What Public Education Can Learn from Catholic Schools

There are few policy questions as important to the general public as what to do about education. Everyone agrees that that education on all levels—and especially the education of minority students—is in utter disarray, but it is difficult to forge a consensus on what precisely should be done to address the problem.

In the midst of this debate, Catholic high schools have been quietly creating advantaged educational opportunities for some of the most disadvantaged students in America. The Catholic high school’s strenuous core curriculum, set in an atmosphere of mutual respect and accountability, creates an atmosphere of learning that public schools would do well to emulate. Ultimately, schools administered along the lines of Catholic schools would be important elements in the revitalization of communities and the promotion of virtue and sound character.

Beginning with the work of Peter Rossi and Andrew Greeley in the early 1960s, rigorous empirical research has documented the extraordinary effectiveness of Catholic schools on a variety of fronts, particularly in the academic and religious domains. The academic success of the Catholic high school is apparent particularly when one views its effectiveness for certain disadvantaged and minority children, whose persistently low achievement levels—especially in urban America—present the most pressing problem confronting American public education today. (An example: The average mathematics test scores for black and Hispanic public school students in the twelfth grade are about the same as for white and Asian public school students in the eighth grade.) Consider this one piece of evidence: Children from single-parent families in public schools are twice as likely to drop out as students from two-parent families. But in Catholic schools dropout rates for both types of families are about the same, and that rate is nearly non-existent.

Why do Catholic high schools succeed so well academically? How do they create advantaged educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged of our society? The answer is both sound curriculum and sound communities.

Academic Organization

The central principle organizing the academic program of the Catholic high school is a core curriculum for all students, regardless of background or educational plans. The school has a widely shared assumption about what knowledge and skills students should acquire; required courses predominate, while electives are generally limited. A constrained structure—with equally high expectations for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, or social status—minimizes the social differences among students. On the other hand, the modern, comprehensive public high school has multiple tracks, offers many electives, and is inclined to place minority students in less demanding courses.

The focused academic vision of Catholic high schools results in a more equal distribution of academic achievement than is found in public schools. Ironically, the Catholic school better approximates what the founders of modern public education intended: the so-called common school. Take the minority-versus-white achievement gap in Catholic and public high schools: At the sophomore level in high school, minority students are scoring behind white students in both Catholic and public schools, though the “gap” is about one-third less in Catholic schools than in public schools. During the following two years of high school, the minority achievement gap for public school students grows larger, while it shrinks for Catholic school students. In other words, achievement is more equally distributed in Catholic schools.

Who takes college preparatory courses? In Catholic schools, 76 percent of all students take a college preparatory curriculum, compared to only 45 percent of public high school students. Moreover, poor, black, or Hispanic students are more likely to take advanced academic courses if they attend Catholic schools. In other words, in Catholic schools an overwhelming majority of students take the same rigorous courses, regardless of background.

And the evidence suggests a core curriculum requirement with higher academic demands does not lead to higher dropout rates, as many educators profess to fear. In one study, public school students had a 7.6 percent dropout rate between the eighth and tenth grades, compared to a Catholic school dropout rate of 1.3 percent.

Catholic schools also have more success preparing students for college. Two years after high school, 34 percent of those who attended a public school expect to earn a degree, compared to 59 percent of those who attended a Catholic school.

What about college completion rates? Urban minority graduates of Catholic high schools finish college and receive degrees at more than twice the rate of their public school counterparts (27 percent versus only eleven percent).

Whether looking at academic organization or expectations, coursetaking patterns, achievement scores, dropout rates, educational expectations, or college completion rates, Catholic high schools create opportunities for disadvantaged students that are rarely available in public high schools.

Communal Organization

The curriculum of a Catholic school, however, is based upon a communal organization with specific characteristics that lend themselves to greater educational achievement.

Socially, the internal life of the Catholic school is structured to promote many different opportunities for personal interaction and shared experiences among those who work in the school, attend it, and support it. The small size of the typical Catholic school fosters the creation of social intimacy, while a host of activities engage students and supporters (athletic events, fundraisers, rallies, school plays, alumni gatherings, retreats, liturgy, and other forms of religious ritual and prayer). These and other formal and informal events foster a community spirit that supports the school’s academic mission.

