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A great article yesterday in Ed Week about how the reforms and policies of Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education are setting the standard for reforms in states throughout the country.

Seeming to have a particular influence on my home state of Indiana, this bodes well for those states that are willing to follow Bush and Florida’s example.  Of particular interest is a newly formed league of extraordinary state school chiefs that are keen on following Florida’s example.

In November, the Foundation for Excellence in Education hosted a conference in Washington meant to highlight innovations in teacher evaluation, technology, and other areas, which drew state officials, researchers, and corporate executives from around the country. At that conference, five state schools chiefs—Mr. Bennett, Deborah Gist of Rhode Island, Paul Pastorek of Louisiana, Gerard Robinson of Virginia, and Eric Smith of Florida—announced their formation of a group to support new approaches to paying and evaluating teachers and administrators, school choice, and improved tests and standards, among other goals.

In March I suggested that 2010 might be the year of school choice.  As we prepare to usher in 2011, its a good time to reflect back on what’s happened and what we can hope for and expect for the new year.

The states that seemed hopeful in 2010 were: Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, and Maryland.

There was action in Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.  Florida and Oklahoma were the only significant successes.  Florida represents an important victory in the fourth largest state in the union.  With strong bi-partisan support and a huge rally this year, Florida has raised the scholarship allocation and  implemented a floating cap on the number of vouchers allowed, so that as soon as applications come close to the cap, it automatically goes up.  So essentially, there is no cap.  Oklahoma has followed the Florida model in passing a special needs voucher bill, which can likely be the gateway into broader choice efforts.

The rest of the story of 2010 was not so rosy.  Though Illinois and Maryland both had parental choice bills pass the Senate, both died in the House.  This is a partial victory, in that it showed choice is politically viable and raised awareness of the issue.  It is likely that efforts will continue in these states.

Virginia did not introduce a bill, and though New Jersey was pushing for one, Governor Christie stood firm against a watered down version, though didn’t have the votes to get the stronger bill he wanted.

Pennsylvania had a significant set back with a budget reduction to their tuition tax-credit program, but they are fighting to get the funding levels back up and are hopeful to be able to do so in the near future.

So how about 2011?  I’m hopeful.

The States to watch include Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And let’s not forget D.C.

Colorado: There has been a bubbling up of interest in Douglas county, a suburban area with good public schools, not the norm for a choice experiment.  But there is philosophical support for choice, and supporters think it could plant the seed in Colorado.  Here is a nice article from the Cato Institute.

Florida: As I noted in a recent post, Florida is powering ahead as the biggest and best school choice state in the country.  Increasingly seen as a national model of effective education policy, Florida is poised to continue its path as the leader in providing  educational options to its residents.

Indiana: Also mentioned in a recent post, Indiana is looking VERY GOOD to make major gains in its push for school choice.  Heavily influenced by the successes of Florida and with a perfect political climate to make major changes, Governor Daniels is ready to leave his legacy in Indiana and show what he could do as a Presidential contender.

Illinois: I think we are in for a long fight in Chicago.  But Senator Meeks, who introduced and fought for the bill in 2010 will bring this issue to Chicago’s Mayoral race, making the issue a live one again in 2011.

Nevada: With a Governor supportive of vouchers and a favorable legal context, Nevada could have a new program.

New Jersey: Governor Christie continues to be a powerhouse in Jersey, battling the bully teacher unions and winning.  Though the unions at one point spent $6 million in attack adds in two months, polls suggest that he is winning the war of words by speaking clearly and exposing how the teachers unions operate.  Check out the Youtube videos, which have become something of a sensation, of Christie taking on the teachers unions.

Massachusetts:  Something of a long shot for parental choice, even Massachusetts is making a push for a tax-credit program, another sign that school choice is spreading and increasingly enjoys bi-partisan support and recognition that it works.

Ohio:  Finally having hit the cap in terms of applicants for existing vouchers spots, Ohio may be poised to expand its state-wide voucher program.

Pennsylvania: With both candidates for Governor supporting school choice expansion, Pennsylvania appears to have sufficient bi-partisan support for its tax-credit program to at least regain the funding that was lost, if not to expand funding levels for its scholarships.

