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What does the provocative new documentary, Waiting for Superman, mean for Catholic schools in America?  I hope quite a lot.

It appears from experts and popular attention that “Waiting for Superman” is going to make waves.  Even Oprah did a show on the film (see video link above) and expressed outrage over what she saw in the film.  Reading the signs of the times, I think its fair to predict that Davis Guggenheim’s newest “shockumentary” is going to be as big as his last, An Inconvenient Truth.  This has massive implications for ed-reform and also, I believe, for Catholic schools.

In his blog post yesterday, John Schoenig quoted Whitney Tilson’s critique of the NY Times article about Archbishop Dolan’s plan to revitalize Catholic education in New York.  Tilson said:

Too bad the article doesn’t deal with the much bigger issue: the utter INSANITY, from a societal perspective, of allowing inner-city Catholic schools – which are often oases of safety, discipline and rigor – to close, while throwing massively more money at catastrophically failing public schools nearby.  Why not give parents a choice…

Waiting for Superman appears to focus on parents trying to get their kids into Charter schools.  But the theme is the same.  The issue is the same. Parents deserve choices, and as Tilson suggests, Catholic schools that are “oases of safety, discipline and rigor” represent one of the most important choices available in America’s urban neighborhoods.  But as waves of Catholic schools close nationally, year after year, this choice is quickly disappearing.  It is hard to over-estimate how dire this situation has become.  1,500 Catholic schools have closed nationally since 2000.  That’s a loss of roughly 20% in one decade!

So, God willing, Waiting for Superman will send shock waves into the system.  It seems likely that it will further break the hegemony of teachers unions.  This will present a critically important opportunity and momentum for change.

Needless to say, this film is a must see.  The big question will be: how best can we act upon the righteous outrage that will surely follow?  Time to get ready, get involved, and get organized.

McKinsey & Company recently released a thought provoking report (the link takes you to the summary; a full report can be downloaded from the site) examining the degree to which it may benefit American education to adopt a strategy for fostering teacher effectiveness by focusing less on the barrel, and more on the tree: that is, to place a systemic emphasis on attracting young people with the strongest academic background into the profession.

This is a strategy employed by most of the U.S.’s “aspirational peers” when it comes to primary and secondary education, including Singapore, South Korea, and Finland. These systems have adopted a systemic commitment to recruiting, attracting and retaining a critical mass of the top academic talent from their universities into teaching. By comparison, less than 25% of new teachers in the U.S. come from the top third.

The report examines the American public sector, but it stands to reason that at least some of it can be translated to K-12 Catholic schools.  That is, while ventures such as Notre Dame’s ACE Program, Boston College’s Urban Catholic Teacher’s Corp, Loyola Marymount’s PLACE Corps, and the rest of the community of Catholic higher education programs known as the University Consortium for Catholic Education have done extraordinary work to place top tier talent into our Catholic school classrooms, should we make a broader systemic effort to attract the very best and brightest to staff these schools? In some ways, that’s the easy question.  The hard one is, how?

In the latest installment of his distinctively informative and provocative school reform email updates, Whitney Tilson calls attention to the recent NY Times article outlining some of the steps that Archbishop Dolan has begun to take to act on his charge – discussed in yesterday’s post “Hitting the Nail on the Head” to “dare and dream” a new generation of Catholic schools.

For those of you unfamiliar with Whitney Tilson, here’s a brief wiki-style bio. In addition to his great work in the financial sector, Whitney is an absolutely tireless advocate for K-12 education reform.  He serves on the leadership team of KIPP, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and a number of other reform oriented ventures. In his spare time, he somehow manages to run a school reform blog and author a regular school reform email series.  I encourage you to join the list to receive these emails; its a great way to stay in the loop on the happenings in K-12 ed reform.  To do so, simply email Whitney at

The NYT article discusses Archbishop Dolan’s plan to revitalize Catholic education within the Archdiocese by restructuring the Church/school relationship: that is, to institute a form of cost-sharing, whereby the costs of educating all of the Archdiocese’s children are shared by all of the Archdiocese’s members, rather than being the responsibility of each local parish.  The details of the Archbishop’s plan, titled “Pathways to Excellence” will be released soon.

