Founded in 2004, the Catholic High School Honor Roll was created by The Acton Institute to further its work in building a free and virtuous society. To support that goal, The Acton Institute committed to expanding and deepening the educational mandate of Catholic high schools, while making sure that Catholic high school administrators and teachers had the best possible resources to teach theology and economics.
For more than a century, Catholic high schools in the United States have provided hundreds of thousands of young Americans with the best preparation available for life in the modern world. However, over the past
two decades Acton found questions had been raised concerning the quality of learning in many Catholic high schools. The most critical concerns continue to be the:
- Poor state of religious education: Prior to 2004, two-thirds of textbooks used in Catholic high school theology classes were found by U.S. bishops not to be in conformity with Catholic teaching. Without a sound religious curriculum grounded in a strong sense of Catholic identity, these schools lose their reason to exist and either become irrelevant or a secular charade of their former identity.
- Lack of quality economic education: The majority of Catholic secondary students learn about market dynamics through a theology curriculum that is often suspicious of business. Theories on social justice are often tangled with an anti-capitalism or anti-globalization perspective. This process mutes and sometimes replaces the insights of Church thinkers who for centuries have studied and written about market economics.
In the creation of the Catholic High School Honor Roll Program, Acton felt the capacity of Catholic high schools to educate and inspire young men and women appeared to be at risk. At the very moment when young adults are beginning to make life-long decisions about faith, careers, and lifestyles, they are receiving mixed signals about business (“worthy vocation or necessary evil?”) and the economy (“expression of free will or arena for greed and exploitation?”). The garbled ethical messages adolescents receive in school have the potential to impact their ability to maximize their talents and abilities as Catholic men and women in society.
Also taken into consideration were concerned parents who have few tools to assist them in evaluating the performance and integrity of Catholic high schools in relation to similar parochial, private, and public institutions. From Acton’s perspective, there was an obvious need for an ongoing, independent, and rigorous assessment of Catholic high schools in the U.S.
Identifying the Best Schools
In 2004, Acton’s Dr. Kevin Schmiesing, a Research Fellow, carried out an exhaustive study of Catholic high schools in the U.S. A full-time scholar for Acton’s Research Department who had led a similar American seminary survey, Dr. Schmiesing developed a working list of the Top 50 Catholic secondary schools in the country. The primary tool he used for a measurement criterion was academic excellence as determined by student test scores, National Merit Scholarships, and the percentage of students going to college. Acton’s model for the ideal school also considered additional factors such as the school’s commitment to Catholic identity, individual liberty, and free enterprise.
When Dr. Schmiesing’s research was presented to the Advisory Committee, it was agreed that while his devised standards were quite rigorous, there were literally dozens of schools that could potentially meet the qualifications and hundreds that could be successful if they made the effort. The Committee agreed there should be a tool to highlight achieving schools while encouraging other institutions to improve their outcomes. Therefore, it was in 2004 that the Acton Institute launched the Catholic High School Honor Roll recognition program to provide an incentive to schools that were designated as the Top 50. The first Honor Roll schools were announced annually from 2004 through 2008. After the 2008 awards, The Acton Institute changed the program to be biennial. In 2010, Acton passed the management of the Catholic High School Honor Roll to The Cardinal Newman Society, which successfully continued the recognition of the Top 50 high schools for the 2012 Honor Roll.
Structure of Past Catholic High School Honor Roll
The Honor Roll has recognized the Top 50 Catholic high schools nationwide based on the criteria of academic excellence, Catholic identity, and civic education. The past Honor Roll involved three separate surveys to be filled out by a school’s principal/headmaster, chairman of the theology department, and social studies chairman or teachers of economics.
When the surveys were compiled, the resulting list of the Top 50 schools were published both in print and online, and publicized nationally. As such, the recognized schools served as an educational resource for parents, students, and donors. A school’s placement on the Honor Roll distinguished it as one of the finest schools in the nation. For those applicants not placing in the Top 50, the Honor Roll recognized schools with an Honorable Mention for their excellence in one or more of the areas examined by the survey. No school ever received negative mention as the goal of the Honor Roll was to recognize and encourage excellence in Catholic education.
The Honor Roll continues to have a national impact on Catholic secondary education by inspiring school administrators and teachers, empowering parents, and informing the network of generous philanthropists that help to support these institutions. The Honor Roll is of crucial value to:
- High Schools: Principals, teachers, and board members use the Honor Roll as a benchmark that they want to hit every year. The Honor Roll allows them to differentiate themselves from other schools while focusing on the quality of their education. Schools that fail to make the Honor Roll have an incentive to improve their academics and they have a model to follow to attain their goal.
- Parents: The Honor Roll eases the decision-making process for parents of seventh- and eighth-graders. Parents rely on it as a seal of approval that ensures the quality of the education that their child would receive. If no schools are listed in their community, parents can put pressure on the school hierarchy to improve the teaching of theology and economics in the classroom.
- Donors: Community leaders and philanthropists that support Honor Roll schools are confident that they are supporting the very best Catholic schools. If their favored school is not on the Honor Roll, they will be able to focus the administration on making the necessary changes to achieve listing on the Honor Roll.
After the 2010 – 2011 award cycle, based on the Institute’s Core Principles and focus of its work at that time, the Acton Institute
decided to transfer the Honor Roll program to The Cardinal Newman Society. The Newman Society was a natural home for this program, building upon its work to promote and defend faithful Catholic education. It provided the Acton Institute with the confidence that program integrity would be maintained. The Society continues the excellent tradition that Acton Institute established with the Honor Roll program, maintaining the high standards set by the founders.