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Alright, I’m gonna do it.  I’m gonna go and get a little philosophical on you.  I’ve been thinking about something lately that first got me interested in Catholic education.

We talk a lot about how Catholic schools offer an advantage to urban minority youth and help close the achievement gap, one of the main problems and injustices in the American education system.  We talk a lot about how they have high graduation rates and send kids to college with incredible success.  But the real Catholic school advantage is something quite deeper, I think, and bigger.  It stems from the vision of what Catholic education is all about, and I think it is something of fundamental importance to American society, and something we need more of.

The full purpose of Catholic education is not only to produce able and employable workers and college graduates, though Catholic schools are exceptionally good at this.  The full purpose of Catholic education is not only to form engaged, generous and responsible citizens that participate robustly in society and the democratic process, though Catholic schools are the best in the business at doing this as well.  Catholic schools are about doing both of these things, but they are about something bigger and I think, of more fundamental importance.

Catholic schools are able to embrace a vision of education and a vision of the human person that is broader than a merely economic and political vision.  A true education should be oriented towards the formation of the human person towards the fullness of life, towards the good, the true, and the beautiful, towards God. Education, to be full and real, must cultivate children towards the highest calling and the broadest vision of what it means to be human, towards the full realization of the good life.  If we neglect the higher purpose and the higher calling of education, it is stunted and breeds a stunted society.  It is impossible to engage in an education of this ideal kind without considering the fundamental questions of humanity.  Questions like: What is the good life?  What is the purpose of life?  How should the good and just society be ordered?  What is my responsibility within society?   Is there a God?  How can I be truly happy?  How can I be truly free?

Catholic and faith based schools are able to engage fully in these deep questions and orient themselves explicitly towards this loftier ideal of forming children as whole human beings.  It is, I suspect, perhaps even their secret sauce.  Our faith informs our morality.  Our morality informs our understanding of civic and social responsibility.  Our faith and our morality inform our vision of ourselves and others, which in turn helps determine our goals for life, both academic and professional… and tangentially, as a by-product of this secret sauce, we send kids to college and form responsible and engaged citizens.  But first and more importantly, Catholic schools form human beings and they orient children towards a more just and perfect vision of life, society and beyond.  This, in the end, is of paramount importance.  This is the real Catholic school advantage.

Jonathan Kozol likes to talk about Martin Luther King.  A lot.

This was the main impression that I got from him after listening to him speak at the university earlier this week.  Inequity and segregation are perversions of Dr. King’s dream, he explained, and public schools foment these injustices.

Just don’t ask him about giving kids a chance to get out of them.

Catholic schools have been fighting inequity and segregation since before it could get anyone a book deal, and Kozol openly decries the vouchers or tuition tax credits that would allow these schools to continue their mission.  In fact, he has gone so far as to say “I believe that vouchers are the single worst, most dangerous idea to have entered education discourse in my adult life”.  He advocates for throwing real estate agents in jail if they steer minority families out of neighborhoods that are zoned for good schools, but thinks that it is “dangerous” to separate schooling from residential zoning and let parents pick where their kids go to school.

Now what would Dr. King think about Catholic schools?  I would never try to speak for him, but I can tell you that he had the marchers from Selma camp at one before marching on the Capitol.  And, as illustrated in the picture above, it looked like he was pretty cool with Fr. Hesburgh.

Plus, I think he might like the fact that poor and minority students do better in Catholic Schools , and graduate in higher rates from Catholic schools.  And if he needed more convincing, it might help when a long time civil rights leader finds that religious schools under choice systems are found to be more integrated.

Why are Catholic schools so able to do this?  Why can Catholic schools succeed in providing education for poor and minority students when public schools have failed?  Quite simply, Catholic schools have an institutional advantage over their public school counterparts.   The advantage is three-fold:

1. They are not controlled by political bodies

2. They have a clear sense of mission

3. They foster strong communities

First, Catholic schools are not controlled by the democratic forces that have manipulated the public schools into the mess that they’re in.  Remember, the public schools in this country were not created by some dictator or hewn from the mud of the earth.  The American people, through the democratic process, made schools the way they are.  As I have said before, as long as schools are run by politicians, they will be political entities, and as long as they are political entities, special interest groups (from the Right, Left, or Center) will be able to manipulate them to get what they want.  If segregation is in vogue and white folks are in the majority, don’t be surprised when the public schools come out segregated. Democracy has not been a safeguard against the exploitation of poor and minority youth.

