Study Links Catholic Education and Self-Discipline

Families may have new tool to support private school choices

Detroit Cristo Rey

A new study suggests that Michigan's loss of Catholic schools may negatively affect students' opportunities to learn and demonstrate the important trait of self-control. Parents attracted to this benefit could find more support for their educational choices if a major constitutional obstacle, our state’s Blaine Amendment, were removed.

The Fordham Foundation’s report on “Self-Discipline and Catholic Schools” quantifies evidence that many may find unsurprising. Examining two large national data sets, researchers looked at the reported behaviors of thousands of students. Students in Catholic schools were less likely than students in public schools or other private schools to act out, disrupt class, lose their temper, fight or succumb to peer pressure.

While the study followed the standards of good research (controlling for many student characteristics), it could not establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship or definitively explain why Catholic schools have this positive effect. Still, the authors note that these schools have something educators elsewhere should consider. “If other schools took self-discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do,” they said, “they would likely have to spend less time, energy, and political capital on penalizing students for negative behaviors.”

Measuring how well a student is able to behave in class is not so clear-cut a task as tracking math and reading skills on standardized tests. Yet researchers in recent years have looked more at the positive relationship between non-cognitive skills (like self-discipline) and academic achievement, as well as the benefits those skills can have later in life in obtaining degrees and finding greater economic success.

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While Catholic schools certainly do not stand alone in effectively instilling self-discipline, they are well-known for it.

Fordham's findings may help to explain what we know about the track record of places like Detroit Cristo Rey High School, an innovative college prep school that exclusively serves students from low-income families. Every member of its first five graduating classes was accepted into college with about 85 percent of them enrolling.

The findings arrive at a time when private education options, and Catholic schools particularly, are dwindling. Nearly 20 percent fewer students attend Michigan nonpublic schools than a decade ago. In 2007, the Michigan Department of Education identified 274 Catholic schools serving 69,000 students — roughly half the total private school enrollment and nearly 4 percent of students in all schools statewide. Ten years later, 215 Catholic schools served 50,000 students, their enrollment dropping faster than that of public schools and other private schools. Just in the past week, The Detroit News reported on the recent closure of a longstanding Catholic girls high school in Livonia.

It would be one thing if the drop-off were simply due to families making different choices. But at least part of the explanation must lie with the economic recession that has limited many families’ ability to finance tuition. Many families have struggled to pay for private educational options, due to the state’s restrictive Blaine Amendment that has taken public support for private schooling off the table.

But a recent change may provide a hopeful ray of light. Under the new federal tax law, families may use 529 accounts to pay for K-12 as well as college tuition. Michigan’s attorney general is currently weighing whether and how these savings accounts and their tax advantages can be used under our state constitution. The financial benefits, which are not great at first, can accumulate over time.

If parents could use these plans for private school tuition, they would have a tool to help them embrace the benefits of Catholic education, or other types of private schooling.


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Detroit Prep is a top-rated and economically and racially diverse charter school in the city. It's growth means it needs to move out from a church basement and into a new location. Nearby is a former Detroit Public Schools building, sitting empty for years. But, worried about competition, the public school district refused to sell. For years, district and local government officials in Detroit had worked to block public charter schools. They pushed legislation at the Michigan Capitol to hinder them, refused to sell to them, transferred surplus buildings from the district to the city government and imposed deed restrictions on property sales to private developers. All of it was aimed to hinder or even prevent charter school choice outside the confines of the Detroit school district.

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