In yesterday’s email update, Whitney Tilson discusses the article, pointing out the utter tragedy of Catholic school closure, as well as the absurdity of not supporting low-income families who are prohibited from sending their children to these institutions because of financial concerns:

Too bad the article doesn’t deal with the much bigger issue: the utter INSANITY, from a societal perspective, of allowing inner-city Catholic schools – which are often oases of safety, discipline and rigor – to close, while throwing massively more money at catastrophically failing public schools nearby.  Why not give parents a choice: we’ll spend $16-17,000 on your child at a public school (the average in NYC), but if you don’t think it’s right for your child, we’ll give you a voucher (perhaps funded by a tax credit) for only HALF the amount that you can use to pay for a private school?  This would empower parents, be another source of pressure on failing public schools to improve, likely result in better outcomes for students (including those “left behind”), AND save taxpayers money!

There will surely be more to come as “Pathways to Excellence” is released.  Stay tuned.

Anyone even remotely interested in K-12 Catholic education should read the following piece from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.  In an extraordinarily insightful and well informed acclamation reminiscent of Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes himself, Archbishop Dolan asserts that these schools are the responsibility of the entire Catholic community, and asserts that we must all quicken our resolve to ensure the long-term viability of this apostolate of hope.

Consider the following passage:

It is both heartening and challenging to remember that Catholic churches and schools were originally built on the small donations of immigrants who sacrificed nickels, dimes and dollars to make their children Catholics who are both well educated and fully American. Have we Catholics lost our nerve, the dare and dream that drove our ancestors in the faith, who built a Catholic school system that is the envy of the world?

So, how best to respond to this charge? Several ed reform advocates and Catholic school leaders have already made their case. What think you?

I am pleased to announce that we are expanding and re-inventing this blog to add a number of friends and Catholic school advocates as regular authors.  Now under a new name: The Soul of a Nation: K-12 Catholic Schools, the common good, and educational opportunity, we hope that this blog will more than ever shine a light on the vital contributions of Catholic schools.

Please see below for the text to the new about section for this new blog on the conversation on Catholic schools.  See here for why we believe so strongly that this is a conversation worth having.

Welcome to The Soul of a Nation.  This is an online conversation dedicated to K-12 Catholic education: to its challenges, as well as its opportunities; to the questions that have characterized its past and those that will determine its future; to its relevance in the education marketplace and its importance in American civic life; to its teachers and leaders, its founders and its students.

This blog began with a simple purpose: to surface and expand an ongoing, national conversation about the future of K-12 Catholic schools. While there’s no particular “party line” governing the commentary presented, most of the commentary here is grounded in one basic principle: Catholic schools have a profound influence on the soul of our nation, and ideas about strengthening K-12 Catholic education are worth sharing.  There is an urgency to the crisis facing K-12 Catholic education that is often overlooked, and we therefore hope to foster conversation that will not only examine the state of Catholic schools today, but will also discuss where they seem to be headed tomorrow.

An interesting Labor Day blog post yesterday by Peter Meyer of Flypaper about an important debate in education circles: What is the proper role of schools in educating children in poverty?  Or perhaps more appropriately, what should we expect and demand of schools when it comes to educating children in poverty?  Peter refers to an article by Pedro Noguera in New York Daily News titled “Accept it: Poverty hurts learning: Schools matter, but they’re not all that matters,” and here is the punchy core of his beef with Noguera.

I read it and mostly disagree. You don’t have to know much about education to see the flaws in the veteran educator’s arguments.  At the outset, his description of the two sides (always beware someone says there are two sides to an argument) in the “ongoing debate…about how to teach poor children” is a set-up. He characterizes one side (his) as arguing that

[W]e must address the wide variety of social issues (like poor health and nutrition, mobility, inadequate preparation for school, etc.) that tend to be associated with poverty.

