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The third post in a series on Catholic identity in America’s Catholic schools: (post 1 – The Stakes, post 2 – The Need for Quality Standards). 

In recent years, attention has been drawn to the problem in Catholic religious education and the inadequate results of Catholic youth formation programs – both Catholic schools and CCD.  They are, by and large, failing to produce the desired results.  For more on this situation, see Cavadini, Christian Smith’s chapter “On Catholic Teens from Soul Searching, and a new study for the Cardus Education Survey 2011.

According to Smith, Catholic teens are fairing rather badly, as measured by both typical norms of what it means to be a faithful Catholic and compared to other Christian teens.  Smith attributes this trend, in part, to the ineffectiveness of CCD and Catholic schools to respond to a changing world; “The old wine-skins cannot hold the new wine, and so it is often spilled and lost.” The recent study from Cardus Education Survey “finds that Catholic schools are providing higher quality intellectual development, at the expense of developing students’ faith and commitment to religious practices” when compared to Protestant Schools.  In other words, the idea that many Catholic schools are becoming elite prep schools at the expense of their Catholicity appears to hold water.

What is to be made of these disheartening findings and, perhaps more importantly, what can be done about it?

I believe that a big part of the answer is structural and deals primarily with leadership and policy.

Structural Change:

Structurally, what has happened?  In short, the people have changed and the focus has shifted.  To use the language of organizational theory – it is a matter of human resources and values. These two manifestations on the surface correspond with  tectonic shifts in the ground under the feet of Catholic schools in recent decades.

The first tremor was the precipitous decline in religious vocations, causing a nearly complete transition from religious to lay staffing, and the consequent loss of strong religious formation and a clear charism to guide the teaching force of America’s Catholic schools.  The new lay teaching force is generally less prepared to live out the schools’ Catholic mission, in terms of the degree of their religious formation and their knowledge of and comfort with articulating their faith.

The second shift has been the upward mobility of US Catholics and secularizing trends affecting the Church.  As Catholics have become more prosperous and have integrated more fully with American mainstream culture, they have tended to move away from Catholic, ethnic communities.  Well-to-do Catholics also demand more academic sophistication, college preparation, athletic dominance and extra-curricular offerings from their children’s schools.  In a competitive educational marketplace, Catholic schools are fighting on multiple fronts to stay competitive and viable.  The result, too often, is a loss of focus on the core mission and movement away from the animating values of Catholic education.  In short, Catholic schools are distracted by many things.

Mission-Driven Leadership:

What is to be done?  First Catholic school leaders need to recognize the problem and focus deliberate and sustained time, energy and resources to address it.  There is increasing concern among US Bishops over the Catholicity of our schools.  This is a good sign.  Now the concern over authentic Catholicity needs to trickle down to the schools, driven by strong diocesan and school leadership.  There is a need for effective methods of guidance and support to facilitate reflection on school culture and mission.  One such method of guidance and support can be seen in the ND ACE Academies (NDAA), a University-School Partnership network supported by the University of Notre Dame’s ACE Program.  Learn more about how NDAA facilitates a shared and purposeful articulation and implementation of a Catholic school culture.

This renewed focus on a holistic Catholic mission of the school must serve as the animating principle and a permeating reality.  It cannot be one more thing to attend to, one more program to “integrate across the curriculum.”  Christ must be the heart and soul of the school, and the Catholic character should be reflected in everything from sports to academics, from discipline policies to school environments, from the use of financial resources (and how it reflects priorities) to the role of parents as primary educators of their children in faith.

Secondly, leaders in Catholic education must address the human resource challenge.  This should happen in two ways.  The first, and by far the most important, is to recruit and select for mission.  A school’s Catholic character depends, most basically, on the faith and witness of the members of the school community, most notably the teachers and administrators.  Schools must find candidates with academic ability and teaching skill and credentials, but not at the expense of faith, character, and the potential to serve as an efficacious Gospel witness to children.  This is true for teachers in all disciplines and at all levels.  Mission must be a top criteria when hiring!  Schools that ignore this in the hiring process (and unfortunately many do), will struggle mightily to maintain a vibrant, shared Catholic identity.

Some dioceses have a policy in which the first few questions in all job interviews are about Catholic mission, and if the candidate cannot answer satisfactorily it is a deal breaker.  Such policies should be studied and adopted more widely.  Not every teacher needs to be Catholic, but every teacher must support and seek to advance the central Catholic mission of the school.  Without unity behind the mission, schools will be plagued by a diffuse culture or a culture in direct conflict with the school’s professed purpose.

The recent Cardus study cited above suggests that too often academic goals are being prioritized over mission.  It should not be an either/or – for the cultivation of the mind and human reason flow naturally from an authentic Catholic mission.  Catholic education is about faith and reason, faith and culture, the mind and the heart.  Both must be present. It is essential that teachers – at least implicitly – understand this connection between the cultivation of the mind and our human capacity for the infinite, for Truth, and for God.  Many see their teaching of subjects other than religion as an essentially secular affair, as a profession and not a ministry.  This is a major concern.  Reviewing hiring practices is a critical first step to addressing it.

The second means by which Catholic education can address the human resource concern is by a concerted effort to provide high quality religious formation to lay Catholic schoolteachers, regardless of the subjects they teach.  Such formation is simply not happening in most places and little is offered, either from dioceses or from universities, to address this need. Though some dioceses have ministry certification programs that teach basic Catholic doctrine, it is rare that all teachers are required to attend and the quality of the programs vary widely.  Catholic universities can have an important role to play, but will need to respond to the call to create new programs capable of both renewing and deepening the faith of teachers as well as enhancing their knowledge of the tradition as applied to Catholic education.  New modes of religious formation, catered to the needs and constraints of lay schoolteachers, must be developed.

If these strategies can be pursued vigorously, it will do a great deal to improve things.  However, more is needed to support Catholic school teachers and leaders in realizing their role in the new evangelization.  The steps highlighted above should be a beginning.

Stay tuned for more in this series on Catholic identity in America’s Catholic schools in the days ahead.

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Last week, the Louisiana state legislature approved one of the most expansive school choice programs in the country.  The expansion of the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program will allow low- and middle-income students in Louisiana public schools graded “C,” “D,” or “F” by the state accountability system to receive government-funded vouchers to attend private schools.  The bill (House Bill 976, co-sponsored  by Rep. Steve Carter and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley) received bi-partisan support and was passed  in the House by a vote of 60-42 and in the Senate 24-15.