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

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