Why Catholic Schools Do Well

by Jerry Sanderson
Diocese of Peoria

Parents are often unaware of the significant advantages offered by Catholic schools.

We’ve all seen the barrage of headlines. Low test scores. Declining graduation rates. Drugs, bullying and fighting. It can all be a little disheartening. But for the nearly 4,000 students in the Peoria area who attend 13 Catholic elementary schools and Notre Dame High School, the future could not be brighter. Their parents have chosen to put them in these schools for some not-so-obvious reasons. It is handy shorthand to think parents want a Catholic education for their children, but that is seldom true. When you dig deeper, you discover they want something they associate with Catholic living: a strong moral center, a feeling of personal worth, character, integrity, compassion and caring for others.

The CARA Institute at Georgetown University recently confirmed that “strong moral values” is the top reason parents choose to send their child to a Catholic school. Another study at the University of Pennsylvania confirms that “success is not the number-one priority for most parents. We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful.” When people in 50 countries were asked to report their guiding principles in life, the value that mattered most was not academic achievement, but caring.

In his recent bestseller, The Road to Character, author David Brooks talked about the value of character being a commitment to family, faith and community. “About once a month, I run across a person who radiates an inner light,” he writes. “These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people, and as they do so, their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all… These people have achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.”

Teaching What’s Taught At Home
These are the things parents believe they receive from a Catholic school—the same reasons the unchurched, as well as parents from many other religions, choose Catholic schools. When it comes to raising their child, many parents look at the teachers at Catholic schools as partners, trusting they are teaching the same values in school as they teach at home.

Catholic schools focus on instilling character so students make the right choices, no matter what their friends or others might say. They provide the freedom to explore aspects of the world not found in state-mandated lesson plans; they incorporate spirituality into every aspect of the curriculum; and their teachers and leaders are held to a higher standard of professionalism, morals and ethics, both in and out of the classroom.

That may sound lofty, but the results are impressive. Research at Harvard University indicates that Catholic school students have higher levels of civic engagement and knowledge, and are more politically tolerant and supportive of civil liberties. In a 2011 study, Notre Dame Professor David Campbell reported that “historically, public schools have been celebrated as the exemplars of civic education, while Catholic schools were often thought to provide an inferior form of training in democratic citizenship. But now, scores of empirical studies have confirmed that some forms of private schools—specifically Catholic schools—are more successful than their public counterparts in inculcating students with democratic values.” It’s hard to imagine a greater public good than that!

Catholic school students are less likely to have their marriages end in divorce; they vote more often; and for what it’s worth, they also earn more money throughout their lifetime. The widespread institution of “service hour” requirements in Catholic schools over the last two decades has helped to create an entire generation of generous, socially-minded adults ready to help their community.

An Academic Edge
But what about academic performance in Catholic schools? Here is where the story shocks nearly everyone.

Nearly all Peoria-area Catholic elementary schools have some variation of preschool for three- and four-year-olds. This is not daycare—this is preschool, where children first learn “how to learn” and form positive attitudes toward school. It is also likely to be the school where they will spend the next eight or nine years, and where a cohort of young mothers will form a lasting, supportive social network. This “family” support is one of the real strengths of Catholic education.

By the time Catholic school students reach the fourth grade, they are often a grade or two ahead of their public school counterparts, with such a significant lead that other schools find it difficult to catch up. Data from the 2014 Iowa Assessments indicate that by the time these students reach eighth grade, they are achieving three to four years above grade level—a remarkable testament to the power of a Catholic school education.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Catholic school students consistently score higher on advanced achievement tests, and by eighth grade, they outscore their public school counterparts in mathematics by a full 13 points. And every year for the past two decades, Catholic school eighth-graders have outscored public schools in reading by 20 points.

Where Minority Students Thrive
The impact of Catholic education on minority students is equally remarkable. What D.E. York found in her groundbreaking study was that the more “at risk” a student was, the greater the relative improvement that occurred. She also found that minority students were far more likely to take rigorous classes, graduate on time and attend college.

In one six-year stretch at Peoria Notre Dame High School, every single minority student graduated and went on to college. “If you’re serious about education reform, you have to pay attention to what Catholic schools are doing,” said Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, who has edited four books on the subject. “They’ve been educating urban kids better than they’re being educated elsewhere.”

The academic advantage students accrue in Catholic elementary schools is well documented, but it is high school that really starts to change their lives. In today’s world, a high school diploma is almost mandatory if an individual is going to survive, much less thrive. All over the country, nearly 100 percent of Catholic high school students graduate; for public schools, that number is 78 percent. The disparity widens even more when considering college attendance, with 84.9 percent of Catholic high school graduates attending four-year colleges, more than double the rate of public schools. This number rises to 97 percent when the criterion is “some post secondary education.”

Catholic school students do better, and the research literature is replete with reasons. William Jaynes, education professor at California State University, found that Catholic schools “have fewer behavioral problems than their counterparts, even when adjusted for socioeconomic status, race and gender.” That translates into fewer gangs, less drugs and greater racial harmony. Jaynes believes Catholic schools “have higher expectations of students and encourage them to take hard courses,” adding that they subscribe to the notion that “students are often capable of achieving more than they realize.”

Many Catholic elementary students in the Peoria area matriculate to Notre Dame High School—one of the best in the state. Over the past six years, Notre Dame’s composite ACT score has increased every year and now stands at 24.6—tops in the area:

It’s interesting to note that not all students in Peoria’s Catholic schools are, in fact, Catholic. They welcome all religions, including the unchurched and unaffiliated—commonly referred to as “nones,” which account for nearly 20 percent of adults and one third of millennials, according to the Pew Research Center. The irony is that many Catholic kids are attending public schools and falling behind, while many non-Catholics are attending Catholic schools and excelling.

Heading For College
It’s true that most kids educated in Catholic schools go on to college. While it may not be for everyone, individuals with a college degree are paid more—much more—than those without one. Degree-holders now earn 80 percent more than their peers with just a high school diploma, up from about 40 percent more in the late 1970s. According to a recent MIT study, the return on investment in education, from elementary school to college, exceeds the historic return on practically any conventional investment, including stocks, bonds and real estate.

Here in Peoria, the need for a college-educated workforce is critical. Caterpillar is in need of engineers; OSF demands talented nurses and doctors; the Ag Lab requires dedicated scientists, and the University of Illinois, Bradley, Robert Morris, Illinois Central College and Midstate are in search of instructors, researchers and other professionals. The Peoria-area Catholic school system has met this challenge by partnering with AdvancED, the world’s largest educational accrediting organization. Accreditation by AdvancED ensures the Diocese’s school improvement efforts are aligned with a rigorous set of research-based quality standards verified by an external review team.

Parents often ask, “Can I afford to send my child to a Catholic school?” My response is always the same: “Can you afford not to?” All parents want what is best for their children, and are willing to sacrifice to provide the best opportunities for their family.

Quite often, young parents are unaware of the significant advantages offered by Catholic schools. However, a tour of a Catholic school classroom promises a fulfilling experience: Smartboards and computers. Small class sizes with exceptional teachers who provide individual attention. Solid, often superior academics. Discipline and a sound spirituality. A place where teachers are expected to teach and students are expected to learn.

Peoria’s Catholic schools don’t usually make the headlines, and that’s okay. They simply provide their students with the best tools to fulfill their future roles as good citizens, productive and caring employees, competent professionals, and daughters and sons that will make their parents—and all of us—very proud. iBi

Jerry Sanderson is associate superintendent of the Diocese of Peoria.

 

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