Martha Naomi Alt and Katharin Peter
U.S. Department of Education
September 5, 2002
Private Schools: A Brief Portrait
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Private schools are owned and governed by entities that are independent of any government—typically, religious bodies or independent boards of trustees. Private schools also receive funding primarily from nonpublic sources: tuition payments and often other private sources, such as foundations, religious bodies, alumni, or other private donors. In contrast, state and local education agencies (districts) and publicly elected or appointed school boards govern public schools. At some schools, parent/teacher organizations or similar groups also play a role. Public schools receive nearly all their funding from local, state, and federal governments, supplemented occasionally by grants/donations from corporations and foundations, and parent- or student-initiated fundraising activities.
Choice is another defining characteristic of private schools: families choose private education, and private schools may choose which students to accept. In contrast, public school districts generally assign students to particular schools, and those schools usually accept all students assigned. However, public school systems are expanding school choice options through magnet and charter schools, open enrollment, and similar offerings, and, in a few instances, through publicly funded vouchers. Families with sufficient financial resources have always been able to choose a public school by choosing where to live, but school choice options are also increasingly available for others. Thus, public school districts are sometimes selective about who attends specific schools, and families may have some choice within the public sector as well. The proportion of public school children attending a chosen school (rather than the school assigned by residence location) has increased in recent years (indicator 29). In 1999, for example, 16 percent of public school students in grades 1–12 attended a school the family had chosen, up from 12 percent in 1993.
Nonpublic governance and enrollment choice are features that all private schools share, but there is wide variation within the private sector on many measures. This analysis highlights some elements of diversity among private schools (detailing some differences among three broad groups of private schools: Catholic, other religious, and nonsectarian) and notes several aspects that differ between the public and private sectors overall. More detail about the types and affiliations of private schools and their staffs, as well as additional comparisons between the public and private sectors, can be found in Broughman and Colaciello (2001); Baker,
Han, and Keil (1996); Henke et al. (1996, 1997); McLaughlin (1997); and in a forthcoming NCES report on private schools.
Although this analysis compares averages for the private and public sectors (and for three private school types), no inferences can be drawn from these data about causality. Any number of variables distinct from school sector and type may contribute to inputs and outcomes. For example, student characteristics such as socioeconomic status
(SES), prior achievement and support for learning at home, and motivation level may influence student outcomes, independent of the sector of school attended. Characteristics of schools such as enrollment size, community type, and student body composition may also affect outcomes, regardless of school sector. Further research may attempt to identify which variables contribute to certain outcomes—for example, a study may compare achievement of private and public school students while controlling for characteristics like SES—but that is beyond the scope of this brief analysis.
The data presented are from the NCES Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS:1999–2000), the National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Transcript Study of 1998 (NAEP:1998), the NAEP:2000 student achievement tests, and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, "Fourth Follow-up" (NELS:1988/2000). Further information on these surveys can be found at
Schools and Students
In 1999–2000, approximately 27,000 private schools, with 404,000 full-time-equivalent
(FTE) teachers, enrolled 5.3 million students (table 1). These schools accounted for 24 percent of all schools in the United States, 10 percent of all students, and 12 percent of all FTE teachers.1 Private schools have maintained their share of total school enrollments throughout recent decades at roughly 10–11 percent, with growth rates parallel to those of public schools
(U.S. Department of Education 2001b). Schools that had some of grades 1–12, or equivalent ungraded classes, are included in the SASS:1999–2000 data and discussion that follow; these schools may or may not also offer kindergarten or preschool grades. Analysis of public sector SASS:1999–2000 data includes traditional public and public charter schools and their staffs (and excludes Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded schools and their staffs).2
Seventy-nine percent of all private schools had a religious affiliation in 1999–2000: 30 percent were affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, and 49 percent with other religious groups (figure 1). The remaining 22 percent were nonsectarian. Although Catholic schools accounted for 30 percent of the total number of schools, they enrolled 48 percent of all private school students. Each of these three types of private schools can be further disaggregated into three more specific types. In addition, private schools may belong to one or more associations, reflecting either a particular religious affiliation, a special program or pedagogical emphasis, or some other element of the school. Broughman and Colaciello (2001) show in table 15 the numbers of schools that belong to a wide range of associations.
