A ‘Catholic Schools Effect’ Is Reaffirmed By Its Champions, Coleman and Greeley

By Cindy Currence — November 14, 1984 7 min read
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James S. Coleman and the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, the social scientists who touched off the academic debate over the relative merits of public and private schools, have considered the arguments raised by their critics and decided to stand their ground.

In a research report released at a conference here late last month, the two reiterate their contention that Catholic high schools are more economically efficient and educationally effective than public high schools.

The report, based on an examination of new data produced for the federally supported project called “High School and Beyond,” indicates that between their sophomore and senior years, students in Catholic schools show greater gains in reading, vocabulary, mathematics, and writing than those in public schools.

But in defense of public schools, other researchers at the conference, citing the same “High School and Beyond” data, argued that the higher achievement levels do not mean that Catholic schools are superior. The gap can be attributed to other factors, such as differences in skills and selection of students in Catholic schools, they said.

Long-Running Argument

The conference, “Comparing Public and Private Schools,” sponsored by Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance, provided some fresh looks at the long-running controversy about the relative effectiveness of public and Catholic schools.

Mr. Coleman, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and Father Greeley, of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, triggered the debate in 1982 with the publication of research analyses of 1980 data from “High School and Beyond” that showed Catholic-school students at least one grade level ahead of their public-school counterparts. Father Greeley’s research focused on poor and minority students and found even greater differences in achievement levels.

“These results were strongly challenged,” the researchers report in the paper released last month. “Apart from spontaneous reaction by persons concerned with protecting the public schools, a number of social scientists came to the public schools’ defense.”

A Follow-Up Study

In examining the most recent data from “High School and Beyond,” gathered in the spring of 1982, Mr. Coleman and Father Greeley said they set out to further test the findings of their 1982 studies, High School Achievement and Catholic High Schools and Minority Students.

“The new data make possible an unusual event in social science: to test a set of quantitative inferences ... after the initial inferences have been made,” the researchers state, adding that their most recent analysis provided them with an opportunity to investigate the degree to which “certain critics” were correct in arguing that there was little or no difference in the achievement levels attained by Catholic- and public-school students.

But their most recent analysis, reported in a paper titled “Achievement Growth in Public and Catholic High Schools,” confirms, they wrote, the “Catholic-schools effect” they found in their analyses of the 1980 data.

The researchers found that overall, students who attend Catholic high schools gain from 0.8 (in civics and vocabulary) to 1.7 (in mathematics) grade equivalents more than the average public-school student between their sophomore and senior years.

Higher Achievement Levels

Adjusting those figures to take into account the more affluent family backgrounds of Catholic students did not eliminate the Catholic schools effect, except in science and civics, the researchers reported.

“A Catholic-school student with a family background and level of sophomore achievement equal to those of the average public-school student still realizes the equivalent of 0.8 to 1.1 years of extra growth in vocabulary, reading, writing, and mathematics,” the report states.

As before, the researchers attribute the superior achievement of Catholic-school students to several factors:

Catholic-school students, irrespective of family background, are 20 percent more likely to be enrolled in an academic-curriculum program, according to the study. “Catholic schools place in an academic track many whose sophomore achievement would relegate them to a general or vocational track in many public high schools,” the researchers state.

Catholic-school students are required to take more courses in mathematics, science, and foreign languages than are public-school students of similar backgrounds and achievement levels.

Catholic-school students spend “significantly” more time on homework per week than do their public-school counterparts.

And Catholic-school students report far fewer discipline problems in their schools, such as absenteeism, fighting, and talking back to teachers.

“The evidence of our statistical analyses indicate that if public schools were able to make comparable academic demands and uphold comparable disciplinary standards, then their students would achieve at levels comparable to those attained by Catholic schools,” conclude Mr. Coleman, Father Greeley, and Thomas Hoffer, a co-author of the report and research associate at the National Opinion Research Center.

Contradictory Findings

Several researchers who presented papers at the Stanford conference disputed the findings of the three researchers.

Douglas Willms, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh who also has examined the 1982 data from “High School and Beyond,” reported “no pervasive Catholic-schooling effect in the academic achievement for the average student.”

According to Mr. Willms, findings from four tests designed to measure the effect of schooling on the students’ academic growth in science, mathematics, writing, and civic education, the Catholic-schools effect was “trivial.”

The differences reported by Mr. Coleman, Father Greeley, and Mr. Hoffer are “inconsequential,” Mr. Willms told conference participants, compared with results for such educational interventions as peer tutoring or reorganized curricula.

Mr. Willms also questioned the validity of the standardized tests used by the Coleman group to measure academic growth, adding that the results showed virtually “no growth” from 1980 to 1982 for about 50 percent of the students.

No ‘Common-School’ Effect

Karl L. Alexander, a sociology professor at The Johns Hopkins University, and Aaron M. Pallas, a research associate there, said their research had failed to support Father Greeley’s findings that Catholic schools do a better job of reducing the differences in academic achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

“When test scores are controlled,” Mr. Pallas said, “there’s no evidence that low-socioeconomic-status students or minority youths are more successful in Catholic schools than in public schools.”

In their report, “School Sector and Cognitive Performance: When Is a Little a Little?” the two researchers maintain that “the effectiveness hypothesis has yet to be put to a proper test.”

No one, they state, has had access to the kinds of data needed for a proper consideration of the question. Basing conclusions on the “High School and Beyond” data does not allow researchers to adjust for differences in students’ competency before they entered high school.

“Because of this design limitation, the fact that private-sector students tend to score somewhat better than their public-school counterparts on the tests is equivocal as evidence of differential effectiveness.

“Does this pattern occur because private schools are better at promoting cognitive development, or simply because such schools enroll better students in the first place?” they ask.

Cost Effectiveness

Even if there were no difference in the achievement levels of Catholic- and public-school students, public schools could take a lesson in efficiency from Catholic schools, Mr. Coleman told conference participants.

Father Greeley has recommended further study of why Catholic education can be purchased at “amazingly low” costs. The financial efficiency of Catholic schools is accounted for only partially by higher student/teacher ratios, lower staff income, and lower rates of advanced-degree training for Catholic-school teachers, he states in Catholic High Schools and Minority Students.

The average per-pupil expenditure in Catholic high-schools was $1,347 for the 1980-81 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the National Catholic Educational Association. The average per-pupil expenditure for public elementary and secondary schools for that year was $2,440, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 1984 edition of Education Week as A ‘Catholic Schools Effect’ Is Reaffirmed By Its Champions, Coleman and Greeley


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