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Private Schools and Reform: E.D. Conferees Urge a Collaboration

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Washington--By sharpening the competition from public schools, education reform has made private schools recognize that "business as usual" may not be enough to meet the increasing demands of parents, students, and teachers, participants at a first-of-its-kind meeting of educators from both sectors said here last week.

Citing ways that the reform movement has already forced changes in private education, participants at the Education Department-sponsored event called for great6er public-private collaboration to improve all schools.

The conference, billed as the first attempt to bring together representatives from private and public education to discuss reform, was co-sponsored by the Council for American Private Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, addressing the approximately 100 educational leaders who participated, said private schools had been "passed over" in the national reform debate and urged "increased understanding" between the sectors. He praised private education for its accountability to parents and efforts to foster "character development"--two items he said public schools should emulate.

But other speakers noted that "reformed" public schools are already beginning to closely resemble private education--a fact they said could have financial implications.

"If public education continues on its present course and private education rests on its laurels," warned Chester E. Finn Jr., the former assistant secretary of education, "leaders of the private sector may one day wake up to find their lead has eroded to practically nothing."

Mr. Finn, now professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and director of the Educational Excellence Network, cited national test data to show that private schools as a whole now have only a very slight edge in student achievement--an edge that in some cases, he said, may be solely attributable to the influence of students' backgrounds.

'More Attentive' to Reform

Areas in which "reformed" public schools are successfully emulating the best of private education, participants said, include school specialization and parental choice, building-level autonomy and accountability, an emphasis on academic "core" courses, parent involvement, alternative routes to teacher certification, and attention to "character education."

But for some, the accolades for those efforts were mixed with a recognition of the increased need to tighten competitive standards.

"It's not just business as usual for private schools," said the Rev. Douglas Nowicki, secretary of education for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. "Reform has had an impact on our enrollment and has caused us to look at our programs. We must be a lot more attentive to the fact that we need to be constantly improving."

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Mr. Finn said, "but here flattery is not the aim."

Reform, he said, "will tend to blur most of the distinction between public and private education, and if it is successful, and if it makes for better schools, it will probably also dilute the advantage that private-school attendance now confers on its students."

Yet, for a number of reasons, private schools have often avoided direct involvement in reform efforts, according to Mark E. Weston, education program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Not surprisingly," he said, "attempts to improve teaching and student competency are leaving private schools out in the cold."

State curriculum mandates have caused some private schools to add courses, he said, but without receiving the increased state funding that often goes with such changes for public schools.

The increased salaries in public sector have been the most immediate impact of reform, he added, with the traditional gap between public- and private-school salaries growing.

Programs to forgive student loans if candidates enter the teaching profession generally do not include private-school teachers, Mr. Weston noted, and career-ladder systems in public schools sometimes do not count private-school teaching experience.

In addition, more states and local public schools have set up early-childhood programs, increasing the competitive pressure on private schools that have long offered them. "This is a boon for consumers, but it may be a bust for private schools," Mr. Weston said.

He and others suggested that only through collaboration with public schools could private schools speed their own reform efforts while protecting their interests.

"Unless you are involved, the terms will be dictated to you by someone else," said Bruno Manno of the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement. "Speak now or forever hold your peace."

Mr. Manno, formerly a researcher with the National Catholic Educational Association, said private-school educators have an "obligation" to share their experience with public-school colleagues in such areas as school organization and alternative certification. Such collaboration could be mutually beneficial to private schools, he said.

Some Critical of Reform

But others were more critical of reform efforts, especially those that may affect the ability of private schools to offer religion courses or other programs considered central to their "mission."

Rabbi Josef Fisher, director the National Association of Hebrew Day Schools, said that New York State's adoption of the State Board of Regents diploma system in all schools "was very tough to implement for some of our schools."

"I'm all for high educational standards," he said, "but at what point did some of our goals have to be sacrificed for the state education department's goals?"

Billie Wimmer, a representative from the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools, said her group is concerned about a bill now in the Michigan legislature that would8mandate a 10-part curriculum for public schools, including courses in vocational education, career education, and visual and performing arts.

Although the bill does not mention private schools, she said, a state law requires private schools to offer curricula "comparable" to public schools'.

Father Nowicki maintained that education reform in Pittsburgh has consisted mainly of better lobbying on the part of public schools.

"The banner of reform has enabled districts to elicit greater support for increased salaries, school-system marketing, and partnerships between business and public schools," he said.

He said that when the Catholic schools in Pittsburgh participated in a collaborative program designed to enhance science education by bringing the best science teachers from both systems together, "we lost half of our best science teachers because the public schools used this as a recruiting drive."

Not a 'Zero-Sum' Game

Public-school advocates countered that the increased attention and spending that reform is generating for public schools has been sorely needed by all of education.

"Do not think of reform as a zero-sum course, in that what is given to one sector is taken away from another," said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "The important thing is how much of the country's resources are devoted to children."

Despite salary increases since 1982, he noted, teachers' real purchasing power has only now reached the same level it was in 1972.

"We all have the same goal," said Secretary Cavazos, "and we all must recognize that this nation cannot progress until every person is educated."

"American owes so much to private schools," he said, noting that 5.7 million--or 27 percent--of all U.S. students attended private schools last year.

The Secretary cited Archbishop Carroll High School, a mostly black private school here that he and President Reagan visited last month, as exemplary. It has a 2-percent dropout rate and about 98 percent of its students go to college, proving, he said, that "rigorous academic standards can be set and maintained, and not just for the advantaged."

But Mr. Finn, using data from the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress, argued that although private schools "enjoy an edge of superiority" in student achievement, the edge "is not very wide."

Losing Their Edge?

The former assistant secretary's speech was similar to one he gave last February at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools, where he examined data from the naep reading and history and literature assessments. (See Education Week, March 9, 1988.)

Here, Mr. Finn said that results from the 1986 naep mathematics and science assessment, released last spring, showed that private-school 3rd graders scored 5 points higher than their public-school counterparts on the math part of the test and 4 points higher in science, on a 500-point scale.

To demonstrate how small a gap this represented, he said that white students in the 3rd grade had scored about 32 points higher than blacks on the math test.

Private-school 7th graders scored 14 points higher in math and 17 points higher in science, he noted, and those in 11th grade scored 13 points higher in math and 15 points higher in science.

Mr. Finn also noted that, according to a 1987 study of high-school graduates' transcripts conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, more public-school students are taking the "core" academic courses.

In 1987, 20 percent of public high-school graduates had taken the core courses recommended by A Nation At Risk, he said, compared with 37 percent of private-school graduates.

"What happened to the other 63 percent of private-school graduates who did not take core courses?" he asked.

"As public schools improve, what, then, will private schools do to distinguish themselves--besides charging tuition and in many cases having a religious affiliation?" he said.

In response to a questioner, who asked what private schools should do, Mr. Finn said that from his own experience of having children in private schools, "it is my impression that private-school kids today aren't learning enough, aren't being required to learn enough, and are not being taught enough."

"I think that the name of the game is cognitive learning," he said, "and I think private schools can be stronger by doing a more rigorous job of it."

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