Who is “we” and are they for solving poverty before or after creating a school?  It’s a big part of the debate.

The “other side,” not surprisingly, argues that “schools serving poor children must focus on education alone and stop making excuses.”

Noguera’s problem is that he conflates cause and effect; at least, he turns the purpose of public school inside out.  “We’ve long known that family income combined with parental education is the strongest predictor of how well a student will do on most standardized tests,” he asserts.

What some of us have long known is that public schools were started mainly to educate the poor.  And the only reason poverty is a predictor of bad academic achievement results is that educators like Noguera have made it so.  Instead of schools as tools of liberation, we have made them into great houses of mirrors, reflecting back on students the environment they come from.

Perhaps the most troubling statement in Noguera’s essay is this: “And schools alone – not even the very best schools – cannot erase the effects of poverty.”

I’m not sure where he’s been, but Noguera has not only missed the dozens of success stories – thousands, if you’re counting just the kids who have entered school poor and emerged poor but educated and ready for college – from our growing charter school movement, but decades of success from inner city private schools like the ones run by Catholics.

I mostly agree with Meyers and disagree with Noguera.  Its not that poverty doesn’t matter or that health, nutrition and school preparedness are not important factors.  These factors certainly tend to make putting poor children on the educational path to college more difficult.  There are many cards stacked against them.  The problem is Noguera’s insistence that we need to somehow fix poverty first.  In suggesting this he is making a number of errors.

First, he lets schools completely off the hook, instead of saying to schools and educators: “Yes, you need to do more for these kids so that they can succeed.”

Secondly, his argument leads to an inefficient policy agenda.  Instead of saying, “We need amazing schools and educators to help overcome the challenges that children in poverty face,” he essentially says, “We need complicated and expensive policies across all sectors BEFORE schools can be expected to effectively serve these children.”

But here, as Peter Meyer’s notes, it might be good to look to Catholic schools as an example.  The best answer might be something of a both/and.  It seems that the fundamental reason for the success of the parish-school model of Catholic schools is the overlapping layers of social capital and services that surround the institution.  The parish seeks to meet the spiritual, social, and emotional needs of families, and often in hard times, their financial or other needs through various forms of support.  The school is an activity and an outreach of the parish.  The same families that receive spiritual nourishment and various forms of support through the parish community, send their children to the school that continues this nourishing culture and positive environment.  Churches don’t solve all of the problems of poverty (and the schools should not wait for the Church or society to fix these problems before providing a transformative education to children), but in their best forms, urban Churches with schools serve whole families and the whole child remarkably effectively.  Another reason that Catholic schools offer a unique and powerful solution for educating children in poverty and why “everything possible must be done” to ensure that they remain accessible to these same children who need what they offer so urgently.

A recent blog post in a blog called Law, Religion and Ethics highlights the forthcoming article by Notre Dame law professors Nicole Garnett and Margaret Brinig titled Catholic Schools and Broken Windows (referring to the well known broken window theory about crime and urban deterioration), about their study of the impact of Catholic school closures on inner-city Chicago neighborhoods.  The blog post mentions the major findings of the Garnett and Brinig study:

The authors present extensive evidence that neighborhoods that lose their Catholic schools descend into greater disorder and eventually experience increased crime. Obviously there are issues of correlation versus causation, which the authors acknowledge and attempt to address.

Though I have not yet had the pleasure of reading their article, I have heard Professors Garnett and Brinig share a presentation on this study.  I can assure you that this article will be a valuable contribution to making the empirical case for the contribution of Catholic schools and the need to preserve and support them.  The study demonstrates empirically what Tony Bryk and others have argued before and many more have known through experience: Catholic schools in the U.S., especially urban Catholic schools, through their service to children, families and entire communities, are uniquely valuable institutions for preserving and protecting the common good.  We look forward to reading this important study!

Just added: here is a link to the law review article discussed above, Catholic Schools and Broken Windows.