Catholic schools and embracing the elusive

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Mitch Pearlstein

In most public policy discussions and debates regarding elementary and secondary education, critically important ideas are routinely downplayed to the point of dismissal because they are intrinsically elusive. And because such ideas are largely ignored, a lot of young people who could be better served and educated are not. Or, more specifically in this instance, a lot of kids who might benefit from attending a Catholic school don’t have the opportunity.

As for such elusive ideas and (one would hope) corresponding behaviors, Paul Tough, a New York Times reporter, in 2013, wrote a New York Times bestseller called How Children Succeed, which argued that “grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character” were key to learning. It’s a compelling book.

Three years later in 2016, psychologist Angela Duckworth wrote Grit, which argued that for “anyone striving to succeed,” be they parents, students, educators, athletes, business people, or whomever, “the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence” that she calls “grit.” Her book also was a New York Times bestseller.

Predating both books, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, in 2011, wrote Willpower, with “willpower” described as the “greatest human strength.” With the book’s back cover adding how the two authors “revolutionize our understanding of the most coveted human virtue: self-control.” Not one of the most coveted values, but the most coveted. As with Tough’s book (I haven’t read Duckworth’s) it’s excellent. So, it’s not surprising, making it three out of three, Willpower was a New York Times bestseller, too.

Which leads to another pivotal characteristic, “self-discipline,” and a new study worthy of political and public policy attention. Along with “willpower,” “grit,” and the rest, self-discipline is an essential but not necessarily easy concept to “operationalize,” if one wanted to be socially scientific about it.

Self-Discipline and Catholic Schools: Evidence from Two National Cohorts, by Michael Gottfried, an associate professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Jacob Kirksey, a doctoral student, also at UCSB, was released last week by the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. It draws on two “waves” of national data on elementary school students involving children who entered kindergarten in 1999 and then in the 2010–11 schoolyear. Each cohort contained fifteen to seventeen thousand boys and girls who attended public schools and one to two thousand who attended nonpublic schools, of whom close to half attended Catholic elementary schools.

For each cohort, teachers rated the frequency with which students engaged in good and bad behaviors such as arguing, fighting, controlling their tempers, respecting others’ property, and handling peer pressures among other things. Comparisons were made not only between students in Catholic schools and public schools, but also between students in Catholic schools and other private schools, both religious and secular.

Gottfried and Kirksey acknowledge their findings are not causal, as they were unable, in the words of Mike Petrilli and Amber Northern of the Fordham Institute, to “construct a plausible control group.” But even with that caveat, Petrilli and Northern, in the Foreword, more than plausibly contend the study’s findings “suggest three key takeaways.”

  • “Schools that value and focus on self-discipline will likely do a better job of fostering it in children.”
  • “Other schools have something to learn from Catholic schools when it comes to fostering self-discipline.”
  • “We should not underestimate the power of religion to positively influence a child’s behavior—and shouldn’t restrict families’ choices on the basis of religion.”

As a longtime supporter of both parental choice and Catholic schools, I trust I’m not surprising anyone by highlighting all of this. And while policies can be decidedly consequential, I’m also a “culturalist,” in that I’ve also long thought that the most important factors in determining how well kids do in school have more to do with values, norms, and behaviors such as self-discipline, willpower, and grit, than anything politicians, regardless of party, are capable of doing or replicating—albeit with one key exception.

By expanding parental choice as a policy, governors and legislators can make it possible for more mothers and fathers to send their boys and girls to schools that might work best for them. Or, in the encouraging light of Gottfried and Kirksey’s study, to schools that embrace the elusive because they revere the ineffable.

Mitch Pearlstein is a Founder of and American Experiment Senior Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. 

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Center of the American Experiment’s blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.