In the last several months, WILL has argued that currently popular systems of discipline in American public schools are problematic from the standpoint of promoting a good learning environment. Perhaps in reaction to the overzealousness of the “Zero Tolerance” policies of the late 90s and early 2000s, many school systems have gone the opposite direction, promoting “feel good” discipline policies that result in worsened academic outcomes and reports of unsafe conditions for teachers and students.

But, like in many other contexts, private schools may offer an alternative solution on school discipline. A new study by the Thomas Fordham Institute examines student behavior in Catholic schools compared to other private and public schools.   They argue that Catholic schools, far more so than other schools, focus on the notion of selfdiscipline. Self-discipline, in general, is an intrinsic motivation to engage in positive behavior. In the context of the classroom, this can be exhibited by properly dealing with anger, or avoiding impulsive behavior without the teacher having to intervene. It is a regular point of emphasis for Catholic schools around the country. Indeed, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee lists “self-discipline” as one of the core meanings of a Catholic education. But does this emphasis manifest in better behavioral outcomes?

Using rigorous methods to create comparable samples of students, the study’s authors found that students in Catholic schools were more likely to exhibit self-disciplined behavior. This finding held in comparison to both public schools and other private schools. It also held for students of different races and income levels.

Our past research has found that Catholic schools, along with Lutheran schools, are the main driver of the higher performance of the private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. These schools have higher performance in both mathematics and English, but a question that is often raised is: why? In the past, we have been left in the realm of supposition, but this study may point us in the right direction for an answer. In addition to the common sense concept that a quieter, more self-disciplined classroom is more conducive to learning, the traits that lead to self-discipline in behavior also are likely to promote self-discipline in academics. Education is very much an independent endeavor: it requires spending time on one’s own for studying and introspection. The self-disciplined student is far more likely to excel in these areas.

One question raised by this study is are such notions of self-discipline replicable outside of the Catholic Church? One would hope that other religious schools would perhaps have the ability to instill similar values, even if based upon different basic principles. The Fordham study lumps “non-religious” schools in with “other religious” schools, so it would be impossible to assess find this answer with certainty from the current study. Moreover, while self-discipline would obviously not look the same in a secular school, we shouldn’t preclude the possibility that these values can be taught.

As we talk to parents and school leaders throughout Wisconsin, it is not test scores or academic performance that we hear most often cited as the reason that a parent is choosing a particular school. Rather, it is the ability of the school to instill moral values into their children, and to create a safe environment where learning is possible. As religion becomes more and more anathema to public schools, the ability of Catholic schools to instill values such as self-discipline become more and more valuable.

Will FlandersDr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.