Stalking the Public-Private School Dualism

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Much of the debate about public and private schools suggests two monolithic armies poised to engage in bitter and decisive conflict on the field of battle. The two central images are of inevitable competition between the sectors, on the one hand, and of fundamental differences between them, on the other.

Sweeping generalizations are commonly made about how a particular policy will help or hurt one sector or the other, and how if one is helped the other will certainly be hurt. Similar generalizations are made about the characteristics and results of public and private schools considered as distinct types. When the stakes are perceived as wholly competitive--a zero-sum game in which there are only winners and losers--the resulting polemics not only provoke hostility but distort the truth.

Thus the anti-public school phrase "government monopoly" wholly ignores the ac-tual market dynamics of choice and movement that have prevailed for many decades within much of the public-school world. And the pro-public school claim that these institutions generally promote civic virtue and bind the nation together flies in the face of ordinary contemporary evidence, such as the extent of American voter participation compared with other Western societies.

Educational concerns, such as increasing the quality of learning environments for young Americans, frequently get lost in the battle of abstractions. Often those who seem happiest about the public versus private debate are libertarian extremists who rail about "government" or "state" schools (will these words replace the older "public schools" in the public's mind?) and social controllers whose main interest in the public schools is to advance causes only indirectly related to conditions of learning. The country does not need and cannot afford this kind of non-educational debate. Certainly public and private schools do not need it.

It might be helpful to devote less attention to whether tuition tax credits or vouchers are good or bad, and more attention to exploring how a range of public and private initiatives could lead to more complicated and more constructive educational interactions both within and across the two sectors. Instead of fixing only on enrollment transfers from one sector to another, for example, we might look more carefully at enrollment interaction within the public schools, where most of the children are and where most are likely to remain.

With or without tuition tax credits or vouchers, one could imagine good public school systems faced with declining enrollments--systems proud of their quality and determined not to lose it--deciding to mount vigorous recruiting efforts to attract out-of-district students who might prefer the educational opportunities made available. The new pool would include, of course, both public and private school students, and tuition would be charged. Here is an existing model of "choice" that could be expanded upon without further polarizing public and private schools.

It would also be salutary to encourage the receiving public school districts to make financial aid available to attract the kind of student diversity that communities believe they need. Reaching out beyond traditional constituencies to attract interesting but impecunious students has long been the policy of some private schools and a few public schools. Perhaps the economic realities of our time, as well as the growing popularity of "choice" as an educational ideology, can stimulate enrollment transfers in more contexts than the "public versus private" one.

I can also envision additional complicated collaborative relationships between public and private schools and their students, in which the "choice" to be made would not be the extreme one of exclusive enrollment in one school or another but of a creative, simultaneous mix. Some mixed enrollment schemes are entirely traditional, such as after-school music lessons. Others are of far more recent origin. Private school children may enroll in after-school child-care programs, with educational components, designed by public schools for the children of working parents.

Such collaborative efforts are a useful counterpoint to competition between the sectors. They suggest that the specialized educational services that consumer-oriented parents wish can sometimes be provided as supplementary services without the disruption of a total switch from one school to another. It may be possible, for example, for private schools to provide specialized science skills to students from resource-poor public schools without "creaming off" those children from the schools or local communities where their peer influence is significantly related to the quality of education of other children.

If the image of inevitable competition between public and private schools blocks creative thought about other kinds of interactions in their enrollments, the image of sharp differences between sectors--and monolithic sameness within them--blocks constructive use of the experience of all kinds of schools to understand how good schools function internally. The descriptive and empirical research on private schools, and on public and private schools compared, has tended to emphasize differences between public and private in aims, outcomes, and internal processes.

Very little attention has been given to the remarkable variations within the public and private groups or to the striking similarities between certain kinds of public and private schools or certain educational processes that occur in both. The importance of such internal distinctions and cross-sector commonalities can serve to disabuse people of the notion that the qualities that make schools good or bad are directly and inevitably connected to their publicness or privateness.

James Coleman's most recent clarifications about his public-private research make clear, for example, that schools with the same levels of academic demands and disciplinary standards will show achievement at similar levels, provided they contain students from comparable backgrounds.

Their publicness or privateness is not the cause, although Coleman finds that private schools in general are more easily able to enforce both academic demands and disciplinary standards.

It is tempting to say that private schools are more able to enforce standards and discipline because they have least felt the crisis of authority among all the institutions that deal with the young. Their lesson to public schools--it often seems their single lesson--is that somehow the public schools must restore their authority over the young.

The national educational mood seems quite ready to accept a diagnosis and cure based on the restoration of adult authority in schools. Despite all the talk of a possible transfer of students from the public to private schools, it is possible that the most significant transfer will be a set of cautious ideas concerning enforcement and authority from the private to the public schools.

Such an outcome would be depressing indeed. There may be fuller, more complex, and more generous ways that the diverse experience of American private schools can inform public discussion about favorable conditions for learning and effective schools. One effort in that direction is A Study of High Schools, a just-begun inquiry into the problems and prospects of American high schools, both public and private.

A Study of High Schools, of which I am executive director, is a collaborative effort of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Commission on Educational Issues of the National Association of Independent Schools. This joint sponsorship suggests one of the study's unique aspects: its interest in a variety of high-school environments rather than only public-school environments.

