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.

  • madphd

    I am not a fan of Catholic schools by any means, yet, based on the presented graph, I find the title of this post misleading. While the math scores may decline, scores from children in Catholic schools are still nearly 10 points above those from kids in public schools… of course, error bars are needed to discern the significance of this difference. Are there other test metrics not shown that gave you the impression that Catholic schools are worse than public schools?

    • Art_Vandelay

      While the math scores may decline, scores from children in Catholic
      schools are still nearly 10 points above those from kids in public
      schools…

      You’re giving the Catholic school credit for the children’s average math proficiency prior to them even getting to the school.

      • Buckley

        You are correct. Most Catholic schools students come from higher income families and better neighborhoods and as a consequence their academic achievement when they walk in the door is higher than those from lower income families who typically cannot afford a private, college prep school.

    • Niemand

      The Catholic schools start at baseline with higher achieving students (i.e. those in the fall KG group) and the scores tend to decline over time. This is more consistent with a school that starts out with good students and doesn’t teach them as much than a school that starts out with average students and does well by them.

      I agree with your point about error bars. Looking at the original article, it looks to me like the CI is wide enough that it’s hard to make any conclusion really, but maybe I’m misunderstanding their methodology. At the very least, there is no sign of an advantage to Catholic schools.

      • paulstrait

        Yeah except the scores in question are *relative* scores to other students. It just means the gap gets smaller. So you have one group of kids who, for whatever reasons, start knowing a lot more than others (at age 5), and you educate both groups. Regardless of the quality of either program, you should expect to see the gap get smaller. Why isn’t this obvious?

        • Niemand

          I’m not sure I follow your argument. If you teach a group of students poorly their scores relative to those of their peers their relative scores are likely to fall over time. As is seen in the Catholic school group. The tests at each grade level are designed to test whether the students have the knowledge appropriate to that grade, not their “absolute” knowledge-of course the first graders know more overall than the kindergarteners, but their knowledge relative to the expected knowledge for a first grader has improved for public schools, worsened for Catholic schools. This suggests that, if anything, Catholic schools are providing worse education than public schools. However, looking at their standard errors, I’m not sure how much of the difference-in initial values or follow up-is just noise.

          • paulstrait

            I’m not sure I understand what the difficulty is here, but I’ll try to explain a different way. We agree that the students entering catholic education start at a higher baseline than the students starting public schools. Those groups are quite different from one another. Over time, as both groups receive education, that difference gets smaller. That would be something you should expect even if the Catholic education is ‘better’ than the public school education (which I’m not necessarily asserting — I have no idea, I was educated in public schools). Further, as a separate effect, you have regression toward the mean which I trust I don’t need to explain here.

    • Thundal

      Higher income families, no association for the school with special-needs students (for example, the public schools average in kids with dyslexia and mental retardation, the catholic schools refuse them entrance). They are, compared to the average, losing ground compared to the average despite starting with superior input and, consequentially, better-equipped parents.

      It’s a direct, notable failing in the school’s capability to improve scores on the tests (the validity of which is it’s own argument, I believe, but that both schools are rewarded for test-scores, and that the catholic institutions generally turn out lesser-equipped high-end students…)

  • Atwatersedge

    Believe me, my son’s Catholic school is better than the public school across the way. Girls shiv each other with nail files in the public school across the way. I don’t send him for the academics, although they’re fine and his school outperforms both the public schools and the rest of the diocese’s Catholic schools in all categories. I send him so he is surrounded by like-minded, caring people, and so that he won’t be brainwashed by liberal teachers. It took me quite awhile to shake off my own college brainwashing, so that’s important to me.

    • WallofSleep

      Zaius: “Are you familiar with brain-washing, General?”

      Urko: “Brain-washing… Isn’t that where you remove the brain from the skull and rinse it under cold water?”

      EDIT: Point being, a wingnut wouldn’t recognize an actual brain-washing even if it was coming from a pulpit. Wait, what?

      • Atwatersedge

        I’m intimately acquainted with the kind of brainwashing that goes, “Repeat the narrative or your grades suffer.” Or we mock you and your traditions. Or we send you to “training,” even if you’ve never done anything and are still in orientation.

        • RowanVT

          Because “Repeat the narrative or your grades suffer” never occurs at a catholic school? What amazing planet do you live on?

          • WallofSleep

            Wingnuts don’t worry about sending their kids to college out of fear that they might be brain washed. No, they fear that their professors will be better at brain washing than their pastors/priests were.

            • Atwatersedge

              Mine weren’t. I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper. And I was free.

        • Jeremy Shaffer

          Speaking as someone who went to Catholic school from Kindergarten through grade 12, that post was full of epic fail on your part. Repeat the narrative, mocking of other traditions and culture and “training” is what Catholic schools have to offer.
          Can someone get a good education at a Catholic school? Sure but eveything you claim you don’t want for your child is what you will get, and in abundance.

        • Scott Furciniti

          Brainwashing? I think that the psychological well-being of a child is much less at stake by hearing “Repeat the narrative or your grades suffer.” than it is by hearing “Repeat the rosary or spend eternity in hell.”

          • ShoeUnited

            I fucking hated having to do all the decades and stations of the cross and then confession every friday during lent.

        • David Kopp

          Of course. Repeating YOUR culture narratives isn’t brainwashing. It’s all those pesky other people being different that’s brainwashing. How DARE they be different and teach my kids that people aren’t all homogeneous!

        • Sven2547

          I’m intimately acquainted with the kind of brainwashing that goes, “Repeat the narrative or your grades suffer.” Or we mock you and your traditions.

          As someone who went though the public school system, I can confidently tell you that NO student, regardless of academic performance, was ever mocked for their traditions by school staff where I grew up. I’m pretty sure that’s the case pretty much nationwide. Kids have legal protections against that kind of thing – legal protections conservatives are hell-bent on destroying.

