How are Catholic schools successful?  Three sociologists set out to investigate this question in the late 1980s, the result of which was the impressive Catholic Schools and the Common Good (1993) by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland.  The work might seem dated at first blush but the insights are worth considering because of the sociological insights.

The authors decided to investigate what makes Catholic high schools successful and hold the “school as a community” as the central problem—what does it look like?  How does it impact student learning?  The authors take a look at the comparison of several schools over time.  St. Madeline’s High School (Los Angeles) in 1955 is compared with the school in 1985.  In the 1950s, the authors point out that Catholic high schools were generally isolated, doctrinaire, and racially segregated. The authors praise the 1985 school, which is none of the above.  By the time the book was published, however, the school had moved out from South Central LA and now it is closed.  So the analysis is pertinent on another level, too.

The authors argue that the success of Catholic high schools is centered on three components: strong academic program for all, caring environment, and an inspirational ideology.  As the title suggests, the authors believe the Catholic high schools “foster human cooperation in the pursuit of the common good.”  Chapter 1 serves as a great history lesson on Catholic school in the United States and presents the transformation which occurred in Catholic schools since Vatican II.  Most people focus on the enrollment changes (usually a drop) but few focus on the change in focus and mission.

The authors study seven high schools: St. Richard’s in suburban Boston, St. France’s in urban Baltimore, St. Cornelius’s in urban Cleveland, St. Madeleine’s in urban LA, St. Edward’s in suburban Louisville, St. Peter’s in urban San Antonio, and Bishop O’Boyle in rural Maryland.  As best as I can tell, only two of these schools are still open.  Rather than question the validity of the study, however, I find those closings beg for a followup and a closer analysis of the factors.

Forming an intentional community is the foundation for each school’s success.  We often hear “family atmosphere” and “community” as the strengths of a Catholic school.  But no one ever can articulate why that matters.  How does it impact student learning?

Our investigation of Catholic schools suggests that the formation of a school as a voluntary community has important institutional and personal consequences.  On the organizational side, a voluntary community enjoys a base of moral authority.  Such authority depends on the consent of those influenced by it, and it is made possible by the commitment from bot teachers and students to a particular school…many potentially contentious issues never develop into conflicts, because communal norms define a broader realm of ‘what is appropriate here.’  The value that these communities place on social interactions that are respectful and civil also means that when disagreements do occur, participants presume the good intentions of all concerned. (314)

The community thus establishes moral norms and guides the behavior of the adults toward a common mission.  For students, they encounter life in community and are able to explore and experience what it means to live together. (320)  This is the first time I’ve ever read an author trying to answer this valuable question of “What is the value of a school community?”

This is a rich book valuable for its insights and historical context.  Find out why Catholic schools are successful from a sociological perspective and appreciate the changing nature of this pursuit of the common good.