Virginia: Likely a top pick for a new program, I think Virginia will make a push for a new scholarship tax-credit bill with strong support from Governor McDonnell.

Wisconsin:  Home of the first voucher program in Milwaukee, rumblings are beginning about a possible expansion to this already very strong program.

DC: And let’s not forget the District of Columbia and the battle over the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  As I predicted, the D.C. OSP will rise again, hopefully bigger than before.

And there could be more.  A report from the Foundation for Educational Choice reveals that:

Voters in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York decidedly favor charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers…

Many of these states are long-shots, but it is notable that efforts are underway in so many states.  I think it is likely that we will see victories in Indiana, Virginia, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Washington D.C. in 2011, and perhaps others.  Between the new political climate, the constant flow of ed reform documentaries and national press, and the growing acceptance of parental choice in states around the country, I’m bullish for 2011.

An interesting New York Times article on the challenges in rating and evaluating teacher effectiveness.  Evaluating teacher performance to provide greater accountability and to retain the most effective teachers has been a major push of late by the Gates Foundation, the Race to the Top, and experimental policies in many public school districts.

Though few if any Catholic school systems are using similar teacher ranking systems, this may be the way of the future for measuring and ensuring academic quality for schools in the U.S.  It is worth staying up to speed on the challenges and innovations in this policy area.

Two states, Florida and Indiana, are talking about radical school reforms advancing parental choice, and in both cases these changes seem very possible.

The St. Petersburg Times and CBS news have both reported Governor-Elect Rick Scott’s recent remarks at a rally in front of hundreds of students receiving publicly leveraged scholarships.  The Times led off by saying:

Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott on Thursday blew the door wide open to the idea of a voucherlike program for all students, saying he’s working with lawmakers to allow state education dollars to follow a student to the school his or her parents choose.

He did not use the term vouchers. Others called it an “education savings account.”

But whatever it’s called, the incoming governor, key lawmakers and a foundation tied to former Gov. Jeb Bush are setting the stage for Florida to consider one of the most radical education ideas that it — or arguably any state — has ever considered.

Florida already expends more publicly funded dollars and gives out more publicly supported scholarships than any other State in the Union.  And along with the cocktail of other cutting edge education policies, its leadership in parental choice is making Florida one of the highest performing and fastest improving states in k-12 education in the country.  Matt Ladner at Jay P Greene blog has covered this topic extensively.  But Florida is just getting started.  Its Tax-Credit scholarship program is in the midst of a major expansion, from 33,000 low-income students at present to a projected 80,000 students within the next 4 years and a whopping $400 million dollars annually in scholarship funding.  This more universal “bank-account” approach is just the newest in a string of good policy ideas to empower parents and bring broad choices into the educational system.

In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels is talking about a considerable set of education reforms, and among them is a voucher program.  Though its been kept rather quite thus far, the Daily Reporter covered Governor Daniels remarks to the press after a recent Roundtable meeting on new proposed education policies.

Daniels and Bennett didn’t mention controversial private school vouchers until talking with reporters after the Roundtable meeting. Daniels said his agenda will include a bill to allow state money to go to private schools to help low-income students attend. He said he hasn’t firmed up details, including what income level would be required to qualify for vouchers.

Though Indiana already possesses a fledgling tuition tax-credit program, it has been slow in getting geared up in its first year of implementation.  A new voucher program could launch Indiana toward the front of robust parental choice States.  As my Indiana is my home these days, I’m pretty excited about the prospects!

This is the second post in a series about Catholic identity in America’s Catholic schools.  The Stakes was the first post in the series.

For most of the history of Catholic schools in the United States Catholic identity was not a prescient question and their effectiveness in this area was largely assumed. When Catholic schools experienced a radical transformation in the make-up of their work force, from 95% vowed-religious in the 60’s to 97% lay today, Catholic identity became a relevant topic.  In today’s Catholic schools lay people have stepped up to carry the flame of faith and Christian witness.  This presents both a challenge and an opportunity.  It is a challenge because many lay Catholics lack rigorous theological and spiritual formation and have limited experience and comfort articulating their faith.  But it is an opportunity to empower lay witnesses and and cultivate new lay leaders.  Lay Catholics today generally need guidance and support if they are going to be fully effective in this role.   The guidance should come, among other ways, in the form of quality standards and assessment measures that can assist Catholic schools in effectively fulfilling their core mission and purpose.

