Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Prep Schools' Impact on Average Student Extolled

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Providence, R.I

In Louis Auchincloss' novel The Rector of Justin, the founder of a well-regarded private school boasts that these institutions "can sometimes turn a third-rate student into a second-rate one."

Arthur G. Powell, a senior assistant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University here, recounts the quip halfway through his new book, Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition.

But the phrase contains a kernel of truth that permeates Mr. Powell's text: Rather than take only the cream of the crop from the brightest of the nation's youths, independent schools do their best work in pushing average students.

These private schools, Mr. Powell concludes, best serve average students by immersing them in a culture of learning that counters the many anti-academic forces competing for their attention, by exploiting incentives that effectively set goals for students to work toward, and by providing enough personal attention to ensure that no student simply coasts through.

"So much of what he says I think is endemic to good schools," said Peter D. Relic, the president of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, which holds its national convention in San Francisco this week. "The things that he's saying can work in all settings."

A historian by training who attended New York City's public schools, Mr. Powell was the main author of the 1985 book The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Market Place. That book showed how the average student is often lost as high schools focus on their most gifted and most challenged students.

Powerful Incentives

Lessons from Privilege describes some of the features that independent schools use to help students in the middle.

For example, the author found that average performers on the SAT college-entrance exam were far more likely to engage in a more challenging curriculum by studying such subjects as precalculus or by taking Advanced Placement classes if they were at an independent school.

Part of the reason is that in private schools, the universal goal of college admission acts as a powerful incentive that not only forces the students to work harder but also helps shape the curriculum.

More than public schools, independent schools also exploit the ability of the AP program to push students to work toward their goal of college admission by preparing for the essay-type exams.

"In a society in which learning is not deeply valued in the culture, you need some press to get kids to exert themselves," Mr. Powell said in a recent interview. But the author also laments that in many public schools the incentive of AP tests is focused more on higher performers than on average students.

Rather than concentrate on class size in his study, Mr. Powell looked instead at teachers' total student loads. He discovered that the typical independent school teacher was responsible for about 60 students, compared with roughly twice that many in public schools.

Private school teachers have more time to give their students personal attention by holding office hours and taking more time to be reflective in their evaluations of each student's progress.

Although public schools looking to reduced teacher loads face certain economic realities, the author believes that even within these constraints, public schools could redistribute resources to favor greater personalization.

"You can't think about personalization from a finance point for very long without also thinking about simplifying the curriculum," he said.

A Sense of Place

But one of the more significant changes many schools could afford to make is one of attitude.

In his book, Mr. Powell writes that many successful independent schools strive to create a culture that competes aggressively with the many nonacademic elements vying for the attention of young people. "Most public schools do not see themselves as a countervailing force," he said.

Many independent schools take on this function, in part, simply by monopolizing students' time with more homework. "One way is to basically have a program where the way kids spend their time is shaped very largely by the school," Mr. Powell said.

Many private schools also want their students to recognize that certain morals and values lurk behind what happens there.

"The independent schools try--sometimes through creating myths about themselves--to project onto the students the idea that they are special places," he said.

"You should walk into the door and know that this is not just a collection of isolated teachers, courses, and individuals," Mr. Powell said. "The atmosphere should be so thick with certain values that you can almost touch it."

Praise From AFT

While praising Mr. Powell's research for uncovering the best of what independent schools offer, Mr. Relic of the NAIS also said he fears the book could be summarily discarded by many who could benefit from it the most.

"I really like what he's saying about high expectations, about high standards, and high support," Mr. Relic said.

"I'm disappointed by people who will look at this and say that won't apply," he added. "There will be people who won't even read it."

Nonetheless, the book's focus on such factors as a more personal approach and the power of external incentives has drawn praise from varied circles, including officials at the nation's second-largest teachers' union.

"What's extraordinary about this book is that we've been saying this forever," said Bella Rosenberg of the American Federation of Teachers.

"There are some differences," said Ms. Rosenberg, the assistant to aft President Albert Shanker. "Public schools can't choose their students.

"The public schools deal with a wide range of family commitment ranging from zero to max," she said. "But I think there are many more applications than there are nonapplications."

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