The Behavior of Public and Private Schools

The claim that non-public schools are more accountable to parents seems untrue, according to a new study by RICHARD ROTHSTEIN

Critics of public education often claim that private schools have incentives to behave differently from (and better than) public schools.

A public school's organization, critics contend, is bound to be complex and often subject to conflict. It must follow bureaucratic procedures that have been negotiated to balance a variety of competing interests. It can appear incoherent because it tries to do so many things at once. Private schools are more likely to have a single objective and have parents and children who are in accord with that objective.

These are mostly theoretical arguments. What does real-world evidence show? Do private and public schools tend to be distinctly different, or do they have more in common?

Similar Findings
Two recent investigations have concluded that private and public schools may have more in common than they have differences. One report was published by the conservative education policy center, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. The other was published by a liberal think tank, the Economic Policy Institute. Each comes to a similar conclusion.

The Fordham report, "Traditional Schools, Progressive Schools: Do Parents Have a Choice?" authored by Louis Chandler, was based on a 1999 survey of 336 public, Catholic and independent elementary schools in Ohio. Chandler asked the principal of each school to indicate which instructional practice was commonly used in his or her school. For example, a principal could indicate whether the school more commonly practiced traditional techniques like teacher-led instruction, phonics or objective testing or whether it tended to emphasize progressive ideas like student-initiated discovery learning, whole language or portfolio assessment.

Chandler found that a full range of traditional and progressive practices could be found in each of the three types of schools. Independent private schools were slightly more likely to use traditional instructional methods, Catholic schools were slightly more likely to try progressive methods, and public schools were in between. But he found "more variation in educational practices within each school category than across categories."

This finding is particularly interesting for a comparison of public and Catholic schools. Because Catholic parents tend to enroll their elementary school children in local parish schools, which instructional method they receive is more likely to result from the accidental presence of teachers or principals who happen to have one pedagogical theory or another. In this respect, Catholic schools resemble public schools, where children in a local attendance area receive instruction according to the training and philosophy of the local principal or teachers, not according to parental choice of a pedagogical orientation.

Significant Distinctions
The Economic Policy Institute report, "Can Public Schools Learn from Private Schools?," also published in 1999, was written by Richard Rothstein, Martin Carnoy and Luis Benveniste. It was based on intensive elementary school case studies, including regular public, charter, independent private and religious (Catholic, Jewish and Lutheran) schools in California.

The most important distinctions we discovered did not separate public from private institutions. Rather, inner-city private schools were more like public schools in poor communities than like suburban private schools. Similarly, suburban public schools had more in common with suburban private than with urban public schools. If our observations are valid, policy debates may miss important issues if they focus on whether educational quality can be deduced from schools' public versus private organization.

Private schools' superiority is sometimes said to stem from parents holding them accountable. Private schools must cater to parents who, if unsatisfied, will search for services elsewhere, while public schools have a captive clientele. But while some schools we observed were highly accountable to parents and others not at all so, parents' social class was a better predictor of schools' accountability than whether the schools were private.

A related issue is whether parents are involved in schooling. Parental participation is usually considered essential to high student achievement. In some schools, we found principals and teachers perceiving their greatest problem to be parental disengagement--too few volunteering in classrooms, attending meetings to discuss policy or review children's work or paying attention to nightly homework. But these complaints were frequent in low-income schools, both public and private.

In other schools, administrators and teachers complained about too much parent involvement. They interfered too frequently in curricular matters, had uninformed preconceptions about pedagogy or disciplinary practice and had little respect for faculty professional competence. This was the case in both private and public schools that served higher-income populations where parents felt they knew best what a proper education entailed.

Low-income private schools (generally, parochial schools) have an advantage in procuring parental involvement. Parents can be (and usually are) required to sign a contract that specifies they will volunteer a certain number of hours per month in the school. At low-income private schools we observed, however, school efforts to involve parents were more frequently directed to enlisting them in fund raising than in academic activities.

