ERIC Identifier: ED376996
Publication Date: 1994-11-00
Author: Conway, George E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Small Scale and School Culture: The Experience of Private
Schools. ERIC Digest.
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,
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.
THE SMALLNESS FACTOR
Although private school classes are
generally smaller than those in most public schools, studies on the effects of
reducing class size have yielded mixed results (Slavin, 1990). In the absence of
clear evidence supporting the benefits of small class size, investigators have
looked for other factors to explain the enduring image of success private
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.
HE SCHOOL CULTURE FACTOR--GESELLSCHAFT VERSUS
In 1887, Ferdinand Tonnies, a German sociologist and
philosopher, drew a distinction between two fundamentally different kinds of
institutions. His distinction may be relevant to the experience of private
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.
Large public schools often serve a widely
diverse group of families residing within a single enrollment district. Rarely
do these groups come together as a single community to discuss the purposes or
goals of the school to which they all send their children. In the absence of
clearly defined and shared intentions, teachers and administrators feel the
greatest pressures for accountability to goals set by their local school
districts or state departments of education. These goals tend to be expressed in
concrete, quantitative terms: academic achievement scores, attendance rates, and
dropout statistics. Technical solutions are sought to raise achievement scores,
compel children to come to school, and keep them coming until they graduate.
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.
Personal loyalty, a kind of faithfulness
or bond among people within an institution, seems to be at the heart of the "gemeinschaft" school. These personal loyalties or feelings of connectedness are
most readily formed in small schools (Ornstein, 1991). When students and parents
feel they know the teachers and school leaders, and are known by them, and feel
that teachers care about the students, the students perform better (Berlin and
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).
The process by which institutional
sentiments are shared with those within the institution is precisely where the
gesellschaft-gemeinschaft distinction is most evident. Essentially, public
schools are asked to reflect the diversity of the community's sentiments,
whereas private schools are free to establish their own sentiments and actively
profess them to those who enroll. Private schools transmit what they consider
worthy to new teachers, parents, and students through institutional rituals and
traditions (e.g., chapel services, honor codes, and so forth). Most private
school teachers report they have a sense of shared institutional values and they
believe their colleagues feel them as well (McMillen, Rollefson, & Benson,
1991). These sentiments are not apt to change very quickly, either. The well
established private school usually enjoys the support of the parents and alumni
for maintaining its institutional beliefs and customs despite the vicissitudes
of public sentiments. There is a kind of tacit understanding present among the
school staff and parents: because they choose the private school and pay
tuition, it is fair to say the people who enroll their children in private
schools embrace, or at least accept, the school's values. In contrast, public
schools are often required to respond to changing public opinion and diverse
sentiments; thus, they may be perceived--fairly or unfairly--as committed only
to accepting the diversity of their students' cultural backgrounds and standing
for no specific set of traditions (Johnson, 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.
ASK THE EXPERTS
Educational research is not the only source
of evidence that could lead to the conclusion that private schools enjoy their
positive image because they are generally small institutions built upon shared
purposes, personal loyalties, and common sentiments--an atmosphere that shapes
the adults who teach as much as the children who learn within them. In addition
to a literature search on this subject, one could do as Mayor Koch once did in
his effort to improve the New York City Public Schools. When the mayor assembled
city private school heads for advice, they were unanimous in their
recommendation: reduce school size (Kane, 1992). Recently, a group of six
experts in the field of education were asked the same question and gave the same
answer: the majority favored small schools or alternative groups of small
schools over consolidated megaschools, and they all connected quality education
to a sense of community (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992).
But American public school leadership continues to build large schools in
pursuit of cost-effectiveness and curriculum diversity. By pursuing these
strategies, however, we may be sacrificing positive school culture and
meaningful educational reform.
Several questions arise when viewing schools
through the framework used here. First, because it seems so clear that large
size mitigates against the features of "gemeinschaft" and that private schools
are usually half the size of public schools, could educational improvement be
aided by building public schools on the smaller scale of most private schools?
Second, while small size is a distinguishing characteristic of private schools,
other factors such as freedom to establish admission standards and freedom from
many state regulations are also characteristics of private schools. To what
extent might small public schools' work be facilitated by a loosening of
bureaucratic restrictions? We may never be able to answer such questions with
certainty. Observers like Cusick (1983) point to the individualism (of
"gesellschaft" institutions) as a fundamental commitment of U.S. schools.
Whether or not such commitments militate against the emergence of smaller, more
responsive public schools is unclear.
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.
Benson, P., & McMillen, M. M. (1991).
Private schools in the United States: A statistical profile, with comparisons to
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issue? Education and Urban Society, 21(2), 231.
Cusick, P. A. (1983). The egalitarian ideal and the American high school:
Studies of three schools. New York: Longman.
Fowler, W. (1992, April). What do we know about school size: What should we
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Johnson, S. M. (1990). Teachers at work: Achieving success in our schools.
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characteristics of private schools and staff: 1987-88. Washington, DC: National
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Page, R. M. (1990). High school size as a factor in adolescent loneliness.
High School Journal, 73, 150-153.
Powell, A. G. (1990). A glimpse at teaching conditions in top private
schools. American Educator, 14(4), 30.
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