It is a widely held public perception that the private schools in this country are superior to public schools. The National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) completed by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics in 1988 describes the public's opinion of private schools. According to NELS, students in nonpublic schools do more homework, watch less TV, and have higher educational goals than their public school counterparts. Other statistical reports document that 44.6 percent of parents with children in public schools say they would enroll their children in a private school if there were no financial obstacle. Also, public school parents are four times more likely to be dissatisfied with their child's school (Benson & McMillen, 1991).
With this level of public respect for private schooling, investigators have for some time tried to identify characteristics of private schools that public schools could develop in order to increase public satisfaction. This digest will examine only two of several possible factors: school size and school culture.
This search has led some researchers to consider the effect of school size on the quality of life within the schools. The average public school is about twice as large as the average private school. Large school size compounds the difficulties that confront children and youth--from poor attitudes about school, to substance abuse, to achievement levels (Fowler, 1992; Page, 1990; 1991). What is less well understood is how the comparatively small size of most private schools might assist in creating a positive culture.
* gesellschaft--an association of people that is based primarily on the members' rational pursuit of their own self-interests.
* gemeinschaft--an association of people that is based primarily on shared purposes, personal loyalties, and common sentiments (Johnson, 1990).
While Tonnies' concepts were developed to describe the momentous social transformations leading to the modern era, the notions of shared purposes, personal loyalties, and common sentiments speak to the distinctive school cultures that emerge in small private schools.
An example of how such "gesellschaft" solutions can fall short can be seen in the way early elementary educators often have attempted to promote students' self-esteem. Most schools recognize the role of self-esteem in the educational success or failure of children, especially in the elementary schools. However, too often, efforts to nurture self-esteem--undertaken without clearly expressed community purposes--end up simply directing children's attention to their own inner gratification, thus encouraging narcissism. Katz (1993) suggests that efforts to increase self-esteem be sensitive to cultural differences of families, and be grounded in developing children's competence and their contributions to the group rather than in self-preoccupation and consumerism.
Certainly for the adults, too, personal loyalties are important. Studies of teaching conditions in private schools suggest that the gemeinschaft culture of private schools might arise from the interactions of teachers--who are empowered and highly valued by the institution--with the parents, students, and the school's leadership. Teachers in small private schools are neither "invisible [n]or anonymous," and they play important roles in curriculum development, in academic and personal advising of students, and in the extracurricular activities of the school (Powell, 1990).
Students are not the only ones influenced by the shared sentiments of the "gemeinschaft" school. One of the most curious phenomena in private schools is that although teacher pay in private schools lags significantly behind that of their public school colleagues, the quality of the private school faculty is believed to be very high. Why should private schools seem to "pay less and get more" instead of "getting what they pay for?" The answer may lie in how the school impresses on the teacher common sentiments about teaching. Research shows that most teachers upon entering the profession do not fundamentally differ in purpose; however, the culture of the private school apparently helps shape the individual teacher professionally and makes good teaching not only possible "but more likely" (Johnson, 1990).
This brings us back to an earlier point: small class size alone does not guarantee good teaching. Unless a teacher learns to take advantage of the small class size through instructional techniques that are possible only in small groups, no significant gain in student achievement takes place. If, for example, a teacher only lectures, the class size seems inconsequential (Slavin, 1990). It is unclear how the private school teacher, without extensive teacher training programs, learns techniques small school and class size make possible, but it may have something to do with the school culture within which the teacher is working. If so, small school size (as a factor in strengthening shared purposes, personal loyalties, and common sentiments) may supersede small class size as an influence in the private school experience.
There are complex issues involved in these questions. The experience of comparatively smaller private schools cannot, however, be ignored as Americans continue to develop institutions that can respond to a diverse population whose interests in schooling vary widely.
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Johnson, S. M. (1990). Teachers at work: Achieving success in our schools. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
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