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Advancing Student Virtue through Stability in Catholic Schools

Updated: Apr 1

By: Dave Rojeck, PhD

Catholic Educational Leadership/Policy Studies

Girl praying in front of candles
A primary aim of Catholic schools includes student virtue, not just academic achievement

The use of public funding to allow parents to educate their children in private and religious schools in the form of educational vouchers is a recently new phenomenon, stretching back a generation. In the early 1990s, Wisconsin offered the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (Rouse, 1998). Other states followed with their own voucher programs. Until then, it was taken for granted that “public” money should funnel only to “public” schools. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded about The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program:

The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice. (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002)

For educational researchers, a bi-product of the Court’s decision was the newfound opportunity to perform achievement studies between voucher and non-voucher students, as a lens for students of like socio-economic backgrounds could now be viewed to study impacts of public and non-public schools. Voucher studies to date have, by and large, emphasized academic achievement. Overwhelming positive academic effects have been demonstrated in numerous studies. A most recent compilation of findings is A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (2016). Forster reviews empirical findings dating from 1998 to present. Yet, for those of us concerned with the holistic development of children, success in academics is not the only criteria. We ascribe importance not only to mental growth, but also to the physical, social, and emotional. Many schools offer character education programs. Emotional Intelligence (EI) is gaining in prominence as an educational term. The Church’s use of the term virtue is a clearly related term. The ancient philosopher Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”(n.d). In 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed in his Purpose of Education speech: “Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.” And yet, there has been little scientific analysis performed within the school choice debate about character and student virtue.

In order to fill the gap, one such study surveyed middle and high school voucher and non-voucher students in a number of Catholic-Christian schools participating in the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program (Rojeck, 2014). The results of the study on 18 aspects of student virtue within a self/others paradigm reveal the greatest combination of supports on the road to student virtue include greater levels of school stability in a Catholic school, having strong and moderating social networks of family, school, and friends who hold a positive regard for school, while at the same time incorporating religion, engagement in extra-curricular activities, along with a lack of importance subscribed to popular media.


The examination of school stability/mobility is important to the discussion educational vouchers as the school choice movement has wrought the unintended consequence of increasing student mobility across school types. It may be assumed that school stability leads to greater student achievement, though this may not be so in all cases. For example, numerous successful and productive citizens grew up as military children both at home and abroad having changed schools frequently in the course of their K-12 education. However, more times than not, school mobility for individual students creates gaps in learning, not to mention frequent upheavals in teachers, classmates, and environments that make it difficult for youngsters to progress through school on a trajectory conductive to optimal, holistic growth. Studies have shown that frequent school mobility harms students’ academic progress and behavior. Rates of mobility are highest in urban school districts (Stover, 2000).

Pathway to Peace

When the factors of percentage of Catholic education and years-per-school were combined into the school stability-mobility equation in the Cleveland voucher program, a number of peace enhancing virtues were found to occur with significance for those with more school stability.

  • Commitment to Physical Nonviolence

  • Self-Denial

  • Sense of Belonging

  • Commitment to Community

  • Morality

The absence of violence does not constitute peace, but certainly is a building block. A greater commitment to physical nonviolence was found for upperclassmen over their younger classmates in middle and high school, substantiating positive growth over time. Moreover, the overall commitment to physical nonviolence favored those with a greater percentage of Catholic education over those with less Catholic schooling. Additionally, those with more years-per-school display greater commitments to physical nonviolence. All told, a greater commitment to physical nonviolence occurs with greater stability in a Catholic school.

A greater commitment to self-denial and sense of belonging was found for students with greater school stability and higher percentage of Catholic education. In an often me-first culture, it is comforting to know Catholic schools holding fast to the words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew, 16:24). Students with a lower percentage of Catholic education have spent the greater complement of their educational careers in public schools which do not promote a Christ-centered, communal orientation. In fact, commitment to community and a sense of morality were found to be greater for students with more Catholic education and school stability. Summarizing, those with more Catholic education coupled with greater amounts of years-per-school display a greater amount of student virtue with regard to important building blocks of peace. After all, the very first words of Jesus to his disciples after His Resurrection were: “Peace be with you” (John, 20:19). Could it be that the virtue of a peaceful spirit is held in higher regard by Our Lord and Savior than academic achievement?

Family Education for School Choice

School choice options for families who want to partake of it, regardless of socio-economic status, has been gaining momentum over the years (Forster, 2016). Therefore, families would be wise to educate themselves about available school choice options. Annually shopping for new and better schools could ultimately prove to be counterproductive to children’s social and emotional development based on the evidence showing greater amounts of school stability to be supportive of growth in student virtue. As such, it may be wise for parents to gain an understanding of their children’s learning styles and interests to find schools better matching their learning needs over the long haul. With growing numbers of thematic schools made available, parents have a wider range of educational choices and need to educate themselves about their range of options. School proximity may be a factor for families to consider, too. It may be that the school within walking distance doesn’t offer the quality of education that a more distant one offers. However, by attending the neighborhood school, the child saves time for activities near home, becoming more engaged in the local community. Here, here for the traditional parish school! After all, the student and not the school is the decisive factor in determining overall achievement.

Dr. Dave completed his dissertation in 2014. This is an extraction of some of his findings. Consider joining where academics isn't the only aim.

Aristotle. (n.d.).

Forster, G. (2016). A Win-Win Solution: The empirical evidence on school choice. (4th ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

John 20:19. New International Version

King, Jr., M.L. (1947). The purpose of education. Morehouse College Student Paper, The Maroon Tiger.

Matthew 16:24. New International Version

Rojeck, D. (2014). Character as the ultimate measure: Aspects of student virtue in relation to self and others in the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program. (Doctoral dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 2014).

Rouse, C.E. (1998) Private School Vouchers and Student Achievement: An evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 113(2), 553-602.

Stover, D. (November 2000). The mobility mess of students who move. The School Board News, 20(1), 61-64.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639. Supreme Court of the United States. 2002.

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