Schools that expect kids to learn

Myriam Marquez

April 10, 1991|By Myriam Marquez

CATHOLIC SCHOOLS often are held up as models for producing well-behaved and studious kids.

Yet many of the teaching techniques used by some Catholic schools -- drilling math lessons into students through memorization instead of discussion and analysis, for instance -- went out years ago in public schools. Memorization doesn't teach students to think on their own, the experts point out.

So why are students in Catholic schools scoring better on federal government tests -- in reading, math, social studies and, yes, even science -- than their public school counterparts?

The Wall Street Journal recently went to Scranton, Pa., schools to find out the answer. It discovered what many people had suspected all along. Aside from the obvious socioeconomic reasons -- that parents expect more from their children when they pay tuition and that most students in these schools come from families in which parents are generally better educated and want the same for their children -- there's a very simple reason for Catholic schools' success:

L They concentrate on the basics and expect children to learn.

Having attended both public and Catholic schools, I can attest to the difference in expectations. The difference was homework. Catholic schools not only give you a lot more of it, but they also bring parents in for a "talk" if you're not doing it. They don't wait for a child to be on the verge of failing to notify parents.

That hands-on approach seems to be missing in public schools. It's not that public school teachers are somehow inferior to those in Catholic schools. It's just that public school teachers, especially those in inner-city schools, are having to deal in crisis situations in the classroom that should have been handled years earlier.

These teachers have to take up a lot of class time solely to instill order on those kids who have behavioral problems. And that constant disruption leaves average students -- the ones who are quietly waiting to be inspired by all those neat, new teaching techniques touted by public schools -- to learn the three R's almost by divine intervention.

Certainly Catholic schools aren't perfect. Outside of a few foreign languages, they don't offer many electives, compared with public schools, and usually no vocational education for kids who want to learn a trade or special education for children with learning disabilities.

But public school educators are realizing that despite those imperfections, Catholic schools have strengths that can be copied. And they are run much cheaper than public schools; their administration staff is minimal. The concentration is on the teachers' having smaller classes and keeping to lessons that stress reading, writing and mathematics before jumping into broader topics.

The direction comes more from the classroom than from a huge bureaucracy.

The Florida Legislature is now wrestling with giving more authority to local schools and making them accountable for any changes. This would give teachers, parents and local businesspeople more say on how to improve their neighborhood schools without having to go to the county school board for every little thing.

But what would this do to the kids who are already having learning problems? Public schools now have many special programs to help these children learn. Would those programs be among the ones tossed out by local decisions?

I would hope not, but some of these programs may well not be needed. Interestingly, a recent study by the Rand Corp. found that kids in New York's inner city who come from impoverished backgrounds are learning more when they go to Catholic schools, which don't offer those "special" programs.

What Catholic schools do require is parental responsibility. Public schools should expect it as well.

Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel.

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