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Avenues to Prestige among Adolescents in Public and Religiously Affiliated High Schools

By Suitor, J. Jill; Powers, Rebecca S. et al. | Adolescence, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Avenues to Prestige among Adolescents in Public and Religiously Affiliated High Schools


Suitor, J. Jill, Powers, Rebecca S., Brown, Rachel, Adolescence


For more than four decades, the relative benefits of private versus public education at the elementary and secondary school levels have been debated. Both the scholarly and popular literatures addressing this issue have focused primarily on the question of whether private schools provide a higher quality education, as measured by indices such as class size, grades, standardized test scores, and college admissions (Coleman, Hoffer, & Kilgore, 1982). A second question that has been raised, with greater emphasis in the popular literature, is whether private schools provide a better social environment for children and teenagers. In this context, "better" has generally been conceptualized in terms of morality, ethics (particularly Judeo-Christian ethics), safety, and the academic orientation of the student body (Coleman, Hoffer, & Kilgore, 1982). In this paper we focus on the second of these two questions. Specifically, we examine differences in the social environment of public and private high schools, using 1,733 student reports about avenues to prestige.

Why Parents Choose Private Schools

An examination of the popular and scholarly literature on parents' school choice finds almost completely overlapping explanations. Parents believe that their children will learn more and have broader academic opportunities if they attend private schools. Further, and more to the point of the present paper, parents also believe that both religious and nonsectarian private schools provide an educational context in which their children will be encouraged to focus on academics and character development (cf. Badie, 1998; Folmar, 1997). Although the studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s revealed a somewhat inconsistent picture regarding differences in actual academic achievement between students who attended public and private schools (cf. Bickel & Chang, 1985; Coleman, Hoffer, & Kilgore, 1982; Morgan, 1984; Sandy, 1989), the picture was quite consistent regarding differences in "campus climate." Reports from students and parents indicated that private schools, more so than public schools, emphasized academic achievement, high morals, and courteous behavior (cf. Bridgeman & Fox, 1978; Coleman & Hoffer, 1983; Coleman et al., 1982). More recent journalistic accounts of parents' choices suggest that school selection continues to be guided by such climate factors, as well as by anticipated academic achievement (cf. Badie, 1998; Folmar, 1997). However, little recent literature has examined whether the climate differences between public and private secondary schools that were found in earlier studies persist. As concerns about violence and drugs in schools have escalated across the past two decades, private school enrollments have increased due to perceptions that they offer greater security on these issues (Hegarty, 1995; Strauss, 1995). However, questions remain as to whether private schools actually provide a social environment with fewer negative influences. Thus, we will begin by addressing the question of the extent to which private and public schools differ in terms of climate.

Exploring Differences in School Climate: Avenues to Prestige Among Adolescents

Examination of studies over the past two decades in the United States suggests little change in school climate, as indicated by the ways in which adolescents continue to gain prestige. Consistent with the findings that Coleman (1961) reported more than 40 years ago, boys continue to gain prestige primarily through sports, academic achievement, physical appearance, and sociability, while girls gain prestige primarily through academic achievement, physical appearance, and sociability (cf. Canaan, 1990; Eckert, 1989; Eder, 1985; Eder & Parker, 1987; Eicher, Baizerman, & Michelman, 1991; Foley, 1990; Kane, 1988; Kinney, 1993; Matteo, 1986; Suitor & Carter, 1999; Suitor & Reavis, 1995; Suitor, Minyard, & Carter, 2001; Williams & White, 1983).

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