Schools and Students
School location and level
Private schools in 1999–2000 were located primarily in central cities (42 percent) and the urban fringe or large towns (40 percent) (table 2). About 18 percent of private schools were found in rural areas. In contrast, 24 percent of all public schools were in central city locations, 45 percent in the urban fringe or large towns, and 31 percent in rural areas. Most schools—61 percent of private and 71 percent of public—were elementary, but 10 percent of private schools and 25 percent of public schools were secondary. Finally, a much higher proportion of private schools (30 percent) were combined schools (usually grades K–12 or 1–12), compared with only 4 percent of public schools.
Schools and Students
School and class sizes
Some research suggests that small/intermediate-sized schools and relatively small classes can have advantages, including possibly leading to higher achievement
(Klonsky 1995; Raywid 1995; Lee and Smith 1997), although some of the findings are debated.3 This research has found that placing students in small groups tends to foster close working relationships between teachers and students, thus enhancing learning (Lee and Smith 1993) particularly among at-risk students and those in the early grades (Lee and Smith 1995; Krueger and Whitmore 2001). Fairly small schools are also believed to promote teachers’ commitment to collaborative work and to support the development of a "professional community of learners" that Newmann and Wehlage (1995) consider useful for high student achievement. In addition to the possible advantages of small schools, they may have some disadvantages as well, such as providing a narrower set of programs and services. The smallest high schools may not be able to offer advanced courses because they have too few students, a shortage of qualified teachers, or both. The data in indicator 27, which examines the proportions of students who completed advanced science and mathematics courses in high schools of different sizes, shows that moderate-sized high schools may provide advantages.
* On average, private schools have smaller enrollments, smaller average class sizes, and lower student/teacher ratios than public schools.
School size is typically related to the population density of the local area and its age distribution of children; for private schools, local demand for a school’s instructional philosophy also contributes to size of enrollment. The average private school had 193 students in 1999–2000, while the average public school had 535 students (table 3). Among private schools, 80 percent had enrollments of fewer than 300, compared with 29 percent of public schools. Within the private sector, Catholic schools had larger enrollments than other types of schools. About 43 percent of Catholic schools had 150–299 students in 1999–2000 (a higher proportion than in the other two school types), and another 38 percent had 300 or more students. In comparison, 11–12 percent of other religious schools and nonsectarian schools had 300 or more students. About 36–37 percent of other religious and nonsectarian schools had fewer than 50 students. Such small schools were rare, however, among Catholic schools (1 percent) and in the public sector as a whole (4 percent).
The average class size reported by teachers was larger in public schools than in private schools for both self-contained (the norm for elementary grades) and departmentalized classes (typical in middle and upper grades). Teachers in Catholic schools had an average of 23 students in their departmentalized classes, and in public schools the figure was 24 students (table 4). In both Catholic and public schools, however, departmentalized classes were larger than in other religious and nonsectarian schools, where the average class sizes were 17 and 15 students, respectively.
The schoolwide student/teacher ratio tends to be smaller than the average size of self-contained or departmentalized classes (shown in table 4) mainly because the student/teacher ratio includes any pull-out, enrichment, and other special classes. Private schools had an average of 13 students per FTE teacher, compared with an average of 16 students per teacher in public schools. Furthermore, 36 percent of private schools had a student/teacher ratio lower than 10:1, compared with 10 percent of public schools.
