Today we are pleased to share a co-authored contributor column from Greg Richmond, the Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and Paul Escala, the Senior Director and Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Given Greg and Paul collectively devoted 35+ years to charter public schools before transitioning to the Catholic school sector, we asked them for their insights regarding the very different outcomes in district, charter, and Catholic schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card.
We provide brief bios for Greg and Paul below.
Greg Richmond launched the Charter Schools Office in the Chicago Public Schools in 1997, co-founded the National Association of Charter Schools in 2000, and was inducted in the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame in 2017. He became the Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2021.
Paul Escala served as Senior Advisor at the California Charter School Association in 2009 and Chief Executive Officer of Grow Public Schools (Formerly Grimmway Schools) in 2016. Paul joined the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as Senior Director and Superintendent of Schools in 2019.
Greg Richmond, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago
Paul, we are both former charter school people now leading Catholic school systems. In the days following the release of this year’s NAEP scores, we heard considerable angst from all quarters about students’ low and declining test scores. Except among Catholic schools. While public schools experienced “historic declines,” Catholic schools were “a rare bright spot” in the nation’s NAEP data. When looking at pre- and post-pandemic performance, charter schools’ declines were the same or worse than district public schools’ decline. Yet, as Kathleen Porter-Magee pointed out, “If Catholic schools were a state, they’d be the highest performing in the nation on all four N.A.E.P. tests.”
This mash up of news and opinion pieces about district, charter, and Catholic school performance was interesting for me. After 25 years in charter schools, I left the charter sector 15 months ago to take the reins as superintendent for one of the largest Catholic school systems in the country, the 154-school Archdiocese of Chicago.
In Chicago’s Catholic schools, our test scores did not decline during the pandemic. Instead, despite all of the disruption, our reading scores stayed level at 71% of students performing in the highest tier, as measured by our standardized assessment, i-Ready, and our math scores inched upward, from 61% to 63%.
This focus on improved academic outcomes is familiar territory for me. When I launched the charter schools office in the Chicago Public Schools 25 years ago, our charter schools routinely outperformed the district schools their students otherwise would have attended. And when I led the National Association of Charter School Authorizers for 15 years, our focus was on student academic performance. Our One Million Lives campaign, from 2012 to 2017, set and achieved a goal to provide better schools to one million students by opening 2000 high-performing charter schools and closing 1000 low-performing charter schools. To be clear, the lion’s share of the credit for achieving that goal belonged to school operators – the charter school networks, school leaders, teachers, staff, support organizations, and donors behind hundreds of high-performing charter schools. All were fixated on student academic achievement.
So, when hit by the pandemic, why did our nation’s Catholic schools perform better than charter schools? With a foot in both worlds, maybe I know the answer. The truth is, I don’t, at least not with any certainty. But I can share a few observations about the differences I have seen between charter and Catholic schools. Maybe these differences play a role in the reason why Catholic schools are performing so well academically.
The biggest difference I have seen between Catholic schools and charter schools is money. It is a difference that hits me in the head like a 2 x 4 every day. Charter schools have a lot more money than Catholic schools. In the Chicago area, charter schools have two or three times more funding per pupil than Catholic schools. Starting teacher salary in Chicago’s Catholic schools is $10,000 to $25,000 less than in the public sector. The differential on principal salaries is even greater. Very few of our Catholic schools have an assistant principal. Very few have a full-time counselor. How can having a lot less money lead to higher performance? It shouldn’t. All I can tell you is that Catholic schools have a lot less money but did better for their students academically during the pandemic anyway.
Charter school governance is complicated; Catholic school governance is not. Each charter school has its own governing board, and, in turn, each school governing board has a charter with a public body that has a governing board. The quality of charter school governing boards is all over the map, ranging from excellent to disorganized. Those charter school governing boards, in turn, are overseen by public governing boards that are often quite political. In short, charter school governance is often messy, which is exactly what you do not want in governance. By comparison, most Catholic schools are “governed” by the parish priest who, in turn, is governed by his bishop. It’s straightforward. None of these men (and they are all men) entered the priesthood thinking about schools. None are elected. Many of them have limited skills in finance and management, and even less in academics. But all have committed their lives to something much bigger than themselves, and they seek to work with their schools to achieve that higher calling.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
When I worked at the Chicago Public Schools, we talked a lot about diversity. You may be surprised to learn that Chicago’s Catholic schools are far more diverse. Our Catholic school system includes all of the city of Chicago and about half of its suburbs. We have inner-city schools where everyone is on scholarship and almost no one is Catholic, suburban schools that are wealthy and lack for nothing, and almost everything in between. We are incredibly diverse in terms of income, race, nationality, language, and politics. Through this all, we seek to emphasize that we are all one, under God. There is power in that. By comparison, I see a public school sector, including charter schools, that increasingly emphasizes differences. Different cultures, different languages. Segregating by race, rather than uniting. Like my earlier question about money, one might ask why Catholic schools’ emphasis on unity would lead to greater academic achievement. Is there a causation or a correlation? I don’t know. I just know that Catholic schools’ emphasis on unity, rather than difference, is one of the biggest differences I see compared to public schools.