So where is Catholic education nationally regarding Catholic identity standards?  Existing tools are inconsistent, vary widely in terms of content and quality, and are not universally accepted or used, though there have been some recent discussions at bringing some greater consensus to national school based standards for Catholic schools.  There are  a number of concerning trends among existing standards that should be avoided in any national effort.

First, for many accreditation models Catholic identity is limited to a side item, treated as one thing among many others to check off the list.  This fails to capture the rightful place of Catholic identity at the center of the mission of Catholic schools and as the animating and permeating principle of the school.  In effect, it presupposes a sort of marginalization of Catholic identity as an add on to a basically secular education. This is a problem. The Western Catholic Educational Association is a leader in the Catholic school accreditation field that pushes for a more comprehensive view of how to integrate Catholic identity.

Secondly, for those that do integrate Catholic identity, the standards lack a unifying vision.  Approaches rather clumsily insert Catholic identity into otherwise secular realms.  For example, among the academic standards it may ask how Catholic identity is reflected in the entire curriculum, but it fails to point to why this is important and necessary or place this in a meaningful theological context.  The theological reasoning for this, however, is available in Church teaching, which explains that Catholic schools should have a curriculum that “orders the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith” (Declaration on Christian Education).  These are profound theological ideas that should be discussed and grappled with by Catholic school leaders and teachers of all subject areas.  Too often this idea is completely absent, and when an effort is made to integrate Catholic identity across the curriculum, it is done so in a superficial or ridiculous manner.  At best this means reading a Catholic book in a literature class or a discussion on evolution and Creation in science class, at worst, this means counting crucifixes in math class or having word problems about the Apostles.  Both of these forms of “integrating Catholic identity across the curriculum” fail to grasp what it means to order all of human culture to the news of salvation.  It would seem that they lack the unifying principal and framework for why and how to integrate Catholic identity across the curriculum.  It is not about teaching Catholic math or Catholic science, but teaching science and math in such a way that reveals the glory of God, the goodness and wonder of God’s Creation, and the rational capacity of our minds which reflect God’s wisdom and reason as creatures made in his image.  It is the conviction that all truth is a part of the one Truth and that knowledge of human culture and subject areas is part of our human knowledge of all of Creation, which is one of our primary means for knowing God, through the majesty and wisdom of his work.  There should be regular discussions among faculty to grapple with these ideas and make striving towards this ideal a part of the culture of a Catholic school.  This is very rare.

It can be a challenge to thoughtfully link theological principals from Church teaching directly to standards and school level indicators.  Though accreditation models often include some context from Church teaching usually in an introduction, there tend not to be explicit and clear links between the theological context and the school-based standards and indicators.  There appears to be one recently created exception in the field that does provide clear and strong links between the theological reasoning and the school based standards.  Dr. Anthony Holter and Rev. Ronald Nuzzi at the University of Notre Dame have created a CSII_Overview_2010 that thoughtfully places school based standards within a clear theological framework.

Drawing upon the teachings of the Church, Nuzzi and Holter identify constitutive theological elements of any Catholic institution or community and apply these to specific standards and indicators at the school level.  This is an important contribution in that it appropriately places Catholic education in its broader theological terms.  It recognizes, for example, that the “secular” educational mission of the school is not outside of the bounds of the school’s Catholic mission, and Catholic identity is certainly not one element within a broader secular framework.  It is in fact the opposite.  The Catholic mission and vision is broader and encompasses everything, and the secular disappears.  A Catholic school seeks to realize the full human potential of its students as children of God endowed with dignity in the image of their Creator, as a result a Catholic school is concerned with academic quality in all areas of human knowledge.  There are not two missions of the school, a secular and a faith-based, but one mission enlivened and enriched by a Catholic vision at the core and encompassing all elements of the school’s life and purpose.  Just as it is the spiritual goal of an individual to become fully human, fully oneself, so it is also part of the Catholic mission of the school to be fully itself, fully an excellent school, but one with a particular vision of life, meaning, and view of reality and Truth.  The problem with most existing standards are that they integrate the “Catholic” into the existing secular.  Nuzzi and Holter attempt to set this right by explaining how the Catholic vision enlivens and gives meaning to the whole, and apply this concretely to the school standards and indicators.

