Catholic Educators Surprised by Data On Student Values
NEW ORLEANS--Despite their schools' emphasis on traditional moral values, seniors in Roman Catholic high schools may be more likely than their public-school peers to engage in shoplifting and drug and alcohol abuse, preliminary results from a national study suggest.
Those findings, released here last week at the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association, surprised many of the 14,000 conference-goers and prompted some educators to call for more attention to the problems indicated.
"The Catholic high school does a good job of promoting important values in kids, particularly in religion,'' said Peter L. Benson, the consultant directing the study, which is scheduled for completion next year. "But it isn't as good at preventing adolescent behaviors we want to prevent.''
Because the mission of Catholic education is to influence students morally as well as academically, it is important to examine "how good a job we're doing,'' added Mr. Benson, president of the Search Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Minneapolis.
Mr. Benson's research, commissioned by the N.C.E.A., is based on an analysis of data from "Monitoring the Future,'' an annual survey of student beliefs sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The survey involves 16,000 high-school seniors from public and nonpublic schools nationwide, including 1,000 Catholic-school seniors.
Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the Catholic educators' group, said the study "demonstrates that students don't always follow through on what teachers say. It certainly points up the need for changes in curriculum and further studies of how we teach about alcohol and drug abuse.''
But she stressed that "we haven't had time to analyze the findings because the study itself is not finished.''
"We will be monitoring this very carefully,'' she added, "and, if the preliminary results stand up, we will have to take some serious action.''
At the meeting, the association agreed to seek funding for a model substance-abuse-prevention program. Sister McNamee said the program would address substance abuse through a "multidisciplinary'' approach, rather than in a separate course. Most Catholic schools have some type of drug education within a health course, she said.
Drug, Alcohol Use
In breaking down information given by high-school seniors in the class of 1985, Mr. Benson said he found that significantly greater percentages of Catholic-school seniors said they used alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana than public-school seniors. His analysis found that:
- Forty-five percent of Catholic-school seniors said they had become inebriated in the two weeks prior to the survey, compared with 39 percent of the public-school seniors.
- Twenty-one percent of the Catholic-school students said they had tried cocaine; 17 percent of their public-school counterparts reported having used the drug. While cocaine usage has increased for both groups over the past 10 years, the rate among Catholic-school seniors has nearly tripled.
- On marijuana use, 57 percent of the Catholic-school students said they had used the drug at least once, compared with 54 percent of public-school students. Forty-four percent of the Catholic-school respondents and 41 percent of their public-school peers said they had smoked marijuana in the six months prior to the survey.
In addition, 28 percent of the Catholic-school seniors said they had used the drug in the preceding 30 days, compared with 26 percent of the public-school respondents.
- About 40 percent of the Catholic-school seniors surveyed said they had engaged in shoplifting in the past year, compared with 29 percent of the public-school seniors.
Nationwide, only about 20 percent of Catholic students attend Catholic high schools.
Mr. Benson said he was surprised and disturbed by the results. "Some of this stuff is a bit sensitive,'' he said.
But determining the best ways to counteract substance abuse and shoplifting are hindered because "we don't really know what Catholic schools are doing in the way of preventing these behaviors,'' he said.
The study does not examine the reasons for substance abuse among Catholic-school students, but Mr. Benson, in presenting his findings, speculated about possible explanations for the disparities.
The statistics on alcohol use may be explained, in part, by the Catholic Church's lack of a prohibition on using alcohol, which contrasts with the teachings of some other churches, Mr. Benson said.
"It may be that this relative silence about alcohol use is some sort of indirect encouragement,'' he said. And, he said, it is possible that the use of alcohol leads to the use of drugs.
Another explanation, he said, is that the generally tight discipline of Catholic schools may cause rebellious behavior among students.
"The only thing we know is that drug usage is occurring away from school, because of the discipline,'' he said. "Perhaps Catholic schools are not having the kind of impact on decisionmaking students do outside of school that they would like to.''
Possible explanations for the high incidence of shoplifting are more complex, Mr. Benson said. Other surveys have found that families with children in Catholic schools have slightly higher incomes than public-school families.
Mr. Benson suggested that the fact that more than 50 percent of Catholic high schools are located in urban areas may mean that their students have more opportunities to shoplift.
Another possible reason, he said, is that Catholic schools may enroll a higher percentage of students with behavior problems. The parents of such students may have decided that "what their kids need is the discipline of Catholic schools,'' he said.
Religion, Marriage, Work
In contrast to their responses on the drug, alcohol, and shoplifting questions, Catholic-school seniors say they believe strongly in many traditional values, the study found.
Students in both public and Catholic high schools rated having a good marriage and family life as their most important concern. Likewise, both groups said finding steady work, having strong friendships, and being successful on the job were their next most important concerns, in that order.
Slightly more Catholic-school seniors than their public-school counterparts rated marriage as being extremely important.
The Catholic-school students reported a higher level of social concern than public-school students, the survey found. About 50 percent of the Catholic-school respondents said they wanted to do work that would be worthwhile to society, even if it did not provide high pay and prestige, compared with 43 percent of their public-school peers.
In the past 10 years, that value has become more important to Catholic-school students, increasing by about 6 percent, while it has become less important for public-school students, decreasing by about 4 percent, according to the annual survey.
It also found that about 30 percent of Catholics attending parochial schools said religion was important to them, compared with 22 percent of Catholics in public schools.