          You are a liar. If what you claim is true, you have an easy-win lawsuit on your hands.

          • Atwatersedge

            Not public at the high school level, though I did that and it wasn’t great. But it’s very possible that high school just isn’t. It was at university I was made to feel other and lesser for my beliefs and my professors clearly communicated that certain ideas were unacceptable and downgradeable. So, like a good girl, I parroted the ideas, got the grades, and got out of there. And now I can think and say what I want.

            • Sven2547

              Not public at the high school level, though I did that and it wasn’t great. But it’s very possible that high school just isn’t.

              I’m having a really hard time deciphering these two incomplete sentences. Not being a grammar Nazi here, I just honestly can’t tell what you’re saying.

              It was at university I was made to feel other and lesser for my beliefs and my professors clearly communicated that certain ideas were unacceptable and downgradeable. So, like a good girl, I parroted the ideas, got the grades, and got out of there.

              I keep hearing about these nebulous “ideas” that you weren’t allowed to have, and these other nebulous “ideas” you had to “parrot”. Could you please be more specific? You’re condemning a whole education system yet shying away from making any particular accusation.

              • kielc

                As a university professor, I can say that the only ideas I’m familiar with that get penalized at my institution are the ones that are utterly incoherent and/or unsupported by facts. Given the original post above and subsequent posts by the same person, I bet I can guess why the original poster’s “ideas” weren’t so well received.

                • Sven2547

                  That is increasingly my suspicion. Many conservative religious folk consider the wholesale rejection of modern science to be part of their “tradition” that is unacceptable in academia. And to that I say: “Damn right that isn’t acceptable in academia!”

              • Atwatersedge

                What I mean is that I went to a public school and generally had a mediocre to bad experience, often socially, sometimes academically. I had a bunch of teachers who were clearly phoning it in too. Like showing Road Runner cartoons instead of teaching physics or taking long, very long smoke breaks in the back biology lab, or verbally abusing their band students on a daily basis. Much of this was not because it was public but because people, young and old, can be kind of horrible.

                At university, I had a lesbian professor who straight out said the first day of class that she didn’t like men and that they would have to work harder for her to get the same grades.

                I had history classes that should have been titled “How to Hate Your White Ancestors” if the catalogers had been honest. Non-stop hatred of “The White Man” and then just a sprinkling of hatred for white women. I was a foreign language/culture major but still had to take a boring and meaningless class called “Diversity in German Literature” in which we read – in translation – authors no one in America (and probably most of the people in Germany) had ever heard of and which I have since forgotten. This was to satisfy a diversity requirement. For someone majoring in another language/culture.

                As far as the brainwashing went, language courses were brainwashing free, linguistics, math and sciences fine, geography, economics, all okay. But the humanities courses – specifically history, sociology, and poli sci. Well, the bias was on display and you knew how you were expected to frame any mention of any social issue. Or else. It was hardly, “Let’s examine how various societies/groups feel about abortion/women’s rights/civil rights/the environment/politics/economics objectively and try to see why they might disagree.”

                • Sven2547

                  Like showing Road Runner cartoons instead of teaching physics or taking long, very long smoke breaks in the back biology lab, or verbally abusing their band students on a daily basis.

                  I hope you realize how highly unusual this is, and how the behavior you’re describing could easily result in discipline or firing for these teachers.

                  At university, I had a lesbian professor who straight out said the first day of class that she didn’t like men and that they would have to work harder for her to get the same grades.

                  That statement is not supported by any college I’ve ever heard of in the United States, and would absolutely result in her firing or severe disciplinary action. I find this story extraordinarily far-fetched. Even if it’s true (which I doubt), it is profoundly ignorant to judge the whole of academia over such a wildly fringe case, which honestly reads more like a right-wing stereotype of straw-feminism than an actual human being. Does this professor have a name?

                  Your last two paragraphs don’t contain anything of substance, really. Just non-specific whining that your classes weren’t pro-white-male enough. The kind of thing that I’d expect to see on Stormfront, as opposed to Patheos.

                • God’s Starship

                  We’ve all probably had a teacher who we felt phoned it in at least once in our lives, but the overwhelming majority of my teachers were not like this. The rest of your story is far-fetched. It sounds like you’ve jumped to some conclusions because your teachers didn’t give you the particular confirmation bias you were looking for.

                • Sven2547

                  I further note that you provided no examples of the “ideas” of yours that teachers are supposedly discouraging, or putting down. Would you care to provide some examples?

                • Atwatersedge

                  Since I’ve already told you a few of my experiences and you have told me you don’t believe me – no, I wouldn’t. Essentially there’s very little overlap in our worldviews, and just as I cannot understand how or why anyone, ever, would sue their school over a minor, non-sectarian prayer banner hanging in the gym, you’ll never understand how it feels to be someone of my mindset in an ultra liberal university setting. The things they preach in my church are not offensive to me, and the things they preach in universities are not offensive to you.

                • Sven2547

                  What “ultra-liberal university”? What professor?
                  This supposed university of yours sounds like fiction. A stereotype. A strawman.

                • Atwatersedge

                  This was 1 of my professors. http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=611976&pageNo=2 The first three comments sum up my experience. I was not alone.

                • Sven2547

                  This professor, while snotty, doesn’t remotely meet the description you wrote before of people who spit on conservative Christians and males in general.
                  Further, U. of Michigan isn’t some fringe ultra-liberal institution where someone can get away with a grossly misandrist grading policy. The professor you described would have been fired instantly.

                  Again: your description of an anti-male professor who publicly announces a sexist grading policy makes no sense. Further: that isn’t liberalism. It’s a right-wing caricature of liberalism. The notion that you think anyone will take this line of BS seriously is an absolute joke. You are a liar, through and through.