Thirdly, there are weaknesses in the details of how these basic standards should be implemented successfully and oriented towards quality.  Far too often the standards are a sort of minimum requirement, a basic checklist, but far from an indicator of real quality.  Let’s take an important example.  Students should have the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist on a weekly or monthly basis. This is one of the most important and most common Catholic identity standards, but there tends to be nothing mentioned about quality. We don’t just need regular Liturgy, we also need good Liturgy! What is the level of preparation for the students’ participation in the Liturgy? Are students prepared to read at Mass? Are children singing?  Do they know the songs?  Are the songs age-appropriate and thoughtfully chosen? Are there teaching Masses for the children? Are faculty singing and participating as models for the students?  What is the feeling of reverence or joy in the Liturgical celebrations? How can these be enhanced?  The question of quality should also be applied to areas like prayer, service programs, religious education and religious imagery in the school.  Yes, these things need to be happening, but they need to be done well to be effective.  We need metrics for thinking about quality.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the question of assessing student learning.  This is the sine qua non for evaluating the effectiveness of Catholic identity and faith formation in Catholic schools.  It is absolutely essential to understand the “outcomes” of the teaching and the culture of a Catholic school. The assessment must be aligned with the fundamental learning goals of Catholic education, which is inclusive of catechesis and moral education, but broader.  It points to what it means to be Christian and Catholic.  This is not a very easy thing to assess. The only assessment tool of which I am aware that seeks to assess Catholic Religious Education is the ACRE test, which has various limitations.  In the absence of another assessment tool, ACRE should be utilized.

More needs to be done to develop clear standards, oriented towards quality, connected to theological principals and integrated with the broader life of the school.  But much can be accomplished simply by bringing this conversation, the Catholic mission and ethos of the school, front and center within the school community. Too often strong Catholic identity is assumed and taken for granted.  It is rarely measured, reflected upon, and deliberately strengthened.  The central role of Faith should be reflected in the amount of time we spend thinking about it, talking about it as a community of educators, and evaluating and improving practice in its light.  To do less fails to do justice to the purpose of Catholic schools.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, Catholic identity in our Catholic schools: Reflections on Religious Education

The largest Catholic school system in the U.S., the Archdiocese of Chicago, can now boast enrollment growth in the city’s Catholic schools for the first time since the 1960’s.  In the midst of the worst and most stubborn recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, this news is simply incredible, almost miraculous!

Half of Chicago’s Catholic schools (53%) are stable or growing this year, compared with 35% the last several years.  Also particularly promising given Chicago’s booming Latino population and the critical segment of the Catholic market that Latinos represent for Catholic schools (see here for more), the Latino student population grew for the first time in Chicago in at least five years.

While other large Archdioceses are dealing with consolidation and school closure in an effort to find solid ground to begin building a more stable Catholic school system, Chicago is growing!!  How is this possible?  What is the magic in Chicago?

There’s no magic here, only a lot of hard work, strong leadership, and good ideas being effectively implemented.

First let’s mention leadership.  In July of 2008 Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, O.P. took the helm as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese.  She has brought energy and dynamism to the lead spot in the Catholic schools office.  In Spring of 2009 the Archdiocese founded a new powerhouse of a Board of Catholic Schools, which has sought to exercise leadership in governance and policy for the Archdiocese.  Though it may be too early to be seeing the impact of this board’s involvement, this is a promising sign for the future of Catholic schools in Chicago.  Finally and perhaps most importantly has been the ongoing vital contributions and innovations of the Big Shoulders Fund.  Between their 10 to 12 million dollars of annual scholarship contributions and other funding support to stabilize and increase enrollment, to their experiments in adding regional marketing and recruiting staff, Big Shoulders has been integral to the health of the system for many years.

