Commentary

Reconciling Public Values, Private Practices

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Not long ago, at a national conference of the association of independent schools of which I am chief executive, a well-known education writer came up to me and said, "Well, my son now goes to one of your schools, but I don't believe in them." That struck me as a curiously inconsistent comment. Then I remembered that many people have difficulty with the fact that even though I am a spokesman for private education, my four children have attended public schools almost exclusively. At times I get the feeling that my friends wonder how I live with this apparent paradox, how I reconcile what seems to be a kind of moral inconsistency.

This kind of split between the public life and the private self isn't new; Tocqueville noted it 150 years ago and suggested that failure to reconcile it could mean the end of the new republic. And periodically we discover that even if the republic has survived so far, we still haven't reconciled the split.

A recent example is the outcry over Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's call for vouchers that would enable the parents of Chapter 1 children to choose any school that fits their needs--public or private. The possibility that a relatively untried concept might help poor children gain a better education is overwhelmed by the specter of adopting something that appears to come from the private sector. Of course, the reflexive reaction is partly due to the fact that Secretary Bennett himself seems not to miss a chance to criticize public education and praise private education. Not surprisingly, a coalition of some of the nation's leading education groups recently urged him to be more positive about his chief domain--public education.

But one wonders if the wrong battle is being fought. Are new possibilities for helping children being lost in old controversies? Why should there be such hostility between public values and private practices? Why the almost violent reaction to anything suggesting the boundaries might become less rigid? Why the confrontations that seem to have increased lately?

The last question is the easiest to answer. The Reagan Administration is clearly dominated by the ideology that private is better than public, no matter what the arena. Furthermore, educational research has begun to include private schools in what had been exclusively public-school studies; the inevitable comparisons that have emerged have led to unanticipated competition.

It may also be significant that the leaders whose careers are most on the line in the quest for school reform--the nation's governors--are the ones most interested in results rather than ideology and least concerned by the opprobrium carried by private practices. In Minnesota, for example, the governor has pushed hard for vouchers, which are being tried entirely within the public sector. Last month, a task force of the National Governors Association examined ways of increasing parental choice in public schools, including vouchers and other practices commonly identified with the private sector.

Is it a terrible thing to suggest that what has been a private practice might become a public practice in support of a public value? My concern is that ideas seem to get rejected because they are private, not because they are bad. I happen to believe that vouchers won't work very well, because too many parents are not well enough informed (and many don't want to be) to make good choices. But there are instances--in Vermont, for example--where vouchers for public-school students have worked well for years. There are other variants of parental choice that appear promising, especially for special-needs children.

In The Shopping Mall High School, Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen suggest there are areas in which public values (such as attending to individual needs) might be better served by certain practices more likely to be found in private schools like those they studied. According to the authors, the critical practices--which they found to be especially effective for the "unspecial" students who constitute the majority in most schools--are purpose, push, and personalization.

Purpose mobilizes the shared goals of teachers and parents, minimizes negative peer pressure, and makes explicit what is expected of students. Push means more than hounding students to get their work done (though even that would be an improvement in many schools); it means that teachers make sure their students take a coherent and challenging sequence of courses, in which the students' engagement and participation are expected.

And personalization is not just personal attention; it means that teachers are also counselors--for all students, not just the "special." It means especially that teaching loads are light enough to allow time for student conferences and tutorials. Powell, Farrar, and Cohen point out that the average independent-school teacher has 16 classes a week, while the average for public-high-school teachers is about 25. They suggest that it would be better for public schools to cut out one class in each subject and have teachers use the time for conferring with and tutoring students.

In these and many other instances, it is entirely feasible, perhaps crucial, for sound practices usually thought possible only in high-cost private schools (or high-cost suburban public schools, for that matter) to be enlisted in behalf of the espoused values of the public schools. Obviously, some practices are workable only in a private school because of the special characteristics of selective admission and parental choice. But too often, potentially promising ideas from the private sector are rejected out of hand, at least partly, because of the perceived split between public values and private practices.

Properly viewed, however, public education and private education exist in a symbiotic relationship, in which each can enhance the other. Certainly the public commitment to justice for women and minorities over the past 30 years has strongly influenced private practices--and led to much better private schools. Yet the conventional wisdom seems to be that in public education the values are right even though the practices may be weak, and in private eduation, the practices are right but the values are weak. A much more promising wisdom is to be found in Habits of the Heart, by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. In this book--whose subtitle is "Individualism and Commitment in American Life"--the authors address the tension between public values and private practices, arguing:

"Perhaps the notion that private life and public life are at odds is incorrect. Perhaps they are so deeply involved with each other that the impoverishment of one entails the impoverishment of the other. ... '[I]n a healthy society the private and the public are not mutually exclusive, not in competition with each other. They are, instead, two halves of a whole, two poles of a paradox. They work together dialectically, helping to create and nurture each other."'

Wise leaders understand that what is important are values and practices, not ideology or form of governance, and that neither the public sector nor the private sector has exclusive claims to sound educational values or sound educational practices. They know we must borrow the best from each for the benefit of all children.

Vol. 05, Issue 17, Page 28

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