                • Atwatersedge

                  This was not the professor who made the statement I noted before. Just another prof I had who according to other sources doesn’t like dissent. I went through my transcripts and I can’t find the name of the other one. I found a paper I wrote for her reviewing the condition of women in Eastern Europe, but her name wasn’t on it either. To be honest, that semester I had a huge course load, and it’s pretty much a blur. Afterwards I just wanted to forget it and forget her. But the incident I mentioned actually happened on the first day of class, fall 1992, in Poli Sci 445. She was a shortish, dark haired woman probably in her mid-30′s, and she had those kind of glasses that you could change the color of by snapping new bands on the top of the frame. I can’t find her on Google either. Perhaps she was fired. Maybe she thought she was just joking. I don’t know. I only know I was shocked when she said it because the emphasis at the time was on equality.

                • Sven2547

                  This was not the professor who made the statement I noted before.

                  Of course not. RateMyProfessors rates non-fictional human beings.

                  But of course you forgot the name of the professor that made such a big impact on your perception of the educational system that you cite her as a chief example of why you refuse to send your kid to a similar institution.

                • Atwatersedge

                  I’ve forgotten the names of nearly all of my professors, particularly the lecturers of large classes because I had little personal interaction with them. How is that unbelievable?

                  What’s most interesting to me about this whole conversation is how invested you are in the idea that not only didn’t this happen, but that *it couldn’t have happened* in academia. How is it unimaginable that a person in some mid-level position of power would wield it against people he or she perceives as having done wrong or had unfair advantage? It’s not. That’s more or less History 101 and entirely in line with how people behave. Power corrupts. Sometimes even just a little power.

                  I would never make the claim that Christians or Catholics or Michiganders would never do such a thing because of course they have, many times, and will again. If you think what you and the people in your in-group believe or don’t believe in will keep you from behaving how humans have always behaved when given power and influence, you are in for some serious disappointment.

                • Sven2547

                  How is it unimaginable that a person in some mid-level position of power would wield it against people he or she perceives as having done wrong or had unfair advantage?

                  Because no college in the United States permits the kind of behavior you described, AND it’s grossly illegal. It really is as simple as that. Yes, power corrupts. Fortunately, people MORE powerful than your fairy-tale professor would have had something to say about that. It’s as far-fetched as saying she broke a student’s arm and didn’t get in trouble for it. Explain to me why you didn’t report this behavior. I await your lame excuse.

                  Your last paragraph cracks me up. You’re basically saying I’m naive, when I’m the one applying critical thinking here. I’m not stupid enough to think there aren’t stupid, hostile, and nasty liberals, feminists, and intellectuals out there. I am saying there are systems in place to prevent misandrist jerks from screwing up the educational system. Your refusal to acknowledge this simple point really puts a spotlight on how bogus your story is.

                • Buckley

                  Pft…I’ve had profs like her. Big fucking deal. Put your big boy pants on, take the class and move on. You know, the point of a university education is to take you out of your comfort zone and expose you to ideas you might not believe in, or understand. I guess you failed that “test” and you took up space at Michigan for a student who was more worthy. You realize that Hillsdale was just down the road? You would have fit in so well there.

                • Atwatersedge

                  Look, I didn’t complain at the time. I didn’t report it, I didn’t sue (because I don’t believe in suing except in cases of egregious harm/unchecked power). I didn’t even put it in her evaluation. I did the work, got my B+, and moved on with my life.

                  I took plenty of courses that included information and viewpoints that were out of my comfort zone. I’ve chosen to travel and live in places where I was foreign and in the extreme minority. I’ve interacted with all kinds of people who don’t believe as I do.

                  And, after a lot of reading and studying (I have more than 1 degree) and observing, I’ve concluded that I like and appreciate the belief system in which I was raised. I think it has great value. I’ve chosen not to believe or value many of the things my professors believed or valued, but not because I didn’t read and listen and think.

                  Do you really believe the education was “wasted” simply because I choose to think differently than you’d like me to think? Are not other points of view valid?

                • Thundal

                  “I cannot understand how or why anyone…”

                  Because we’re a secular nation represented by people who should be seeking the best well-being of children, and it’s been proven that the religious are generally of lower intellectual stock due to their lack of training in reflective cognition? Because it’s been proven that the one thing that matter, intellectual capability, is lacking in people who are religious, so we should, as a society, remove it from our schools and society?

                • RowanVT

                  So what you’re saying is that you learned that Europeans were assholes to peoples of other continents and not-pasty-white skin tones…. and it made you uncomfortable. And therefore it’s biased, because you don’t like feeling uncomfortable.

    • Art_Vandelay

      Oh aren’t you admirable. You don’t want your child brainwashed so you send him/her to a Catholic school. They apparently don’t teach you anything about irony in those Catholic schools, do they?

      • Atwatersedge

        I want him to be a part of my culture, not yours.

        • WallofSleep

          Disappointment. Familiarize yourself with it, as I suspect you’ll be spending much time together.

        • Art_Vandelay

          Yes of course. The culture where they haven’t quite figured out the proper course of action to take when one of these kids has Brother Diddlypants all up in their business?

          Bravo to you. You are truly a bastion of moral integrity.

        • Niemand

          My father went to Catholic schools throughout childhood. He went to a Catholic college even. But one run by Jesuits. He described it as “like hearing the other side of an argument you’ve heard one side of your entire life”. He’s an atheist now.

        • God’s Starship

          You can have your own opinions, but you can’t escape reality. That belongs to all of us.

        • JET

          Interesting. I preferred to have my kids exposed to a multitude of cultures and ideas, learn to intelligently assess the differences (both positive and negative), and make decisions based on what they had learned in the intellectual process. I think you and I have very different definitions of brainwashing.

          • Anat

            Yes. My daughter comes back from school and tells me of debates they have in class (social studies, usually). Sometimes her opinions are very different from mine. I enjoy seeing her become a person of her own (though I still want to tell her why I hold a different view than she does).

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          It’s not clear that choosing a Catholic School over a public school will improve the odds of that; but at least the data from circa 1990 in the GSS doesn’t point hard in the other direction.

        • smrnda

          Is this because you actually believe the beliefs of your culture are correct and you can make a case for them, or is it simply tribalism? How did you decide that *your culture* was right compared to other cultures?

          • smrnda

            Also, how is your comment any different than say, a Muslim fundamentalist who wants their kids to grow up to wage jihad who rejects anything else as an attempt to impose an alien culture on them? How does one decide where cultures are right and wrong?

        • Thundal

          That’s his decision, and you’re among the most vile people for thinking anything otherwise. Your “culture” is insulting to civilized humans.

      • WallofSleep

        You have to be careful with those Junior College brainwashings. Sometimes they use sub-standard cleaners, or last year’s approved cleaners. If you want your think-muscle to truly sparkle, you need to go to one of those Ivy League brainwashers. They use only the top of the line cleaners, but naturally you’ll pay quite a bit more for it.

        Now, when it comes to Religious College brainwashings, like a Catholic College, don’t even go there. They don’t have to abide by the same laws and regulations that the public sector has to (SUPRISE!), so you have absolutely no idea where they source their cleaners from, or if they’re even safe.

        EDIT: This is what I imagine a brain washing at a Religious College might look like, but who is really to say…

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44rUlHYg-MU

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      If you’d stopped at “choosing the better and safer school” and before you got to the routine neocon conspiracy theory part, you’d be doing well.

      • Atwatersedge

        Better and safer is important, so is transmitting culture and values. My values, my culture, my traditions.

        • RowanVT

          Because having your son think for himself is *baaaaaaaad*.

          I attended a catholic high school. It made me become an atheist. I was also at school with pagans, hindus, jews and muslims. I was exposed to all these things in my religion classes. Maybe a catholic school is not the best place for your kids after all.

        • baal

          Why not teach your kids to be decent folks and critical thinkers? Don’t you trust them? A big downside to your approach is that times and cultures change and your kids need to be flexible enough to keep up.

          • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

            Are you only saying that because your culture traditionally values decency and critical thinking?

        • Sven2547

          My values, my culture, my traditions.

          Me me me.

          Your son’s education shouldn’t be all about YOU, it should be all about HIM.

          • islandbrewer

            Aaand that might be why the US appears small-minded, ignorant, and isolationist to the rest of the world. Atwatersedge’s progeny will know all they need to about their parent’s culture, regardless of where they go to school.

          • smrnda

            And again, anybody can defend ANY sort of nonsense with the ‘my culture my values’ tag.

        • invivoMark

          … says someone who, just one post prior, was complaining about “brainwashing”.

        • smrnda

          Again, can you make an actual case for the values of your culture, or is this just the same tribalism?

          Do you think education can happen without explicit indoctrination, and do you think that some educations would be more biased than others, and do you think that can be determined by some means?

        • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

          There’s a bigger world out there than your values, culture and traditions. Come check us out sometime!

          • Itarion

            I did once. The big world and all of its thoughts scare me.

    • Buckley

      Actually, they will be brainwashed by liberal teachers…I teach at a Catholic school and I brainwash every day. So do all the liberal nuns I used to teach with…

      • WallofSleep

        Liberals? Teaching at a Catholic school? Riiight. Next you’ll be telling me that not all the teachers at Catholic schools are actually catholic. Hmph. The very notion…

        • Buckley

          LOL. I know, right?

        • Miss_Beara

          And all of the students never question the teachings of the church and will be life long Catholics.

          Yep.

        • allein

          My former roommate teaches at a Catholic school. This year she’s teaching middle school science, but last year she taught 5th grade, and traded off some subjects with the 4th grade teacher – she did math and science for both grades, and the other teacher did Language Arts and something else. Roommate also had to teach the religion class for both because the 4th grade teacher is a Methodist.

        • meko

          There are an awful lot of social justice-y nuns and Catholic school teachers out there. When it comes to the statement “the poor are human beings and deserve food, housing, medical care and education and if they can’t afford it you should give it to them” they are often more in agreement than most neoliberal Democratic Party leaders.

          • Alierias

            I feel that those are the only True Catholics — the one’s who actually live in the teachings of Jesus. The rest of em are just greedy hypocrites…

    • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

      I know, I know. It took me a while too, to shake off that pesky liberal brainwashing. But, I managed to surround myself with people who think exactly like me, read books that only confirmed my own predisposition, ignored any evidence contrary to my position, and learned never to ask for evidence supporting my position. Now, my bubble world is perfect. I live in a world where I care so much for women, that I’ll deny them basic reproductive medical care. A world where I care so much about life, that I am willing to let a woman die to save a non-viable fetus. It’s a beautiful world where we’re all equal, but women and gays are fundamentally less. It’s a world where I love the LGBT community so much that I’ll deny them basic human rights and call them diseased. A world where I can say with a straight face that HIV is spread through the use of condoms, and a world where families, who might be struggling to feed the children they already have, would be committing a grave sin if they practice family planning. I can listen to a man wrapped in golden robes preach about the virtues of sacrifice and poverty, without giving it a second thought.

      It’s a world in which each of us is a special being made in the image of God, and each of us deserves to be tortured and punished forever.

      • God’s Starship

        Hey, like you I get my marching orders from the virgin in the pervert suit. Don’t you dare feel bad when others judge you for that.

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      So you want to keep him in a bubble of like minded people and not expose him to ideas that might be counter to your faith? I don’t even need a follow up comment, that speaks for itself.

      • Bernard Socks

        As if public schools aren’t bubbles of like-minded people. What a tool.

        • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

          Riiiiiight, because public schools are exclusivity for people of one faith, right? Get real.

