How Should Public and Private Schools Coexist and Function Within Our Society? Term Paper

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¶ … Public and Private Schools Co-Exist and Function within American Society?

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How Should Public and Private Schools Co-Exist and Function within American Society?

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The fundamental purposes of the public schools in the United States have not changed in substantive ways in recent years, but their effectiveness has become the focus of an increasing number of studies that seek to determine why the enormous resources being devoted to their support have not paid better dividends in terms of academic performance. A number of researchers have pointed to private schools as examples of what can be accomplished with fewer resources that most public schools enjoy today. According to Petersen and Llaudet (2006), "The most influential study of student achievement ever conducted was based upon data collected at only a single point in time. Half a century ago, a team of researchers led by James S. Coleman (1966) reported the results of a congressionally mandated, nationwide study of public school performance. In addition to reporting variation in school resources (per pupil expenditures, class size, teacher credentials, the quality of school facilities, and so forth), they identified the factors affecting student achievement. To everyone's surprise, the analysts discovered that school resources had little effect on student performance, which they found to be shaped mainly by the young person's family background.

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Although the Coleman study was fundamentally flawed, it represented a useful benchmark for future studies. In this regard, Petersen and Llaudet note that the Coleman study used data from only a single battery of tests, and it was unable to measure the growth in student performance from one year to the next, even though that is what schools are expected to accomplish. "All Coleman and his colleagues could do was to regress levels of test performance on school resources and family background characteristics," Petersen and Llaudet advise, "With observational data of this kind, it was difficult to tease out the unique impact of the child's schooling for the reasons given above" (p. 3).

Despite these constraints, the Coleman study was nonetheless well received among academicians and educational policymakers alike. According to Petersen and Llaudet, "The University of Chicago professor was soon asked by the Department of Education to lead another large-scale research project that mounted the 'High School and Beyond' (HSB) survey, which gathered information on student performance and other student and school characteristics, this time in both public and private schools" (p. 4). In this study, when student achievement was regressed on school resources, family background, and school sector (Catholic vs. public) variables, higher levels of student performance were detected at Catholic schools (Petersen & Llaudet).

In subsequent studies, Coleman and his colleagues (1981, 1982) determined that students in private schools learn more than their public school cohorts, ceteris paribus. Their results were also based on an analysis of the "High School and Beyond" survey of high school students conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Using standard ordinary least squares (OLS) regression techniques, they estimated the effect of private school attendance and other student characteristics on cognitive achievement. Their finding that private school students out-perform public school students has been openly questioned because of their choice of a statistical technique that does not control for the self-selectivity of the private school samples. A selectivity bias exists because students are not randomly distributed between public and private schools, but rather students and their families choose which type of institution they will attend (Grimes, 1994). Using the same "High School and Beyond" survey database as Coleman and his associates (1981, 1982), Noell (1981, 1982) reported that no significant learning differences are found between Catholic and public school students once the self-selection bias is statistically taken into account. This suggests that the "better" students are choosing to attend private schools, whereas students of lesser aptitude are found in public schools (Grimes).

In reality, though, any study that seeks to measure student performance will be fraught with opportunities for misinterpretation or will be unable to capture the robust quality of data needed to make such comparisons meaningful. For example, parents that make their children's education a high priority may make significant economic and personal sacrifices in order to send their children to even a modestly priced religiously operated private school. These parents may be more likely to also devote the additional time and effort needed to help pupils and students succeed in an increasingly high-stakes environment. In this regard, Simon and Lovrich (1996) report that, "The education policy literature contains ample evidence of disagreement regarding the effects of private school competition. While privatization advocates are convinced of their belief in the benefit of competition, critics believe that such competition will have a deleterious effect on public school performance through the loss of fiscal resources and through the phenomenon of 'creaming'" (p. 667). In this regard, Rees (1999) reports that competition is in fact good for the nation's public schools: "Though still in their infancy, school choice programs have improved overall student academic achievement in public schools. Evidently, competition is good for learning. Programs that include religious schools and those limited to public institutions alone have both demonstrated that choice leads to higher quality education. When public schools are faced with the possibility of large student transfers, and a corresponding loss of funding, they have shown a willingness to make improvements both in how and what they teach" (p. 37).

Based on New York State Department of Education data, researchers compared metropolitan districts where parents, through residential decisions, can choose from a range of public schools to districts where parents have limited choices (Rees, 1999). A comparison of school districts where parents could easily afford to send their children to private schools (and where there were many public and private schools to choose from) with districts with less or no public/private school competition showed that in areas where public schools compete heavily for the same students, overall student test scores increased 3 full percentile points, students' wage gains after graduation increased by 4%, and the probability of college graduation increased by 0.4% (Rees). In areas where public and private schools compete for the same students, research showed even more pronounced academic improvements. Among students transferring from public to private school, there was a 12% increase in future wage gains and a 12% increase in the probability of college graduation; moreover, there was an 8 percentile point improvement in the test scores of the students in these areas who remained in public schools (Rees). Based on these findings, Rees concludes that public schools respond positively to competition from private schools by improving their curricular offerings.

According to the U.S. Center for Education Statistics (U.S. Department of Education 1992), about one in ten high school students attend private educational institutions (Grimes, 1994). The author of the seminal study on student performance in private and public schools in 1966 reports that today, "American education is and has been overwhelmingly public education. Throughout this century, the percentage of American children in private schools has remained at about 10% of the total school population, and most of those children have been in Catholic schools. Despite the lack of growth in the percentage of students in private schools, perceived problems with the public schools have focused increased attention on private schools" (Coleman, 1990, p. 37).

This increased attention on private schools has resulted in a growing body of evidence, much of which supports the conclusion that private schools are doing a better job of educating the nation's youth, but there is much more involved in this analysis than an across-the-board comparison of academic achievement. Indeed, public schools districts across the country are saddled with a number of federal and state mandates that may not apply to their private school counterparts, and many school districts have authorized charter schools for at-risk students where academic achievement may lag behind private schools, but where students manage to receive a high school diploma where they might not otherwise be able to do so.

Generally speaking, Catholic schools today appear to be characterized by both higher quality, on the average, and greater equality than the public schools. This appears anomalous because public schools are far more expensive which should result in higher quality and public schools are mandated to increase the equality of educational opportunities in the United States. While there may be no one answer to this anomaly, Coleman suggests that the reason is due, at least in part, to the organization of public education in the United States, and that organization in turn is grounded in several fundamental assumptions that reinforce this dichotomy in the delivery of educational services today.

In this environment, identifying what cost-effective aspects of private schools tend to contribute to improved academic performance and what respective roles should be played by public and private schools has assumed new importance and relevance, and these issues are discussed… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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