Schools and Students
Special instructional approaches and programs
Private schools may be established specifically to implement a particular instructional approach, such as Montessori, or a specific curricular focus. Some public schools have adopted special approaches as well, but the public sector included a smaller proportion of such schools than did the private sector in 1999–2000 (20 versus 28 percent) (figure 2). However, public schools were more likely than private schools to offer many specialized programs and courses—for example, gifted/talented programs; Advanced Placement (AP) and college credit courses; and career academies, vocational courses, and work-based learning. About 13–14 percent of schools in each sector offered a foreign language immersion program. Figure 2 shows the percentages of all schools that had a specific instructional approach, a gifted program, and foreign language immersion, while the other measures in figure 2 are restricted to schools with grades 9–12.)
Among private schools, nonsectarian ones were the most likely to use a specific instructional approach (62 percent), compared with other religious (27 percent) and Catholic schools (7 percent). Large proportions of Catholic high (or combined) schools provided AP and college credit courses (82 and 71 percent, respectively), higher percentages than those in either other religious or nonsectarian schools. Catholic schools with grades 9–12 were less likely than other religious schools to have work-based learning programs.
Schools and Students
Demographic characteristics of students
Racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in schools offer academic and social benefits in a society where students need to work well in heterogeneous groups in school, jobs, and social settings (e.g., Coleman et al. 1966; Eaton 2001; Schofield 2001). In addition, research suggests that diversity in a school’s enrollment can help low-income and minority students increase their achievement and attainment, reduce dropout rates, and improve critical thinking skills and the ability to understand opposing viewpoints. (Syntheses of research on these topics can be found in St. John 1975; Cook 1984; Wells and Crain 1994; and Schofield 1995.) Student populations in private and public schools and in different types of private schools vary on some basic demographic measures, including race/ethnicity, limited-English proficiency
(LEP) status, and the family’s socioeconomic background.
* There are differences in the racial and ethnic diversity in public and private schools.
In 1999–2000, 77 percent of all private school students were White, compared with 63 percent of all public school students (figure 3). The private school sector as a whole had lower proportions of Black and Hispanic students than the public school sector as a whole, and no difference was detected between the sectors in the proportion of Asian/Pacific Islander students. Some earlier research
(Greene 2001) found that individual private school students were more likely than those in public schools to be in racially mixed classrooms. Enrollment patterns in public schools more closely replicated neighborhood segregation in housing. In Catholic schools, 12 percent of students were Hispanic, a higher proportion than in the other types of private schools.
Public schools were more likely than private schools to have any minority students in 1999–2000, as well as to have high concentrations of minority students (more than 30 percent) (table 5). Although many private schools had a racially diverse student body, about 14 percent had no minority students, compared with only 4 percent of public schools. Catholic and nonsectarian schools were about as likely as public schools to have some minority students (95–96 percent of each group did), contrasted with 76 percent of other religious schools. Relatively few other religious schools had 51 percent or more minority students (15 percent), compared with Catholic (21 percent), nonsectarian (23 percent), and public schools (27 percent).
* Private schools are less likely than public schools to enroll LEP students or students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program.
Limited-English proficient students may introduce other students to different cultures and languages and help native English speakers learn foreign languages. Nonetheless, teaching LEP students also adds complexity to educators’ tasks and creates new staffing and training challenges for schools. In 1999–2000, 13 percent of private schools had any LEP students, who accounted for an average of 7 percent of total enrollment in these schools (figure 4). In contrast, 54 percent of public schools had any LEP students, and they accounted for 10 percent of the student population on average in these schools. Private schools do not participate directly in federally funded LEP programs and so they may be less likely than public schools to identify and count the number of LEP students enrolled.
Although direct measures of SES are not readily available, the Schools and Staffing Survey collects information on the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. (The eligibility rate for the National School Lunch Program is a reasonable proxy for the incidence of school poverty in public schools but a less reliable measure in private schools. Approximately 25 percent of private school respondents in 1999–2000 did not know whether any of their students were eligible.4) Virtually all public schools (99 percent) had students eligible for subsidized lunches, about twice the percentage for private schools (49 percent) (table 6). Among schools participating in the subsidized lunch program, 42 percent of students at public schools and 10 percent at private schools, on average, were eligible.
