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Catholic schools observe a whole litany of holidays that secular schools pass over, or at least we celebrate them with a greatly amplified level of enthusiasm.  The religious holidays, at least, we share with other Christian schools, but there comes a week in the bleakest stretch of winter that is, as far as I know, unique to America’s Catholic schools.

Yes, friends, that’s right.  It’s Catholic Schools Week!

What that means depends largely on your community (and your feelings about it probably depend largely on just how enthusiastic the kids in your life get about it).  It probably includes pajama day, crazy sock day, sport day, twin day, and maybe an open house or a dance.  If you’re part of a really savvy school community, there may even be a press release in the mix.  In whatever way each community has deemed most fitting, Catholic schools across the country are celebrating their community, their existence, and their sheer awesomeness.  It’s a beautiful and often sugar-fueled thing.

That is the point of CSW – to celebrate all that we are, and all our children, families and parishes gain from being part of these institutions.  More recently, some Catholic schools have taken advantage of the opportunity not just to gather and rejoice, but to shout it from various rooftops: community events, media outlets, and social networking platforms, for example.  Check out the goings-on at your school – there will almost certainly be something happening.

Meanwhile, on a national level, the ACE Advocates for Catholic Schools are running a beautiful and incisive series highlighting the myriad of ways Catholic schools are vital to our Catholic community and our American society, centered around this year’s CSW theme – Catholic Schools: A+ for America.  Today’s post from Nick Senger, For Our Students, for instance, poignantly illustrates how a Catholic educational philosophy benefits and forms “whole kids” – not just their brains, which, while critically important, are far from the end of the story.  It and the other posts in the series are well worth your time.

 

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Archbishop Dolan of New York (the newly-elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) recently wrote in Catholic New York on the decision to end subsidies to thirty-one schools, effectively forcing them to close.  In his standard take-neither-prisoners-nor-guff style, he sums up the challenges facing Catholic schools and expounds on possible solutions – which, if you ask him, include closing some schools:

Simply put, if we do not close, consolidate, and merge some of them, all will eventually be at risk. To do nothing is actually to do something: accept the decline and eventual demise of our schools. That we will not do.

Amen.  Specifically, he presents “4 R’s” Catholic schools need to adopt in order to continue: realism, resignation, respect, and resolve.  It’s a straight-forward, unblinking, and unapologetic assertion of the reasoning in Pathways to Excellence.  Whatever concerns or praise there is for the plan, the man in charge intends to follow through with every bit of his integrity.

While Archbishop Dolan is assertive, I am picky.  I appreciate the archbishop’s alliterative efforts in the tradition of “Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic”, but his choice of “resigned” makes me about as uncomfortable as “’rithmatic” (though for different reasons).  I’m sure he meant something akin to realism, something like “acceptance”, and in that was referring specifically to the practical necessity of discontinuing the archdiocesan subsidy to those thirty-one schools.  In other words, it is what it is.  Still, “resigned” connotes giving up, the exact opposite of the commitment he’s trying to encourage.  In context with realism and resolve, there’s not much danger, but likewise in that context, it might have been left out.  Resolve and realism are the keys to the argument.  Just me?

Meanwhile, most attention-grabbing was this brief throwaway line:

We want to avoid the “blame game.” Yes, some blame those Catholic parents who do not send their children to our excellent schools. (If only 10% more of them did, by the way, our schools would be filled)

Pardon my stating the obvious, but considering the current national enrollment of Catholic schools, if just 10% more would fill our schools, that means a really small portion of Catholic parents are sending their kids to Catholic school now.  We know that, of course, which is why we’re seeing more efforts like the campaign Archbishop Dolan summarizes:

  • aggressive marketing;
  • intense improvement of test scores in math and science;
  • reinforcing vigorous Catholic identity;
  • recruitment, training, and retention of first-rate principals and faculty;
  • robust regional collaboration;
  • higher enrollments, especially among our Latino students;
  • development of pre-and after-care programs in our schools;
  • looking into longer school days and a more extended school year;
  • expanding availability of scholarships.

Whatever misgivings there may be about the Pathways to Excellence plan, it’s encouraging to see a leader take an unmistakable stand and force his Catholic schools out of the status quo.  What might happen if more bishops followed suit?

 

 

Very quick post.  I share this video for two reasons:

1) The animation is fun to watch, and,

2) While I won’t get into the details of his remarks and where they are and aren’t spot-on, all the issues he raises are important and things people who care about education should be thinking about.

I’d be interested to know where he got some of his information from.

(And, as I mentioned briefly in my last offering and Mike discusses more eloquently in his most recent post, Catholic schools have not only been thinking about these things for a long time, they’ve been responding to a lot of it.)

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.

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?