Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | March 22, 2013

A Real Conversation About Chicago’s School Closures

Yesterday, the Chicago Public Schools announced the closure of around fifty schools. I am not an expert on how to run a school district. I am certain there are difficult financial decisions to be made. So I won’t oversimplify the conversation. I won’t suggest that the decisions that were made about these schools was easy, nor will I say that any decision to close a neighborhood school is wrong.

But there are some points that need to be made about these decisions.

First, the “declining enrollment” problem that the school board has consistently used to justify the closures must be seen in context. While there are genuine demographic shifts in the city of Chicago, CPS has also systematically undermined neighborhood schools, ignoring them while investing in selective-enrollment schools. Even more insidiously, they’ve allowed for the privatization of public schools through charter schools. Just as parents would have favored a mediocre Catholic school twenty years ago, many have justifiably chosen a mediocre charter over a terrible public school today.

Leaving alone for a moment the issue of unions, my problem with charter schools is that they are simply, by and large, not very good. Even by the standards favored by so-called “reformers” like Michelle Rhee who champion them, charters don’t generally improve outcomes. At this very moment, charter schools are getting ready to fill the void left by these closed schools.

Why are most charters not particularly good? It’s because they, like their advocates, lack a sound educational philosophy. Even if one buys into the idea that closing a bad school is a good idea, the real question is “what school will our kids attend now?” The answer, it seems, is usually one that is not much better: another bad neighborhood school; a charter school that is only concerned with test scores; or, if you are lucky, you literally win a “lottery” and the right drive your child for hours each day to a supposedly good school. In no other area I can think of is the metaphor of rearranging deckchairs on the titanic so apt.

But even the “good” schools are doing things that most educators know are wrong:

  • Hours of homework for children as young as kindergarten, even though we know this has no benefit.
  • Little time for creativity in favor of “basic skills”, even though we know that creative and critical minds are the most successful in the long run.
  • Little exercise or outside time, even though we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic and evidence shows that physical activity is good for academic success.
  • Little free play, even though we know that free play is the central element to child development.

So we’ve closed a bunch of schools that were, admittedly, poor. But are those kids really going to better schools now? And what makes a better school?

Still waiting for an answer on that question, and I suspect we will continue to wait, long after those schools are turned to rubble or re-opened as corporatized charters.

*To join a real conversation about education, attend The Chicago Wisdom Project’s event Saturday, March 23.

*For more on the ideas that constitute an authentic re-imagining of education, read Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto.


  1. Thoughtful essay. Certainly you are right that there’s no easy solution, and that even “good” schools operate in a manner that ends up stifling creativity, not enhancing it. Somewhere along the line, the words “liberal arts” became a negative catch phrase denoting time “wasted” on “non-essentials.” What a pity, and what a wrongheaded and outright harmful psychology…if we’re talking about Real Education, which is what you’re talking about.

  2. For real? Kindergartners with homework and no opportunity for exercise and outside time? How miserable! ‘And how many kids have traditionally said “Recess” is their favorite subject at school? Give those babies a break!

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