Fifteen months ago, I left the charter school sector and entered the Catholic school sector. I have encountered a system that has far less money, more straightforward governance, and an emphasis on unity rather than differences. And a system that, if it were a state, would be the highest performing state in the nation. These two systems experienced very different outcomes during the pandemic and there is a lot more to learn about why.
Paul Escala, Senior Director and Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
As Greg pointed out, the recent news of the NAEP scores (aka “The Nation’s Report Card”) sadly affirmed for many that student academic performance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic had declined in an extraordinary way. The news was dramatic and widespread. Though, under the surface of the headlines and missed by most major media outlets, students in the nation’s Catholic schools fared better than their public district and charter peers; a “rare bright spot” according to Education Next. For those of us serving in this facet of our nation’s diverse educational sector, however, this is news was neither “rare” nor a surprise. The results of the NAEP scores were an affirmation of what we were seeing throughout the pandemic.
In Los Angeles, the students attending Catholic schools demonstrated growth in reading and math during the lockdown period (the longest by far across the nation) and upon return to in-person instruction. As measured by our system-wide assessment tool, STAR, 50% of students exceeded the 65th percentile national benchmark in math with 5% growth measured year-to-year. In reading 39% of students exceeded the 65th percentile national benchmark with 5% growth measured year-to-year. 85% of schools measured school-wide growth in both subjects. This performance is against the backdrop of the nation’s largest Catholic school system – 261 schools serving nearly 70,000 PK-12 students across three counties; 78% students of color; 60% living in urban Los Angeles; every child is on some level of tuition assistance with some on full aid; and, over a third of those students eligible for the National School Lunch program.
Having spent my 23-year career in public district, public charter, and Catholic education, I’m familiar with the common refrain on academic performance. I’ve seen the phonics vs. whole language debates, Algebra for all in 8th grade, the establishment of the charter school movement, the rise and fall of No Child Left Behind, and the “no excuses” charter school culture and the precipitous departure of that, too. Looking at the NAEP scores and coming to terms that after all of those debates, billions in funding, bloody school board elections, the academic condition of the schools most American children attend are no better off than they were 30 years ago. Yet, the largest non-public school system in the country, Catholic schools, continues to outpace their public district and charter school peers.
How are Catholic schools doing it? This is certainly worthy of study and perhaps the NAEP scores will generate interest in doing so. With experience in all three facets of the sector, I have a few observations about what is driving this difference:
I would add the term resourcefulness to this point. Our principals have a fraction of funding of their public charter peers and produce better outcomes despite that fact. When you have less, you tend to think more about how you spend – you must do more with less. Moreover, unlike their charter peers, Catholic schools charge tuition and raise money for general operations and scholarships. This creates a level of accountability to parents, families, and donors that requires performance unlike district and charters, particularly when serving low-income families. The average annual tuition for an elementary school is $5,000 and $10,000 for high school while the actual cost of educating a student is nearly $2,000 more. In most cases, low income families pay little to no tuition due to tuition assistance from fundraising and philanthropy.
Agreed – there’s strength here. I like to think we (school departments) amplify this strength when we collaborate with pastors on the operations of their schools, particularly when it comes to developing, supporting, and evaluating principals.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Agreed – we are naturally diverse because of our Mission. Serving all students, everywhere, especially in an urban context produces a greater level of diversity within our schools. I would emphasize that our faith-based Mission acts as the great equalizer. While the education space is littered with “values-based” schools, Catholic schools have a built-in system endowed by God which establishes a common purpose that cannot be replicated in the secular space. This is a difference that may present the tipping point for explaining higher student performance.
After leading a CMO, I came to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles six months before the pandemic hit. As a system now emerging from a global crisis with growing enrollment and increasing academic performance, I continue to be struck by our principals and teachers who are challenged every day with far less money beating the odds. With a flat governance structure, emphasis on human solidarity rather than societal differences, and a unifying belief in the God-given potential for every child to be successful, Catholic schools continue to demonstrate their relevance and deserve notice by the broader educational community. There is much that can be learned.