Catholic schools and truth decay

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Max Eden

The recent Fordham Institute study on self-discipline and Catholic education ought to surprise no one. It finds that students in Catholic schools are more likely, regardless of demographics, to exhibit self-control and are, according to teachers, less likely to act out and be disruptive. The data do not allow for an experimental research design. But it represents more compelling evidence than is on offer for other pillars of education reformers’ faith, like higher standards and test-based teacher evaluation. The strongest hypothesis for why Catholic school students are better behaved: Their teachers appeal to a higher authority, in whom parents trust.

Such a notion may be somewhat foreign to technocratic education reformers, who—especially on school discipline—adhere to a secularized gospel of social justice. But this new evidence of a thing previously unseen in the research literature ought to scramble the traditional orthodoxies on school discipline and school choice.

For one, it raises the question of whether the expansion of charter schools has really been a net-positive for urban students of color. Charter school critics traditionally focus on the alleged, but broadly undemonstrated, harm that charters do to traditional public schools. But as research conducted by my former colleagues Andrew Kelly and Michael McShane has demonstrated, charter sector expansion has come at a grave cost to urban Catholic schools. Reformers have expressed few qualms about this; after all, the charter school test scores were good. But as this study reminds us, there is more to a quality education than short-term test-score effects.

I was poignantly reminded of this the other month when I traveled down to New Orleans to speak to an Education Writers Association conference about “restorative justice.” My Airbnb hostess that weekend was Mrs. Brown, an African American soul-singer extraordinaire and mother of a thirteen-year-old daughter. So I asked her what she thought about New Orleans charter schools. She expressed deep discontent bordering on despair. But her anti-charter litany didn’t conform to the highly-stylized, leftist arguments about corporations privatizing public education. Her concerns could better be characterized as small-C conservative in spirit.

To Mrs. Brown, charters had severed the connection between the schools and the community. Students were no longer being taught by their down-the-block neighbors, who had taught their older siblings and sometimes even their parents. Schools were no longer centers of neighborhood life. Now they were staffed by twenty-something Teach For America types, who try as they might were totally out of touch with the community, and whose commitment to “social justice” came across as condescending. Students at her daughter’s old school were not being taught handwriting or reading books. Everything was geared toward higher performance on standardized tests. To Mrs. Brown, New Orleans charter schools represented the latest iteration in structural racism perpetuated by a new generation of oppressors. Finally fed up, she did what unfortunately few urban parents have the financial means to do—withdrew her daughter and sent her to a Catholic school.

Because Mrs. Brown lamented that many in her daughter’s generation had little respect for authority, I expected her to be on the hawkish side of the school discipline debate. She was not. She argued that charter schools default to suspensions because their twenty-something teachers don’t have the skills to understand their students. But then she pivoted to a different lament: Because one parent complained and threatened a lawsuit, teachers at an old and venerable Catholic school were no longer permitted to administer corporal punishment.

At first, I didn’t see how this contradiction could be resolved. How could she both oppose school suspensions and bemoan the discontinuation of corporal punishment? But as we continued to converse, her perspective and values became clear: It all comes down to trust. If you don’t trust the adults at a school—if you don’t think they’re of your community and hold your values, if you suspect that they might be trying to hold your child down—then you don’t trust them to even send a kid home for a few days. But if you do trust them, if they come from your community, respect and reflect your values, and are trying to elevate your child toward something higher—then you’d trust them, even with the rod.

These values, however, are not shared by mainstream education reformers. Indeed, much of today’s education reform movement seems almost intentionally designed to make this vision of social trust deteriorate. In the effort to regulate our way toward charter schools with higher test scores, reformers may be marginalizing minority and community-led charter schools in favor of networks led by out-of-touch social justice elitists.

And today’s discipline reformers routinely tell students and parents that their teachers’ authority must not be trusted because it is tainted by racial bias. The more that message is broadcast, the more it will be believed. The more it is believed, the less the schools will be trusted. That breeds a vicious cycle in which we encourage students to blame their teachers when they act out of line—a surefire recipe for destroying self-discipline.

Policymakers can fight against this vicious cycle by promoting policies that place greater trust in parents and teachers. Policymakers ought to provide parents with education savings accounts and give them the freedom to choose schools that reflect values that education reformers might not necessarily share (faith) and offer value-propositions that standardized tests can’t measure (self-discipline). Activists ought to stop advancing the argument that public schools are fundamentally and irredeemably guilty of the sin of institutional racism.

To be sure, humans are fallen creatures. Adults often fall short. But children always require instruction to walk a proper path. Unfortunately, something has gone very wrong when parents no longer trust their schools—indeed are being told not to trust their schools. When trust decays this far, parents—like Mrs. Brown—ought to be afforded recourse to schools that appeal directly to a higher authority.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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