Catholic schools were much more likely than the other two types of private schools to have any students eligible for subsidized lunches (69 percent versus 38–40 percent). Among private schools that participated in the program, nonsectarian schools had a higher average proportion of students eligible for free lunches than did Catholic and other religious schools (30, 7, and 6 percent, respectively).
School Climate and Staff Perception
Research has examined the links between teachers’ perceptions of a school’s professional climate, on the one hand, and teachers’ effectiveness and job satisfaction on the other (for example, see Mitchell,
Ortiz, and Mitchell 1987; Rosenholtz 1991). In one extensive study of Catholic high schools, a range of attributes were found to contribute to school effectiveness, including the staff’s communal organization to advance shared goals; principals having primary decisionmaking authority for most school management matters; teachers’ commitment to the academic, spiritual, and social development of students (which encompassed providing extra help when needed and supporting extracurricular activities); and an atmosphere of mutual respect among everyone in the school
(Bryk, Lee, and Holland 1993). Elements of staff opinion and school climate discussed here include teachers’ sense of shared purpose, collegiality, and cooperative efforts; teachers’ evaluations of principals’ leadership and support; and principals’ top goals for the school.
School Climate and Staff Perception
Teachers' control over teaching practices and influence on school policies
* Private school teachers are more likely than public school teachers to report having a lot of influence on several teaching practices and school policies.
For most teaching practices—selecting teaching techniques, evaluating and grading students, disciplining students, choosing course content and skills to teach, and selecting textbooks and materials—private school teachers were more likely than public school teachers to report having a lot of influence on school policymaking (table 7). (Public schools are often required to follow the decisions of state and/or district officials regarding curricular content and textbooks.) However, though differences between the sectors were found, some of these policies were common in both types of schools: more than 85 percent of teachers in public and private schools thought that they had a lot of control over selecting teaching techniques, evaluating and grading students, and determining homework quantity. Few differences were detected among the three private school types on most measures in table 7, but nonsectarian school teachers were more likely than Catholic or other religious school teachers to report having a lot of control over the content and skills to teach and selecting textbooks and materials.
In four areas of school policy linked closely with teaching—establishing curriculum, setting student performance standards, setting discipline policy, and evaluating teachers—the sector differences were substantial (table 8 and figure 5). For example, 68 percent of private school teachers said they had a lot of influence on establishing curriculum, compared with 44 percent of public school teachers. In addition, private school teachers were more likely than public school teachers to say that they had a lot of influence on setting student performance standards (63 versus 38 percent) and on student discipline policy (48 versus 30 percent). In contrast, no difference was detected between the two sectors for teachers’ reported influence on teacher hiring decisions (about 14 percent for each). In addition to hiring decisions, teachers in both sectors were unlikely to think they had a lot of influence on the content of inservice training, school budget decisions, or evaluating teachers. (However, the sectors did differ on these matters; for example, 19 percent of teachers in private schools versus 8 percent in public schools thought they had a lot of influence on teacher evaluation.)
Teachers in nonsectarian schools were more likely than Catholic or other religious school teachers to say they had a lot of influence on establishing curriculum, evaluating teachers, and hiring full-time teachers (table 8 and figure 6). In addition, nonsectarian school teachers were more likely than Catholic school teachers to report having a lot of influence on setting student performance standards and on deciding teachers’ inservice training content.
School Climate and Staff Perception
Teachers’ ratings of school climate and management
A school’s professional climate, in particular the existence of a strong shared purpose among staff members and cooperative interactions among people at the school, is likely to contribute to its effectiveness. As an illustration, Newmann and Wehlage (1995) found that when teachers feel a sense of community at their schools, they can better communicate consistent goals to students and collaborate more effectively on raising student achievement. Similarly, another study
(Bryk and Driscoll 1988) found that teachers who work toward shared goals express higher job satisfaction and have lower absentee rates than do other teachers. Among the elements that shape a school’s climate are several examined in this section: the extent to which the staff shares a commitment to the school’s central mission, teachers collaborate and share ideas, parents support teachers’ work, the principal provides clear direction and priorities to the staff, and the administrators communicate expectations clearly and enforce rules of student conduct.