Second, the very mission of Catholic schools is the attempt to erase inequity and foster community and understanding. Catholic schools empower small numbers of committed, mission-driven people to recognize a need in a community and then give them the freedom to serve them the way they see fit.  They don’t weigh their leaders down in thousands of pages of bureaucratic red tape, nor do they hamstring them with onerous labor contracts.  They believe in their principals and teachers, and let them serve their students. Catholic schools can be more flexible and quicker to react to changing circumstances.  This is why we see innovation in the models of Catholic schools.

Finally, Catholic schools foster a strong sense of community.  James Coleman wrote extensively about the community in Catholic schools, explaining their success by the amount of social capital that Catholic school communities instill in their students.  I agree with him.

Now, I am no Pollyanna.  There are some bad Catholic schools out there.  There are some bad Catholic school superintendents, principals, and teachers.  However, the organizational design of Catholic schools makes it much easier to do something about it.  Students leave bad Catholic schools and they close.  Bad teachers get fired, not sent to a rubber room, and resources get re-allocated to better serve the needs of children.

We need vouchers and tuition tax credits to prevent the good Catholic schools from closing.  We need to encourage, not discourage this management system.  We need to stand up for the poor and minority students of this nation, even if that means standing up to someone who purports to speak for them, like Jonathan Kozol.

Kathleen Porter-Magee, in the Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper blog, has a thoughtful post on “embracing the mess” in education.  She’s not taking about the unholy mess presently found in too many segments of the education system, but rather the “messy” nature of ed reform.  She, like many others, takes issue with Davis Guggenheim as a “naive Johnny-come-lately to ed reform” because of his assertion that “we’ve cracked the code” on education and “we know what works”, statements she believes are “at best overly simplistic and at worst incredibly damaging to the education reform movement for lots of reasons”.  She asserts instead that there is no cookie cutter, magic bullet, cure-all, panacea solution for education.

I would agree that, in making those assertions, Guggenheim is over-simplifying the issue, and the diversity among successful schools — public, private, and charter — illustrates pretty clearly Porter-Magee’s point that there’s no one right way to educate children.  Still, suggesting we don’t really know “what works” is about as misleading as saying we’ve discovered education penicillin is simplistic (not my metaphor; I wish it was, though).  Those successful schools have certain key features in common; among others, high expectations, consistent and authentic support for students and families, and accountability for students, teachers, and parents.  Porter-Magee even names a few “what works” solutions while she’s trying to cinch up her argument (my emphasis):

Of course, it’s easier to look to high-performing schools and to try to simply copy what they’ve done and assume you’ll get the same results. But by doing so, we’re losing sight of the fact that high performing schools earn their results not because they’ve adopted a particular model for curriculum, instruction, management, teacher pay, etc., but rather because those school leaders have brought together a group of smart, dedicated individuals who own their students’ achievement results and who will do whatever it takes to ensure that their students achieve at the highest levels.

Of course, she’s right that we can’t Xerox great schools and expect the same results.  I’m also inclined to agree that the single most important factor in a school’s success or lack thereof is the human element — if the adults in a school don’t get it or don’t care or just can’t teach well, no model is going to work, and we need gifted professionals.  But what makes gifted professionals, in any field, the rock stars they are?  They draw on their particular gifts to solve their particular set of problems.  It’s what Catholic schools have done and continue to do around the world.  No two Catholic schools are exactly alike, and the variance between Guadalupe Regional Middle School in Brownsville, Texas, and St. Joseph Vocational Training Center in Sudan could hardly be greater, but both are distinctively, definitively Catholic and really good at what they do.

This is no small part of what has made Catholic schools a foundation for success for so many individuals and communities.  Because they are Catholic (the Church), they share an identity and a Faith that not only unify those involved, but also give life a purpose and meaning that drives individuals –students and teachers alike — to strive for the good of others.  Because they are catholic (little “c”; universal), they welcome, serve, and see the dignity and potential of every student who comes to them, and they are flexible enough to adapt and succeed in any community while maintaining their identity as Catholic schools.  Are there any high-performing schools that aren’t endeavoring to do the same?

The one-size-fits-all solution for education doesn’t exist; that’s doesn’t mean we don’t know elements and principles that work.  Porter-Magee is spot on when she says innovative educators need to be free to adapt and combine the parts to make a whole that meets the needs they’re out to address.  I think “mess” is the wrong metaphor.  Instead, I humbly submit this one: we’re not after a one line melody in education, rather a more symphonic solution.

