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November 14, 2003

Private Schools Are Not Emotional Havens for Teens

Washington, DC — Contrary to popular assumption, rates of suicidality and depression (among males) and weapon use (among males and females) are significantly higher in small schools than in large schools, according to results of the nation’s first sociological survey of its kind. The results, published in the latest (October 2003) issue of Sociology of Education, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Sociological Association (ASA), were found while controlling for students' socioeconomic status, family structure/background, and other potentially confounding factors. [See below to access PDF version of article.]

Common wisdom is that small, private schools better serve the emotional development of students, but this largest national survey of the emotional well-being of private school students has found otherwise, according to the study's director, Toni Terling Watt, a sociology professor at Texas State University-San Marcos. Watt's purpose was to sort out the effects of factors such as school size, private vs. public school setting, and other context effects on these emotional development indicators.

Watt analyzed data gathered by the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a database of 13,000 students in grades 7-12. Among Watt's most surprising findings about students at small, private schools:

  • Males are almost four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers at large, public schools.
  • Weapon use is almost twice as likely among male students, and three times as likely among females, than at public schools.
  • Males are much less likely to form supportive friendships and find social acceptance than at public schools.
  • Marginalized students (e.g., minorities, athletic underachievers or students who do not easily fit into a niche) are at no less risk of emotional and developmental problems than similar students at public schools.

"There's quite a bit of evidence that shows academic achievement is higher at private schools, and the assumption has been that that would extend to emotional development as well," says Watt. “There has not been much empirical evidence comparing the emotional development of students at privates and publics, and when I started this research, I had expected to find evidence to support the conventional wisdom."

Instead, Watt concludes that the homogeneity and "cliqueishness" of private schools could be a detriment to adolescents' mental health, "findings [are] at odds with the received wisdom that private and/or small schools are conducive to mental health," says Watt. "They also contradict broader theoretical arguments that small, homogeneous communities are psychologically beneficial to individuals."

That conventional wisdom, Watt says, stems from the belief that small, tight-knit towns and communities are better for the mental health of adults because they foster community involvement and close friendships. "But it might be that in a small setting, those who have trouble fitting in will be even more marginalized because they can't find a niche group," says Watt. "At a larger school, these kids are more likely to be anonymous or find a subculture where they're comfortable."

A small school doesn't provide for anonymity, and a teen's differences become more obvious to his or her classmates, which can lead to ostracism and depression, says Watt.

"There's been such a push toward small schools, from President Bush's voucher plan to liberals who are pushing to create smaller 'sub-schools' within large public schools," says Watt. Even political adversaries and reform-minded groups accept that small schools are better all around, but Watt says they need to pay attention to emotional needs as well as academic achievement.

"Schools provide an intellectual and moral education," says Watt, "and perhaps we need to start looking at how you can get both without sacrificing either."

Members of the media seeking further information may contact Toni Terling Watt at (512) 245-3287 or tw15@txstate.edu). To access a PDF version of the article (954KB), visit our website.

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.