Parental interference, on the other hand, was most poignant in two public schools where parents felt they had a right to participate in their children’s education. One was located in an affluent neighborhood of professionals and executives who volunteered to work in classrooms, shelve books in the library, staff the computer lab, work with children in small groups for reading and math, correct spelling tests or direct extracurricular sports, art and music programs. One teacher told us she typically received a letter from the parent of every child in her class each week with questions or suggestions about her teaching. The principal's time was consumed with responding to parent suggestions and defending teachers from parental demands for curricular changes.

This affluent public elementary school had three separate parent advisory boards, with extensive participation in each. Attempting to mediate parent-teacher conflicts, the school established an ombudsman team that organized and researched parent complaints and published summaries in a weekly school bulletin. Complaints typically ranged from how much preservatives were in school lunch items, to safety of playground equipment, to whether enough homework had been assigned, to whether a teacher had progressed far enough in the social studies curriculum, to whether instruction in fractions was properly sequenced.

Major sources of controversy were widespread parental demands for a tracking system (the teachers resisted this) and demands of individual parents that their children be re-tested if they had not been placed in the school's gifted and talented enrichment program. Many teachers found parental pressure so stressful that they remained only a brief time at the school, requesting transfers to other district schools that were in less affluent neighborhoods.

Pacifying Parents
We found similar parental accountability at another school, a public magnet school that converted to charter status, where many parents were highly educated and often affluent. Here, a teacher reported that on the first day of school, 25 parents visited her classroom with specific suggestions about how the curriculum ought to be organized. This school distinguished itself by its constructivist philosophy, defined by one teacher as "an environment where children can create or construct their own learning with hands-on activities."

Despite this self-identification which all parents understood before selecting the school, the charter school's teachers reported their greatest challenge was to defend the school's pedagogy against demands for greater emphasis on basic skills--demands of middle-class parents hoping to gain their children higher scores on standardized tests that ultimately could influence college admission.

One teacher said she increased the importance of memorization of multiplication tables to "pacify the parents." Another described a year-long dispute with a parent about the teacher's tolerance of spelling errors in a 2nd-grader's creative writing. Finally, the teacher told the parent, "You can correct your child’s spelling at home, but we’re not going to do it." There were so many parent complaints about curricular matters that the teachers demanded the school's charter be revised, replacing a parent with a teacher majority on the governing council.

We encountered a similar conflict at a private Jewish school, whose principal also complained that his primary problem was fending off the "meddling" of affluent and highly educated parents in daily curricular matters. In a community where the public schools themselves are widely considered to be of high quality and send large number of graduates on to elite colleges, parental demands, like those of the affluent public school parents, focused on their children’s achievement credentials, often in conflict with teachers who held more complex academic goals.

During our case study, parents on the board of the Jewish school successfully insisted the school introduce standardized testing. Teachers were unhappy about this, concerned it would change the curricular focus of the school as students no longer would be appraised by portfolios and more qualitative measures.

In contrast, Catholic schools we studied felt obligated to require parents to volunteer. But mandatory participation did not always translate into academic support. Whether it did so primarily depended upon community socioeconomic characteristics.

One Catholic school, serving a middle- to lower-middle income inner-ring suburb, involved parents in instructional as well as fund-raising activities. The school required, without exception, all K-3 grade parents to come to the classroom at the end of the school day to meet their children. Late parents incurred a $1 per minute fine. This policy assured that teachers would not be detained at school caring for young children, but also structured a daily parent-teacher contact where teachers monitored parent participation--for example, the requirement that 1st-grade parents must read to their children each evening.

Blame Game
Volunteerism in Catholic schools that served more disadvantaged populations had quite a different character. Involvement in the academic program was a rare way of meeting mandated participation requirements--both because parents did not have the skills or confidence to support the educational program and because the school pressed them to fulfill their commitments by engaging in fund raising, not academic participation. Routine parental involvement in homework and other academic support was more an exception than the rule.

