Rich Barlow

What Catholic schools are doing right

By Rich Barlow
December 27, 2009

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WHAT ARE Catholic schools doing right?

I heard the late Senator Paul Wellstone pose that question during a speech in which he marveled at the success of parochial education in rescuing disadvantaged urban children from failing public schools. His question has relevance at this time of year in Cambridge, where families whose children will enter kindergarten in the fall - ours among them - must select three elementary schools from among the city’s dozen. The choice system seeks to diversify schools along socio-economic lines, then considers other factors - how near to the school you live and whether you have other kids there, for example -in trying to accommodate parental picks.

Each year, some families don’t get any of their choices and are assigned to another school, so it it pays to have a Plan B. Absent financial aid, private schools, typically costing approximately $20,000 a year, can be prohibitive. That leaves alternatives like Catholic schools, where the bill runs one-fourth or less of the privates’. Affordability and quality draw non-Catholics as well.

In the 1993 book “Catholic Schools and the Common Good,’’ coauthor Peter Holland took a stab at figuring out what makes the parochial education clock tick. The book’s authors relied on a national database of high school information and visits to parochial schools. “The accumulated evidence,’’ they concluded, “indicates that average achievement is somewhat higher in Catholic high schools than in public high schools, and it also suggests that Catholic high schools may be especially helpful for disadvantaged students.’’ They pinpointed several reasons: a core curriculum, shorn of some electives available in public school; school-based governance (giving teachers, principals, and parents authority usually reserved for central offices or school boards); and community principles stressing extracurricular events, teachers interacting with students in and outside the classroom, and respect for human dignity and collegiality.

John J. Convey, an education professor at The Catholic University of America, told me that Catholic elementary schools have emulated this success with similar methods. Past studies “have shown that the achievement of students in Catholic elementary schools exceeds that of students in public elementary schools,’’ as measured by the benchmark National Assessment of Education Progress, federal tests of subject achievement given to fourth- and eighth-graders, he said. Having done strategic planning for several Catholic schools, he attributes their performance to a “well-defined curriculum,’’ tethered to “a supportive environment with lots of parental involvement’’ and teachers with a sense of calling to aid their students’ academic and spiritual growth.

This ship admittedly comes freighted with disputes. Catholic University’s James Youniss cautions against apples-and-oranges comparisons between Catholic and public schools. For one thing, parochial school parents may be more engaged in their children’s education than their public school counterparts - they fork over tuition, after all - and parental involvement is pivotal, wherever a child attends school.

Yet even Youniss applauds Holland’s key insight: “The features he noted . . . would bring about successful learning in any school - public, non-religious private, or whatever. His analysis, then, is useful for education in general, and insofar as Catholic schools function this way, they ought to benefit students. . . . It is not what public schools fail to do, but what many Catholic schools have been able to accomplish.’’ Touring Cambridge public schools, my wife and I have seen some fine institutions embracing strategies used in Catholic schools. But nationally, Youniss’s observation doesn’t always take, as demonstrated by a recent New Yorker article on New York City’s school system. Teachers’ unions protect toxic, no-talent teachers as much as they exalt gifted instructors.

Cambridge’s public schools offer distinctive cultures and emphases, and different families naturally seek different things. As for us, we’re looking for a school, public or otherwise, hewing to the Nike theory of education: Watch how smart schools work. Then just do it.

Rich Barlow is a freelance writer in Cambridge.