When the famous Committee of Ten on secondary school studies reported in 1893, there was much talk of "college domination." Few were concerned, however, that one of the three schoolmen on the committee was from a private school or that half of the school members of its subject-area conferences were drawn from the private sector--though not, needless to say, from beyond the secular-Protestant private sector. This private-school representation faded to nothingness in 20th-century national studies of secondary education. James B. Conant ignored them entirely and made clear on many occasions his strong reservations about their contribution and even their existence.

Excessive preoccupation, of course, is as valueless as studied neglect. Although A Study of High Schools is paying more attention to private high schools than any comparable effort in this century, it is employing their experience sparingly and only in the discussions of themes that cut across sectors. Let us examine three such themes.

The first theme concerns the quality of educational services received by "average" children. Average children have rarely been salable commodities to educational reformers. In many schools, they and their families are a true silent majority, yet they are an increasingly significant population for all schools to take more seriously. Average children of all social classes, not merely the average children of the wealthy, now partake of postsecondary education in large numbers and assume responsibility in all walks of life. Their social mobility has been clear; their educational growth is less impressive.

Early in the century, before "higher" education expanded and was renamed "postsecondary" education, colleges tended to exert a more even influence over the spectrum of high-school students' abilities. In the days before selective admission, everyone had to jump through the same hoops to get into college, though some performed more competently than others.

Today, the influence that the colleges exert is uneven. A great deal of pressure is placed on the tiny number of talented or ambitious students who compete for the few high-prestige colleges, whose reputations mass communications have solidified. Hardly any pressure is exerted by most other colleges on the majority of students who will go on to them. In a buyer's market, their admission is semiautomatic.

Assigning blame for the modest expectations held for most American adolescents is therefore complex, but a number of observational studies suggest that students in fact are being short-changed. In large schools, where competition for admission to better colleges is severe and teaching prestige derives from association with the best students, smaller classes and greater personal attention are lavished on the minority who perhaps need them the least. In contrast, it is interesting to explore those schools, public and private, that attempt to make serious intellectual demands on the widest possible ability range of the students they serve.

One of the better-kept secrets of American private education is its historic commitment to serve average children. This commitment contradicts the usual images of high private-school achievement and academic elitism. Nevertheless, the traditional admission criteria of ability to pay or religious orientation may have carried with them a certain democratizing effect that the criterion of residence does not. People who pay equal tuition or seem equal in the eyes of God may tend to receive more nearly equal treatment than people who attend a school merely because of where they live.

Although this is an area where private-school practice may be extremely instructive, it is also an area where rapid change is occurring that ironically may reduce the use of the private-school experience. Student bodies that were once heterogeneous by ability but homogeneous by social class have been turned around in a meritocratic reversal that neatly meshes institutional self-interest with contemporary American mores. It is increasingly difficult for a private school, especially an independent school, to define excellence in terms other than test scores and college placements.

A second theme is the significance of personal relationships and commitments for effective learning. Parents and students want education "individualized." In actual practice, this characteristic American edu-cational idea can mean useful or absurd things. It is a marvelous example of a topic to which public and private schools can contribute different but complementary experience.

Parents care about individualization in the sense that teachers should know their children personally and care about their lives and educational progress. The existence of formal programs to individualize are frequently perceived to be of less significance than the quality of the relationships between the adults and children who participate in them.

This raises questions about the characteristics and commitments of effective teachers. American educators, having embraced an uncritical faith in science and engineering early in the century, have expected high-school teachers at their best to be like doctors. They should possess arcane technical skills and dispense treatments to somewhat passive clients.

In contrast, what would be the implications for developing effective support systems for teachers if teaching was considered less a science or profession and more a calling or craft? What if one emphasized qualities in teachers such as engagement, commitment, compassion, passion for a subject, genuine affection for youth, and the capacity to make wise educational judgments amidst uncertainty or conflicting expert opinion?

The values embraced in that conception of teaching are characteristically private-school values, and they bear fuller examination. But they carry the danger of romanticism and impracticality. Often a humane or even "spiritual" adult commitment to young people requires conditions that today are hard to mass produce: an explicitly religious orientation of some kind by the teacher, small classes, a close congruence in the backgrounds and values of teacher and student, an educational community that deliberately and proudly maintains a distance between itself and the "real world."

A third theme concerns school climate or ethos. A pivotal element in current thinking about effective schools is that they have a shared sense of mission. An effective school climate requires consistency and order in its day-to-day operations as well as agreement on what it intends to accomplish.

What is controversial about such reasonable propositions is how they can be implemented in large, complex, comprehensive high schools. To what extent must schools rid themselves of the uncommitted or oddball students who are often disruptive to achieve a "positive" ethos? To what extent can a schoolwide ethos be achieved that embraces the variety of individual and group purposes found in many public high schools?

To this discussion the private schools can contribute their use of history and tradition to create and maintain ethos as well as their practice of lodging most decision-making at the building level rather than at the district or state level. But they have far less experience with forging a positive and consistent school climate for a large pluralistic student population, except perhaps in religious schools, where religion affects institutional climate even though many students are not themselves believers.

Here the experiences and efforts of certain public schools may be of substantial assistance to private schools, whose populations have become far more diverse in many respects than before.

It may be only a matter of time before "coalition-building" skills become as central to a private-school administrator's bag of tricks as they are to a public-school principal's.

It is now imperative to switch the focus of national debate away from competition between the sectors, or from stereotypes about the distinctive internal characteristics of each type of school, to the common task of improving the conditions of learning for youth. Although collaboration and sharing will not alone solve our educational problems, they have more to offer than the reification of private schools as an educational panacea.

Vol. 01, Issue 34, Page 18-19

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories