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I’ve taken a long reprieve from blogging. Since my last post my wife and I had our second baby girl (Ruthie), I’ve started a new initiative at Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) for blended learning and whole school improvement, and our outreach work in Haiti continues to be incredibly successful and growing (more on that soon).  Things have been busy.

My last post was arguing for the merits of blended learning.  But the proof is in the pudding.  Last year I worked along side of an ACE graduate in Seattle, Kelly Surapaneni, to lead ACE’s first foray into blended learning.  We worked with St. Paul School in Seattle, WA, and conceptualized the project as a whole-school strengthening effort, including things like leadership development, instructional coaching, PLCs, data driven instruction, and efforts to strengthen school culture.  We thought that these best practices, combined with the personalized attention and differentiation allowed by blended learning, could result in significant gains in student learning and help renew a struggling school.

The early results are in… and it was an impressive success.  We are now working in six Catholic schools in three cities, Seattle, the Twin Cities, and Toledo, and continuing plans to expand the model for next academic year.

See below for a summary from the ACE news release.

Seattle students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program

Students at St. Paul School in Seattle, a school that serves lower income Asian Pacific Islander and African-American students, are achieving impressive academic gains using an innovative blended learning and school improvement model developed by the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame.

As measured by the Northwest Evaluation Association Measurement of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), students achieved 147% of growth targets in math and 122% in reading during the first year of the program, similar to a school wide average of a year and a half of growth in math and a year and a quarter in reading. The average eighth grade student achieved 233% of growth targets in math—akin to two and one-third years of growth—over the past academic year.

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“The initial results are particularly promising,” Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C, the founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education, said. “St. Paul students are performing remarkably well—we are thrilled by the promise this model shows, and believe it can be a powerful tool that more schools like St. Paul can deploy to continue the Catholic school legacy of providing students with an excellent education.”

TJ D’Agostino, who directs the project at Notre Dame, said the success St. Paul students are experiencing is due to teachers more effectively meeting the needs of each child with the benefit of powerful blended learning software, and school leaders continuously strengthening teachers with targeted professional growth in high yield areas like the use of data and deepening a culture of high expectations, key areas of focus for the training and support that ACE provides.

“Blended learning can be a powerful driver for schools to provide a customized education for every child,” D’Agostino said, “though it is most impactful when paired with other best-practices, like data driven instruction, professional learning communities for teachers, and ongoing instructional coaching.  We work closely with the principal and a team of lead teachers to implement these comprehensive strategies.  The results have been transformative.”

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I’m grateful to Andrew for clarifying some definitions, raising some questions, and stirring the pot a bit.  I’d like to get to Andrew’s question around the pedagogy implicit in blended learning models, and his desire to dig into whether they liberate students through learning or shackle children to computer screens, merely drilling them with ostensibly rote learning.

But I’ll need to wait until the next post to get to this great question, because I’d first like to respond to a few particular points:

  1. Rocketship Schools: We should be careful about interpreting the quote from the PBS interview with too much liberty. Andrew suggests that “one high-profile charter school, Rocketship, for instance, does not receive such feedback from their much-discussed learning labs.”  I hear the Rocketship principal recognizing that there are challenges with gathering and optimizing this data as fully and efficiently as they would like, not that they are failing to receive it at all.  This post by Charlie Bufalino, a former Online Learning Specialist at Rocketship, addresses this point, suggesting that the problem involves integrating multiple sources of data from different online curriculum programs, and having them aligned and synchronized for efficient teacher use.  In other words, there are inefficiencies, as with any new technology, and opportunities for improvement.  But this does not mean that teachers are not getting the information at all, nor that a blended learning environment is not far more data rich than a traditional classroom environment.
  2. In defense of Batman: Despite Andrew’s deconstruction of the Batman metaphor, I will try to defend its relevance (though I need to admit I stole it from Jeff Kerscher, an ACE grad working with Seton Partners’ on their blended learning “Phaedrus Initiative” out in Seattle, and I thought it very clever!). I assume Andrew’s zeal was, in part, for the chance to evoke an image of Donald Trump driving the bat-mobile with his hair blowing in the wind.  I’m OK with the hero language in reference to teachers and the travails of education, though I can appreciate Andrew’s points.  Yes, it is Batman’s courage, character and karate skills that make him heroic, but the technology brings his game to the next level.  The makings of a hero are already there, but the technology optimizes and leverages his skills, virtue and commitment.  That’s the point.  Blended learning can take a strong teacher’s game to the next level.

Here’s an anecdote to make this point more concrete.  An exceptionally talented teacher in L.A. working with Alliance charter schools had been recognized on multiple occasions as teacher of the year for the city and had achieved heroic academic results for low-income children.  When Alliance switched to blended learning, she transitioned to the new approach to teaching.  When my friend Joe Womac talked to her about the transition, her eyes welled up with tears while saying: “If only I had blended learning earlier there are so many more children I could have reached.”  This woman is a hero.  She was before and regardless of any technology.  But why not give her a Bat-mobile and bulletproof body-armor and see what she can do with it!?  According to her own testimony, blended learning was a game changer for optimizing her skills and commitment.

Venture-Capital

I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the idea of venture philanthropy, applying the strategies of venture capitalism to charitable giving, and convinced that this can play a greater role in Catholic education. Venture philanthropy seeks promising start-ups and innovative models and helps provide funding to bring them to scale. This implies a shift in thinking, from giving as charity to giving as investment, where the expected return is transformative social impact.

I like this idea for a few reasons. First, it looks for leverage. It bets on winners with the potential to scale.  This is a smart strategy for effecting change.  Secondly, by treating giving as an investment – with an expectation for specific outcomes – it helps bring greater accountability to the social sector.  In sum, it is a more strategic use of funds that seeks the greatest possible impact or return on investment for charitable giving.  It combines charity with strategy with powerful effects.

A specific example of venture philanthropy in the education sector is the Charter School Growth Fund.

The Charter School Growth Fund is a non-profit that invests philanthropic capital in the nation’s highest performing charter school operators to dramatically expand their impact on underserved students.

So here is the big idea.  Why not a Catholic School Growth Fund?  It would do the following:

  1. Invest in and scale what’s working in Catholic education
  2. Replicate successful Catholic school models
  3. Drive and spread innovation in Catholic schools

A quick note on each point.

First, Catholic schools need to do more to invest in what’s working.  We’ve spent too much time focusing on the problems in Catholic schools and not enough time focusing on the bright spots.  A Catholic School Venture Fund would begin to change this.

Secondly, there is a need for new school models and effective turnaround models. This is already the norm for public school reform in the U.S., and Catholic schools are behind the curve.  We need a diversification of approaches to Catholic schooling in America.  The vanilla Catholic school is quickly becoming an endangered species. The explosion of new school options, from charter schools to virtual schools and everything in between, is creating an increasingly diverse educational market. This is good for parents and children, with more options and more innovation, but a threat to Catholic schools if they don’t adapt.

Though on the whole Catholic schools still provide a high quality education and a distinct advantage to under-resourced children – see here for more stats on this – there are relatively few new Catholic school models that have proven exceptionally effective at educating low-income children and even fewer avenues for bringing such models to scale.  A list of new Catholic school models might include the following:

By creating a Catholic School Growth Fund, we would open up opportunity for more new Catholic school models.  It would allow Catholic educational entrepreneurs to see an easier path for scaling good ideas. New Catholic schools must be created more rapidly in areas with favorable conditions for growth, namely, a growing Catholic population, areas with insufficient supply of Catholic schools per capita, and states or cities with robust parental choice programs.

We also need to support effective school turnaround strategies. The Archdiocese of Seattle, with support from the Fulcrum Foundation, has been experimenting with an interesting turnaround approach. This approach recognizes that an ailing Catholic school – and some have fallen on hard times (low enrollment, mediocre or struggling academics, etc.) cannot be helped with a single intervention or just pouring money on the problem.  Their model prescribes, instead, an intensive regimen. It includes the following:

  • Changing the academic program to fill a niche in the market (i.e. dual language immersion, blended learning, a STEM focus, etc.),
  • Providing intensive support and professional development to improve school quality in key areas known to drive performance,
  • Conducting a rebranding, marketing and recruitment campaign, and
  • Providing significant short-term financial support with a gradual withdrawal.

The intended outcome is shocking a sluggish Catholic school out of poor performance and setting it on the road to success in terms of academics, enrollment and financial health.  All of this is done, of course, without sacrificing or changing the core of what makes Catholic schools special: faith and character formation rooted in community.  We know that turnarounds are hard, but possible.  The alternative will be round upon round of closures, in city after city, year after year.

Finally, a Catholic School Venture Fund would serve as both a catalyst of and repository for promising strategies.  Funding shouldn’t necessarily be limited to replicating school models, it could also drive good and innovative ideas, like a particular approach to finding, training and retaining talent in Catholic schools or expanding data-driven instructional practices in Catholic schools.

I’ve heard that the idea of a Catholic School Venture Fund has been kicked around in different forums in the past couple of years, but to my knowledge there has not been much action yet.  Well, it’s time to get started.

I have been reading some great books in the past few months that are shaping the way I think about education reform and renewal. I’d like to share the hit list and offer some brief comments for each.  Some of you may have already read many, but if you haven’t read all, I’d jump on it.  They are worth your time.

Topping the list is the much acclaimed Paul Tough book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. A wonderful read in the tradition of the Malcolm Gladwell books – integrating research in a lively nonfiction narrative – Tough weaves together stories and examples that depict the importance of non-cognitive skills on student outcomes. Drawing heavily upon work in psychology, neuroscience and innovative school leadership, Tough makes a compelling case for the importance of cultivating character strengths to allow students to flourish. I found the idea of the KIPP Character Report Card to be particularly fascinating. The concept involves providing students and parents with regular feedback on students’ character strengths and areas requiring improvement, focusing on observable indicators, to facilitate student improvement.

The next at the top of my list is Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, a leader of Uncommon Schools, a charter school network on the East Coast. This book is a treasure trove and detailed guidebook for what high-performing schools do and what school leaders must do to achieve superior results. The videos, sample documents, and planning tools make the book an outstanding resource for creating professional development and enacting school change. The chapter on data-driven instruction was awesome, peaking my interest in Bambrick’s other book, Driven by Data, which goes further into this area.

Third on the list is Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse. Sal Khan is the founder of the now ubiquitous Khan Academy, an online library of 10 minute instructional YouTube videos and practice programs, especially strong in Math and Science. A thoughtful and quick read, One World Schoolhouse is a clear and thoughtful articulation of a lot of new thinking at the front lines of re-envisioning k-12 education.  Though neither the first nor only person to express these ideas, Schoolhouse is a good and fun read that captures  a lot of the thinking within this explosive area in k-12 and higher education.  With a particular focus on the role of technology in allowing mastery learning, anytime learning, self-paced learning, and adaptive instruction, Schoolhouse also explores basic assumptions around the role of homework, summer vacation, and the role of internships.  I am convinced that certain approaches to technology, particularly blended learning, will become predominant within the next 5 to 10 years. This book is a pleasant way to enter into that dialogue, and begin thinking about how education will be transformed with the emergence of new technologies. Read this book and visit The Khan Academy website, it will be worth your while.

Next on the list is a wonderful book about change management called Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. Also in the Malcolm Gladwell style, Switch offers a simple, clear and compelling formula – with numerous examples and interweaving research – on how to effect change.  The book uses memorable metaphors and stories to explain certain principles and rules of effective change management, such as “scripting the critical moves,” a less is more mentality to change that recognizes that simple and clear direction is of paramount importance, complexity is the enemy of effective change, and confusion and being overwhelmed or exhausted by change is often the source of people’s resistance.   For any leader attempting to facilitate the change process or implement a new vision, this is a must read. Catholic schools in the U.S. are woefully in need of change. Therefore, this should be on all of our reading lists.  I’ll be bringing it as a gift to some leaders in the Haitian Ministry of Education on my next trip down there.  They’ve got a massive change agenda and could use some tricks from this play-book.

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov, is next on my list.

If anyone else has recommendations, please share!

This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

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.

We’ve written about this topic before on this blog (namely here and here), but I don’t think we are talking about it nearly enough!  Everywhere I turn now, from articles I’m reading (see Harvard Business Review article below), to lectures I attend, to the national strategy emerging in Haitian education, people are talking about the transformative power of technology in schooling.

The main point of the technology enthusiasts is this: computer based instruction that uses complex software and increasingly sophisticated algorithms is becoming more and more responsive to students’ unique learning needs.  This has the power to individualize learning and dramatically increase its effectiveness.  The prediction of the ed-tech prophets: this will cause a revolution in the way education happens in this country and throughout the world.

Here is a long but worthwhile excerpt from one of the more valuable articles I have read on this topic from the Harvard Business Review called Rethinking School by Stacey Childress.

DreamBox Learning delivers math lessons for kindergarten through grade three in this way, allowing students to work alone at their own pace while providing their teacher with a dashboard of granular diagnostic information about what they’re mastering, what they’re missing, and why. Armed with this knowledge and freed from the demands of large-group instruction, a single teacher can tailor his or her efforts to the individual needs of dozens of students. Students who work with DreamBox and Reasoning Mind, a similar program for grades three through seven, are outperforming their peers on both state and independent assessment tests. And teachers report that they have more time for individualized and small-group instruction and for critical-thinking projects.

