October 8, 1999 | News Releases on Education
WASHINGTON, OCT. 8, 1999-Support has been growing in the African-American community for letting parents send their children to any school-public, private or religious-that will provide a good education, and a new Heritage Foundation study helps explain why.
The study found that African-American students in the District of Columbia's Catholic schools significantly outperform their public-school counterparts in math, an achievement gap that can't be attributed to socioeconomic differences between the two groups.
The study compared the math scores of African-American fourth and eighth graders on the Department of Education's 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. In the fourth grade, African-American Catholic-school students scored 6.5 percent higher than those in public schools. By eighth grade, the achievement gap widened to 8.2 percent. (White and Hispanic students were excluded from the study because the sample sizes were too small to draw statistically significant conclusions.)
While it's well known that standardized test scores are higher at Catholic schools, the traditional explanations-that Catholic-school parents have higher incomes or more education-aren't supported by the data, says Kirk Johnson, an economist in Heritage's Center for Data Analysis. Even after statistically controlling for such differences, he says, Catholic-school students still score higher.
Just as significant, Johnson found that having a student in a Catholic school does more to raise test scores than reducing class size. One of the most often-cited studies on class size showed that children in classes with 15 students outscored 63 percent of those in classes with 25 students. But in D.C., African-American students in Catholic schools outscored 72 percent of those in public schools. "The effect of Catholic schooling is more dramatic," Johnson says.
The study comes as even some African-American leaders have begun to question the effectiveness of public schools. In a recent speech before the NAACP, for example, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young said, "I think the public-school system has had a monopoly that's gotten a little stodgy and it needs to be shaken up."
Nina Shokraii Rees, Heritage's senior education policy analyst, says frustration with public schools is understandable. "Many parents rightly sense something is wrong with the education their children are receiving," she says. "In D.C, per-pupil spending is among the highest in the nation, yet the public-school system remains mediocre."
"What we've shown in this study is that differences in performance between Catholic and public schools are not merely the product of the background of the kids in each system," she said. "On the contrary, Catholic schools are doing something right. Those who support the right of parents to send their children to a different school should take heart. The evidence is making it harder to deny that right."