It is unfortunate that James S. Coleman's report provoked such indignation even before its official publication. In spite of its shortcomings, it has in it much that is valuable both to educators and to the public, and should be read in its entirety, not judged superficially from newspaper accounts.
The study's flaws have received a great deal of publicity: Coleman and his colleagues offer conclusions inconsistent with the evidence or unsubstantiated by their research; data from student survey forms were used without proper verification; information on such items as family background, student aspirations, and quality of instruction was not processed scientifically. Most astonishing and questionable to me is the finding that public high schools are more internally segregated than private or Catholic secondary schools. The evidence offered is flimsy.
Because the report has so many flaws, it is difficult to draw from it sound conclusions, say Coleman's critics. Furthermore, there is concern that the report's adverse findings on public high schools may lead to measures such as tuition tax credits or a voucher system which will weaken public education.
Although much in the report is not new, the reiteration of vital educational concerns is always useful. For example, the fact that earlier research has demonstrated the vital relationship between discipline and learning does not mean that there has been a serious effort to establish more discipline in schools. The Coleman Report makes a valuable contribution in its treatment of this subject, highlighting a fundamental problem in American education. The authors give private secondary schools high marks for discipline while they blame the failure of some public schools to provide sufficient discipline on the liberal attitudes which flourished in the '70s. Granting full civil rights to students has impeded the enforcement of discipline by school officials. Conferring the right of due process upon students has not only hamstrung the schools in their exercise of authority, but has also required that they defend their actions repeatedly in courtrooms. Private schools, the report states, "can more easily discipline, suspend, or expel students without concern about legal suits from parents and they can more frequently depend on parents to reinforce demands they make on the students."
In this brief quotation is summed up an essential distinction in the way public and private schools operate and a partial explanation for the difference in achievement levels between the two. Parental cooperation and collaboration in the private schools should be an example for public school parents if serious obstacles to learning are to be overcome. Furthermore, the courts need to restore to the public schools the authority over students they once possessed. It would be well to return to the schools the right of in loco parentis.
However, it is the subject of academic achievement, rather than discipline, that lies at the heart of this study. High School Achievement concludes that given the same type of student with the same family background, private schools have higher achievement outcomes. Although I question the criteria for family background (I believe, for instance, that there are substantive differences between the family which sends its child to a public school and the one which decides to place its youngsters in private or parochial school even when such factors as income and education are the same), one cannot deny this higher scholastic achievement. What are the characteristics that have produced this result? The answers to this question are crucial to both the public and the private sectors, for, just as it is true that not all public high schools lag behind private ones, so it is true that there are less effective private schools. Indeed, high-performing public and private high schools share the same qualities, according to the report.
These qualities include more stringent academic demands in terms of rigorous course work. (Private schools have not permitted the proliferation of unchallenging courses that have socio-emotional orientations.) In addition, more time is spent on learning and more emphasis placed on homework, good attendance, and an orderly classroom environment.
A distressing picture of foreign language study is presented by the researchers. In that area neither private nor public education has much to cheer about, although the Catholic schools show a much higher third-year enrollment than the others. At a time when our relations with other countries are of paramount importance, this nation is not training its young people in foreign languages.
One fact pointed up by the report is the dearth of vocational courses in private schools. This circumstance alone indicates the extent to which these schools are college-preparatory institutions catering to a select 10 percent of the population. In contrast, the public schools serve all children, including those who will enter the job market after high school graduation.
Where Coleman and I part company decisively is with regard to our views on the value and validity of public education. Nowhere does the report recognize the unique function of public schools in a democratic society nor make recommendations for their improvement. Rather it advises opening up opportunities in the private sector. I suggest that public education exists not because it can or cannot compete with private schooling, but because it constitutes a solemn obligation on the part of a democratic government to its citizenry the fulfillment of which accounts for the past and future success of that democracy.