The Helena Independent Record has a story about “Father Ed” Kohler, who recently received an award in recognition of his work over the last ten years establishing and running a non-tuition-driven middle school that serves Blackfeet children.  The high school graduation rate for alums of this particular school is in the nineties, impressive by any standard and even more striking when you compare it to the overall graduation rate for kids from similar backgrounds, which is estimated at about 56%.

Catholic schools: killing the status quo since before you were born.


First, Matt Ladner over at Jay P. Greene’s blog has an interesting post about the future of Catholic schools.

Second,  if you read one article about education reform this week, check out Standford Economist Rick Hanushek’s piece in the Wall Street Journal on the “War on Teachers” (SPOILER ALERT: there isn’t one). His book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses:  Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools,  is a good introduction to his work both shooting down the “more money means more achievement” belief and explaining the ways the composition of the teaching force could be improved.


The Florida Times-Union recently published an article on Catholic schools focused on Rice High School in Harlem where author Patrick McCloskey spent a year “behind the scenes” for his book.  It’s a tidy case study and summary of some of the many ways Catholic schools are good at serving kids, especially under-served kids.

When sixteen education leaders — including New York City’s chancellor Joel Klein, and D.C.’s now-former chancellor Michelle Rhee – get together and publish an article titled “How to Fix Our Schools: A Manifesto”, it’s probably going to get somebody riled up.

Greatest hits (with comments and emphasis):

  • “It’s time for all of the adults — superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents alike — to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children.” (I see how you threw that gauntlet down.  Nice form!  By the way, this is what Catholic schools have been saying since… well, forever.)

  • “A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree — she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. (Note that they’re not suggesting credentials and effectiveness are mutually exclusive.  Note also that Catholic schools have a track-record for compelling students to reach for success.) By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.”

  • “The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher — and our discomfort as a society with criticizing anyone who chooses this noble and difficult profession — has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.” (We’ll not be having minced words with our education reform today, I see.)


  • “Closing a neighborhood school — whether it’s in Southeast D.C., Harlem, Denver or Chicago — is a difficult decision that can be very emotional for a community. But no one ever said leadership is easy.

  • “For the wealthiest among us, the crisis in public education may still seem like someone else’s problem, because those families can afford to choose something better for their kids. But it’s a problem for all of us — until we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation’s broader economic problems. Until we fix our schools, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will only grow wider and the United States will fall further behind the rest of the industrialized world in education, rendering the American dream a distant, elusive memory.” (To borrow a phrase from Batman, POW!  Incidentally, immigrant and disadvantaged kids have historically been successful at – any guesses? — Catholic schools.  Is there a theme here?)

The 356 responses in the article’s now-closed comments have way more to say on all of this, and indicate people have been sufficiently riled up.

…but I don’t think it’s too strong to describe the situation of students in a classroom with an ineffective teacher.

Waiting for Superman has, as many suspected and hoped it would, generated a surge of discussion on education and ed reform.  “Don’t wait for Superman – focus on teachers”, an article in the Boston Globe, takes up one of the common themes in the responses.  The key idea in the article:

Much of the film involves interviews with policymakers who make a compelling case for firing chronically ineffective teachers. Removing the worst teachers is imperative, but it does not solve our most urgent need: making good teachers great.

I still have not been able to see the movie – somehow, South Bend, Indiana, is not one of the metropolitan hot spots included in the film’s limited release – so my commentary is independent of anything that is actually said or not said in WFS. Much of the reaction I’ve read, at least of the type that falls somewhere between mild-skepticism and rabid disapproval, tends to express some variation of this thought: It’s not all the teachers’ fault, and those who hope to bring lasting, far-reaching change in the American education system ought to start throwing their efforts in with the people in the classrooms rather than criticizing them.

I come from a family of teachers, I am a teacher, and I was in fact taught by teachers my entire life.  I love teachers.  Data shows that teacher-effectiveness has a greater impact on student achievement than over-all school performance, class size, or home environment.  The article says, “the policy solutions implied in the film — getting rid of bad teachers and expanding charter schools — will not go far enough to counter educational inequity.”  The authors of the Globe article make a critical and often-overlooked point when they say what our children ultimately need is brigades of great teachers.  They go on to describe some specific measures that could go a long way to helping teachers go from good to great.

I like 90% of what’s being said here.  I’m not quite comfortable, however, with the notion that the single most urgent need is more great teachers.  For one, it is dangerously myopic to suggest there is one thing everyone needs to focus on entirely.  The issues in education are more complicated than that.  There’s no magic bullet.

