Education Opinion

Independent Schools and the Public Interest

By John C. Esty Jr. — March 28, 1984 8 min read

John C. Esty Jr. is President of the National Association of Independent Schools. This article is based on remarks delivered earlier this month at the nais annual conference.

Certainly, a fact of life for independent schools these days is the constant struggle against government regulation and over-regulation. One cause for this regulation is undoubtedly the charge leveled at independent schools--by those who misunderstand them, are not knowledgeable about them, or are just plain hostile to them--that they do not operate in the public interest. The confusion in such people’s thinking is that they believe the public interest is served only by a public function--that is, by a public agency supported entirely by public funds.

But serving the public good is one of the central purposes of the independent school. It is useful, therefore, as part of the struggle against over-regulation, to sketch out four major areas in which independent schools do serve the public interest:

The Economics of American private education. Private schools in this country educate 11 percent--or 5 million--of America’s 45 million elementary and secondary students. The total bill for educating these 45 million is something like $130 billion. Of that total, private education accounts for $13 billion. This amount comes almost entirely from private funds and sources. Annually, therefore, private education saves the taxpayers $13 billion--a significant amount, especially when compared with the amount President Reagan hoped to save individual taxpayers as a way of stimulating the economy.

It is official U.S. government policy to use tax policy to stimulate private giving to the private sector that is in the public interest. The 1939 bill establishing the charitable deduction stated that it is ''based upon the theory that the government is compensated for the loss of revenue by its relief from financial burden which would otherwise have to be met by appropriations from public funds, and by the benefits resulting from the promotion of the general welfare.” If it could be demonstrated that all of private elementary and secondary education faced extinction for economic reasons, it would surely be good public policy to enact a tuition tax-credit bill costing $1 billion, if it would save a system that saved the taxpayers $13 billion.

(In deciding it could not support President Reagan’s tuition tax-credit bill, however, the board of directors of the National Association of Independent Schools, realizing that independent schools have greater access to private funds than other parts of private education, felt it inappropriate for independent schools to benefit at the expense of a revenue loss in support of public education.)

Research on private school enhances our general knowledge of learning and schools. It is a rather curious phenomenon of the past six years that educational research in this country has begun to include private schools. Prior to that time, almost the only well-known research involving private education was conducted by Donald A. Erickson, whose early research on private schools in the Chicago area prefigured much of James S. Coleman’s work in his 10-year comparison of public and private schools, High School and Beyond.

Mr. Coleman for the first time included significant numbers of private schools and students for comparison with his main base of public-school graduates. Even accepting the severest criticism of his methodology, one can still acknowledge that the inclusion of private-schools is valuable to underscore the importance of teachers with high standards and high expectations, and of such things as homework and clearly articulated goals for student learning.

The perspective gained by including private schools in research is also well illustrated in Theodore R. Sizer’s A Study of High Schools, which, in considerable depth, draws on sociological studies of 15 high schools, including two independent schools and two Roman Catholic schools. The contrasting ways that public and private schools deal with individual differences in student learning and development provide one example of the perspective gained by including private schools and students in research. Limited in the availability of guidance counselors and “teacher time,” according to Mr. Sizer, the public schools invariably developed wide-ranging and highly diverse curriculum options and let students design their full four-year programs more by their own choice than by a coherent and articulated pattern. Private schools, on the other hand, adjusted to individual student differences by using much more cohesive guidance and especially by using highly individual teaching in the classroom and after-class tutoring--all within the framework of a much narrower and more limited range of course choices.

It was quite apparent from this study that mastery of subjects, coherence of the full four-year program, and an appropriate level of intellectual challenge are all much too important to be left to student choice and initiative. These truths are re-emerging as a way to improve public schooling.

American private schools in providing educational opportunity to many of those who need it most comes as a surprise--particularly to those who would heavily regulate private schools, or who are otherwise hostile to them. In the 10 largest cities of this country, between one-third and one-half of the school children are in private schools (these are almost entirely Roman Catholic). Seventeen percent of the total Roman Catholic school population of 3.6 million is either black or Hispanic.

The diversity of independent schools also serves many different needs. Boggs Academy in Georgia is a predominantly black boarding school. Calvert School in Maryland conducts highly regarded correspondence courses for those who must remain at home or must travel. Menaul School in New Mexico has a predominantly Hispanic population.

And in its 20 years of existence, A Better Chance, a nonprofit organization that helps place talented and economically disadvantaged minority children in independent schools, has recruited some 7,400 students. With the decline of government support for A Better Chance in 1979, and losses in other funding sources, the financial aid once provided by the program will have to be picked up by the schools themselves. Here again, independent schools function in the public interest.

On several occasions, I have said that the three greatest contributions of independent schools to education in the 20th century have been A Better Chance, the study of progressive education done in the 1930’s, and the Advanced Placement Program.

Of the 30 schools included in the eight-year progressive-education study, about half were independent schools. Although progressive education seems to be perpetually discredited, the study made major contributions to education by suggesting that rigid college academic requirements might actually impede intellectual development, and by confirming the progressive idea that students’ motivation from within was more important to learning, in the long run, than external requirements and demands.

In the early 1950’s, the Advanced Placement Program led the way to a long-lasting stimulation of better high-school teaching and curriculum development through the cooperation of high-school and college teachers. At least half of the original secondary schools in the program were independent schools, and its origins were in the collaboration of Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in a program of advanced admission to college.

Although Mr. Sizer’s study of high schools is jointly sponsored by NAIS and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the groundwork for the study was done four years earlier during deliberations of the NAIS Commission on Educational Issues, whose director, Arthur G. Powell, also became executive director of Mr. Sizer’s study. Ironically--for its origins are in what many people think of as the conservative sector of education--the first product of the study is Mr. Sizer’s book, Horace’s Compromise. Time, Newsweek, and the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour have called this book the most radical of all the current calls for reform of the American high school. Mr. Sizer’s approach reminds us beautifully that the critical elements are students, teachers, and subjects. His call for teachers to become “coaches"--just as football coaches work with each player to achieve mastery of the subject--would work a revolution.

Teacher education. Finally, there is a new development in teacher education that, once again, may involve independent schools in what could be a major educational reform. The one thing all current reform reports share is emphasis on the critical importance of good teaching and an unease with the way teachers are now prepared. There is increasing attention on the model of internships in professional education, implying the need for a liberal-arts undergraduate education, graduate professional training, and an internship in a “clinical” setting. That is, just as a physician learns how to practice medicine under supervision in a hospital, so a teacher would learn how to teach under supervision in a school. This is a rough description of how independent school teachers are developed--often more by inadvertance than by a consciously designed program. A recent survey of a small sample of independent-school internship programs reveals that often the interns are underpaid and overworked, are not well-supervised, are not given a very complete understanding of how teachers learn to be good teachers, and are not well-evaluated.

It seems clear that if independent schools could work on these issues, they would be natural crucibles for developing a whole new approach to attracting and training a new generation of first-rate professional teachers. That, too, would be very much in the public interest.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as Independent Schools and the Public Interest