Catholic schools top public counterparts 

By 
  • September 3, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - In separate research, two economists with ties to the C.D. Howe Institute have found Catholic schools are outperforming public schools in Ontario on standardized tests.

The economists believe competition between the two publicly funded systems may, in part, explain higher success rates for Grade 3 and 6 pupils in Catholic schools when compared with their public school counterparts.

“What I  was completely startled by, because it wasn’t my prior (assumption), was that the Catholic would outperform the public schools in the way that they do in the data,” said Wilfred Laurier University economics professor David Johnson. “It’s flagrantly obvious.”

Similar research by McMaster University economics professor Abigail Payne found that Catholic and public schools are better able to increase student success rates between their first provincial standardized tests in Grade 3 and the second round in Grade 6 if a new Catholic school opens in the area. Payne and her research partners, David E. Card of the University of California Berkeley and Martin Dooley of McMaster, conclude that where Catholic parents can choose between public and Catholic schools, school boards and individual schools are better managed and more responsive to parent demands for results.

“To the extent that Catholic families are willing to substitute between public schools and separate schools, that’s going to encourage school managers, school boards to react,” said Payne.

But the McMaster economics professor is not sure to what extent competition explains the difference between Catholic and public student test scores.

“There is an effect (from competition),”  Payne told The Catholic Register. “Would it be bigger if non-Catholic students also had a choice? It might be.”

The market-oriented C.D. Howe Institute will publish a summary of Payne’s research the end of September or early October.

“In economics the fundamental lens is that incentives matter,” said C.D. Howe Institute education policy analyst Ben Dachis.

Since each student is worth nearly $10,000 in education funding in Ontario’s per-pupil funding model, Catholic school boards have a powerful motive to work hard to keep students, said Johnson.

Johnson looked at Education Quality and Accountability Office test results across the province for English-speaking boards of education and found 11 of the top 13 boards were Catholic. He also discovered eight of the bottom 10 boards are public. His research factored in socio-economic differences, immigration status and single-parent as opposed to two-parent homes.

Though he can’t prove it, Johnson believes the fact Catholic families might choose public schools keeps the Catholic boards on their toes.

“Catholic boards have to worry a bit more about the fact that if they totally screwed up people could leave,” he said. “And if the public school screws up, they (non-Catholic parents) have got nowhere to go.”

Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education president Brian Evoy doesn’t think competition explains the higher test scores in Catholic schools.

“I think for Catholic parents there is no choice but the Catholic school system,” he said.

Parent involvement is the key to success in Catholic schools, Evoy said.

“For us as Catholic parents, that’s always been the history of our school system — the parents have been involved,” he said.

Johnson concedes that there are many reasons that might explain the better results at Catholic schools, but contends competition for enrolment should not be   dismissed as a possible factor.

“Maybe it’s a sense of purpose. Maybe it’s a sense of meeting the whole needs (of children),” he said. “Whatever is happening here it’s really better for Catholic parents than whatever is happening in the public boards.”

The studies indicate that policy makers should be allowing school boards more freedom to innovate, said Dachis.

“Give the boards more autonomy,” he said. “In a lot of cases boards are at the whim of the province, if you will.”

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