Information is a powerful tool that can be used for shaping perceptions and policies pertaining to education in general, and Catholic education in particular. Reliance on data has become a significant part of the national education agenda, fueled in part by the U.S. Department of Education's insistence on standards, accountability for results and scientifically based practice. Obtaining good information, based on reliable and verifiable national-level data, is a task that requires acumen, persistence and significant resources in terms of dollars and personnel.
Data are used in many ways: government agencies use data to assist with the formulation of policy decisions and the writing of legislation; researchers use data to conduct analyses of education-related topics and to develop trend lines; pollsters use data to decipher-and sometimes influence-public opinion for and against issues; mass media use data to inform the public about the state of education in the United States.
Like Scripture, data can be interpreted and misused to bolster competing arguments. Participation in data-gathering processes, commendable as it is, is but a first step. Learning how to interpret and use data effectively are skills that should be developed as part of the professional portfolio of all educators.
Judicious use of reliable data provides many practical benefits for Catholic educators, their students and the public. Educators use the results of scientifically based studies to inform their practice and improve student instruction and outcomes. In addition to the focused surveys conducted by NCEA, many of the federal studies conducted by agencies of the federal government help to dispel myths such as elitism, segregation and lack of accountability of private schools. Data gathered and analyzed by independent agencies help all citizens to understand and appreciate the role of private and religious schools and their contributions to the common good. Likewise, good data help promote productive internal and public dialog about the benefits of pluralism and choice in schooling and create momentum for building common ground around education policy to promote quality education for all students.
On the national level, data have been used in lobbying for the equitable participation of private school students and teachers in federal education programs and to analyze the effectiveness of policies and regulations pertaining to programs such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Serving Students with Disabilities
Because no reliable national data existed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a survey of diocesan school offices to determine the extent to which Catholic schools served students with disabilities. The resulting information demonstrated to Congress that Catholic schools do serve such students (7 percent of all students have a diagnosed disability), as well as the difficulty in accessing evaluations and special education services under IDEA (fewer than 1 percent of diagnosed students received IDEA services). Such data helped to make the case in the reauthorization of IDEA 2004 for more specific language in the law that strengthens the requirements for the equitable participation of students with disabilities whose parents choose a private school.
When the education budget proposal from the White House sought to terminate or dramatically cut several key NCLB programs widely used by Catholic schools, a survey conducted by the private-school community, under the auspices of the Council For American Private Education, was used to provide data that demonstrated the value and effectiveness of three programs (Title U-D-Education Technology, Title FV-A-Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities and Title V-A-Innovative Programs) for private school students and teachers. Although Congress has not finalized the education budget for 2006 yet, there are indications that these programs will be funded.
Likewise, data are having an influential favorable impact on the Katrina education aid relief bills being discussed in Congress. To argue for the inclusion of private schools in aid packages, the administration and congressional leaders focused on the number of private, particularly Catholic, schools in the New Orleans area and the socio-economic status of so many of the families that reveal that these families are not significantly different from their public school counterparts and need similar assistance.
In the coming year, some Catholic schools, randomly selected for each study, will be asked to participate in surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP 2006), known as the "Nation's Report Card," will assess what students know and can do in civics and U.S. history in grades 4, 8 and 12 and in economics in grade 12. Field tests also are being conducted in reading, mathematics and writing for NAEP 2007. The biennial collection of data through the School and Staffing Survey (SASS) is part of the Core of Common Data maintained by the federal government. This is the most comprehensive database of information about American education and is used widely by researchers and policymakers.
The Private School Survey (PSS) focuses specifically on demographic data about the private-school world, providing significant data sources that no single private school association would be able to compile. All of these surveys provide collective breakout information about private schools and an additional subset for Catholic schools. Another study, An Evaluation of the Participation of Private-School Students and Teachers in Federal Education Programs, will be conducted to assess the equitable participation of students/teachers in NCLB programs to determine if the law is being implemented and what factors foster or inhibit participation.
NCEA Encourages Support
All of these surveys will provide significant data for a variety of publics. The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) has a long history of encouraging its member schools to participate in federally sponsored surveys and assessments. NCEA generally supports such cooperation because private schools are an important component of America's education system, operating about 24 percent of all schools and educating almost 11 percent of all American school children. Catholic schools constitute the largest percentage of private schools, operating approximately 8,000 schools and enrolling almost two and a half million students. Consequently, Catholic school data, gathered through voluntary school participation in such studies, are viewed as making a significant and positive contribution to the total picture of American education.
NCEA encourages its membership to participate in surveys and assessments when the following criteria are met:
* The information requested contributes to the potential good of Catholic educational institutions as well as to that of American education in general.
* Data-collection instruments and samples are structured so as to reflect private school interests and have the ability to report private and, where possible, Catholic schools as a sub-group of American education.
* In the design phase, NCEA was consulted about the nature of the data to be collected and the manner in which it will be reported and used before it provided letters of support or encouraged Catholic school participation.
* Results of surveys will be reported to the association in a timely manner.
NCEA's mission statement calls on NCEA to be a strong, persuasive and coherent voice for Catholic education, and to provide leadership in shaping public policies and encouraging political actions that acknowledge and support the important role of Catholic schools in the United States. This is a task that should be shared by all members. If Catholic educators are to have influence when public debate is shaped and educational issues are defined, then it is incumbent upon them to be equipped with reliable data that demonstrate the effectiveness of Catholic schools in educating their students and providing for the common good.
"Data gathered and analyzed by independent agencies help all citizens to understand and appreciate the role of private and religious schools and their contributions to the common good."
"If Catholic educators are to have influence when public debate is shaped and educational issues are defined, then it is incumbent upon them to be equipped with reliable data that demonstrate the effectiveness of Catholic schools in educating their students for the common good."
Dale McDonald, PBVM
Sister Dale McDonald, PBVM, Ph.D., is director of public policy and education research at the National Catholic Educational Association (firstname.lastname@example.org).…