School Choice & Charters

Amid Changing Landscape, Lab Schools Search for New Roles

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 24, 2015 7 min read
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As policymakers seek ways to get K-12 and higher education systems to work together more closely, the laboratory schools offer a cautionary tale of the challenge of creating and maintaining active partnerships to train teachers and improve instruction.

The vision of the laboratory school—where teachers and researchers can develop and spread instructional innovation—is nearly as old as American public education itself: John Dewey, the philosopher and giant of progressive education, founded the first “experimental school” at the University of Chicago in 1896. More than a century later, many such schools are still working to find their place in a rapidly changing education landscape—and a few have morphed into private, tuition-based schools.

From a high of about 200 schools in the mid-1960s, the International Association of Laboratory Schools today has about 60 member schools, though Patricia E. Diebold, the executive director of the Edinboro, Pa.-based association, said the number may be twice that, counting the various similar iterations, such as model and demonstration schools connected to universities and community colleges.

“Lab schools are keeping a very low profile these days,” said Sam Hausfather, a retired dean of education at Maryville University in St. Louis who has tracked the evolution of laboratory schools and professional development schools, a similar model in which a university partners with an existing school to create teacher training.

The School at Columbia

(Columbia University, New York)

Jonathan Cole, a Columbia provost and psychologist, founded The School at Columbia with half of its seats assigned by lottery from the surrounding neighborhood and half to the children of Columbia-affiliated families.

The university launched a study of the school’s governance, when spaces could not be found for all faculty members’ children who wanted to attend. The study called for more autonomy for the school.

The school creates Teach21, a professional development program to help private and public school teachers in New York learn from the school’s best practices. It has since expanded to teachers in San Francisco and Istanbul.

The school established its first “science expo,” bringing in dozens of researchers from fields across the university to work with students.

“A lot of the work setting them up and getting them going seems to focus on building strong relationships, particularly between individuals—as those people change, the fates of the schools change, too,” he said.

College Instability

Many laboratory schools have changed in the face of decades of tightening university budgets and more-regimented K-12 accountability.

“All of these schools, I think, lost their control or their prominence on campus and had to go through a process of redefining who they were and what their missions were,” said Lynda Hayes, the head of the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville, Fla., opened in 1934 on the University of Florida campus. “Most of them have turned into private schools. We’re a public school through and through.”

Some of the nation’s most storied laboratory schools were among the victims of repeated university reorganizations and budget cuts. Mr. Dewey’s famous University of Chicago Laboratory Schools broke their governance affiliation with the University of Chicago in the 1990s, when the university’s education program was dissolved (though the schools kept the name). The schools, which serve nearly 2,100 students in nursery school through 12th grade on the university’s campus, still occasionally partner with sociologists from the university for research, said David W. Magill, a retired director of the schools. But, he added at a symposium on laboratory schools in Nashville this month, “We are very different from the laboratory schools that were started and existed for nearly 100 years, and it’s a loss for many of us, and we wish that it didn’t happen.”

Vincent W. Durnan, the director of the University School of Nashville, saw the same story play out again and again, as he has documented in a 2015 case study of six such schools. Vanderbilt University, which had run Mr. Durnan’s school since its 1915 founding, decided for financial reasons to close it in 1975. Like the Chicago schools, the Nashville school was saved by a dedicated group of parents and alumni who helped transform it into a private, tuition-based school that now enrolls 1,800 students in grades pre-K through 12.

P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School

(University of Florida, Gainesville)

The University of Florida established the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School as a public laboratory school to inform its college of education. It was named for a longtime education activist in the state.

The university’s college of education takes over the school’s building, later renamed Norman Hall, while the school is moved to its current location nearby on campus.

The Florida legislature passes the Sid Martin Developmental Research School Act, which recreates P.K. Yonge as an independent school district that receives funding directly from the state, rather than through the university. Its staff members are still considered university employees. The school’s registration changes from a wait list to a lottery system, and it becomes responsible for meeting regular public school accountability requirements.

The school reorganizes around a theme of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, and gets a $5 million National Science Foundation grant to develop and share best practices in math instruction.

Mr. Durnan suggested that as more university-affiliated schools move to tuition-based funding, they can still provide models for best practice.

“We’re laboratories of an idea, of an educational system that is not as mechanical as the educational system that is prevailing in many other places,” Mr. Durnan said. “We are not urban-school-turnaround experts. ... At the same time, we feel we have a responsibility as educational citizens to share what we know and contribute to the conversation.”