What’s more, a growing number of free resources are becoming available online, the most prominent of which are the 2,700 short video lessons produced by Khan Academy, which the MIT graduate Sal Khan began to record in 2004 in response to requests for math tutoring from his family. Three million unique users access Khan Academy every month, and teachers in 10 school districts are piloting Khan Academy content in classrooms this year, assigning the video lessons for homework and thereby freeing students to focus on deeper learning in the classroom.

Rocketship Education, which runs five charter schools serving 2,500 students in San Jose, California, takes this approach much further in comprehensive programs that blend such software with teacher-facilitated instruction in both math and reading. Its students, 90% of whom come from low-income backgrounds and start out two or three grades behind their more affluent classmates, are now outperforming those in every elementary school in the area and performing at the same level as students in affluent Palo Alto.

I think this impending change is utterly important for Catholic Education for a few reasons:

  1. Catholic schools need a game changer:  Catholic schools in the U.S. are beset with challenges.  5 decades of closures have shrunk the system by well over half and there is little sign that this trend is abating.  It is a struggle to maintain quality when Catholic schools cannot afford to pay teachers competitive salaries.  Technology can represent a game-changing variable to increase efficiency (i.e. doing more with less), increase effectiveness (improve academic quality through increasingly sophisticated programs and software), and provide just the sort of change and edge that Catholic schools need to reinvent themselves.
  2. Catholic schools are well-positioned for change:  The vast majority of teachers in U.S. public schools are represented by unions.  Unions do not like the impending technology revolution because it may threaten the number of teaching jobs.  As a result, unions will fight to keep these models out of traditional public schools as long as possible.  Charter schools and private schools are unencumbered by this challenge.  As a result, they can become early adopters and benefit from being first on the scene.
  3. Catholic schools possess a unique vision: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Catholic schools will and must have a unique response to this technological revolution – which increasingly appears to be a sure bet in the years ahead.  Catholic education has a particular and important vision for the goal and philosophy of Catholic education.  A leading critique of the role of technology in the classroom and the increasing influence of business ideas like “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” and “accountability,” is that it will dehumanize education.  The argument of some is that education is a craft and an art, it cannot be distilled into input and output measures and made into an economic formula.  People fear the loss of the human touch, of socialization, and  mentorship that is provided in schools.  This is a real concern, but one where Catholic schools have a decisive leg up.  The goals of Catholic education cannot be reduced to economics.  Because the goal of a Catholic education is to form the whole child towards completeness, and ultimately towards a spiritual end, Catholic education can never be reduced to mere economic outputs or the learning of so many factoids.  If Catholic educators can embrace this change with courage and imagination, it could actually be a huge advantage to more effectively realizing the deeper goals of a Catholic education.  With less time spent drilling math and other exercises more easily and more effectively managed with e-learning, teachers can be freed to cultivate the child’s capacity for reason and higher level thinking, can organize group work to promote a sense of community and social learning, can engage in the study of literature and the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  In other words, this innovation can and should make Catholic schools free to be more fully themselves, more fully Catholic in their cultivation of the mind and spirit according to a Catholic vision.  Technology is simply a tool.  It cannot and should not replace the Catholic educational community and our profound need for a relational existence for a meaningful life.  It cannot and should not threaten the role of parents as the primary educators of their children.  It cannot and should not displace the importance of the Sacraments, of service, of reflection and prayer.  It cannot change the fundamental orientation of Catholic education, which is the fullest development of the child towards wisdom and fullness of life, ultimately found in and through Christ.

If Catholic schools are to take advantage of this opportunity they must act quickly and decisively.  It will require major changes in the way teachers teach and schools organize themselves.  It will require adequate support structures to help schools and dioceses manage this transformation.  It will require the emergence of new models of Catholic schools created by entrepreneurial leaders, unencumbered by past forms and ways of schooling.  Ultimately, this represents a tremendous opportunity – not a threat – for Catholic schools to be more effective academically, more efficient organizationally, and more fully Catholic in their mission.  Moreover, the voice and vision of Catholic education will be uniquely important in the dialogue that lies ahead for the country, to make certain that education does not lose sight of its deepest purpose, of that which makes us human, namely, our capacity for reason, for love, and for relationship with the Divine.  As we embark upon this journey, we would be wise to remember these incisive and visionary words of the poet T.S. Eliot:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

(T.S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934)

I wanted to throw my hat in the ring in response to Matt’s most recent post, School Choice and Catholic Schools, and a post that he references from Scott Alessi from the U.S. Catholic.  Both Matt and Scott make important distinctions about why Catholics support school choice.  Scott offers this:

Undoubtedly, Catholic schools do have a lot to gain from voucher systems, but we have to remember that is not the primary reason why Catholics support them. The real issue here is one of justice, that every child deserves equal access to a quality education regardless of their social or economic status.  Our agenda isn’t about self-preservation, it is about doing what is best for everyone. That means we want to see all kids get a quality education, no matter what school they attend.

