Catholic schools, such as St. Matthew in Campbellsport, performed better than their public-school counterparts during the pandemic, according to the Nation’s Report Card. (Submitted photo)

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on education have been well documented. However, Catholic schools, especially those in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, were able to fend off much of the learning erosion.

Sue Nelson, an associate superintendent for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said the archdiocesan-wide curriculum and priority learning targets gave local Catholic schools a road map to continue.

“We have a curriculum that identifies priorities,” Nelson said. “We were well poised to say, ‘Teachers just stick to the priority.’ We’re very fortunate because we had the whole archdiocese on the same page, as far as what has to happen to the greatest of our ability.”

Those results were reflected on the Nation’s Report Card, a report produced by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This year’s results, which measured fourth- and eighth-grade students using standardized tests, showed significant declines in math and reading since 2019.

In the accompanying press release, the National Center for Education Statistics noted, “The national average score declines in mathematics for fourth- and eighth-graders were the largest ever recorded in that subject.”

Catholic schools, which get their own stand-alone data breakout from the NAEP, were a notable exception.

Lincoln Snyder, president of the National Catholic Education Association said, “If Catholic schools were a state, we would have been the best performing state in the union.”

The gap in performance between the Catholic and public schools is not new in the NAEP. This has been a consistent trend since 1990, but is perhaps especially impressive given the state of education over the past three years. Eighth-grade Catholic school students outscored their public school peers by 15 points in math and 20 points in reading, while fourth graders scored 11 points ahead in math and 17 points in reading.

Quick pivots to both distance and in-person learning paved the path to success.

“One of the reasons Catholic schools performed so well is that our teachers showed up for the kids,” Snyder said. “In every state, we were among the first to transition to distance learning, and after that brief time, also among the first to return students to a safe in-person environment. That’s why I call our educators heroes.”

Nelson said two factors aided schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: the existing relationships teachers had with students and going back to in-person learning as soon as safely possible.

Snyder said the personal relationships were a huge factor.

“Kids learn from teachers who are invested in them,” he said. “The kids and our Catholic teachers absolutely modeled that during the pandemic; they came back for the kids universally for mission. If you think about our schools as being about training or forming servant leaders, our teachers model that better than anybody.”

Nelson, who visited nearly 40 schools in the archdiocese after the return to in-person learning, described being struck by the joy and energy in the classrooms she saw.

“The teachers were so happy,” Nelson said. “When your school environment is really joyful, it is amazing to see, given what was going on.”

Scores were high for all Catholic school students, including the economically disadvantaged.

“If you look at our kids on free lunch, they were right at the top, too,” Snyder said. “We weren’t just serving rich kids. We were serving all kids.  I really think that speaks to our mission as a Universal Church. Our teachers were there for all their students.”