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Pre-College Curriculum in Public Schools Said To Equal That in Private Schools

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An Ohio State University researcher, contradicting the findings of the controversial "Coleman Report" of 1981, has found evidence that the college-preparatory programs of public secondary schools are as good as those of private schools.

But the research by William R. Morgan of Ohio State's Center for Human Resources Development indicates that private-school students are twice as likely as their public-school counterparts to enroll in courses labeled "college preparatory." Thus, encouraging more public-school students to take college-preparatory curricula might be a more productive national policy than providing subsidies to private schools, Mr. Morgan suggests.

Mr. Morgan's report on his research, "Schooling Effects on Youth From Public, Catholic, and Other Private High Schools," was prepared under the university's contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to examine broad issues of youth and the labor market. It was presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association and is scheduled for publication this month in the association's Journal of the Sociology of Education.

Although Mr. Morgan found many areas of agreement between his research and Public and Private Schools, the 1981 study by James S. Coleman, Thomas Hoffer, and Sally Kilgore, the two studies differed in two significant ways: the size and nature of the sample sizes and the data-gathering techniques.

Home Interviews

Mr. Morgan's sample, drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey, included 12,700 young people, aged 14 to 17, representing 3,500 schools. Information was gathered in home interviews and from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a timed multiple-choice test that includes sections on general academic subjects such as reading comprehension, general science, arithmetic reasoning, and word knowledge, as well as more specialized areas such as mechanical comprehension and electronics information.

The Coleman team used a much larger sample--about 58,000 sophomores and seniors in high school--but they came from only about 1,000 schools. One of the most common criticisms of the research is that it included too few non-Catholic private schools to provide a reliable sample. Mr. Coleman and his colleagues used questionnaires and short tests of vocabulary, reading, and mathematics to gather information; Mr. Morgan contends that the interviews are more accurate because they permit clarification of ambiguous responses.

As did the Coleman team, Mr. Morgan controlled for income, parents' educational attainment, and other student-background variables to make comparisons of the public and nonpublic sectors possible.

With the exception of Hispanic students, who performed significantly better in Catholic schools, the Ohio State data suggest that "enrollment in private schools has no significant net effect on cognitive achievement. What does matter is taking college-preparatory courses, and one does not need private schools to do this. ... Coursework differences between curriculum tracks are the most important variable."

Stay in School

Black, white, and Hispanic students in college-preparatory courses performed better on cognitive tests and expected to stay in school longer than their counterparts in general and vocational tracks, the study found. Students enrolled in the general and vocational programs in public schools spent less than half their class time taking academic courses, the study found, and they spent "at least 17 percent less of their total high-school hours in academic courses than their college-preparatory counterparts." Among Mr. Morgan's other findings:

College-preparatory students in public schools learned about the same amount as similar students in Catholic schools, based on results from the test battery. Public-school students outscored students of similar backgrounds from non-Catholic private schools.

Among college-preparatory students, private-school students took slightly more academic coursework than their counterparts in public schools. Catholic-school students took one credit-hour more, and students in other private schools took a half-credit more, than public-school students. The greatest differences were in social studies and foreign languages.

Private schools devoted a larger share of instructional time to college preparation, the result, Mr. Morgan writes, of "internal resource-allocation decisions."

Private-school students "do have a strong socioeconomic advantage, as measured by father's and mother's education, father's occupation, and family income." Students in non-Catholic private schools were slightly better off, economically, than were Catholic-school students.

Public schools had an advantage in overall resources, with larger library collections, higher teachers' salaries, and more vocational programs. Public and private schools were about even in teachers' academic preparation and in daily student attendance, but public schools had higher dropout rates.

Private-school students were graded more rigorously, with students in Catholic schools receiving the lowest grades overall.

Hispanic students performed best in Catholic schools, with the largest differences on the verbal sections of the test. Mr. Morgan speculates that Catholic schools may do a better job of meeting these students' language needs and of maintaining crucial ties with the home.

When students were asked to rate their schools on several factors, private schools came out better on "quality of school life." Private-school students liked their schools better and rated the quality of instruction and strictness of discipline more highly. Public schools fared better on freedom to pick courses and on job counseling.

Improve Achievement

In an interview, Mr. Morgan said new analyses of the data strongly indicate that so-called "college-preparatory" courses of study help improve the achievement of students who have no intention of going to college--suggesting that academically rigorous courses should be available to far more students. "Maybe they shouldn't even call it college prep," he said.

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