* Private school teachers are more likely than public school teachers to report being satisfied with teaching at their school.
Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS:1999–2000) data indicate that teachers in private schools for the most part have positive views about their jobs and the extent of staff cooperation and collegiality at their school. For example, private school teachers were more likely than public school teachers to "strongly agree"5 that they were generally satisfied with teaching at their school (66 versus 54 percent) and with their class size (60 versus 36 percent) (table 9). In addition, greater proportions of private school than public school teachers agreed that teachers consistently enforce rules of behavior, that most colleagues shared their beliefs about the school’s central mission, and that cooperative effort among the staff was high. Moreover, teachers at private schools (42 percent) were much more likely than teachers at public schools (16 percent) to state that they received a great deal of support from parents for their work. No differences were detected between sectors or among private school types in the percentage who agreed that they consciously coordinated course content with other teachers.
Teachers at other religious schools agreed with five positive statements about their school’s professional climate and working conditions at higher rates than those of teachers at Catholic and nonsectarian schools. Topics of these statements concerned satisfaction with teaching at the school in general, colleagues’ shared beliefs about the school’s mission, staff cooperative effort, support from parents, and teachers’ consistent enforcement of rules.
* A majority of private school teachers express positive opinions about their principal and their school’s management.
Most private school teachers agreed that their principal enforced school rules, expressed expectations for staff, and clearly communicated the kind of school he or she wanted (table 10). A majority of private school teachers also agreed that the administration was supportive and encouraging and that necessary materials were available. For each of these aspects, as well as thinking that staff members were recognized for doing a good job, public school teachers were less likely than private school teachers to agree with the positive statement. Indeed, no more than 50 percent of teachers in public schools agreed with any of these statements.
Within the private sector, teachers at other religious schools were more likely than those at the other two private school types to agree with several statements regarding school management: that the administration was supportive and encouraging, that their principal enforced school rules, that school goals were communicated clearly, and that staff members were recognized for doing a good job. Forty-six percent of other religious school teachers agreed with the last statement, compared with about 36 percent of teachers in the two other school types.
School Climate and Staff Perception
Principals and school leadership
Principals’ instructional leadership can include observing teachers in the classroom and providing constructive evaluations, requiring teachers to work collaboratively, providing substantive training in teaching methods, and working directly with teachers to develop new curricula or teaching techniques. In one study
(Larsen 1987), high-achieving schools had principals who visited classrooms and talked to teachers frequently about instructional methods and content. These principals also explained the school’s goals clearly to staff and learned from other schools’ notable curricula and methods. Despite the presumed usefulness of strong instructional leadership (Louis and Miles 1990; Leithwood 1992), principals for the most part are not discussing instructional practices often with teachers (table 10, last column), perhaps because of overwhelming demands for their time (Pierce 2000). Elmore (1999–2000) found from his observations that "few administrators of any kind or at any level are directly involved in instruction. Principals who develop the skills and knowledge required to become instructional leaders do so because of their own preferences and values—and often at some cost to their own careers."
* Most principals are not engaging teachers on instructional practices on a frequent basis—in either sector.
Most private school teachers thought their principal performed well in enforcing rules, communicating expectations and goals, and supporting teachers, as discussed above. However, SASS:1999–2000 data indicate that private schools did not show much of an advantage in principals’ leadership on instruction. Teachers in both sectors were unlikely to report that the principal often discussed instructional matters with them: 15 percent in the private sector and 11 percent in the public sector agreed that their principals did so (table 10).6 Teachers in other religious schools were more likely to say that their principals frequently discussed instruction than those in either Catholic or nonsectarian schools.
