Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?

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Lacking nuns and often students, a shrinking system looks for answers


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Spring 2007 / Vol. 7, No. 2

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. 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.

“Nothing wrong with this place,” Bobby finally said, “that a busload of nuns wouldn’t solve.”

I laughed. I knew exactly what he meant. 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.

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. And paddles. And, sometimes, fists. Before “tough love” there was Sister Patrick Mary or Sister Elizabeth Maureen. 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. They would march up and down the aisles. (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.


The problem is that there no longer are busloads of nuns; in fact, most schools would be lucky to have a Mini Cooper’s worth of such minimum-wage professional teachers. Their ranks have declined by a staggering 62 percent since 1965 (from 180,000 to 68,000). The staff composition of Catholic schools has similarly been turned on its head, from some 90 percent female religious in the ’50s to less than 5 percent today (see Figure 1). “The school system had literally been built on their backs,” reported Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland in their 1992 study Catholic Schools and the Common Good, “through the services they contributed in the form of the very low salaries that they accepted.” Consequently, costs have soared; average annual tuition has gone from next to nothing to more than $2,400 in elementary schools and almost $6,000 in high schools.

Despite a growing Catholic population (from 45 million in 1965 to almost 77 million today, making it the largest Christian denomination in the United States), Catholic school enrollment has plummeted, from 5.2 million students in nearly 13,000 schools in 1960 to 2.5 million in 9,000 schools in 1990. After a promising increase in the late 1990s, enrollment had by 2006 dropped to 2.3 million students in 7,500 schools. 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. 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 the Catholics? What happened to a school system that at one time educated one of every eight American children? And did it quite well.

May I Have Your Attention, Please!

As most educators know, Catholic schools work and have worked for a long time. Sociologist James Coleman and colleagues Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore, in 1982, were among the first to document Catholic schools’ academic successes, in High School Achievement: Public and Private Schools. 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.

According to the Common Good 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. Parochial schools are less likely to fall into the public-school habit of “structuring inequities”: public schools offer students the chance to take weaker academic courses while Catholic school courses are “largely determined by the school.” The irony, say Bryk et al., is that such a “constrained academic structure” contributes more to “the common school effect” than the potluck served by the public schools. Catholic schools give less weight to “background differences” of their students and thus do not allow those background differences to be “transformed into achievement differences.” Even after adjusting for student background differences, Bryk and his colleagues found significant “school effects” on academic achievement.

“You know the story about the kid whose parents got fed up with their son’s constant discipline problems in the public school?” asked James Goodness, communications director of Newark Catholic Schools, while entertaining journalists at a recent archdiocesan-sponsored luncheon. 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. Goodness, with his story about the problem public-school boy, was explaining what made Catholic schools special. “‘That’s it!’ says the dad. ‘It’s Catholic school for you.’ They sent him. They waited. No calls from school. ‘What’s up?’ the dad finally asks. ‘The nuns been boxin’ your ears?’ ‘No,’ says the kid. ‘They didn’t have to. 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. No surprise to those of us who grew up in them. The establishment of order and discipline, in all things: We wore uniforms. We had homework. We had to eat our lunch, even the peas and carrots. 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. Grammar counted. Posture counted. So did skirt length. It was all for the greater glory of God, of course. By reaching for God, the “all-knowing,” so the nuns said, we might know something even if our reach fell short. There were no prizes for just showing up. All of it, we knew, on some preternatural level, made us “better.” And the research seems to support that view. In fact, one of the “surprises” for the Common Good 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. And secular, for Catholics, meant a certain slackness in moral and academic discipline. 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 battles to safeguard order, and academic excellence, were fought early and often. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, Catholic school leaders refused to follow their public school counterparts into a vocational and utilitarian tracking system. “Catholic youth should not be the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water,’ but should be prepared for the professions or mercantile pursuits,” went one early protestation by the Association of Catholic Colleges.

Catholic schools toyed with progressive education models in the 1970s, but gave it up, report the authors of the Common Good, when they realized they could not be all things to all children. Catholic high schools soon “returned to conventional class-period organization, heightened academic standards and a renewed emphasis on a core of academic subjects.”

Everything but a Plague of Locusts

So, if they are so good, why are Catholic schools disappearing? And if there are so many more Catholics, why are there fewer schools? No more nuns? No more money? Charter schools? Loss of faith? Indolence? Scandal? Irrelevance? The answer seems to be all of that—and less.

“The answer is fairly simple,” says James Cultrara, director for education for the New York State Catholic Conference. “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 New York Times, “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.

Brooklyn closed 26 elementary schools in 2005, even though its Catholic population has grown by some 600,000 since 1950. “But the other trends were unmistakable,” says Thomas Chadzutko, superintendent of the diocese’s schools, and the man who presided over the closings. “Enrollment was down and expenses up.”

If only it were that simple.

The loss of nuns has undoubtedly added to the financial burden. But demographic change, and the failure to respond to it, has created other burdens. 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.

“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. But it takes time for the huge, theologically monolithic, and institutionally undemocratic Church to react.

The flight from inner cities to the suburbs by working- and middle-class Americans affected Catholic schools as much as, if not more than, it did public schools. Downtown churches were suddenly filled by poor immigrants from Catholic nations (Latin America and the Caribbean) without a tradition of Catholic schools, much less a habit of paying for them. According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), between 2000 and 2006, nearly 600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools closed, a 7 percent decline, and nearly 290,000 students left, almost 11 percent. The largest declines were among elementary schools in 12 urban dioceses (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boston, Newark, Detroit, and Miami), which together have lost almost 20 percent of their students (more than 136,000) in the last five years.

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 disco