Children in Roman Catholic schools make no more progress in reading in the early grades than similar students in public schools, and make even less progress in math, a new study finds.
“I was actually surprised to find the results that Catholic schools are worse in mathematics,” said Sean F. Reardon, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of education and sociology at Stanford University. “But, if Catholic schools aren’t subject to the same accountability requirements as public schools are, then they may not spend as much time on mathematics and literacy.”
He presented the study findings March 3 during the annual conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, a professional society that focuses on “cause and effect” research and other kinds of rigorous studies. The March 2-4 event in Arlington, Va., attracted more than 250 conference-goers and featured presentations by more than 80 researchers.
The new findings run counter to decades of research suggesting that Catholic schools have an educational edge over public schools. But most of that research, Mr. Reardon said, has focused on Catholic high schools; few such studies have addressed Catholic schooling for younger students.
One exception to that trend was a controversial national study of private schools published in 2006 by researchers Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Thule Lubienski. It found that, once factors like family-income level, race, and gender were taken into account, Catholic school 4th and 8th graders scored lower than public school students on national math exams. (“Public Schools Fare Well Against Private Schools in Study,” July 26, 2006.)
For their study, Mr. Reardon and co-authors Jacob Cheadle, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Stanford graduate student Joe Robinson analyzed data from a federal survey program that has been tracking more than 21,000 students nationally who entered kindergarten in fall 1998. They compared the learning gains those students made through grade 5 in Catholic elementary schools with those of public schoolchildren with similar characteristics.
In other words, the public school students had similar baseline test scores, socioeconomic levels, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as roughly the same sorts of preschool experiences and mothers with similar education levels—in all, many more variables than the Lubienskis used for their national study of private schools.
Mr. Reardon’s analysis of the data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, or ECLS-K, suggests that, by the time the Catholic school pupils reached 3rd grade, they trailed their public school counterparts in math by an average of three to four months. No differences were found in reading.
“National data is informative, but that’s not the choice that a parent makes,” Mr. Reardon explained, “so we thought we should also compare Catholic and public schools in the same location.”
To do that, Mr. Reardon and his colleagues did several more analyses comparing Catholic school students with similar students in public schools in the same counties. The second set of calculations yielded a much smaller and less significant mathematics gap between Catholic and public school students. In reading, the two groups of students remained about even.
Researchers cautioned, though, that the findings from that round of analyses were less reliable, because the number of Catholic schools with demographically similar public school students in the same county is much smaller than the number of parochial schools in the overall national sample. Thus, it might still be the case that, for some parents, the local Catholic school might offer better-quality schooling than nearby public schools, Mr. Reardon said. He said the data “just aren’t clear on that.”
Though the findings are bound to attract controversy, Roger Chesswas, the researcher assigned to critique Mr. Reardon’s study at the conference, called the analysis “thorough.”
“Of course, there’s no way to know what’s going on in teaching and learning in those two sets of schools,” added Mr. Chesswas, the director of research for Pacific Resources for Education and Learning, the federal regional education laboratory based in Honolulu. He also noted that students mature at different rates—another factor that is difficult to account for in any longitudinal study.
Both scholars, however, said the findings raise some important policy implications for current national debates over private-school-voucher programs, many of which might conceivably draw large numbers of low-income parents to low-cost Catholic schools.
“This would be the kind of school, in the short term, that’s available to that kind of student,” said Mr. Reardon. “What it looks like, at least in terms of math, is that it actually may not be a better alternative than the public school.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week