          • Bernard Socks

            What’s the one thing that unites all public school teachers? They aren’t permitted to discuss their “faith” at all. This doesn’t lead to a homogenized secularism? Think a little. You might like it.

            • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

              You think that teachers should be preaching about their faith to their students? No you don’t, get real. You’d flip a lid if a teacher said something to your kid about allah and muhammad, or any other faith that wasn’t your own. The education system is there to teach kids about math, english, science, history and so on. CHURCHES and SUNDAY SCHOOLS and PARENTS are the ones who’s job it is to teach kids about religion.

            • Thundal

              Except secularism is assumed, and has nothing to do with mindset?

            • Anat

              Ahem. My daughter is studying World History this year. They already did a unit on world religions.

              Secularism is a value that should be shared in a pluralistic society. That’s what ensures everyone’s religious freedom. (Hint: Secularism and atheism are not the same thing.)

              • Anna

                That’s not good enough for Bernard. He wants teachers to be able to discuss their faith with students. Christian teachers only, one would assume. The objective study of religion is obviously not on the menu.

    • Oswald Carnes

      I hope your stupidity doesn’t result in your kid getting raped.

  • WallofSleep

    Wingnuts can not explain the existence of ‘libruls’ that never attended college.

  • Buckley

    “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.”

    I would agree, and having been a teacher in Catholic schools for many years i will also say that there is a reverse stigma that the public schools place on we teachers – namely that we are not as qualified as those in the public schools. I can attest (for the most part) that the Chicago Archdiocese mandates that all of the teachers be certified. Public schools, typically, will hire the new, younger teachers out of college before they hire an experienced teacher (even with catholic school experience). Why? because they are cheaper and with many new teachers dropping out before getting tenure (or in some cases being denied tenure) – it keeps the public school budget down.

    Ask me any question you want, with 10+ years in a Catholic school and most of those years being agnostic/atheist i can dispel most myths.

    • Art_Vandelay

      Do they know you’re an atheist?

      • Buckley

        No, and they will not. I have children to feed. For the most part my atheism came to full acceptance in the past 3 years. I always felt that way, but I would go through the “Christian motions” for years. I teach social studies so I can leave Catholic Doctrine at the door for the most part. My principal gave me a wink and said “so long as you mention Catholic Doctrine” you can teach what you need. Trust, me that leaves lots of loop holes to drive a Mack truck through. The majority of the people I have taught with are CINO – Catholic in name only, or not Catholic at all. And a great number have been non-believers. We teach because we love teaching and we find ways to skirt Catholic doctrinal issues. With less and less religious people (brothers, priests, nuns) teaching and more and more lay people teaching, it’s bound to happen.

        • Anna

          Out of curiosity, if you’re teaching social studies, in what instances would you be expected to mention Catholic doctrine?

          • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

            I’d imagine Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus might come up in discussing the history of the labor movement 1870-1950; and Solicitudo Rei Socialis might also be relevant in some parts of social studies.

          • Buckley

            When I teach Anthropology (an elective) we have to talk about how different cultures have a 3rd sex classification, besides Male and female, to deal with homosexual members of their society (Like the Berdache of the Crow tribe). I mention how the Catholic church views homosexual behavior and that the church views men and women having distinct roles. Again, that’s all I have to do is “mention” their teaching. I don’t have to get the kids to agree with it all (I sure as heck don’t). When I teach US History and we get to Roe v Wade I say to the kids “You know what the Church’s position on abortion is, right?” They all say yes, and then I move on with the history and the long term impact.

            • Anna

              Ah, thanks, that makes sense. I was thinking about elementary school, so I was having a hard time imagining where it might come up.

              • Buckley

                I see your point. I have taught high school my whole career so I have never had to worry about kids who are impressionable, I am usually teaching kids who are already questioning everything. When I was a public school student, I met more peers who were bible thumpers than i have run across as students in a catholic school. There is something to the truth of studying the bible and becoming an atheist.

        • Art_Vandelay

          They can’t fire you for that though, right? I mean that’s Discrimination 101.

          • Buckley

            I suppose, but because this state is a Republican- dominated right-to-work state, they can let you go with out cause, so I try to not give them a cause. There were gay teachers in Cincinnati and in Minnesota that were let go because their sexual orientation was against church teaching and there was a teacher fired because she was pregnant out of marriage and chose to have the baby and not abort and she was fired despite the fact that she was going to marry the baby’s father.

  • Timmah

    I was in Catholic School way back in the 4th and 5th grade. I honeslty couldn’t tell you an academic difference from public school aside from having a religon class and instead of gym one day we’d go to church.

    Well that and Nuns tend to teach with the “Shame the heck out of you” style of teaching.

  • MamaHaZ

    Considerably – a factor being overlooked is as children get older – they get hit with alot of new types of math- every year it’s a new set of corresponding methods- it’s alot all BAM BAM BAM after another- and sometimes children that haven’t grasped one concept the teachers are already on a new one. I felt like that at times in school..

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      However, this does not explain why Catholic schools would lose their lead over time — unless, of course, all those new types of math in the public schools are not being introduced in Catholic schools and are actually more effective at improving student mathematical scores.

  • joey_in_NC

    But let’s stop pretending that tuition-requiring Catholic schools will
    be better for your child than the public school across the street.

    In terms of safety and piece of mind, you bet the Catholic elementary school I send my children is “better” than our local public school.

    Having said that, let me also say that I went to Catholic school up to 8th grade. If I went to the local public middle school, I would have definitely received a better education (my 8th grade didn’t even offer algebra). My public high school also provided a better education than the local Catholic high school.

    Every area is different, and it’s foolish to paint with such broad strokes, either way.

    • RowanVT

      My Catholic high school gave me a significantly better education than I would have gotten from the local high school… plus the safety factor. It was very much a college preparatory school, to the point that English 1A and B at the local state university were exactly like the classes I took in 9th grade.

