Schools That Work

Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities, by James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer (Basic Books, 254 pp.; $21.95, cloth). Reviewed by D. Bruce Lockerbie, Staley Foundation Scholar-in-Residence at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York, and president of Stewardship Consulting Services.

If Thomas Paine were to publish Common Sense, his 1776 pamphlet, today, he would probably have to rename it “Statistics Show” or “A Study Reveals”—especially if he were attempting to treat some topic relating to human behavior, such as politics, religion, or education. Philosophers of old were content to observe human phenomena and rely on their common sense in uttering their wisdom. But today, we must have graphs, statistics, and the jargon of social science to justify any conclusion otherwise deemed unverifiable.

For instance, I read recently this headline in an education tabloid: “Divorce, Joblessness Identified as Primary Reasons for Child Poverty.” The article beneath that headline disclosed that “parental unemployment and divorce are the most common reasons that children fall into poverty, a study of 7,000 families nationwide has concluded.” This study, conducted by a university economics professor with funds from a foundation, followed its subjects for more than a decade.

This is no doubt an interesting way to occupy one’s time and spend somebody else’s money. But does the extensive study tell us anything we could not have figured out for ourselves? Does the scientific-research method of interpreting surveys, polls, and questionnaires improve on our common sense?

Obviously, politicians and educational sociologists believe so, as do many ...

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