The Catholic School Advantage


Catholic schools are receiving renewed attention in policy, as school choice becomes an increasing priority for the current presidential administration. Catholic schools comprise about half of all private school options in the United States, which means they are a large portion of school choice for parents and their kids. However, most of the research on Catholic schools pays little attention to an important reason why parents/guardians might consider sending their children to Catholic schools: self-discipline. In our new report with the Fordham Institute, Catholic Education and Self-Discipline: Evidence from Two National Cohorts, Michael Gottfried and I explored whether attending Catholic school was related to improved self-discipline behaviors.

Why Academic Outcomes Alone?

Considering Catholic schools often highlight the importance of educating the “whole child” – focusing on both human development and academic success – I was surprised how little previous research focused on anything beyond academic achievement of students. What little work there was, I found to be quite mixed and inconclusive as to whether Catholic schools yield positive outcomes for students. Previous research examining academic outcomes often compared Catholic schools exclusively to public schools (as opposed to other private schools), and did not evaluate outcomes in Catholic elementary schools. This age group is arguably where self-discipline behaviors set the trajectory for later years of schooling.

In my view, the main problem when reading previous research on Catholic schools was the tendency to evaluate test scores or other academic measures as the end goal, when in fact for Catholic schools, academics do not appear to be the only goal. This was an important advantage of using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study from 1998-1999 and 2010-2011, which provided us key measures of behaviors related to self-discipline for elementary students. We were thus able to distinguish our work from current research in Catholic education.

Non-Cognitive Skills Matter Too!

In our study, self-discipline was measured by externalizing behavior problems (lower likelihood of arguing, getting angry, fighting, etc.) and self-control (higher likelihood of controlling one’s temper, respecting others’ property, and handling peer pressure, among other things). These two skills have been linked to many positive outcomes for students: academic achievement, high school graduation, lower rates of crime and drug use, and employment in the years following schooling. These skills have also garnered recent attention from policymakers across the country given new state accountability plans created under Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), where states had the option to determine by which metrics schools should be held accountable. While noncognitive skills were not adopted by any state this last year, the policy dialogue certainly escalated regarding whether such skills should be incorporated into future accountability and improvement plans. Given this recent attention from policymakers, this raises the question about whether there are currently schools proving successful in instilling these positive behaviors in kids.

What Did We Find?

Across the elementary grades, our study found that students attending Catholic schools exhibited better self-discipline, controlling for dozens of other factors related to the development of these noncognitive skills (e.g. socioeconomic status, parent education, etc.) as well as confounding issues related to selection bias. These results were fairly consistent across the grade span. However, we were surprised that there were no demographic background characteristics that tended to benefit most in this regard, considering previous research identifying an added benefit to low-income students. This suggests that attending a Catholic school has an equal benefit to all children, which we think is pretty good news.

Final Thoughts

Yet perhaps our report raises more questions for me than it answers. Do teachers in Catholic school exhibit more patience when dealing with unruly behavior in young children? Do these children respond more positively to lesson plans and activities dedicated to the introspection of personal development?

With these new questions arising, one thing is certain- we still have a lot left to learn about Catholic schools. For researchers, observing classrooms, talking to teachers and parents, and evaluating students in the ways that make most sense given Catholic schools’ vision for education are key ways for us to learn more. In policy, the attention given to these noncognitive skills is not likely to dissipate, which shines a greater spotlight on what Catholic schools are doing to be successful in shaping these positive behaviors in kids. For parents, there are many factors that go into selecting the right school for your child. In the case of Catholic schools, the choice ought to consider how Catholic schools are consistently facilitating self-discipline in children.

About the Author

Jacob Kirksey is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Barbara in the Department of Education. His studies focus broadly on education policy with a more specific focus on attendance in elementary school and other early education policy topics. Jacob can be reached at


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