    • Anna

      It definitely depends on the school. Your child’s Catholic elementary school might be safe, but not all of them are. A school’s safety depends on the willingness of teachers and administrators to address negative behavior, and it also depends on the influences that students bring to school from their home environments. For example, a Catholic school in the inner city may have a large number of students who are struggling with dysfunctional families, incarcerated parents, drug use, etc. That school would be a lot less safe than a public school in an affluent suburb.

      • joey_in_NC

        It definitely depends on the school.

        Yes, I think I get that.

      • MD

        Oh, I was horribly bullied at my Catholic middle school, and the teachers knew it and did nothing. Safe my ass. I would have rather been bullied at a public school where I would have had access to better education.

    • David McNerney

      The main reason why this is a question in the first place (especially coming from a guy in UCD) is that proponents of a Catholic education suggest that there is something intrinsically better about Catholicism that makes these schools better.

      In places like Ireland – where 90% of the schools are under the control of the Catholic church – this kind of study is a game changer, as one of the big arguments used against secularization of schools is that it leads to a lesser quality of education.

      Now, it just looks like the kids with a bad start, end up with a bad end and kids with a good start aren’t much improved – and no amount of woo is going to change that.

      • Anna

        Do they actually argue it’s due to Catholicism? I can see them believing that attending a Catholic school leads to children having a better sense of morality, but I would think they’d realize that the children’s academic performance isn’t due to religion, but to the quality of the teachers and their instruction.

        I know many devout religious people hate the idea of public schools in general, but surely even they would admit that a secular private school (a top-notch college preparatory school, for example) is going to perform on par with a Catholic school based on the quality of the education offered.

    • ShoeUnited

      In terms of safety and piece of mind, you bet the Catholic elementary school I send my children is “better” than our local public school.

      I also went to Catholic School from 1-6. But I learned to cuss and all about sex in the 4th grade when the other kids in the public schools didn’t know any of that yet. I also had a horrible time due to my race and our income status (my parents changed catholic schools 3 times). It was so bad that I ran away from school twice in 6th grade, and didn’t even finish half the year. Middle School we had moved and so I was an outcast in a small white town. High School we moved again I went to a public school and suddenly people were human. Elementary was some of the worst years in my life. Things I don’t even want to go into.

      Every area is different, and it’s foolish to paint with such broad strokes, either way.

      Funny you should say that…

      • joey_in_NC

        Funny you should say that…

        Why is it funny? I meant it.

        I simply said that first sentence above to counter the broad stroke with which Hemant painted at the conclusion of the article. I then admitted that my Catholic education in middle school was inferior to the public middle school in the area, and that the public high school I attended was superior to the local Catholic high school. Why did you choose to ignore those comments?

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    I don’t think that’s very compelling. Being from the kind of family who will pay for Catholic school appears to give kids an advantage, but who is to say that the advantage is constant over all math levels? Perhaps it only gives kids a head start, and doesn’t help them so much with 3rd grade math.

    On the anecdotal front, I went to two Catholic schools and two public ones. One Catholic school was better, the other was worse. Anecdotes are worthless.

  • h2ocean

    Wonder what the data looks like in Ontario Canada where the Catholic schools are funded by public tax dollars and as far as I know, don’t have tuition costs. Thus, higher SES head start hypothesis for why they do better earlier on wouldn’t apply and the data might look different.

    Anecdotally, growing up in Ontario, I saw a lot of “bad kids” getting sent to Catholic schools by their parents in the hopes that somehow religion would make them better :S. This tended to be in high school though, as opposed to elementary school.

  • God’s Starship

    I don’t know how it is these days, but back in the stone age, the staff of the Catholic school I went to didn’t give a flying fuck about the bullying that went on right under their noses.

    • Anna

      Probably depends on the school. My boyfriend and his sister were pulled out of Catholic elementary school because of violent bullying. His parents had no objection to the school’s academic performance, just the social atmosphere.

    • RowanVT

      Whereas I attended a Catholic high school (female only) in order to escape the bullying. I got a great education, and while I wasn’t “popular”, the other students didn’t mock or bully me for being a little weird. Aside from the religion classes and attending Mass every month, I really enjoyed my catholic high school.

  • SJH

    They say that the advantage at early childhood is due to their family background. This is an assumption that should require evidence before the assertion is made. Is any given? Perhaps they shouldn’t publish their opinions as science until they have done a study that actually shows this. Perhaps they can run a study in equally affluent schools to eliminate that factor. Until then they can’t make that assertion. Their lack of scientific thinking makes me question their abilities as scientists.

    Also, according to the data, you may notice that the Catholic school children do increase their percentiles in the upper grades at a greater rate than public schools. So according to their logic, Catholic schools are better from 3rd grade on. So basically, kinder, 1st and 2nd are under-performing but 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th all do better. So 63% of the time, Catholic education outperforms public schools in terms of increase in percentile. Please tell me how this reflects negatively on Catholic schools as a whole.

    Also, anecdotally, many of the Catholic school teachers I know are teaching at Catholic schools because they have a passion for Catholic education and they are very good teachers. It has nothing to do with their salaries. Their passion for teaching makes them good teachers.
    Also, many private schools use public school curriculum so the argument that they don’t have access to well-designed curriculum is silly.

    • Anna

      Also, many private schools use public school curriculum so the argument that they don’t have access to well-designed curriculum is silly.

      Yes, that bit struck me as strange. I know people who teach at Catholic schools, and I also know plenty of people who went to Catholic schools, and I’ve never seen any indication that (outside of religious classes) the curriculum would differ. It’s not like a fundamentalist Protestant school where every textbook is written from a religious point of view.

