Oct. 14, 1993
Vol. 13, No. 4

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    Catholic schools offer model for public counterparts

    The academic success of Catholic schools can be replicated at public schools and non-Catholic private schools if those institutions adopt some of the successful principles used in Catholic education, contends Anthony Bryk, Professor in Education.

    In the book "Catholic Schools and the Common Good," published in August by Harvard University Press, co-authors Bryk, Valerie Lee, associate professor of education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Peter Holland, superintendent of Belmont Public Schools in Massachusetts, offer Catholic schools as a model for school improvement.

    The authors report that Catholic schools foster an environment in which rigorous academic work is pursued by all students within a personally supportive and caring environment -- an environment that encourages a sustained commitment to learning among both students and teachers. Minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds are especially helped in such an environment.

    The research, which was conducted over a 10-year period, included examination of achievement-test scores and other data from national surveys as well as case studies of Catholic high schools in a variety of communities around the country. Among the authors' findings:

    _ Public high school seniors from low-income families perform at a grade level 2.2 years below that of their higher-income counterparts; in Catholic schools the gap in achievement is 1.6 years.

    _ For minority students attending Catholic schools, the average gain in mathematics achievement is 3.3 years between the sophomore year and the senior year, more than double the gain of 1.5 years for public-school minority students.

    _ Dropout rates are much lower in Catholic schools. In public schools, more than 14 percent of sophomores did not graduate by the time their classmates completed their senior year, while in Catholic schools only 3 percent did not complete their education on time.

    _ Both boys and girls benefit from attending single-sex high schools, which are a common form of organization for Catholic schools. In science, for instance, girls in Catholic high schools have a gain in achievement twice that of their counterparts in coed schools.

    The authors attribute Catholic schools' academic success to four characteristics: a common core of academic work for all students; a supportive, communal style of organization; decentralized governance; and an inspirational ideology.

    Because the schools demand a common core of courses, students' work is focused and coherent. Moreover, weaker students are not assigned to lower tracks where expectations for success are modest, as is often the case in public schools, the authors point out.

    The relatively small size of most Catholic high schools provides opportunities for informal contact between teachers and students and promotes an organizational structure in which students and teachers feel they are part of a community. Teachers also have a more visible presence for the students through the multiple roles of classroom teacher, athletic coach, activity moderator and personal counselor.

    Decentralized governance also assists by creating space for Catholic schools to shape distinctive forms of school life and by encouraging a sensitivity to the particular needs of students and their families. Principals have considerable authority in Catholic schools, and the "school system" in most dioceses is really a loose federation with little central control.

    An inspirational ideology promotes a vision of the school as a caring community committed to social justice. What Catholic high schools value is not limited to the knowledge students must acquire to succeed in life; the schools also seek to shape an ethical perspective toward personal responsibility and societal engagement. This mission stands in sharp contrast to contemporary public schooling, which is now driven by the rhetoric of the marketplace, a radical individualism and the competitive pursuit of economic rewards, the authors say.

    These observations lead the authors to doubt whether current reform efforts -- which seek to make changes through governance, increases in teacher professionalism and new standards and accountability systems -- can succeed.

    "In our view, the problems of contemporary schooling are broader than the ineffective use of instrumental authority," the authors write. "At the base is an absence of moral authority. As long as moral inspiration remains largely absent from public education, the social resources required for broad-based change will remain uncatalyzed. The current need is a matter not only of restructuring, but of renewal."

    In concluding their study, Bryk, Lee and Holland point out that the Catholic schools of today are very different from those of 30 years ago. Catholic schools now educate a broad cross section of Americans of diverse races, ethnicities and social classes. Instruction is not narrow, divisive or sectarian, but rather is informed by a generous conception of democratic life. Also, many of these schools are located in disadvantaged communities and constitute an important institutional resource for those communities. All in all, Catholic schools make a strong claim on advancing the common good, the authors state.

    In this regard, the authors express concern about the precarious financial situation afflicting Catholic schools, especially those serving disadvantaged populations. These schools continue to close at alarming rates despite considerable efforts by school staff members, parents and religious organizations. Bryk, Lee and Holland question whether the continued demise of these schools is in the public interest. They note that most modern democracies have established a greater accommodation between secular and religious schools and between the moral and instrumental realms in society than the United States. The authors argue that as America looks to expand its resources for children, it is time to reconsider whether the rigid exclusion of religious schools from public support advances the common good.

    -- William Harms