Study Shows Catholic Schools Have Lost any Academic Advantage over Government Schools

A new study shows the relative performance of Catholic schools has declined since 1980. The advantage that Catholic schools once held over government schools has virtually disappeared and attendance at Catholic schools may now lead to lower completion rates in secondary school and university.

The findings of the study present a simple message for parents who send their children to Catholic schools – if you think you are getting some advantage in educational achievements from sending your child to a Catholic school rather than a government school, think again.

The paper published in the latest issue of the Economics of Education Review provides new estimates of the effect of Catholic school attendance on high school completion and university commencement and completion for Australian students compared to public schools. It updates previous studies of the comparative performance of Catholic and public schools in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s which found a significant advantage by Catholic schools over public schools of 12 to 18%.

The new study concludes that the previous advantage held by Catholic schools “has decreased markedly relative to the effects found in earlier studies” and that “the Catholic school effect on the outcome variables studied appears to be much lower than previously believed”.

It found that the effects of attending Catholic schools compared to public schools ranged between -4.76% and 5.42% for high school completion, -3.47% and 6.23% for university commencement and -4.79% and 7.04% for university completion. These results imply that the Catholic school effect is at best slightly positive but could be zero or even negative. But, whatever the precise outcome, it is clear that there was a substantial improvement in public school outcomes relative to Catholic schools over the period 1980 to 2001.

The study is based on a nationally representative sample of Year 9 students in the 1998 Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth which includes data on the school and post-school outcomes through to 2008. It also includes a range of student and family background data which allowed the study to take account of differences in average educational attainment and socio-economic status of families attending Catholic and government schools as well as educational aspirations and motivation of students.

The actual effect of Catholic school attendance depends in part also on whether there are selection biases in Catholic school enrolments that may contribute to the effect of Catholic school attendance on education outcomes. The study says that a major concern is that the positive effects of Catholic school attendance reported above could be biased because students are not randomly enrolled in these schools. Instead, it is likely that either parents or schools or both may be systematically selecting students into Catholic schools which may enhance their education outcomes.

The study notes that there are several possible sources of selection bias in Catholic school enrolments. It may occur because parents value the religious aspects of Catholic education, perceive that Catholic schools offer stricter discipline or want a lower cost private school alternative than offered by many independent schools. Another possibility is that Catholic schools themselves use formal or informal selection criteria to exclude some students.

However, there is no data available on these factors to allow analysis of their impact on comparative school outcomes. As the study states, the implication is that the effect of such (unobservable) characteristics on educational outcomes will be incorrectly attributed to Catholic school attendance.

The study uses several statistical techniques to try and correct for possible selection bias. The results show that the small positive Catholic school effect on school and university outcomes compared to government schools could actually be zero or negative. One approach shows that even a small selection bias could explain much of the positive Catholic school attendance effect on school and university outcome measures. According to the study, the positive effect of Catholic school attendance on outcomes largely depends on there being no selection bias, which is highly unlikely.

The analysis shows that a strong selection bias in Catholic enrolments would mean that secondary school completion and university commencement and completion rates for Catholic school students are 15 to 18% lower than for government school students. However, it considers that a strong selection bias is unlikely.

The study concludes that its findings are relevant to current policy debates. It notes that the decline in the Catholic school performance over the period 1980–2000 coincided with a large increase in funding. This raises questions, it says, about how well these increased resources have been used.

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