior and sophomore at OPRFHS. It is not an inner city school as one comment says. It is a wonderful school with great caring challenging teachers. There are no absolutes and while everything at OPRFHS is not absolutely wonderful, it is a stellar school and I am proud of our children's experiences in life and in the classroom.


Posted: October 21st, 2012 7:16 AM

Lane Tech is also apples and oranges. It's been selective enrollment since I attended long long ago. While I do think that Mr. Gevinson's piece seems a bit tone-deaf, he does hit on some interesting points, the class size and the decreasing student freedom and responsibility. But he takes away by saying U High kids are more respectful and mature. I disagree with this, but I believe OPRF administrators believe OPRF students are immature and thus make mistakes with the discipline policy.

Yet Another... from OP  

Posted: October 20th, 2012 8:41 AM

Ruth - The administration at OPRFHS could certainly benefit from looking at how other large, public high schools educate and serve racially and economically diverse student populations. Looking at a small, academically and financially elite private school is less likely to be productive. U High is regarded as an elite school at the national level. OPRF isn't going to be U High, but they could try to be more like Lane Tech.

OPRF Resident  

Posted: October 20th, 2012 7:15 AM

This whole article seemed pompous to me. Gevinson subs for a teacher who has been there 48 years but she "winters in Hawaii." So every winter, she takes off work? I find it interesting that she is lauded for her longevity. Anyway, it's silly to compare the two schools. There is nothing remotely similar between them. OPRF has a lot of problems but it also has a lot of positives. Enjoy your huge pension, Steve. And thanks for bashing your former school.

Ruth from Oak Park  

Posted: October 19th, 2012 6:31 PM

While the population there isn't quite as homogenous as some have suggested, their children are probably, overall, not going to suffer as much as OPRF students from large class sizes and the loss of excellent teachers. Or are we arguing that only the top 1% deserve a good education?

Ruth from Oak Park  

Posted: October 19th, 2012 6:30 PM

In the real world, oprf mom might be right, Mr. Gevenson too. Of course there are differences between the Lab School and OPRF, but research suggests that non-punitive approaches are effective, even in large public schools. Mr. Gevenson is also asking us to consider class size and excellence in teaching, factors that are probably even more important here than at the Lab School.

Yet Another OPRF Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: October 19th, 2012 4:57 PM

OPRF Mom - I'm not sure that there's much to be learned from U High that would be useful at OPRF. Please understand that the entire student body at U High is 99th percentile kids. No one else is admitted. All come from families with the means to pay the tuition. And it's a fraction of OPRF's size. If you doubt me, walk the hallways of both schools. I have. Running a school is easy when you have a few hundred students and they're all academically gifted and affluent.

Meanwhile back in the real world....  

Posted: October 19th, 2012 11:54 AM

oprf mom, to inform your thinking, here's an outline of their admissions process, IF you are even considered worthy of receiving an application: "All applicant families are asked to submit a parent profile, grades/progress reports, and form letters of recommendation. Families also visit the Schools for a parent interview and tour, and a student assessment/visit day. Middle and High School students are required to interview, and take the Independent School Entrance Exam."

oprf mom  

Posted: October 19th, 2012 10:59 AM

Yes, there are many differences between the two schools - but maybe we can use what's happening at one school to inform our thinking about what we would like to see at OPRFHS. I agree with Gevinson that OPRFHS's increasing emphasis on how to contain, curtail and control students is unlikely to promote a sense of personal responsibilty or trust. The issues are complex, we need to get past the idea that band aid solutions like more detentions will make students better citizens.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2012 4:01 PM

"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." This type of kid probably makes up 5% of the OPRF students. Can you imagine what the kids would do if there were no bells, an open campus, and no one moving them along to their next class because most kids can't do a thing without someone telling them to do it. Apples to oranges.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: October 18th, 2012 3:56 PM

OPRFDad - to go one step further, I'd like to know what needs to be done to do some kind of an audit on why OPRF has $100M in the bank, and what they are doing with it. And also how much can reasonably be rebated to the taxpayers. How a referendum can even be mentioned - no matter when the year - is absolutley ridiculous.


Posted: October 18th, 2012 2:49 PM

Those students at the Lab School are lucky to have Dr. Gevinson teaching them! He is a great instructor.


Posted: October 18th, 2012 8:16 AM

Meanwhile, great phrase: "you're apples and squirrels" Exactly! OPRF is a fine school. Better than the college than I went to, though that was a state school Mr. Gevinson might find doesn't fit his exacting standards.

Tale of Two Cities from OP  

Posted: October 18th, 2012 6:13 AM

This seems less like a comparison of two high schools than a comparison of two fundamentally different systems -- public vs. private education in our country. Private Schools like U High continue to embody the highest academic standards of excellence, but at a price. Public schools are increasingly focused on education of the masses, and less on excellence. It's a tale of two cities playing out all across the country. To expect OPRF to be U High is unrealistic...their missions are distinct.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: October 17th, 2012 9:50 PM

I am a graduate of OPRF ('77), both of my parents and my children are graduates of OPRF - the youngest being a part of the class of 2012. I have lived in Oak Park all of my life. My opinion? OPRF, despite being far more challenged with social issues than when either I, my parents, or siblings attended - is a superior school today. Proof: 9-Ivy, 37-UI, 16-Northwestern, 14-SIU, 13-DePaul, 37-Triton, 7-St.Olaf, 6-Grinnell, State Baseball champs, etc for 2012! We are also Republicans-good for all.


Posted: October 17th, 2012 9:03 PM

$100 million in the bank and they still can't get the job done. No way we pour more money into this loser. Face it. OPRF has become an inner city school and the administration doesn't have the guts or what it takes to make it a winner again. No new taxes!


Posted: October 17th, 2012 7:45 PM

Per the 2011 School Report Card for OPRF, the avg years of teaching experience is 12.5 and the avg pay is $97,496. Med Ins is minimal. Mr. Gevinson retired in his 50's and his pension is significantly higher than the median income in Oak Park. The Driver's Ed & PE teacher is paid the same as the Calculus teacher. Is it fair to the students that the class periods for each are the same? English teachers are in surplus - math/physics teachers are not. Does Gevinson advocate differentiated pay?

Yet Another OPRF Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: October 17th, 2012 5:46 PM

I've heard of comparing apples and oranges, but you're comparing apples and squirrels. The main strength of U High is it's heterogeneous, academically gifted student body. OPRF has to educate the diverse student population of OP, RF, and, let's face it, some of our neighbors to the east. No funding increase is going to create a U High here.

Meanwhile back in the real world....  

Posted: October 17th, 2012 1:00 PM

Comparing OPRF to such a academically and financially exclusive school as a justification for a tax increase can only be seen as an indication of how out of touch the some members of the teaching profession are from reality. Or is this an endorsement for charter schools? And speaking of systemic lies, it sounds like the author was one of the many OP teachers who raced to the door before the unjustified and obnoxiously huge pension-bloating, pre-retirement salary bumps were cut in 2010.

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