Similarly, teachers’ roles are broadly defined beyond simply being subject-matter or curriculum experts. Catholic educators view teaching as a vocation, a ministry of service. Collegial relationships among faculty create a shared sense of purpose, and social interaction outside the school both among themselves and with students and their families reinforces that sense of purpose. These features encourage a respectful personalism that guides behavior and enables the school to function effectively as a moral community with norms of proper behavior. There are, then, two sets of complementary virtues at work: care and concern, which are manifested in the school’s established norms. Larger public schools require more formal and bureaucratic modes of communication that make personalism and the resulting moral community more difficult to achieve.

Further, Catholic high schools are autonomous and decentralized, especially when compared to the centrally-controlled public schools. Nearly all important decisions in Catholic high schools are made onsite by the principal and teachers, allowing a school to develop a distinctive character and to be sensitive to unique situations. This system is based on the principle of subsidiarity, a form of governance that seeks the lowest possible level of decision-making authority, thereby maximizing individual participation.

Ultimately, Catholic high schools are guided by a philosophy of education, a set of fundamental beliefs and values that permeate the school. This unique educational philosophy affirms the ability of human reason to arrive at objective truth. It also includes a special Catholic perspective on the dignity of each person and the sacredness of the human community, which are both seen as potential paths into the mystery of God. Ultimately, this perspective concerns itself not only with what students know but also with the kind of moral persons they become, as well as the kind of moral community created in the school.

Implications for Public Education

What might American education learn from the successes of Catholic schools? What lessons can the academic and communal organization of Catholic schools impart to current efforts to transform public education?

First, coursetaking makes a difference, particularly among disadvantaged students. The focused and constrained core curriculum of the Catholic high school is a counterpoint to the comprehensive public high school described so memorably in the phrase, “shopping mall high school.” It is also a bulwark against the fads that frequently sweep through education. Public school policy makers would do well to require more core academic coursework of their students, particularly disadvantaged urban students. Efforts currently underway to develop national performance and content standards in core subject areas would be indispensable.

Along with demanding the mastery of a common body of knowledge from all students, it is apparent that schools that communicate high levels of care and concern create a genuine basis for engaging parents, teachers, and students. Individuals experience a network of relationships that bind them to the school. While the proverbial carrots and sticks in public education—like teachers’ merit pay or withholding driver’s licenses from poorly-performing students—have some extrinsic role to play in motivating people and enhancing engagement, these must be placed within a broader, less utilitarian, less instrumental context of interior motivation. Inner drive springs from the self-confidence of knowing that there are people—especially authority figures—who care for you and demand the best from you.

To develop these relationships, however, schools must have the autonomy to react to different situations. Effective Catholic schools have a great deal of leeway in educational, fiscal, and management matters. Most attempts in public education to foster site-based management have provided some small autonomy on program and fiscal matters, but have not exempted schools from district budget control or collective-bargaining agreements. Charter schools—usually independent public schools of choice that are accountable for educational results—are a serious attempt by the public sector to reinvent education and provide public schools with full autonomy. But not all charter school laws are equal; some are “Potemkin laws” that create pseudo-charter schools, displaying the facade but not the reality of charter legislation. Policy makers must resist the effort to constrain charter operators with weak laws that lead to insufficient autonomy from state statutes, rules, collective bargaining agreements, and the like.

As schools must be free to act, teachers must be free to exercise not merely the technical skills and expertise their position requires, but also the sense of calling and obligation that incites greater achievement in their students. Contemporary discussions about professional development that neglect normative or moral dimensions of teaching are not likely to improve or develop the profession. While entering the moral dimension into the discussion on teaching will be controversial, it must be done.


Parents With College Degrees Parents Without College Degrees Parents With College Degrees Parents Without College Degrees
Algebra II 65% 43% 62% 65%
Geometry 84% 59% 91% 92%
Trigonometry 28% 14% 42% 34%

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

Finally, a clear and overriding sense of mission, guided by an educational philosophy, shapes the organization of the Catholic high school. This philosophy includes an affirmation of human reason, moral knowledge, and respect for individual dignity, combined with a responsiveness to markets. Public schools must attend to the comprehensive ideals that encourage students to advance beyond relativism and material self-interest and search for ways to foster the interior lives of students.

