Two weeks ago, a major educational controversy erupted when James Coleman, one the nation's leading socioligists, released a study which concluded that private high schools are better than public high schools. His report, commissioned by the federal government, was based on a representative sample of more than 58,000 students in 1,000 high schools. Fearing that the report would be used politically to support government subsidies for non-public schools, defenders of the public schools rushed to attack Coleman as biased (he personally favors educational vouchers, so that parents may choose among private and public schools), as a "hired gun" for the Reagan administration (though the study began in 1978), and as "methodologically unsound" (though Coleman is internationally recognized as a meticulous scholar).

In the eagerness to fight aid to non-public schools, advocates of public education should not ignore the dramatic educational implications of the report. Unlike the famous Coleman report of 1966, which found that the family background of the students was more important than anything schools did and popularized the belief that "schools don't make a difference," the present study firmly holds that school policies directly affect student achievement. This is important and encouraging news for all schools. Coleman demonstrates that good schools do make a difference and identifies the kinds of policies that produce student achievement, in both public and private schools, as well as the factors that impair learning. His findings contain important lessons for those who are responsible for public schools, which contain 90 percent of America's schoolchildren.

Even when students come from similar backgrounds, Coleman shows, some schools are more effective than others. In effective schools, whether public or private, there is more homework, higher enrollments in advanced courses, better attendance, less class-cutting, a better disciplinary climate, and stronger teacher interest in students. The best schools ask the most of their students -- and get it.

Evidently, non-public schools stress academic learning more than public schools. The national survey found that only 34 percent of public school students are in an academic program (the rest are in vocational and general tracks), while in non-public schools, 70 percent are in academic programs. Furthermore, academic students in public schools get higher grades while doing less homework, whether compared with their counterparts a decade ago or with students in non-public schools today, which confirms complaints about lower expectations, lower standards and grade inflation.

The value of homework is that it provides extra time in which to read, write and study independently. Public school students, it turns out, don't do much homework. For example, 75 percent of public school sophomores spend less than one hour each night on homework, compared with 54 percent of Catholic school sophomores and 50 percent of sophomores in other private schools. Students in the highest-achieving schools, public and private, spend the most time on homework. It is hard to understand how a student can read a novel or write an essay when so little time is devoted to schoolwork outside the classroom.

Coleman's findings about course enrollments explain why there has been growing concern about declining competence in foreign languages, science and mathematics. In 1979, the President's Commission on Foreign languages expressed alarm about the small numbers of those engaged in language study. The commisson held that four years' study is necessary for competence in a foreign language, yet only 6 percent of the public high school seniors in Coleman's study had completed as much as a third year of foreign language, as had 14 percent in Catholic schools and 20 percent in other private schools.

A similar pattern was found in science and mathematics. Only last fall, the National Science Foundation warned that most Americans were headed "toward virtual scientific and technological illiteracy," a prediction that is reflected in the proportions of public high school seniors who have completed chemistry (37 percent), trigonometry (22 percent) and physics (18 percent). The higher enrollments in non-public schools suggest that advanced courses may be electives in many public schools and requirements in many non-public schools.

Disciplinary climate also turns oput to be an important element in student achievement. Achievement is diminished in those schools where there are such problems as absenteeism, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, fighting among students and disobedience toward teachers. Where the school climate is orderly, and where students believe that discipline is effective and fair, learning is enhanced.

In short, good schools are schools that make strong academic demands and sustain a stable climate for learning, no matter who attends them. Many good schools are public schools, but Coleman's survey shows that, on the whole, public schools have lowered their requirements, decreased their expectations, made basic courses optional and learned to tolerate intolerable behavior. The publication of these findings should serve as powerful documentation of the need to improve the quality of education in public schools, and of the power of educators to succeed in doing so.