Students in Catholic schools perform three to six percentage points higher in reading, math and science than their peers in the public education system, according to a release from the National Catholic Education Association.

The release outlined proficiency scores acquired through the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. At each of the tested grade levels - third, seventh and 11th - the Catholic school students outperformed students in the public system.Catholic educators claim the higher scores are fostered by high expectations and equal treatment of students, regardless of curriculum track, race, ethnicity or social status.

And therein lies a lesson.

In Utah, test experts say there are consistent and predictable differences in student scores based on a student's socioeconomic status, parental attitudes about education and ethnic background.

It would seem that if the disparities are so easily identified, strategies could be developed to offset them. Instead of just anticipating that students in Salt Lake Valley's less affluent neighborhoods are going to do worse academically than their peers in the posh pockets, why don't school leaders address the issues?

It might cost more to meet the needs of students who are known to be at risk than for those who have the support of their parents, the resources in their homes to enrich education and the intrinsic attitudes that make learning a valued experience. But it could be well worth the expenditure.

Kids who haven't been prepared at home could benefit from smaller classes and enriched programs.

Such programs as Head Start and other federally funded projects reach some of the students who start out with strikes against them, but not all of them by any means.

We live in an era when schools are looking for outside resources to bolster their programs, supplies and equipment. Even in this endeavor, some schools have much more to draw on than others.

It's the classic case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Computer labs and other attractive pluses tend to show up where parents can afford to contribute to them.

Businesses and individuals who intend to make gifts to schools might do well to seek out schools where the needs are greatest.

I believe the vast majority of Utah's teachers are dedicated to reaching every child, but I can't help wondering if there aren't subtle things at work that add to the problems of at-risk students.

Obviously, it's more rewarding for a teacher to work with the "easy" students. And when there are 30 or more students in a classroom, the needs of those who require special attention drop easily through the cracks.

Admittedly, parochial and private schools have the advantage of a selection process. When parents are willing to put their own money into their children's education, it's evidence that they value education. They probably have greater expectations, too, of getting a quality return on their investment.

There also may be legitimate questions about other aspects of parochial education, which has tended in some instances to foster academics at the expense of creativity.

Even so, it's worthwhile to look for lessons everywhere, and there may be things to learn from the Catholic system - more emphasis on academics with fewer "frills"; more attention to the individual needs of students and elimination of self-fulfilling expectations that some students are going to fail, based on their background.