How Do Catholic Schools Do it?

Published July 1, 2002

The effectiveness and efficiency of the Catholic schools doesn’t seem attributable to Catholicism, according to Paul E. Peterson and Herbert J. Walberg, authors of a recent study showing Catholic schools in New York City outperform the public schools.

Although many Catholic school teachers are Catholic, few are members of religious orders, and about half of their students are not Catholic.

“Our school visits showed that Catholic schools must compete for their customers,” say Peterson and Walberg, who are distinguished visiting fellows at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. “Poor families in particular must struggle to pay their tuition.”

Their visits to several dozen classrooms and interviews with eight principals showed what parents get in return for the tuition:

  • courtesy, fairness, and respect;
  • a clear mission for learning;
  • an academic curriculum taught well to whole classes;
  • a notebook of assignments and notes for each subject;
  • homework for completion and grading each day;
  • a close connection between parents and teachers; and
  • leadership, with the principal accountable to parents who can leave if dissatisfied.

In public schools, practice is mandated from on high—the central office, the 32 community boards, and the U.S. Department of Education, which fund and regulate special programs:

  • rapidly changing administrators;
  • what new reform will they mandate this week?
  • changing school grade levels and attendance boundaries without consulting staff or parents;
  • in classrooms, many children are inattentive and without books or assignment; and
  • many students resting, chatting, or walking around the classroom.

“The keys to Catholic school success are competition and direct accountability to their customers—parents and students,” conclude Peterson and Walberg, suggesting similar performance should be expected of parochial schools of other religious denominations and of independent schools, including the growing number of for-profits schools.

“All must appeal to their patrons,” they point out.