Catholic schools and student virtue

In contemporary society, families of means have had the opportunity to enroll their children in the school of their choice—either in tax-funded public schools or tuition-based private schools.

In the early 1990s, a revolution in school choice began with educational vouchers. The Milwaukee Parental School Choice Program gave low-income families public funds in order to have their children educated in private and religious schools. Other states began similar programs. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Cleveland (Ohio) Scholarship and Tutoring (voucher) Program constitutional on the grounds that these programs do not violate the establishment clause as parents can use these vouchers in the public, private, or religious schools of their choice.

Since 1990, the onset of vouchers has allowed researchers to make comparisons between voucher and non-voucher students of similar socio-academic backgrounds. It became a simpler task to compare student academic achievement in public and private schools. To date, the overwhelmingly positive effects of voucher students have been shown over their counterparts attending traditional public schools.

Yet, for those of us concerned with the holistic development of children, success in academics is not the only criterion. “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” wrote Aristotle. Importance must not only be ascribed to mental growth, but also to the physical, social, and emotional growth of students.

With this need in mind, many schools now offer character education programs with what is called Emotional Intelligence (EI), and it’s gaining in prominence as an educational term. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Until now, there has been little research performed within the school choice debate about character and student virtue. Therefore, almost 900 students attending Catholic schools in the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring (voucher) Program took a survey on various aspects of student virtue that revealed some interesting findings with regard to the length of time students have attended Catholic schools.

School stability is important to the discussion of educational vouchers as the school choice movement has wrought the unintended consequence of increasing student mobility across different types of schools, from charter and magnet public schools, to private and religious schools. It may be assumed that school stability leads to greater student achievement, though this may not be so in all cases. For example, numerous successful and productive citizens grew up as military children both at home and abroad, having changed schools frequently in the course of their K-12 education. However, more times than not, school mobility for individual students has created gaps in learning, not to mention frequent upheavals in teachers, classmates, and environments that make it difficult for youngsters to progress through school on a trajectory conducive to optimal, holistic growth. Studies have shown that frequent school mobility harms students’ academic progress and behavior. Rates of mobility are highest in urban school districts.

In my Cleveland voucher program study (2014), five significant peace-enhancing student virtues were found in students with greater stability in Catholic schools: students’ commitment to physical nonviolence, self-denial, sense of belonging, commitment to community, and morality.

Now, the absence of violence does not constitute authentic peace, but certainly is a building block thereof. A greater commitment to physical nonviolence was found for upperclassmen over their younger classmates in middle and high school, substantiating positive growth over time. Moreover, the overall commitment to physical nonviolence favored those with a greater percentage of Catholic education over those with less Catholic schooling. Additionally, those with more years in the same school display greater commitment to physical nonviolence. All told, a greater commitment to physical nonviolence occurs with greater stability in a Catholic school.

A greater commitment to self-denial and sense of belonging was also found for students with greater school stability and higher percentage of Catholic education. In an often me-first culture, it’s comforting to know Catholic schools holding fast to Jesus’ words: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).

A commitment to community and a sense of morality in the Catholic tradition were found to be greater for students with more Catholic education and school stability, as should be the case. With a sense of belonging and commitment to community, students in Catholic schools are less apt to fall through the cracks or chasms, as some would say, of loneliness and despair. In contrast, government schools simply cannot offer holistic education because the spiritual dimension is avoided. This often leads to emptiness and tragedy. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#27), “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.”

Summarizing, those with more Catholic education coupled with more years-per-school display a greater amount of student virtue with regard to the important building blocks of peace.

School choice options for families who want to partake of it, regardless of socio-economic status, have been gaining momentum over the years. Therefore, families would be wise to educate themselves about available school choice options. Annually shopping for new and better schools could ultimately prove to be counterproductive to children’s social and emotional development based on the evidence showing greater amounts of school stability to be supportive of growth in student virtue.

As such, it may be wise for parents to gain an understanding of their children’s learning styles and interests to find schools better matching their learning needs over the long haul. With growing numbers of thematic schools made available, parents have a wider range of educational choices and need to educate themselves about their range of options. School proximity may be a factor for families to consider, too. It may be that the school within walking distance doesn’t offer the quality of education that a more distant one offers. However, by attending the neighborhood school, the child saves time for activities near home, becoming more engaged in the life of the family and the local community. Assuming we all agree that Catholic schools are the most conducive to supporting growth in virtue, let us continue to debate the pros and cons of parish schools, regional schools, and home schools in the Catholic tradition.

DAVID ROJEK, Ph.D., earned a doctorate in Catholic Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the Catholic University of America. He has decades of experience serving foreign and domestic schools and is a Catholic parish and school consultant for the Augustine Institute.

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