The positive relationship between Catholic schooling in the United States and better pupil outcomes is entirely driven by selection of children of higher average ability and not by the quality of education. That is the central finding of research by Osea Giuntella and Rania Gihleb, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s 2014 annual conference.
Their study investigates whether the correlation between Catholic school attendance and educational outcomes is causal by using the ''religious earthquake'' of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, which inadvertently drained Catholic schools of critical human capital.
The researchers examine the effects of a large number of closures of Catholic schools between 1966-1980, relating them to US census data on pupils'' educational attainment.Controlling for other unobserved characteristics, such as pupil ability, that affect schoolchoice and educational outcomes, they find no evidence of positive effects of attending a Catholic school on pupil outcomes.
Several empirical studies have attempted to assess whether private schools provide better education than state schools. This question is crucial both for educational policy and for parents'' school choice.
Advocates of school competition often base their arguments on evidence suggesting positive effects of private schooling on educational outcomes. Indeed, many studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between attendance at Catholic schools, which account for the largest share of US private schools, and educational outcomes. Yet, a causal interpretation of this relationship is only valid if there are no other unobserved characteristics, such as pupil ability, that affect school choice and educational outcomes.
This study investigates whether the positive correlation between Catholic school attendance and educational outcomes is actually causal by using a novel approach that exploits a ''religious earthquake'' occurring in Rome in the early 1960s. With the universal call to holiness and the opening to lay leadership, the Second Vatican Council inadvertently produced a dramatic change in the cost and benefits of religious life and drained Catholic schools of critical human capital.
Between 1966 and 1980, the number of Catholic sisters (nuns) was reduced by more than 30% and the share of religious teachers in Catholic schools fell by more than 50%. Because religious teachers were paid, on average, one-third the amount that lay teachers were paid, the sudden and rapid shift in personnel imposed severe financial constraints on Catholic schools and forced many schools to close.
Exploiting these supply shocks to Catholic schools, the authors merge diocesan data and data from the US Census to investigate whether Catholic schools indeed produce better pupils. Assuming that the demand for Catholic schools was unaffected by the''religious earthquake'', the authors find no evidence of positive effects of attending a Catholic school on pupil outcomes. If anything, evidence suggests negative effects.
The research suggests that the correlation between Catholic schooling and pupiloutcomes is entirely driven by positive selection of pupils. In other words, pupils of Catholic schools are likely to be ''better'' already before attending the school.
''Nuns and the Effects of Catholic Schools: Evidence from Vatican II'' by Osea Giuntella and Rania Gihleb