Private schools, public ends

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In an election season marked by debates over the virtues of the public sector, and amidst claims by teachers’ unions and their allies that private schooling is inimical to good democratic citizenship, a new national study reports that private school teachers are at least as committed to promoting traditional notions of citizenship as their public school counterparts.

In High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, pollsters Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett draw on a survey of more than a thousand public and private social studies teachers to examine the state of citizenship education in America’s high schools. They find that the major difference between public and private educators when it comes to citizenship is that private school teachers appear more confident that their schools value and support their efforts, and that they are successfully teaching its tenets.

Good news rarely makes headlines, but one study finding deserves special attention: America’s teachers — public and private — love their country and seek to convey that sentiment to their students. More than eight in ten believe the United States is a unique country that “stands for something special in the world,” and that students should “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.” Similarly large proportions agree that schools should impart respect for military service.

When they were asked to rank-order five priorities schools may have around the teaching of citizenship, both public and private school teachers favored “internalizing core values like tolerance and equality” and “promoting civic behaviors such as voting and community service.” This runs counter to the oft-voiced concern of private school critics that private (particularly parochial) schooling can undermine social cohesion. Popular radio personality and commentator Garrison Keillor warned, “when you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” More recently, New York Times bestselling author Susan Jacoby charged that religious schools create an atmosphere of “cultural divisiveness” and are a “threat to nonsectarian democratic education.” In practice, private school social studies teachers — the majority of whom teach at Catholic schools — were more likely to cite teaching tolerance and equality as a priority than were public school educators.

Perhaps more importantly, private school teachers are far more confident that their students have learned those values by the time they graduate. Forty-three percent of private school teachers expressed assurance that most students in their high school have learned “to be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves,” compared to just 19 percent of their public school counterparts. Likewise, 54% of private educators say most students at their school have learned “habits of community service,” such as volunteering, compared to 14 percent of their public school brethren.

Why might educators holding similar values reach such different conclusions about what they think students are actually learning?  The results suggest that school environment is the key, and that private schools are more conducive than public schools when it comes to preparing students for the rigors of citizenship.

Private school teachers report far more classroom autonomy than do public educators, including much more control over what topics they cover and the pace of instruction. At the same time, private school teachers welcome testing and positively regard state standards.

Professional autonomy is buttressed by private school cultures that value history and citizenship. Whereas fewer than half of public school teachers thought social studies is highly valued by their school, more than two-thirds of private school teachers thought it is valued by theirs. Private school teachers are far more likely to say their administration maintains a school atmosphere where adults are respected.

Private school teachers also feel freer to teach and emphasize values like tolerance and community service. On this score, it can only help that private schools are far more likely to require community service as a condition for graduation.

While it’s certainly the case that a wealth of variables are at work, these results should, at a minimum, counter casual assertions that private schools threaten democratic values or that voucher programs which allow students to attend private schools can be presumed inimical to the public weal. A more acerbic take is that bureaucracy is the death of many good things; and, however well-intentioned, public school bureaucracies impede the very values they exist to promote.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Jenna M. Schuette is a Jacobs Associate in education policy studies at AEI. The report was commissioned by the AEI Program on American Citizenship.