Catholic School Lessons for the Public Schools

by Peter B. Holland

Everyone has an answer for how to improve public schools. Some say voucher plans are the only route to wholesale reform. Others push interdistrict choice or decentralized decision making or pledge allegiance to total quality management. And, of course, charter schools are the answer of the moment.

To navigate through this maelstrom, superintendents and their boards must sort out the educational, philosophical, and political merits of these proposals. At the same time, research since the mid-1960s has identified one group of schools that has posted some surprisingly effective results.

Based on my experience as a researcher of Catholic schools and an administrator in both Catholic and public schools, I suggest that some practices and policies that work well in Catholic schools are portable to public schools.

Pronounced Findings

First, a brief overview of Catholic schools. In 1995, nearly 2½ million students in grades K-12 were educated in 8,300 Catholic schools. (By comparison, public schools educated more than 44 million students in K-12 in 1995.) The number of students enrolled in Catholic schools has declined by more than 50 percent since 1965, and a third fewer schools now operate.

One reason for the declining enrollment is that many Catholic schools are located in urban areas, and new Catholic schools have not been established in the suburbs where Catholic families have moved. Less than 2½ percent of existing Catholic schools were founded since 1980, a much lower rate of establishing new schools than that of private and public schools.

Research over the last 30 years by James Coleman, Thomas Hoffer, Sally Kilgore, and Andrew Greeley showed higher academic achievement for Catholic school students after controlling for family background characteristics. These results were even more pronounced for minority students in Catholic high schools. Research that I helped to conduct (with Anthony Bryk and Valerie Lee) in 1993 showed that Catholic high schools achieved relatively high levels of student learning, distributed this learning more equitably with regard to race and class than in the public sector, and generally sustained high levels of teacher commitment and student engagement.

What are Catholic schools doing that account for these results? Can these practices be replicated in the public sector?

Key Attributes

Our research indicates that Catholic schools share five organizational characteristics that account for their unusual effectiveness.

* First, Catholic high schools offer and require a core academic curriculum for all students.

Every student is expected to take a common set of courses partly because of resource constraints, but also because faculty and administrators believe such a curriculum constitutes a proper humanistic education.

Most Catholic high schools require four years of English, math, science, social studies, and religion, as well as two years of foreign language study. Electives are limited in scope and number. In the seven Catholic high schools we visited in our study, required courses ranged from a low of 14 of 21 needed for graduation at one school to a high of 20 of 22 needed for graduation at another. The so-called general track in Catholic schools is virtually an academic track, and few Catholic schools offer programs in vocational courses or education in the trades.

Some students may begin the curriculum at a more advanced level and proceed in more depth, but the same basic academic goals apply for all students. Although some tracking and ability grouping occurs, the negative consequences of such practices are limited by the few levels offered. In addition, school policies allocate the limited fiscal and human resources to ensure all students make satisfactory progress.

This emphasis on core curriculum is reinforced by the Catholic schools' lack of resources to offer broadly differentiated programs. Research by the College Board, among others, indicates the positive correlation between the number and quality of academic courses taken and higher test scores.

* Second, the academic structure of Catholic schools is embedded within a larger communal organization involving students, teachers, and parents.

This communal structure has three characteristics. The first is an extensive array of school activities that provide numerous opportunities for personal interactions and shared experiences for adults and students. School events such as athletics, dramatics, music programs, liturgies, and retreat programs create high levels of participation and afford opportunities for student-teacher experiences.

The second feature is the extended scope of the teacher’s professional responsibilities. More than subject matter specialists, teachers in Catholic high schools are coaches, activity moderators, and advisers who work with students beyond the classroom.

The final feature is a set of shared beliefs about what students should learn, the proper norms of instruction, and how people should work and relate to one another. The philosophy of the school underscores these shared beliefs.

Social Relationships

* Third, the relatively small size of most Catholic high schools enhances the emphasis on community.

Smaller school size facilitates informal social intimacy. Students know and are known by other students and the adults in the building. Combined with less tracking, the smaller school size promotes broader social mixing among students of different races and social classes. Some researchers have indicated that the optimum high school size is 700 to 800 students, large enough to offer advanced courses in math, science, English, and foreign languages, and small enough for students within any grade to know most of their cohort.

* Fourth, a decentralized governance structure contributes to greater effectiveness in Catholic high schools.

The Catholic school system is in fact a loose federation of schools whose governance depends on the ownership, which is typically a parish, diocese, or religious order. Catholic schools have operated on a school-based management model for many years.

The relationship with the superintendent of schools is cordial but rarely involves policy other than salary schedules, school calendars, and a broad adherence to Catholic teachings. Decisions concerning curricular organization, length of teaching day, modular or block schedule, co-curricular activities, parent programs, and fund-raising efforts, among others, are determined at the school level.

* Fifth, the inspirational ideology of effective Catholic high schools reflects their organizational vision and values.

Catholic schools operate on a social ethic that espouses the importance of community, the dignity of the individual, and the dynamic tension that exists between individual and group pursuits. Catholic high schools consciously refer to their graduates as "men and women for others," persons who weigh the common good in their decision-making processes.

Catholic schools' vision and values play out in community service programs and extensive graduation requirements, a clear consensus about the purpose of the school, and a set of core values that exhort students and teachers to actions that promote the common good. Self-aggrandizing behavior is not encouraged. Teachers and administrators can say to their graduates: "We not only care about what you learn, but also about the kind of person you become."

Similar Traits

With 13 years of experience as a central-office administrator in public settings, I recognize that many public schools also exemplify these characteristics. I can say the same of Belmont, Mass., a district of 3,500 students, where many of the organizational characteristics of Catholic schools are in place.

Because of funding constraints and district philosophy, Belmont High School has moved to a core academic curriculum for all students in which everyone must pass four years of English, math, and science, three years of social studies, and one year of performing arts in order to graduate.

The high school has had a voluntary community service program for several years, and it will become a graduation requirement for the Class of 1998. In grade 9, all students must enroll in an ethics course titled "The Individual in a Community: The Examined Life." This unit asks students to reflect on decision making and moral reasoning in the context of living in a community. Students are encouraged to exercise peer leadership on issues of vandalism, smoking, and cheating within the school.

Superintendents face multiple, and often conflicting, concerns each day. Balancing the budget, building public support for public education, managing special education costs, maintaining discipline and respect within schools, monitoring teacher and administrator performance, and repairing and maintaining public buildings top the list of priorities. In addition, superintendents need to assuage the demands of teacher unions, shield the district from the politics of school boards and municipal governments, confront the immediacy of student issues, and respond to the rising expectations of parents.

Proven Strategies

The research on Catholic schools provides a focus for the harried school system administrator, who faces multiple and often conflicting concerns each day.

By targeting issues of student learning in the context of the academic structure of the school, administrators can reduce the distraction of these forces and apply some proven strategies for improving student learning and creating positive social interactions. Catholic schools offer effective models for curriculum, student and teacher roles, small school size, decentralized governance, and a focus on the common good, all of which can benefit public schools.

Peter Holland previously worked in Catholic schools as a teacher and principal. He is co-author of Catholic Schools and the Common Good, published by Harvard University Press in 1993.