      • Buckley

        That is true. Our science teachers have always been pro-evolution and creation has never been introduced into the classroom. In fact, the religious classes that they take, while they are Catholic theology, they are taught in a “we realize you may not believe this, but this is what Catholics believe” sort-of way. Personally, I do feel that 4 years of religious instruction does take away from electives that could expose them to greater academic possibilities.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      That family background generally contributes to such early childhood advantage is relatively well documented in other studies from the last several decades, not hard to turn up with Google Scholar. That question is thus pretty much already answered. The JUE technical paper seems to discuss how this study indirectly estimate the effects of this.

      What reflects negatively is that the “edge” in ability tends to diminish over time. If the teachers and schools were better, it would be expected that since they start with students relatively better at math, the achievement gap should steadily increase.

      • SJH

        Though this “edge” only diminishes in the first three years. As I said before, they out perform and increase at a greater rate than public schools in every other year.

        • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

          Actually, the edge diminishes to a statistically significant degree through grade 3, while the entire increase from grades 3 through 8 is on the order of the confidence interval for the sample sizes.

          • SJH

            Please elaborate.
            Is the public school data within that same confidence interval?
            Also, you are suggesting that, because it is within that confidence interval, then the increase should be ignored. I don’t agree. I think that if an increase is shown in the data, then it has to be taken seriously and such conclusions as are made by the scientist should not be made. At best, all they can say is that it is inconclusive. Especially, since the public school data is within that range.

            If I am misunderstanding the concepts here then please explain.

  • joe

    um, that graph doesn’t really jive with your article’s claim, Hemant. even though Catholic school kids level off by grade 8, the graph clearly shows that they are still 10′s of percentage points higher than public school kids. I’m no fan of Catholicism, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves lest we provide fodder for our detractors…

    • Quintin van Zuijlen

      The quality of math eduction is of course not related to how good the children are at math, but to how much better they get at math.

  • Anna

    I wonder if large class size might also also be a factor. My boyfriend went to a Catholic elementary school, and each class had 35 students. One teacher for 35 small children sounds like it could have a negative effect on academic performance.

  • Anna

    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.

    One would also assume that kindergarten students at a private school have been to school before, that they probably have two years of preschool under their belt by the time they get to kindergarten. I think that would account for the head start in math. On the flip side, kindergarten students at a public school are less likely to have parents who were able to afford earlier childhood education, and that what experiences they did have (daycare, playgroup, etc.) might not have been based on a strong academic curriculum. Parents who can afford academic preschools are often the same parents who can afford private school tuition for elementary, middle, and high school.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I went to “St Benedict Joseph Labre” (Catholic School), it was leaps and bounds better than the public equivalent, at least in terms of its educational offerings. My only complaint, which is still significant, was their religious teachings, specifically how they responded to or sidestepped my questions. Unlike math, history, and science where questions were expected and welcomed, my religious questions landed me in detention 9 times out of 10.

  • jgr4

    The graph, and the conclusions, ignore that there’s an enormous amount of material to learn between kindergarten and eighth grade, and that the scores at each grade level are based on tests of entirely different material. We can’t assume that the underlying “knowledge function” is linear, or that being able to count to ten in kindergarten should translate to a baseline 15 point advantage in algebra scores, in the eighth grade.

    I call B.S. on trying to draw any meaningful conclusions from this data, never mind the ones the authors are drawing.

    The high tuition of private schools results in segregation along socioeconomic lines, which I think probably has more to do with the test results.

    • Itarion

      The graph, and the conclusions, ignore that there’s an enormous amount of material to learn between kindergarten and eighth grade, and that the scores at each grade level are based on tests of entirely different material. We can’t assume that the underlying “knowledge function” is linear, or that being able to count to ten in kindergarten should translate to a baseline 15 point advantage in algebra scores, in the eighth grade.

      If you can’t use standardized testing to evaluate quality of education, then you’ve got an argument with a whole hell of a lot more than just this study.

      The starting points of this study – kindergarten – shows that the Catholic schools have students that – on average – are significantly ahead of their average peers in the public schools. If the teaching skills of the staff in these private schools are on par with the staff in public schools, then the gap should remain stable.

      • Buckley

        “If the teaching skills of the staff in these private schools are on par with the staff in public schools, then the gap should remain stable.”

        I disagree, if teaching ability is the ONLY measure of student performance. The public, to a large degree, fail to accept that students them selves and their environment control a larger degree of their performance than teacher ability. But, the powers that be need to measure stuff to show progress and so far all they have managed to measure is student test performance and then use those stats to measure teachers. I have had students tell me that they purposely bombed a standardized test that didn’t affect their grade with the express purpose of hoping that a poor grade would lead to a teacher getting fired.

      • jgr4

        I would think that a mediocre “50-level” teacher would bring bad students up, and good students down, such that they would eventually converge to “50-level” students, then stabilize. If we assume that dynamic, then this graph might indicate that Catholic school teachers are consistently 10 points better. But I’m just making up a bunch of assumptions, from which I shouldn’t be drawing conclusions, which is my point.
        Show me a graph that follows students with similar scores in the different schools. The data is there. What happens to a 47-scoring kindergartener in a Catholic school, and a 62-scoring KG in a public school, over the next 8 years? Comparing apples to apples would be easy enough, and would eliminate a few of the assumptions here.

        • Itarion

          “Comparing apples to apples would be easy enough, and would eliminate a few of the assumptions here.”

          That would be nice, but even comparing apples to oranges can tell you some things about the local area, IF you know what to look for, and what the various problems with apples or oranges mean. Cliche aside, apples and oranges are rather similar, and if you account for the differences, information can still be gleaned, which is why conclusions – not rock solid ones, I’ll admit – CAN be drawn from this information.

  • R Vogel

    Interested if they make a distinction between parochial school and Catholic private school? There is a considerable difference. It would also be interesting to know if there is any survivorship bias in the data. Does it only follow kids that stay in Catholic school for the duration? If not, then there may be something about adverse selection going on here. I have yet to look at the study, but just some initial observations.

