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Catholic Schools and the Common Good


reviewed by Adam Gamoran - 1996

coverTitle: Catholic Schools and the Common Good
Author(s): Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, Peter B. Holland
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674103114, Pages: , Year: 1995
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Catholic Schools and the Common Good, by Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland, won the 1994 Willard Waller Award from the Sociology of Education Section of the American Sociological Association, for an outstanding book in the field. That was an appropriate honor for this exemplary book.


Reading Catholic Schools and the Common Good was for me like seeing a black-and-white line-drawn coloring book suddenly filled in with rich and evocative colors. I was acquainted with the basic outline of the authors’ argument from their own earlier writings and those of others: Catholic high schools produce academic achievement that is both higher on aver- -age and more equitably distributed than that of public schools, largely because they place greater academic demands on all students, and maintain more orderly and cohesive learning environments. Catholic Schools and the Common Good provides intensive analysis of the distinctive character of Catholic schools to color in this familiar sketch. After reading the book, one is not only convinced that Catholic schools have advantages for academic achievement—especially for low-income and minority youth—but one understands the mechanisms through which these advantages accrue.


The evidence comes from two main sources: a qualitative study of seven well-regarded Catholic high schools, and quantitative analysis of High School and Beyond, a national survey of high schools and their staff and students. The seven case-study schools were chosen, in the spirit of “effective schools” research, to provide exemplars of successful Catholic high schools that would enable researchers to understand how Catholic schools achieve their success. The schools were located around the country, and they differed in their size, gender makeup, and ethnic composition. Two rounds of fieldwork occurred: A first set of exploratory visits framed the questions for a second round of more focused interviews. The field research also contributed to the research questions for the survey analysis, and enhanced the interpretation of the survey findings. This triangulation of research methods, which also includes a useful historical introduction to Catholic schooling in the United States, contributes to an interesting and thorough narrative.


Whereas earlier publications have shown that higher achievement and less inequality in Catholic schools result from more academic coursetaking, Bryk, Lee, and Holland give this finding a much fuller context, including the historical and ideological backdrop for the constrained academic organization of Catholic schools. An academic-focus is an essential part of Catholic schools’ clear mission. All students. not just the most able, are expected to engage in extensive academic work. Although Catholic schools accommodate differences in students’ capacities, the goal of moving students through a traditional academic curriculum is held in common for all students. The historical, case study, and descriptive survey material in Chapter 4 (“Curriculum and Academic Organization”) effectively sets up the quantitative analysis in Chapter 10 (“The Impact of Academic Organization”), which confirms that the achievement advantage of Catholic schools reflects in part their students’ common core of rigorous academic experiences. Chapter 10 is exceptionally lucid in its presentation of complicated statistical analyses—indeed, I found the clear explanation of the statistical representation of differences in both levels and distributions of achievement at the beginning of Chapter 10 to be a valuable contribution in itself.


Previous studies have indicated that better discipline and order account for part of Catholic high schools’ success, but Catholic Schools and the Common Good shows this is just one aspect of the distinctive social organization of Catholic schools. Chapter 5 (“Communal Organization”) provides a rich understanding of the ethos of successful Catholic high schools. Through shared beliefs and activities, as well as formal roles that emphasize caring and support by staff for students and for one another, Catholic high schools establish a communal organization that facilitates a productive learning environment. The authors observe, ‘Warm and informal interactions suggest a genuine sense of human caring . . . this school feels like home” (p. 127). This material leaves the reader well prepared for Chapter 11 (“The Impact of Communal Organization”) which documents the benefits of communal organization for teachers’ satisfaction and sense of efficacy as well as for students’ engagement with school.


The study is most vulnerable on the issue of selection bias, the possibility that what appears to be the effect of Catholic schools is actually a reflection of the types of students who attend Catholic schools, not a special benefit of the experiences students have in Catholic schools. Bryk, Lee, and Holland address this problem in a number of ways. Most important, in regression analyses estimating the effects of Catholic schools, they take into account students’ family background and prior academic experiences. They show that socioeconomic differences between students in Catholic and public schools are not as great as many have thought, and that achievement differences persist when background factors are controlled.


This approach, while useful, does not fully solve the problem. As the authors recognize (p. 292)) students may differ at high school entry in ways that are not measured by the background controls, such as motivation, valuing of education, and test scores at high school entry. The background controls used in the study may fail to address these unmeasured differences, and yet these differences may contribute to the Catholic school achievement advantage. Disadvantaged families that choose Catholic schools may be especially highly motivated for success in school, and that may be a source of the greater efficacy of Catholic schools with disadvantaged youth.


The authors partially counter this claim by showing that the degree of financial sacrifice made by Catholic school families is unrelated to student engagement with the Catholic sector. This finding is taken to suggest that unmeasured aspects of motivation do not account for the advantages of Catholic schools, although the absence of an association between sacrifice and engagement within the Catholic sector does not rule out a link between sectors. The authors argue that “poor families’ commitment to education has effects in large part because such families choose schools that take active responsibility for engaging students in learning” (p. 293), and not because students from such families are especially able or motivated compared with others from similar backgrounds. This point is supported by the quantitative and qualitative evidence on the mechanisms through which Catholic schools help students learn: an inspirational ideology, a constrained academic focus, and a communal social organization.


Even if fully accepted, this argument does not rule out an important aspect of selection bias. Although the authors have convinced me that the effectiveness of Catholic schools results from their distinctive character, it is not clear that a similar approach, which requires a high degree of commitment from students and families, could be enacted in other settings and with students and families that do not have such commitment to begin with. Catholic schools are especially effective, but whether their approach could be implemented with the student population of public schools is still open to question.


These doubts do not diminish the contribution of Catholic Schools and the Common Good. In this day of extensive criticism of American education, a model of schooling that works has great value, and my concerns can be put to rest by trying the approach in new settings. For example, New York City high schools have a new policy of placing all students in college-preparatory mathematics and science, a strategy that is remarkably similar to the Catholic school approach. Early monitoring reportedly indicates that academic coursetaking is up, thanks to the new policy. Course failure rates are high, but they were almost as high before the-policy took effect. Based on Bryk, Lee, and Holland’s study, it will take a strong ethic of caring and responsibility for students to succeed in the more rigorous academic environment. Will this come to pass? We will find out only if we try.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 3, 1996, p. 483-486
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1432, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 6:44:36 PM

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