But given the still-tight funding for higher education, Mr. Hausfather said he doesn’t expect many universities to launch new K-12 laboratory schools. “There are some lab schools that are maintaining,” he said, “but they’ve basically become very good private schools, and how is that adding to the university’s mission?”

Holding Focus

The P.K. Yonge school, which was not part of Mr. Durnan’s study, successfully navigated very similar budget and organizational upsets.

Twenty-eight years ago, when Ms. Hayes joined P.K. Yonge as a kindergarten teacher, the nearly 80-year-old laboratory school had rich, ongoing research projects with the University of Florida’s college of education, published its own monograph research series, and provided training for student and inservice teachers.

Still, funding was channeled from the state through the university and the education college, and “in the ‘80s and ‘90s, less and less was flowing through to the school. Our new carpet was the carpet they pulled up from the [university] library,” Ms. Hayes recalled. “For my first four years, faculty meetings regularly revolved around the concern that the school may soon no longer exist.”

Rather than move to an independent school model, P.K. Yonge and three other laboratory schools in the state doubled down on their public education research mission. In 1991, the Florida legislature redesignated them as independent school districts of choice, providing direct state funding—and also opening them up to state and federal accountability.

In the decades since, Ms. Hayes, who four years ago became head of P.K. Yonge, said, “we are challenged at a whole new level here, around how do you design and test innovations in K-12 education, knowing some will fail, knowing your teachers have to live within the constraints of K-12 accountability and teacher pay in Florida?”

University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

(University of Chicago)

John Dewey founds an elementary school in his home at 1328 East 57th St. in Chicago. The Dewey School, the first campus in what is to become the Laboratory Schools, is intended to serve as a place to test Mr. Dewey’s progressive theories of education—including learning through hands-on projects—and to train teachers in how to use them.

The Dewey School merges with Francis Parker’s experimental school and the newly created Chicago Institute for teacher training at the University of Chicago. Faculty participate in ongoing training and education research.

The University of Chicago closes its graduate school of education; the Laboratory Schools fall under the undergraduate education department.

The schools are reorganized and their governance is separated from the university. The university board is replaced with one made of parents and community members, and enrollment grows dramatically, from 1,450 in 1987 to 2,100 today.

The 1,150-student K-12 school has focused heavily on “research and outreach": Instead of using a waitlist, it now enrolls students from 37 cities in and around Gainesville using a lottery weighted to ensure its student population has low mobility and mirrors the demographics of the state as a whole— “a researcher’s dream,” Ms. Hayes notes.

P.K. Yonge teachers, alone or in collaboration, conduct their own studies each year and present them to local researchers in an annual symposium, intended to launch larger research projects. The classes are open to observation, and the school helps train education researchers on how to study in schools without interfering with students in classrooms.

The school also has been able to supplement its budget with fee-based research and professional development workshops, including one last week demonstrating sample reading lessons based on the Common Core State Standards, which drew more than 60 teachers from around the state.

There are a few relative newcomers trying to pick up the original model, such as the K-8, 535-student School at Columbia University, which was started in 2003 both to contribute research and professional development and to provide a draw to potential Columbia faculty with school-age children.

Amani Reed, the head of the School at Columbia and a former principal at the Chicago Laboratory Schools, said his school is not directly affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, but works hard to retain a laboratory spirit: Last year alone, school staff members visited with 356 public and private schools in New York City to share best practices; conducted teacher-training workshops in New York City, San Francisco, and Istanbul; and partnered with Columbia’s school of public health to study and develop teacher training around student gender and sexuality.

“The idea of our founding was to have an independent school with a very public purpose, and we continue to try hard to model that,” Mr. Reed said.

There are also some signs that laboratory schools could make a comeback, at least in some areas. Under former Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, Virginia earmarked money to encourage universities, community colleges, and school districts to develop new laboratory schools—though it remains to be seen whether the initiative will continue under new Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

Ms. Diebold of the IALS said she has started to get more calls from colleges interested in starting schools. In the last year the association launched a new award to honor the laboratory schools that proved most committed to core practices, including active research, teacher training, and international and local collaboration with schools.

“I guess we have changed; we have to, to stay alive,” Ms. Diebold said. “We’re coming back to finding that niche.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Amid Change, Lab Schools Seek New Missions


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