    • Anna

      Is there a difference? I thought they were the same thing. Parochial schools are attached to a particular church (usually), but I don’t think they’re less expensive than free-standing Catholic schools.

      • R Vogel

        Parochial school are parish based. They charge tuition but are also supported as a mission outreach by their local church. They often offer education to parish members at low or no cost depending on their economic circumstances, and the parish is supposed to make up the difference. A private Catholic school is an independent institution that is funded primarily by tuition and sometimes endowment money from wealthy graduates, like any private school. There is a big difference in mission, evangelical versus educational, funding and, I suspect, outcomes. I attended both a Catholic Private School and a 160 year old protestant-based private boarding school and quality of education at each was virtually indistinguishable.

        • Anna

          Thanks for the information. I didn’t know that. Most of the Catholic elementary schools around here are parochial ones, but I didn’t know there was a difference in price.

          I spent some time looking up tuition rates. One parochial school in my city charges $6,500 per year, plus around $500 in additional fees. They offer financial aid, but I don’t know if that aid differs from secular private schools. As far as I’m aware, most private schools offer some sort of financial assistance.

          Another parish elementary school in a neighboring city offers $5,400 to member families, while non-member families pay $6,000. A third Catholic school is not attached to a particular church, and their elementary tuition is almost $8,000.

          In comparison, one of the secular private elementary schools nearby charges $22,000 per year, while another charges $14,000, so it seems likely that most Catholic schools are substantially cheaper.

      • R Vogel

        To give you an idea of the cost difference, a local parish school in my area costs about $2,500 per student, a private Catholic school a few miles away costs begins at $17,500 for full-day kindergarten (!) and goes up from there.

        • Anna

          Wow! The private Catholic school is on par with secular private schools where I am, but $2,500 is extraordinarily low. I do live in an area with a high cost of living, though. I don’t think there are any schools around here with such low tuition.

  • Itarion

    I have to say, it seems reasonable that public schools – which consists of the broadest spectrum of students – have ~50th percentile averages. Comparing X school to the public school is [should be] essentially comparing X school to the average.

  • Bernard Socks

    It’s impossible to lump “Catholic schools” together. Many are extremely inexpensive and serve primarily poor, first-generation students. Some are very expensive and attract top, academically superior students.

    And this study also fails to address metrics beyond pure academics. Many parents (including non-religious ones) send their kids to Catholic schools because they are tighter-knit, have smaller class sizes, and are much more akin to a family then the factory-farms of public schools.

    • Anna

      I was with you until you decided to throw a gratuitous insult at public schools.

      • Bernard Socks

        As a product of both public (4 of them in 3 states) and Catholic (2 in two states) I’m sticking with “factory farmed.”

        • Anna

          But your personal experiences are anecdotal. There are many tight-knit public schools with a strong sense of community and smaller class sizes. I could name several.

          Your Catholic school experiences may have been positive. However, there are many people who attended Catholic schools who had negative experiences. And there are Catholic schools that don’t match any of the things on your list. Some Catholic schools routinely have 35 children to a class. My boyfriend went to such a school, and it included violent bullying to boot. What he describes is much worse than anything I ever witnessed (or even heard about) at my public elementary school.

  • paulstrait

    Shocking! You’ve just discovered regression toward the mean! This is big.

    • MrChris

      This. (I’ve always wanted to put ‘This’)

  • Matt

    I don’t see the evidence here. This looks like reversion to the mean on each side and the catholic students actually increase from 3rd to 5th very slightly and more from 5th to 8th while it is flat in public schools. Seems inconclusive at best.

  • Pofarmer

    I have mentioned before my kids go to Catholic school. It was OK before this new priest. The latest book series removed from the library is The Hunger Games. They are learning Noahs flood as literal. We spent a long time this afternoon talking about science and myth. Daily church. Daily religion class. Health class and sex education sucks, no real music, art is pitiful. My oldest is 8th grade. I think they may all move next year. It’s at the point of ridiculous.

  • Anat

    Readers of this thread may also be interested in reading Are Private Schools Worth It?, about another study, this time comparing private schools in general with public schools, and once again the conclusion is that once demographics are controlled for public schools are better.

  • MD

    I can give anecdotal evidence. The Catholic middle school I went to was absolutely craptastic! Most of the teachers were singularly unqualified to teach. My 6th grade science and math teacher, though well meaning, was an out of work engineer who didn’t know how to handle adolescents. In the end he’d hand me the textbook and was grateful that I didn’t cause him any trouble. That man was replaced by the kindergarten teacher who treated us like 5 year olds and just read out of the book because she had no clue. . I taught myself science from 6-8 grades.
    I even debated the religion teacher, who had very little knowledge of theology and just had us memorise prayers. She didn’t like me very much.
    Even though I won every academic prize by 8th grade (except for religion and art), I was still far behind when I started high school.
    My father in the end apologised for sending me there. All because my parents were terrified of the public middle school two blocks from my house.

    • Anna

      All because my parents were terrified of the public middle school two blocks from my house.

      There’s a lot of fear-mongering about public schools, not only from proponents of religious schools, but also homeschoolers. Yes, if you live in a low-income area with a high crime rate, your local public school may be unsafe. But it’s amazing to me how even people in affluent suburbs just assume that a private school (any private school) is automatically better. Anyone can start up a private school. It doesn’t mean that the school has qualified teachers, offers high-quality instruction, or provides a safe environment for students.

  • roeck

    Primary schools are grades kindergarten through third grade. This study does not measure the differences after grade 3. Interestingly, one of the “maybes” in this study suggests that teachers’ salaries relate to teacher competency. Other studies, often referred to in teacher salary negotiations, conclude that teacher competency and performance in the classroom are unrelated to salary.


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