Bobby and I stood outside the small public elementary school that our children attended, pondering our respective 1st graders’ prospects.
The weeds poked up through the asphalt, the windows on the 30-year-old building were dirty, the playground equipment was rotting. We grew up on opposite sides of the country (he in New York and I in Oregon), but we both grew up Catholic, in the ’50s, and that meant one thing if nothing else: nuns. Before “tough love” there was Sister Patrick Mary or Sister Elizabeth Maureen.
Catholics still make up about one-quarter of the American population, but their schools enroll less than 5 percent of all students (see Figure 3). What happened to a school system that at one time educated one of every eight American children? As most educators know, Catholic schools work and have worked for a long time. When I got to school, I saw this guy hanging from a cross with nails in his hands and feet and I figured they meant business.’” What Catholic schools are very good at, it seems, is getting kids’ attention. The establishment of order and discipline, in all things: We wore uniforms. We had to eat our lunch, even the peas and carrots. By reaching for God, the “all-knowing,” so the nuns said, we might know thing even if our reach fell short. All of it, we knew, on some preternatural level, made us “better.” And the research seems to support that view.
Sociologist James Coleman and colleagues Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore, in 1982, were among the first to document Catholic schools’ academic successes, in . My wife remembers classmates having to put a nickel in the “mission box” if they mispronounced a word—“libary” instead of library or “pitcher” instead of picture—at her Jersey City parochial grade school. In fact, one of the “surprises” for the researchers, who deemed Catholic schools’ academic focus both consistent and laudable, was that the schools seemed to succeed even when the teaching and the curriculum were “ordinary.” Such Catholic rigor was part missionary zeal—to spread “the word”—and part defense against the encroachments of an increasingly secular world.
A variety of studies since, by scholars at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, the Brookings Institution, and Harvard, have all supported the conclusion that Catholic schools do a better job educating children, especially the poor and minorities, than public schools. And secular, for Catholics, meant a certain slackness in moral and academic discipline. “The answer is fairly simple,” says James Cultrara, director for education for the New York State Catholic Conference.
According to the authors, Catholic high schools—and many believe that this applies to elementary schools as well—“manage simultaneously to achieve relatively high levels of student learning, distribute this learning more equitably with regard to race and class than in the public sector, and sustain high levels of teacher commitment and student engagement.” One of the keys, they concluded, is the organization of Catholic schools. In the United States, the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state, between order and freedom, eventually forced Catholics to build their own school system, the only country in the world where they have one (see sidebar). “The rising cost of providing a Catholic education has made it more difficult for parents to meet those rising costs.” The Catholic-school story has been covered, as education journalist Samuel Freedman wrote in the , “as either a sob story or a sort of natural disaster, the inevitable outcome of demographics.” But Freedman believes that “there need not have been anything inevitable about the closings,” especially since Catholic populations are increasing.
“We have a system of schools, not a school system,” explains Newark’s new vicar for education, Father Kevin Hanbury.
“The local parishes traditionally have been responsible for the schools.” Those parishes, and their schools, feel change at the local, neighborhood level quite quickly.
“Private schools will lose one student for every three students gained in the charter schools,” they wrote.And charter schools, says Father Ronald Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) leadership program at Notre Dame, “are one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down.How do you compete with an alternative that doesn’t cost anything?Inside the K–2 school, some 600 kids were being prepared for academic underachievement: in a few more years two-thirds of them would be unable to read at grade level. The guardians of moral order and academic achievement for several generations of Catholic boys and girls, these robed religious women ruled with—well, with rulers. Before No Child Left Behind there were behinds burnished by a swift kick from a foot that emerged without warning from under several acres of robes.Indeed, our childhood memories, different in detail, were singular in their moral clarity: we knew what a busload of nuns could do. (Yes, there would be aisles, in a room filled with 30 to 50 kids—phooey on class size.) And with a glance from behind their starched white wimples, we would learn.Newark, the tenth-largest parochial district in the country, closed nine elementary and two secondary schools in 2005, with a corresponding enrollment decline of 5 percent, from some 47,300 to 44,750 students. Catholic high schools soon “returned to conventional class-period organization, heightened academic standards and a renewed emphasis on a core of academic subjects.” So, if they are so good, why are Catholic schools disappearing? But demographic change, and the failure to respond to it, has created other burdens.Goodness, with his story about the problem public-school boy, was explaining what made Catholic schools special. And if there are so many more Catholics, why are there fewer schools? Since the Catholic school “system” is actually a loose and quite decentralized confederation of 7,500 schools supported, for the most part, by 19,000 parishes in more than 150 dioceses, it took “the Church” some time to see the trends, much less develop new strategies to respond to them.And the steep decline would have been even steeper if these sectarian schools had to rely on their own flock for enrollment: almost 14 percent of Catholic school enrollment is now non-Catholic, up from less than 3 percent in 1970 (see Figure 2).When Catholic schools educated 12 percent of all schoolchildren in the United States, in 1965, the proportion of Catholics in the general population was 24 percent. It was all for the greater glory of God, of course.One factor is that the public schools in the suburbs are not like the public schools that Catholics tried to avoid in the cities.“Folks got to the suburbs and discovered that it was not only very expensive to build new schools, but that the public schools were not that bad,” says Patrick Wolf, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas.