“America’s public schools are governed by institutions of direct democratic control, and their organizations should be expected to bear the indelible stamp of those institutions. They should tend to be highly bureaucratic and systematically lacking in the requisites of effective performance. Private schools, on the other hand, operate in a very different institutional setting distinguished by the basic features of markets – decentralization, competition and choice – and their organizations should be expected to bear a very different stamp as a result. They should tend to possess autonomy, clarity of mission, strong leadership, teacher professionalism and team cooperation that public schools want but … are unlikely to have.”
The statement lays the onus of the argument on the structural difference between public and private schools. But in all truth, therein lies the only difference. The structure determines the funds, the decision about the allocation of funds, the accountability relative to the usage of funds, the academic climate created thereby and finally the student achievement whose positive numbers should in turn generate more funds to start the conveyor belt all over again. Note how structures and funds are so intimate!
The problem is that the structure (and the race for funds) is inhabited by people, all with a wide range of interests, ideas, opinions and perspectives about what education stands for and should achieve. This inherent conflict, in a ‘democratic’ setting, creates constraints by the players within a structure. More precisely, it creates (1) administrative constraint, concerned with the authority of central office administrators, (2) personnel constraint, which focuses on union issues over personnel issues and (3) school board influence/constraint, which deals with the school board’s authority.
The multiple bureaucratic levels of involvement are correlated with a depressed academic climate and low student achievement in the public school system. When you throw a highly diverse socio-economic student body and volatile classroom dynamics into the mix, the odds seem to stack up heavily against public schools.
But data suggests we take a step back from all these negative perceptions regarding public schools and take a closer look. A study by Sandra Glass (1993), showed that public and private schools experienced similar constraints – they had to deal with the same state and federal laws, limited funds, the demands of parents, college admission requirements, the same College Board examinations and so forth. Moreover both exhibited a high level of administrative autonomy and a high level of student achievement. In fact the data seems to portray that these public and private schools had a high level of administrative autonomy because of high levels of student achievement. This explains why there are heavier constraints on public urban schools which face low student achievement.
The National Center for Education Statistics conducts regular NAEP surveys of student achievement in American high schools. One such survey (Shankar and Rosenberg, 1991) compared the mathematical proficiency of grade twelve students who had been exposed to various levels of mathematical instruction. Those students who had taken higher-level mathematics courses scored higher than those that had taken only lower-level courses – this irrespective of public or private schooling. In fact, the data showed public school students with a slight edge.
When private schools can control the selection of their students giving them more opportunity to choose the more talented ones with economical and educational support at home, enforce disciplinary standards and create a sense of ‘community’ why is the difference in achievement so marginal? By contrast, public schools must enroll all students, even those from impoverished backgrounds who lack a support structure at home to give them educational direction.
The gap between data and perception can be closed if we jump through the loopholes. Student achievement results in mathematics are based on the levels of mathematics that the students had studied. Therefore, the opportunity to learn at higher levels was more influential rather than a public or private setting. There is no denying that private schools can provide greater challenges and variety to students in curriculum but there is nothing stopping the public schools from doing the same. In fact the best public schools in America provide unique programmatic advantages which reflect a broader range of interests.
None of this means that American schools do not face serious problems, that educational opportunities are equitable in our country or that our schools cannot be improved. Dr. Ken Robinson’s (Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! – YouTube.)talk provides some unique insights on an educational revolution that might be necessary to adapt to the changing pace and tempo of our road ahead. As for now, “We have no reason to be complacent about schools’ performance …. But when schools are doing better than ever before, the best way to encourage continued improvement is not a concerted attack on school governance and organization. A more effective approach would be praise for accomplishment, provision of additional resources to programs whose results justify support, and reforms on the margin to correct programs and curricula shown to be ineffective.” (Richard Rothstein, The Myth of Public School Failure, 1993)