Catholic Schools Outperform Lower Class Sizes

Published February 1, 2000

Do Catholic schools really outperform public schools?

In a recent edition of ABC’s 20/20, John Stossel held up Catholic schools as an example of an education system that has served its students much better than the public schools, at a much lower cost.

According to a new study by The Heritage Foundation, Stossel was right in his choice of model school systems.

Policy analyst Kirk A. Johnson examined the math scores of African-American students in public and Catholic schools in the nation’s capital. The study’s key finding is that Catholic students perform better over time as compared with students in public schools. Catholic students enjoy a 6.3 percent advantage over their public school counterparts in fourth-grade math scores, and this advantage widens to 8.5 percent by eighth grade.

“Such results are consistent with other Catholic school research over the past few decades,” wrote Johnson in his October 7, 1999, study, “Comparing Math Scores of Black Students in DC’s Public and Catholic Schools.”

While teacher unions insist that reducing class size is the best policy for improving educational achievement, Johnson’s research shows that this expensive strategy is simply not cost-effective when compared to the much lower cost of sending children to a Catholic school.

When the state of Tennessee added teachers and classrooms to reduce student-teacher ratios from 25 to 15, first-grade math scores were improved by 0.32 standard deviations. Johnson’s study shows that placing students in Catholic schools increases eighth-grade math scores by almost twice as much–0.58 standard deviations.

“Catholic schooling in Washington, DC, has a much greater effect on students than decreasing class size,” wrote Johnson. He noted that the gains produced by Catholic school attendance are dramatic: The average eighth-grader in a Catholic school in the District of Columbia outscored nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of his or her peers in the public schools on math achievement in 1996. In the fourth grade, the average Catholic student outscored almost two-thirds (65 percent) of his or her public school peers.

To perform the analysis, Johnson used math score data from the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress for public and private schools in Washington, DC. Some 52.1 percent of the city’s Catholic elementary school children are not Catholic; 79.5 percent are African-American. The city’s public schools boast one of the highest per-pupil spending rates and lowest student-teacher ratios in the nation.

Johnson’s work also confirmed research by Eric Hanushek showing that changing schools has a deleterious effect on student performance. Changing schools within the previous two years produced a 4.2 percent drop in math scores for fourth-graders and a 3.5 percent drop for eighth-graders. Also, while having a mother who attended at least some college had no effect on the math scores of fourth-graders, the presence of an educated mom helped boost the math scores of eighth-graders by 4.5 percent.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

Kirk A. Johnson’s October 7, 1999, report, “Comparing Math Scores of Black Students in D.C.’s Public and Catholic Schools,” is available from The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20002, 202/546-4400, or from Heritage’s Web site at