Secondly, ineffective teachers are an issue that needs to be dealt with immediately, even though they’re not the only issue.  Indulge me in an analogy: a kid falls in a pit of quicksand.  If the adults present stood around and said, “Well, what we need to do is take all this ground around here and make it firmer and more reliable!  Then we won’t have any kids falling into quicksand pits,” they would be correct.

Meanwhile, the kid would be up to his ears, saying, “Um, excuse me.  Hi, yeah, I’m still here getting sucked into this particular pit.”  Some might also wonder why the kid was allowed to fall in the pit in the first place, but that’s not only taking the analogy too far, it’s a separate discussion.

We need great teachers, and we need to find ways to increase teacher quality through whatever effective means are available to us so good teachers can become great teachers.  We’re also obligated to get our kids out of dangerous situations as quickly as possible.  Superman always plucks the hapless victim out of harm’s way before he pummels the villain, right?

This past weekend I took a trip with some friends down to sunny Dallas, Texas to catch some playoff baseball and college football.  While the Rangers lost on Saturday, my Razorbacks defeated the Texas A&M Aggies with one pleased education policy researcher watching the game for free on the big screen TV’s on the outside of the stadium (thank you Jerry Jones!).

It’s hard to travel to Texas as a person interested in education policy and not hear about the recent controversy regarding their state standards.  It has been covered ad nauseum in the press, but for those unfamiliar, the Cliff’s Notes version is that a conservative faction of the state board of education voted to change the State’s social studies curriculum in an attempt to correct what they perceived as a liberal bias in the history and politics taught in the State.  Chaos ensued.  Liberal groups unloaded mockery and derision, conservatives circled the wagons, and children were lost in the ideological shuffle.

I read recently some work by Cato Institute scholar Andrew Coulson, whose words are particularly prescient on this issue. He wrote:

We are all losers when our differing views become declarations of war; when, instead of allowing many distinct communities of ideas to coexist harmoniously, our schools force us to battle one another in a needless and destructive fight or ideological supremacy. If U.S. churches were run by the state as schools have been, we would have had as many religious wars in this nation as we have had school wars. We can learn a lesson from the peaceful coexistence of our private mosques, cathedrals, synagogues, and shrines: it is possible to celebrate both our varied traditions and the common ideals on which our nation is based. The totalitarian notion that schools should sanction one set of views at the expense of all others is surely not among those American ideals.

-Andrew Coulson Delivering Education (pg. 124)

The monolithic nature of the education system creates an adversarial environment where there doesn’t have to be one. Because there is only one set of standards and one curriculum in each state, there have to be winners and losers in its creation. These contentious battles create enemies, divisions, and marginalize large segments of the population.  As a solution to this problem we have decided to elect school board members (or elect officials to appoint school board members) in the hope that the politicization of the process will make it more fair and democratic.  However, as long as schools are organizations that are ruled by politicians, they will be political entities. As long as they are political entities, they run the risk of being co-opted by whatever group can round up the most votes. When this happens, minorities (be they racial, religious, or of varying opinion) will be oppressed and schools will fail to serve their purpose.

By using school choice, the decentralization of power can diffuse the responsibility for educating students and protect the rights and viewpoints of minorities. Sure, some schools might teach goofy things that we don’t like, but right now entire systems (like Texas) can be taken over so as to teach goofy things we don’t like. By giving parents choice, they can at least leave schools that teach something with which they disagree.

Right now, parents that lack the financial means to attend private schools are stuck with the result of the political sausage making that is standards setting, curriculum writing, and textbook adoption.  If we want to protect their rights, we need to support their freedom to choose where their children go to school.

Michelle Rhee announced this morning that she has resigned as Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools, effective at the end of the month.  Over the course of the past three and a half years, Rhee has been an extraordinary witness to hope for education reformers across the country, and she has done more than almost anyone else to draw attention to the unprecedented crisis facing our nation’s inner city schools.

I’m sure that a lively debate will now begin about how history will remember her time as Chancellor, as well as what her next step will be.  In the midst of that clamor, its important to remember that it was Michelle Rhee, the appointed administrator of one the most under-performing and mismanaged urban school districts in the country, who had the courage to defend the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded voucher program in the United States – a program which benefits hundreds of Catholic school families in the District, and which is sadly now slated for termination.  In the face of serious pressure from her opposition, Rhee had the courage to defend a program that benefited the children of her district, regardless of its political risk.