Beyond Academic Excellence and Faith Formation: Should Catholic Schools Emphasize Values More?


The following blog was contributed by Quentin Wodon1.

One of the leading academic journals for Catholic educators is the Journal of Catholic Education. A great feature of the journal is that it is open access, so you can read all its articles for free. The last issue of the journal (Volume 25, Issue 1) includes a focus section suggesting that beyond academic performance and faith formation, it could make sense for some Catholic schools to emphasize values more. The focus section includes a brief overview and three articles.

The first article by Daniel Lapsley and Katheryn Kelley suggests that core value propositions in Catholic education include a) supporting students in the development of a personal, self-selected religious–spiritual identity; and b) providing moral-character formation. The first value proposition may have been overshadowed by a narrow focus on the Catholic identity of schools as opposed to the spiritual development of students, while the second remains too implicit or hidden in the curriculum. A focus on moral choices and character development is a natural fit for Catholic schools, but this cannot be left to an “invisible pedagogy” of personal formation: It needs to be tended to. Adolescents place a premium on beliefs not simply handed down to them but felt as their own. A strong Catholic identity for schools is an asset, but an approach for the spiritual development of all students, including non-Catholics, is needed.

The second article which I wrote notes that research on Catholic schools has focused on their contributions to human capital. Are there other areas where a Catholic education could make a difference? The authors point to an emerging literature on schooling and, among others, the participation in the democratic process, the likelihood of being convicted of a crime, and the likelihood of marriage. Using data from the Understanding America Study, they assess how attending different types of school is associated with marital and childbirth outcomes in adulthood. Compared to adults who attended public schools, adults who attended religious schools have higher marriage rates, lower divorce rates, and a lower incidence of nonmarital childbirths. Effects are greater for Protestant schools, older adults, and those who grew up in less financially secure households. The analysis may not imply causal effects, but it suggests potential positive long-term outcomes for students who attended religious schools as children.

The third article by Patrick Wolf, Albert Cheng, Wendy Wang, and Bradford Wilcox relies on data from a market research survey to assess parental priorities for what children should learn in school. For parents with their youngest child in a Catholic school, deepening the faith is important. It ranks below an emphasis on a sound moral base and communication skills, but at the same level as critical thinking, preparing for the job market, or preparing for college. By contrast, for parents ‘very willing’ to consider Catholic schools but not having enrolled their youngest child in one, deepening the faith is at the very bottom of their priorities. Emphasizing faith may not be attractive to them. Another difference is that few parents with their youngest child in a Catholic school emphasize teaching children to embrace diversity, while this matters for parents willing to consider the schools. In a context of declining enrollment (for a recent discussion and a discussion of potential comparative advantages for Catholic schools, see this article), this suggests that if schools are to respond to the priorities of parents very willing to consider them, they may need to pay attention to the promotion of values apart from the transmission of the faith. This does not mean weakening the schools’ identity, but it may entail a shift in focus about how to transmit the faith while also promoting values and welcoming children who may not be Catholic, but whose parents have an interest in Catholic schools.

In different ways, the three articles note the role that Catholic schools may play in instilling strong values among students. Adherence to formal religion may be weakening, but there is a yearning for meaning and community. There is also a pushback against narrow visions of academic excellence. Beyond the emphasis on academics and faith formation, there is an opportunity for Catholic schools to help students develop their values and spirituality in a manner that would be palatable to a large share of the population, including non-Catholics. The good news is that Catholic education have a lot of experience in this area.


1This post is based on the overview paper for the focus section of the issue of the Journal of Catholic Education being mentioned. The author works for an international development agency and is a Distinguished Research Affiliate with the College of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He also manages the Global Catholic Education project as part of his volunteer work. The analysis and views expressed in this post are those of the author only and may not reflect the views of its employer, its Executive Director, or the countries they represent.



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