The principal’s top-priority goals, if communicated effectively to teachers and other staff, can influence both daily practices and the professional climate at the school. Public school principals in 1999–2000 were most likely to name among their top three goals building basic literacy skills in core areas like reading, writing, and mathematics (80 percent) (figure 7). Other goals cited frequently by public school principals were encouraging academic excellence (70 percent) and developing self-discipline and good work habits (60 percent). Principals in private schools were about equally likely to include academic excellence (66 percent) and fostering religious/spiritual development7(64 percent) among their highest three goals. Literacy skills (51 percent) and developing self-discipline (47 percent) were also included often as top three goals in private schools.
The percentage of all private school principals who included religious development as a top goal disguises the large differences across school types for this measure: principals in Catholic and other religious schools cited religious development more often than any other goal (80–82 percent of these principals cited it), while hardly any nonsectarian school principals did so (1 percent) (figure 8). At both types of religious schools, academic excellence was included as a high-priority goal by 66–69 percent of the principals (second after religious development), followed by two other goals: building literacy skills (42–52 percent) and developing self-discipline (39–47 percent). Promoting self-discipline was included more frequently than teaching specific moral values by Catholic and other religious school principals.
Nonsectarian school principals had a somewhat different pattern of priorities: between 59 and 65 percent included developing personal growth/self-esteem, literacy skills, academic excellence, and promoting self-discipline among their top three goals. In addition, nonsectarian school principals were more likely than those at the other two school types to include social skills development (29 versus 7 percent at Catholic and other religious schools). About 59 percent of nonsectarian school principals included developing self-discipline among their top three goals, more than the 47 percent at other religious schools, which in turn was more than the 39 percent at Catholic schools. Principals’ ratings for teaching basic literacy skills followed a similar pattern by school type. About 27 percent of both Catholic and other religious school principals included teaching specific moral values, roughly twice the 14 percent for principals of nonsectarian schools.
Academic Coursetaking and Student Outcomes
Student achievement, high school graduation requirements, and courses completed
* Private school students generally perform higher than their public school counterparts on standardized achievement tests.
As with earlier results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP), private school students performed higher than public school students on the NAEP:2000 tests.8 Their average scores were above those of public school students on the 4th-grade reading test and on the 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade science and mathematics proficiency tests (table 11). See indicators 7, 10, 11, and 12 for detailed data on student performance, including differences by many variables beyond school sector.
Applying high academic standards—both requiring students to complete high-level, challenging courses and pushing students to strive and excel in their work—is a central schooling component that many experts recommend
(Newmann 1992; Bryk, Lee, and Holland 1993; Gamoran et al. 1997). Earlier research has found not only that private high school students take more advanced mathematics courses than those in public high schools but also that the type of private school may matter (Lee et al. 1998). Students at Catholic high schools in that study completed more advanced mathematics than students in "independent, selective" private schools, even after adjusting for measures including prior achievement in mathematics, school selectivity, and family
SES. (The independent, selective schools cited are a subset of the nonsectarian group discussed here; one difference is that the latter includes special education schools. Students in Catholic schools in the study varied more in academic skill and family SES than did students in the more selective independent schools.)
* Private high schools typically have more demanding graduation requirements than do public high schools.
Compared with public schools, private schools required more coursework (in 4-year high school programs) in 1999–2000 in social studies, mathematics, science, foreign language, and computer science (table 12).9 Private schools required on average 3.1 years of mathematics, while public schools required 2.7 years, for example. The figures for foreign language study also differed: 1.5 years at private schools but 0.5 years at public schools. In addition, about 40 percent of private schools required some form of community service for high school graduation, four times the rate for public schools (10 percent). Nonsectarian schools required an average of 3.3 years of mathematics, compared with 3.0–3.1 years for the other two types of private schools. Catholic schools were quite likely (73 percent) to require some community service for graduation, more so than the other two types.
