Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Algebra

In Hyde Park, the Chicago Free School plans to teach without testing

This is the time that my junior-high math class voted to do more algebra,” said Lauren Beitler, founder of the Chicago Free School, as she displayed a photograph of her former students at the Albany Free School seated around a table, engrossed in their work. This moment was part of a presentation organized by Beitler at the Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park—future home of the Chicago Free School—to educate twenty or so parents in attendance about the school’s philosophy and education strategy.

The school, which will open in August 2014 and serve about sixty students from Pre-K to eighth grade, will have no required classes. Children will learn core subjects like reading and math by meeting with teachers in small groups to learn using the method that best suits them. This means hands-on activities for some and exercises like word problems for others. They will spend the remainder of their time taking classes in the subjects that most appeal to them. Classes will be small, about twelve students per teacher. Teachers will also interview each student in a particular class before designing the curriculum to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

While the Chicago Free School will be a private school, it will strive to be socio-economically diverse by adhering to a sliding-scale tuition model. The average yearly tuition will be $6,000, but this figure will be adjusted based on each family’s income. While there will be no full scholarships, the minimum tuition will be less than $500. The school will also generate funds through private donations and fundraisers. Its status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, which would exempt it from federal income taxes, is currently pending. This financial model has proved successful at other Free Schools. At the Free School in Albany, which was founded in 1969 and also uses sliding-scale tuition, about sixty-five percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunch, and around half are students of color.

There will be no standardized tests—the school wants to move away from traditional testing-centric curriculum in order to eliminate the burden on teachers to “teach to the test.” Beitler believes standardized tests force all students to learn at the same pace and in the same manner, ignoring their specific needs.

Beitler, who taught for six years in various middle schools in Chicago, said that “Because of standardized testing, the curriculum was getting really narrow, and the focus was all reading and math all the time, and in particular just the reading and the math that was going to be on those tests. I felt like that was leading to school turning into a really joyless place.”

There will also be no letter grades. Periodic reports will document each student’s academic progress, social and emotional development, and other interests and activities. These reports will be accompanied by parent conferences. The school will also be run democratically—there is no principal. Rather, students will vote on school rules, policies, punishments, and other operating decisions through student-led, all-school meetings. Teachers will moderate these meetings, but will refrain from active intervention.

“I am looking for an education for my children which engages their fullness, to give them a sense of who they are and their capabilities, so that they can lead a life that is meaningful to them and to all of us,” said Laura Shaeffer, a future parent at the school.

In her promotional talk, Beitler argued that the Free School model has given students room to pursue individual interests that might be stifled—or deferred—in a less fluid educational setting. She recounted that when she was a teacher at the Free School in Albany, New York, she taught some eighth graders basic computer programming. A pair of second graders noticed this, and requested that the eighth graders teach them what they had learned. Instead of dismissing this desire because the work was above their grade level, Beitler helped the eighth graders teach the younger children how to program. In traditional schools, large classes and strict time and curriculum constraints make this type of spontaneous academic exploration difficult.

“People say, oh, you’re a math teacher, how do you get kids to want to learn math?” Beitler said. “And I say that’s absurd. All kids want to learn math. If you teach it to them the right way, it’s fun for them. They like learning things, they like figuring things out, they like discovering, they like coming up with the answer. You just have to sell it a little bit as a teacher, make it fun.”

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