(We're talking elementary and secondary education here, not college)
Catholic education became great because it provided education at little or no cost to the children of the poor and the working classes, not because it provided education to the middle and upper classes for thousands of dollars a year tuition.
Catholic education always reflects its environment. Catholic education was certainly better, in general, fifty years ago than it is now, but then all elementary and secondary education was, in general, superior to the present fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, sisters who taught in Catholic schools were strict. So were all elementary and secondary school teachers. Nuns may have had the proverbial ruler, but in a public school, there was always an assistant principal or a coach waiting at the end of the hall with a paddle. With holes drilled in it to lessen air resistance.
In the present day, education is beset with pedagogical nonsense, and so are far too many Catholic schools. Frankly, that is the price you pay for the perceived need of accreditation.
Catholic schools of the past weren't perfect. Nostalgia may wax eloquent about the greatness of the sisters teaching 60-student classrooms, but don't doubt that every one of those sisters would have killed for a class of 25. My own small collection of pre-Vatican II religion texts tells me that there was certainly more to religious education than rote memorization, but in too many cases there was far too much dependence on that as the totality of religious instruction. More sisters than we realize were very poorly prepared for their work. In his memoir, The Church and I, Frank Sheed decries the state of Catholic education in the US in the 1930's on, and at great length. I'll look up the passage tomorrow.
But in the end, Catholic schools face the same difficulty that public schools face, and it has nothing to do with teacher pay, pedagogy or administration. The fundamental challenge is the culture: a culture that does not value learning, that surrounds a child with countless means of passive, instant gratification,and a culture that has few reference points in common with the material we are trying to communicate in the classroom. This culture is mediated through the mass media, certainly, but it is mediated most directly in children's lives by their parents: parents who don't read, who don't read with their kids, who value the material and the monetary over the intellectual and the spiritual, who provide their kids with every electronic device known to humanity, but wouldn't dare present their child with a book to read, who will turn their schedules upside down to get their kids to the soccer tournament, but who can't be bothered to get to Mass, and who, in the end, see their children's education as nothing more than a series of hurdles to be jumped on the way to achieving a high school diploma, which is turn, not a sign of achievement, but rather a ticket into a university and ultimately, to a job. It has nothing to do with education or learning. Nothing.
That's what we're up against, all of us - no matter what kind of school we're a part of.