* Private school graduates are more likely than their peers from public schools to have completed advanced-level courses in three academic subject areas.
Findings from the NAEP High School Transcript Study of 1998 (indicator 27) show that 1998 private high school graduates were more likely than public high school graduates to have completed advanced courses in science and mathematics (figure 9). Advanced science courses include chemistry, physics, and advanced biology; advanced mathematics courses include trigonometry,
precalculus, and calculus. In a parallel pattern, private school graduates were about twice as likely as their public school counterparts to have completed the third (or higher) year of study in a foreign language (55 versus 28 percent) (indicator 34, U.S. Department of Education 2001a). Completing intermediate-level and even advanced courses is often required for admission to selective colleges and universities.
Academic Coursetaking and Student Outcomes
* Private school students are more likely than public school students to complete a bachelor’s or advanced degree by their mid-20s.
Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, "Fourth Follow-up" (NELS:1988/2000) show that students who had attended private school in 8th grade were twice as likely as those who had attended public school to have completed a bachelor’s or higher degree by their mid-20s (52 versus 26 percent) and far less likely to have had no post-secondary education (figure 10). Even students from low-SES backgrounds attained higher levels if they had been private school students in 1988. Specifically, 7 percent of students in the lowest SES quartile who had attended public school in 1988 had earned a bachelor’s degree by 2000, whereas 24 percent of their private school peers had done so (table 13). In addition, for students whose mother’s expectation (in 8th grade) was for them to attain an associate’s degree or less, those who had attended private school completed a bachelor’s or higher degree at a rate about four times that of public school students (30 versus 7 percent). Furthermore, students who came from a low-SES family but had completed a calculus course in high school were much more likely than those who had not studied calculus to earn a degree by their mid-20s (71 versus 6 percent). Students in private schools are more likely than those in public schools to take challenging courses like calculus, and private schools are more likely to require them, as discussed in the preceding section.
In addition to differences between schools in the private and public sectors, within each sector, schools vary in size, level, community type, and student populations. Differences in internal management practices, staff cohesiveness, top-priority goals, and professional climate also appear between and within each sector. Some characteristics of private schools vary widely according to the type of school, while others do not.
Private schools overall have fewer students than public schools, and minorities are a lower percentage of the student population. Catholic schools tend to be larger and have greater diversity in enrollment than other types of private schools. Teachers in private schools report that they have wide latitude in deciding how and what to teach, as well as a fairly strong influence on many school policies. Nonsectarian schools, in particular, may give teachers greater influence in shaping their school’s activities. In contrast, though the majority of teachers in each private school type agreed with positive statements about staff cooperation and the school’s management, teachers at other religious schools were more likely than other private school teachers to agree strongly with many of these statements. Teachers at other religious schools were particularly likely to give their administrators high marks, and to report that their colleagues shared similar beliefs about their school’s central mission and that rules were enforced consistently. Principals at the three types of private schools had different top priorities for their schools, but at least 60 percent in each school type included academic excellence. Public school principals most often cited teaching basic literacy skills as one of their top three goals (80 percent included it), while 51 percent of private school principals did so.
Achievement tests in reading, mathematics, and science show higher average scores for private school students. In addition, private schools tend to require more years of core academic subjects for high school graduation than do public schools, with some variation across school types. Graduates of private high schools have on average completed more advanced courses than public school graduates in science, mathematics, and foreign language. Finally, students who had attended private school in 8th grade were twice as likely as those who had attended public school to have completed a bachelor’s or higher degree by their mid-20s, and far less likely to have had no postsecondary education.
Private schools have advantages from the outset that many public schools cannot match, stemming from the choice by students and their families to participate in private education. However, requiring students to tackle difficult course material, developing consistent commitment from staff to meet clearly communicated goals, and maintaining a school climate that extols learning may well contribute to better achievement at schools in either sector.
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