At a Catholic school in an inner-city, African-American community, parents were expected to volunteer for 30 hours per year. Few actually met this standard, and many used an option to make modest additional financial contributions in lieu of time. In another Catholic school in a low-income community of Central American immigrants, parents often did not speak English and, as the school had no bilingual staff, involving parents was not a feasible school ambition. In this, as in other low-income private schools, parent volunteerism was mostly restricted to occasional chaperoning of field trips, fund raising, janitorial upkeep of school facilities or administrative duties.

At these schools, staff and parents held each other responsible for disappointing results. School leaders complained that without parental support there was little they could do to improve academic performance. Teachers accused parents of feeling that, having paid tuition, they had done their share, and it was up to the school alone to make education successful. One Catholic school teacher stated that parents "resent the school because they feel that we should be able to do everything. They’re paying us to take care of all these things."

At these Catholic schools, when parents did get involved, they were not always successful in influencing school policy. Two of the Catholic schools we studied disbanded parent advisory councils when they became too aggressive in proposing policy changes to the school leadership. One became excessively (in the principal's view) critical of one of the teachers, and so the principal and pastor disbanded the advisory board. Another council, at the more middle class Catholic school, was led by a vocal group of parents who believed that discipline was too lax, that basics (such as phonics) were insufficiently emphasized and that not enough homework was assigned. When the principal and pastor tired of arguing with this group about the policies, they disbanded the council.

We also studied a Lutheran school serving a lower-middle-class working community. Lay democratic control was a feature of the Lutheran synod to which the school belonged. Yet because only church members were eligible to serve on school governing boards, and few parents were members of the church, few parents could serve. Thus, as in the more hierarchical Catholic structure, there was no formal mechanism for holding the school accountable to parents.

As an alternative, the school established a monthly forum whose meetings any parent could attend. The school hoped that parents would provide input about policy and become more informed about academic and other school policies. School administrators and teachers, however, were frustrated they could not induce significant numbers of parents to attend these meetings

Parental Passivity
Too much parental passivity was also a theme at a public school we investigated, but one where parents were considerably lower in the economic structure than at the affluent public schools described above. Here, in a faculty poll, lack of parental support and involvement in the academic program was named the school's most serious problem. The faculty referred to inadequate parent involvement in supervising homework, setting standards for the importance of academic work and communicating to their children that school is important and they should come to school prepared.

This school established a focus group of parents and teachers to develop ways to increase parent involvement of the supportive type that teachers considered important. The group developed plans for parent training, but there was almost no parental response and the group disbanded.

In both public and private schools located in lower-income and lower-middle-class communities, we found teachers making strong efforts to increase parental involvement, often to little avail. One public school teacher reported that she devoted one conference period a week to calling via telephone an equal number of parents whose children were doing well and whose children were not doing well, but got little response.

Ideological Divide
Based on our limited sample of public and private elementary schools, the hypothesis that private schools are more accountable to parents seems untrue. Rather, our case studies suggest that parents in public schools can command as much or more control over educational issues as parents in private schools--when the parents are affluent, self-confident and highly educated.

However, at public as well as private schools in lower-income communities a different pattern existed in which most parents made little effort to make schools accountable for curricular offerings or academic practices.

Together, the Fordham Foundation and Economic Policy Institute reports suggest that empirical evidence from actual schools may not conform to the neat pigeon holes of theorists. From Fordham, we learn that pedagogical practice varies more within school type (public, Catholic or independent private) than between them, and we can infer that parents who choose their parish Catholic school can be no more sure of the school's philosophical orientation than parents who send their children to the local public school.

From the Economic Policy Institute, we conclude that parent accountability, said by theorists to be a characteristic of private but not public schools, is much more associated with the social class of the parents than of the private or public character of the school.

Before ideological debates between public and private school advocates proceed further, more empirical studies, based on actual observations of real public and private schools, might be helpful.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and co-author of Can Public Schools Learn from Private Schools? E-mail: rothstei@oxy.edu