The marketing, enrollment and scholarship push has been at the center of effective policies of the Archdiocese, and can be largely credited with the recent growth.  There is an Archdiocesan Marketing Enrollment Network (AMEN) that promotes and shares best practices, an increased investment in Enrollment Marketing Staff at the Archdiocesan and local levels, and broader efforts to strengthen the Catholic school brand.

Also noteworthy are 16 Catholic elementary schools that are part of an innovative experiment called Archdiocesan Initiative Model elementary schools.  This 3-year pilot transferred governance authority among a set of at-risk schools from the Parish to the Catholic Schools Office.  The Catholic Schools Office sought to invest in programs and policies that would translate to enrollment growth and financial health.  Though the program only began on July 1, 2010, the schools have already seen a net enrollment increase, many of them reversing multi-year trends of enrollment decline.   The Archdiocese is also committed to ensuring the vitality of St. Gregory High School’s, which is also participating in the Board Initiative.

Finally, the Archdiocese has continued to invest in an effort to boost Latino enrollment in Catholic schools that began last year.  Working together with the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic School Advantage Campaign, and receiving considerable support from the Archdiocese Enrollment Marketing Consultants, Latino enrollment grew for the first time in at least five years by 200 students, an increase of 1.7% of total Latino enrollment.  The Archdioceses remains committed to an audacious goal of doubling Latino enrollment in Chicago’s Catholic schools by 2020, which will require ramping up to a growth rate of 7% annually.  Efforts like this story on Univision Chicago will hopefully continue to build the momentum. 

All and all, these modest gains are a small miracle and an important sign of what is possible in American Catholic schools.  May it be the beginning of a changing trend and a model for policies and practices that can work in other places.

A special thanks to Ryan Blackburn of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools for sharing the good news!


This is the first post in a series about Catholic identity in America’s Catholic schools.

Catholic schools are the most effective means of faith formation that the Church has at its disposal.  This is supported by sociological data from Andrew Greeley and others that note the impact of Catholic schools on adult religious behavior and beliefs. This is not surprising, on the one hand, given what is possible with 35 hours a week of immersion in a Catholic school community with daily religious instruction, regular participation in the Sacraments, a comprehensive Christian witness of the life of faith integrated with all subjects of human learning, and the strong social and religions bonds of a Catholic school community.

And yet, how effective are our Catholic schools when it comes to faith formation?  Other research has suggested that Catholic faith formation in America, both in Catholic schools and CCD programs, is largely failing (Christian Smith, Soul Searching).  Recent research (Campbell and Putnam, American Grace) suggests that nearly 40% of Caucasian Catholics that are raised in the faith leave the Church or become non-practicing (attend mass less than once a month).  This rate makes Catholicism – together with main line Protestantism – the worst at retaining the faithful among all religious traditions in America.  We are in the midst of a crisis of faith in the American Catholic Church.  The aggregate number of Catholics remains high, however, because of the growing Latino Catholic population, which threatens to obscure the depth of the crisis.

What does this mean?  As the Italian theologian and founder of the movement Communion and Liberation, Luigi Giussani wrote in The Risk of Education, “A radical either/or seems inevitable: Either Christian Religion has lost all strength of persuasion and is no longer a guiding force in the life of young students, or one has to acknowledge that Christianity is not suitably presented or offered to students.”  In the light of compelling contemporary Christian witnesses, Giussani reasons, one must conclude the latter.

Surely there are many problems that affect the participation of Church membership, from the abuse scandals to a general milieu of secularization. Yet the core point remains, if the Church effectively teaches, effectively witnesses and communicates the compelling reality of the Christian experience, if parents and schools effectively form young people, then we should not be seeing this hemorrhaging within the Catholic community.

In order to improve and reach towards the ideal of what Catholic education could and should be, we must face the fact that Catholic schools can and must be greatly improved in fulfilling their responsibility of effective faith formation.  Catholic schools are, and will remain, the most efficacious means of faith formation in the American Catholic Church.  Yet they must overcome profound challenges to more effectively serve contemporary youth in this, their most vital mission and purpose.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, Catholic Identity in our Catholic schools: The Need for Quality Standards