A Lot to Learn from Catholic Basketball

Since 1985, every senior on the basketball team at Cincinnati’s Xavier College (participating in the NCAA tournament now underway) subsequently earned a college diploma.  So says journalist John Branch in a front-page story in the New York Times (Mar. 16).  The credit is given to Sister Rose Ann Fleming, the team’s academic adviser.  I am sure she is more than deserving of the praise she receives, but, unfortunately, the reporter misses an opportunity to look more deeply into Catholic academic traditions.

As I am not a member of that faith, I don’t know exactly how it works either, but the research evidence on Catholic schooling shows, time and again, that Catholic schools do a great job at seeing students through to the end.

The latest study—coming from Milwaukee—shows that the 9th graders from low income families who used vouchers to go to Catholic schools were much more likely to complete high school within four years than similar students who were in the city’s public schools. Most of the voucher students went to Catholic or Lutheran high schools. Derek Neal’s study of schooling nationwide also identified large positive impacts on Catholic graduation rates and college going.

I am quite sure that Catholic colleges have also amassed a considerably better than average record of getting into basketball’s “March madness” over the years, given the percentage of all university students at Catholic schools. (I invite someone reading this post to provide the statistics.)

One might attribute such disproportionate sports success to a mis-allocation of scarce resources by Catholic high schools and colleges.  But the story of Sister Fleming–and the research data on Catholic schools—offers another explanation.  The Catholic academic tradition places as much emphasis on community building as on academic excellence, and sports are important for building community. If faculty, staff, and students feel supported by those around them, even ordinary students find a way to reach their academic objectives. A few years back I spoke at Notre Dame, and was invited to watch the home football team fall victim to Purdue.  Prior to that spectacular display of camaraderie, I was given permission to view “Touchdown Jesus” and “First-down Moses,” who explained to me how it all came together. (For those who don’t get the reference, take note of the statues on the campus the next time you are there.)

Unfortunately, the Catholic high school is becoming an endangered species, as rising costs and charter competition are taking their toll.  But perhaps the new technologies rapidly coming on line will help Catholic high schools respond to the challenge. If that path is taken, students will be able to access high-quality, specialized courses on line while still enjoying the sports program and benefiting from the other traditions of the Catholic school. Since Catholic schools must not abide by restrictive government regulations, they have an opportunity to be among the first to make creative use of broadband, 3-dimensional visualization, adaptive learning, and much more, if only they can find a way of welding old traditions to new circumstances.  I am told that a major effort is now being launched in Denver to use these technologies to lift the quality of academic instruction—while reducing costs—at Catholic high schools.  (I discuss the topic in more detail in Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, which will be published on March 30, 2010 by Harvard University Press.)

But for the moment, let us just celebrate a tradition that needs to be preserved. Sister Fleming could not have done it by herself. She needed the backing of a community that Xavier—and many other Catholic colleges and high schools—have created.

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