The Sociology of Virtue

Schools are one of the primary institutions in communities that assist in the moral education of youth. They are responsible not only for a student’s mind but also for his character. This is one of the most important public functions that schools undertake: assisting the community in creating a more educated citizenry that participates in a vibrant civic life.

Some believe that civic life in America is collapsing, or, worse yet, that a healthy civil society is no longer possible. One could hardly kick over a rock in the last few years without uncovering a politician or social theorist (liberal or conservative) with a plan to reconstitute the institutions of American civil society—families, churches and synagogues, neighborhoods, community associations, voluntary and fraternal associations, and so on.

Many believe that this propensity of Americans to gather together to pursue common interests makes us unique as a nation. We are a nation of joiners; as de Tocqueville pointed out in the 19th century, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” These institutions, which cannot be established by government agencies or other bureaucracies, create “social capital,” a collection of social relationships and shared values that enable people to cooperate on a vast array of actions.

One recent discussion of the decline of civil society, by political scientist Robert Putnam, purported to present a significant amount of evidence documenting that Americans are not joining these groups and clubs as frequently as they once did. He used the phrase “bowling alone” as a metaphor to describe this disengagement, this decline in social capital.

It is not necessary to resolve the ultimate question of whether there has been little, substantial, or irreversible decline in this country’s civic life to acknowledge that revitalization of our civic communities and the institutions that are part of these communities—especially in urban areas—is desperately needed. Religious institutions have a vital role to play in revitalizing our civic communities. Moreover, unlike many institutions—especially government bureaucracies religious institutions have the freedom and the wherewithal to nurture and educate sound character, which is essential for the creation of responsible citizenry. This task falls under the banner of fostering the sociology of virtue. In the words of William Kristol:

Strengthening the institutions in civil society that attend to the character of the citizenry—this is the sociology of virtue. Today’s sociology of virtue … implies a thinking through of the way in which social institutions can be reinvented, restructured, or reformed to promote virtue and to foster sound character.

Here we come full circle to the Catholic high school, an institution that builds and creates not only social capital but spiritual capital—a significant and trusting relationship both with our fellow humans and with a God who purports to be the source of all that is true, good, and beautiful.

The effectiveness of the Catholic school cannot be understood solely through its academic requirements, communal organization, social behaviors, or other instrumental characteristics, important though these are. The Catholic high school’s fundamental beliefs and sentiments as embodied in its educators and its rituals—especially religious rituals— make it effective, particularly in educating disadvantaged students, who often receive from the Catholic school the social and religious capital that is frequently missing from their families.

These observations are no doubt troubling in fundamental ways to American public educational policy—in which church and state are thought to be separate—because they raise the question of the role of religious understanding in contemporary American schooling. Here I use “religious” to mean a set of beliefs, values, and sentiments that give meaning and purpose to life. In this sense, as Alfred North Whitehead observed, all education is religious. Within this context, the purpose of schooling is to foster in students an ethical sense and moral vision that support the common good. But in a pluralistic society, there is bound to be some variation in what this means from a practical point of view.

The present system of American public education cannot adequately deal with this pluralistic situation. It has created a uniform, bureaucratic system where one size is meant to fit, and do, all. Public education policy in America must move in the direction of allowing families much more choice in schooling than is presently permitted. The charter school movement is one example of this, as are the efforts to create privately and publicly financed scholarship programs that allow poor families to send their children to the school of their choice.

If we are to revitalize our communities, rebuild the social capital of our families and neighborhoods, and educate our young people (especially those who are most disadvantaged), then we must have this conversation on schooling. The role of religious understanding in schooling and the role of choice in education must take center stage. Perhaps forcing that conversation is the ultimate contribution Catholic high schools can make to contemporary American education reform.


  • Bruno V. Manno

    Bruno V. Manno is a trustee emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and senior advisor to the K–12 Education Reform Initiative at the Walton Family Foundation.

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