Catholic Schools and the Common Good

Author(s): Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland

Source: Bryk, Anthony S., Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland. 1993. Catholic Schools and the Common Good. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


A seminal work on school and sector effects, Catholic Schools and the Common Good offers insight into the mechanisms behind the success of Catholic high schools in educating all students, regardless of student background. Important ideas regarding the value of community, the conviction that all students can learn, the local organization of the school, and a religious ideology that undergirds the entirety of the school experience remain resonant today.

About the Book
Published in 1993, Catholic Schools and the Common Good is an extension of prior effective schools research and initial studies on Catholic schools which demonstrated a number of positive outcomes for students in Catholic schools. James Coleman and colleagues (High School Achievement: Public, Catholic and Private Schools Compared, 1982) demonstrated that Catholic schools, compared to public schools, had higher cognitive outcomes, less racial segregation, and weakened the effect of family background on student achievement. Using the same data, Andrew Greeley (Catholic High Schools and Minority Students, 1982) found that minority students in Catholic schools achieved higher academic outcomes than minority students in public schools and that the effect was the greatest for the most disadvantaged students. These quantitative studies, however, were not able to unpack the reasons behind these differences.

In Catholic Schools and the Common Good, Bryk, Lee and Holland examine the inner workings of Catholic schools, as well as quantitative data, in the search for links between school organization and student achievement. They seek to provide empirical evidence on the mechanisms behind the Catholic school effect, with the goal of extending current knowledge of what makes a good and effective school, in order to improve outcomes for all schools.

Methods and Study Design
While prior sociological studies on Catholic schools were quantitative in nature, Bryk, Lee, and Holland incorporated mixed methods into their study design. They first situate Catholic schools in the historical context of the United States, detailing the origins of Catholic schooling as well as changes in the system since Vatican II. The authors initiated the study with two rounds of qualitative field work. The authors visited seven Catholic high schools chosen for a diverse range of school types, looking for good schools but not the best or most elite schools. The research team interviewed staff, students, and parents, observed classroom and school life, and collected documentation, focusing on six areas: school philosophy and mission, curriculum and academic structure, school organization and staffing, finance and governance, Catholic character of the school. In the second round, they conducted thematic open-ended and semi-structured interviews, observed classrooms using established protocols, and reviewed documentation in order to confirm findings from the initial observation.

The authors used the findings from the qualitative portion of the study to develop theories and hypotheses that informed quantitative survey research using the High School and Beyond 1980-82 data collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics. This dataset contains longitudinal data on high school students at two time points, sophomore (1980) and senior (1982) year. The survey contains extensive measures regarding high school experiences, student background information, and cognitive achievement test scores. The dataset also contains an over-sample of Catholic schools and schools with high proportions of minority students, providing additional cases of the groups of interest under study. Using hierarchical linear modeling, the authors are able to apply sophisticated statistical quantitative methods unavailable at the time of the initial studies by Coleman and Greeley.

Bryk, Lee, and Holland’s findings from the quantitative and qualitative analyses result in four aspects of Catholic high schools that they associate with high student achievement: (1) a delimited technical core, (2) a communal organization, (3) decentralized governance, and (4) an inspirational theology. Each one is described in brief below.

The authors found that Catholic schools offered a core curriculum for all students, regardless of student background, based on a common view held by faculty and administration about what all students can and should learn. While some tracking was present in Catholic schools, the structure was constrained, both in scope and the number of levels. This contributed to a more equitable social distribution of achievement and made use of limited resources, particularly in small schools.

Examples of the communal organization of Catholic schools was found in a multitude of school activities and rituals, both during the school day and after school, allowing for students, teachers, and the administration to interact on a regular basis. Community was also demonstrated in the extended role of the teacher as well as strong relationships among teachers. Shared beliefs and norms of the community were supported by a set of general moral commitments. Overall, they found that Catholic schools view community as being respectful of the dignity of each person, open to dialogue, and characterized by a spirit or ethos of caring found in student and teacher interactions.

Another important organizational characteristic of Catholic schools that benefited Catholic schools was decentralized governance. Unlike public schools situated within large systems, Catholic schools are loosely organized within dioceses and the governance of each school is determined by school ownership, be it the parish, the diocese, or religious order in the case of private Catholic schools. This decentralized governance allows for local, school-level decision making, which enables school leadership to make decisions based on the good of the individual school and community. They also noted the importance of the role of the principal and the principal’s leadership style, which they observed was primarily paternalistic, functioning as the head of the community.

While the authors were not able to directly test the effects of an inspirational ideology using the survey data, they believed the ideas that shape the Catholic school were an important element of the schools’ success, particularly in how they animate the above differences. They focused on two ideas that shape Catholic schools: Christian personalism and subsidiarity. Christian personalism was found in the communal norm of teachers focused on caring for the growth of the whole person rather than just academic growth. The idea of subsidiarity was found in the school organization, which rejected large bureaucracy and placed emphasis on small school communities organized by individuals. This organization provides greater autonomy to administrators and teachers. These small communities also assist in closing the gap between the family and the school. Both Christian personalism and subsidiarity are supported by a Catholic social ethic which promotes education that values human development and democratic citizenship and promotes work toward a just community. Finally, the authors note that the power of the symbolic in the model of Jesus Christ and human action directed toward fulfilling the Kingdom of God, added depth and a religious connection to the schooling process.

Suggestions for Education ReformBryk, Lee, and Holland saw several implications for broader education reform from their findings. They encouraged public schools to promote more academic course-taking for all students, regardless of background and ability. They also recognized the importance of the school as a voluntary community. With increasing legislation regarding school choice options and the growth of the educational marketplace, this point is perhaps more salient now then at publication. The authors noted that as voluntary communities, the choice to be a part of the school community has important effects in how the community is created and sustained. On a different note, the authors encouraged high schools to serve as bridging institutions, acknowledging and appreciating the culture of the family while providing students with the necessary “knowledge, skills, dispositions, and habits” to be successful in both school and modern society.

Points to Consider
While the authors were able to use more sophisticated statistical techniques in their analysis than previous studies of sector effects, they were not able to completely resolve the issue of selection bias, (i.e., the effect of Catholic schools on achievement may be a result of some characteristic of the students who choose to attend them rather than a school effect). Additionally, the authors laud the benefits of the small communities and schools, but a critical discussion of resource limitations at these schools was missing from the text. Bryk, Lee and Holland focus on the secondary level, but other studies have examined the Catholic school effect at different levels of education (e.g., elementary and middle) and have found smaller effects than at the high school level. More recent studies of high school sector effects have produced smaller and some null effects for Catholic high schools on achievement, suggesting that public sector schools may have found ways to improve their test scores or that Catholic high schools may have lost their advantage over time.

In the years since publication, a number of Catholic high schools have closed due to low enrollment and financial difficulties. However, a new system of Catholic high schools, the Cristo Rey schools, have opened in large urban centers across the country, serving low-income and minority students and combining both high quality academics and on-the-job training in corporate offices. While these new high schools have yet to be studied, this new model along with over 1,200 traditional Catholic high schools in the US continue to provide education in the tradition that Bryk, Lee, and Holland witnessed in the 1980s.

Keywords: academic achievement, Catholic schools, community, sector effects, high schools

Sector: Catholic,  Public

Outcomes: Academic,  Cultural Impact,  Religious and Spiritual,  School Organization

Date Posted: 2014-02-28