New Study Shows That Catholic Primary Schools Are No Better (and Arguably Worse) Than Public Primary Schools

A new study shows that Catholic primary schools are no better — and arguably worse — than public primary schools, contrary to popular belief.

The study, published in the Journal of Urban Economics, was done by Michigan State University’s Todd Elder and University College Dublin’s Christopher Jepsen.

Catholic school children actually do better at an early age (i.e. kindergarten) but that’s likely because they come from the kinds of families that can afford to pay private school tuition, giving them a bit of a head start in life. As they get older, however, the advantages fade:

if Catholic schools were truly better, as past research implies, that achievement gap would widen as the students progressed through school — and it doesn’t, in either math or reading, Elder said. In fact, when it comes to math scores, the public school students closed the gap somewhat by the eighth grade.

Average math scores for Catholic school kindergartners dropped from 62 percent in kindergarten to 57 percent in eighth grade. For public school students, average math scores increased from 47 percent in kindergarten to 49 percent in eighth grade.

“That’s the shocking finding,” Elder said.

In other words, the researchers say, while public school students improve their math skills over time, Catholic students do worse. Any advantage that’s still there is more likely due to the head start they already had, not anything they acquired from their formal schooling.

According to the study,

This decline provides suggestive evidence that much of the Catholic school students’ advantage in mathematics scores in eighth grade is driven by differences already apparent at the beginning of kindergarten, not by higher rates of learning; if anything, the implied effects of Catholic schooling are negative.

Why aren’t Catholic schools doing better than public schools? It’s a question parents considering sending their kids to one ought to be asking, especially when they consider all the expenses.

The researchers suggest the incredibly low teacher salaries play a part:

The study notes that in 2008, private elementary school teachers had an average salary of $35,730 compared to $51,660 in public schools — a 45 percent difference that may make it difficult for Catholic schools to attract quality teachers.

Anecdotally, my friends who teach at Catholic schools often take those jobs, not because they have any allegiance to the Church, but because public school teaching jobs in the suburbs are just ridiculously hard to come by. Catholic schools, for them, are stepping stones to better-paying jobs later.

The researchers also suggest that public schools have better-designed curricula, whereas Catholic school teachers are essentially on their own islands.

It’s also worth noting that Catholic schools (usually) don’t require any sort of teaching certification. While there are undoubtedly a lot of great Catholic school teachers (and a lot of shitty public school teachers), the bar for being able to get a Catholic school job is much lower than it is at public schools.

“Taken together,” the study says, “the estimates in this paper do not point to any beneficial effects of Catholic primary schooling.”

Remember: None of this is to say public schools are automatically amazing — They have plenty of problems of their own. But let’s stop pretending that tuition-requiring Catholic schools will be better for your child than the public school across the street.

(Thanks to Matthew for the help and Joseph for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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