In 1982, University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman generated a storm of controversy with his landmark report, High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared. In the study, Coleman and his colleagues reached a provocative conclusion: Roman Catholic schools do a better job than public schools of educating poor minority students.
Coleman’s critics countered that the comparison is not fair because Catholic schools can be choosy about admissions. Public schools, on the other hand, have to accept everybody.
But in August 1990, the RAND Corp. published a study that may prompt a reevaluation of the so-called selectivity argument. The new report, High Schools with Character, compares the academic achievement of students in three types of New York City high schools: traditional public, magnet, and Catholic.
The RAND study examined a group of low-income minority students who were at risk of failing in public schools. Some were selected to attend private Catholic schools. (Their tuition was paid by a private foundation.) These students were no different from their public school peers in academic performance or behavior.
Yet the study found that 82 percent of the Catholic students went on to graduate, compared with 66 percent of their peers in public magnet schools and 55 percent in traditional public schools. In addition, the researchers found that the Catholic school students earned the highest SAT scores and that far more of them (85 percent) took the SAT than students in either public magnet high schools (nearly 50 percent) or traditional public high schools (33 percent).
What’s more important than overall numbers, according to RAND researcher Paul Hill, is the performance of individual students. For example, Hill says that the performance of Catholic school students from the poorest backgrounds—many, the study notes, from sections of Harlem where “male life expectancy is less than that in Bangladesh”—improved in response to Catholic education, while students from the same background who attended public schools showed little or no improvement.
Students in public magnet schools fared better than their traditional public school counterparts, according to the RAND study, because magnet schools possess one significant characteristic that is also common to Catholic schools: focus.
Traditional public schools, the study points out, “are so encrusted with rules and procedures that no one in them can work to his or her full potential.” In these schools, teachers and staff march to the beat of the central office drummer, regardless of the individual needs of the school.
Catholic and public magnet schools, on the other hand, possess more control over their own fate. And they have a clear, shared vision. Students and teachers at these so-called “focus” schools, the authors note, “consider their school special, a unique creation that reflects their efforts and meets their needs.”
Urban Catholic schools in particular, they conclude, “may be the most mature example of site-managed schools in existence.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Is Catholic Better?