In other words, vouchers are good because they let under-privileged children get out of low-performing schools and attend higher quality schools.  It is a matter of equality of opportunity.  Undoubtedly this is true and one of the primary reasons to support school choice.

But it suggests that if we could wave a magic wand and just fix the failing urban public schools – the “drop-out factories” as they are sometimes called – then we would not need school choice.  Some would advocate for such a course of action, despite the enormous challenges to school turnaround policy and programs and their history of being expensive and ineffective.  Yet even if it were a successful strategy and we suddenly transformed drop-out factories into high quality schools, there would still be other compelling reasons for school choice.  And Matt points to an important one:

Redressing a wrong (i.e., that some parents have no say in what school their child attends) is always worthwhile and must remain the primary focus.

Matt’s comment suggests that the injustice is not only that hundreds of thousands of low-income minority children are relegated to failing schools, but that their parents are denied the right to exercise a choice in the matter.  The reality of the situation is that middle and upper income families have school choice.  They can choose to move to a different school district or pay tuition to send their children to a private school.  Because of economic constraints, low-income families do not have choice.  They are legally forced to send their children to a school that is assigned to them based upon where they live.  Now, this injustice is doubly offensive because those schools are often dangerous places that dramatically fail to educate their children.  But the very fact that parents are denied a choice is an injustice.  Parents deserve to have a voice in where their children send their kids to school.  The State is not the primary care-taker of my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and the State will not decide where she must go to school when the time comes.  My wife and I are her parents, the primary educators and caregivers of our daughter, and we will make this profoundly important decision based upon what we think is best for her.  To deny educational choice is not only to deny access to a quality education, it is to deny the dignity of parents as the caregivers of their children.  The principle of subsidiarity from Catholic social teaching is the basis from which the Church advocates for leaving this responsibility in the hands of parents, and not denying it based-upon economic background.

Yet even this fails to provide us with the full picture.  Charter schools provide real choice and options for parents.  They are an important innovation and reform to the American education system, and are one valuable source of choice and educational innovation.  However, only supporting a policy of charter schools or public school choice is not enough. To quote Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to Catholic Educators in America:

No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.

It is not just equality of educational opportunity and recognizing the dignity of parents and giving them due responsibility for their children’s education.  Fundamentally, authentic parental choice is a matter of religious liberty.  Without authentic parental choice that is open to all forms of schooling, including faith-based and private schools, there is still an injustice that Catholics must oppose.  If we opened charter schools and public school choice and turned around all of the failing urban public schools, poor children would still be denied the opportunity to have their souls nurtured through a faith-based education.  It is the noble aim of the U.S. Constitution to protect the religious liberty of the people.  For many parents, providing an education infused with faith, a moral foundation, alignment with the values taught in the home, and a sense of broader meaning in knowledge and life, is of fundamental importance and is a way of exercising religious conviction.  We must protect this free-exercise of religious conviction, for parents but fundamentally for children.  To do anything less is to deny some children the right to an education in faith.

These are the reasons that the Church and Catholics support parental choice, and why many thoughtful and civic minded Americans support it too.

I have this image in my head of high schoolers holding a spirited debate – students participating in a game of verbal ping pong, exchanging their arguments back and forth across the classroom.  Then, one student eloquently and passionately captures his side’s position, which causes a hush throughout the room.  After a few seconds of silence, someone else chimes in, “Yeah…what he said.”

I relay this image because we all, I think, experience moments when someone else beautifully captures a belief that we hold, even if we struggle to articulate it.  There are certain stories, movies, homilies, phrases, etc. that resonate with us at times we are not able to predict and for reasons that we cannot fully explain.  It is for this reason, I believe, that some people keep journals of their favorite quotes.  And (perhaps a more relevant example) it is why people will occasionally make their Facebook statuses a favorite quote or choose to link to a youtube video or an article.  Well, that is essentially my feeling on this article: Catholic Education Matters.  The author of this piece, Matt Emerson, describes his preparations for the coming school year and the importance of Catholic education in a way that truly struck a chord with me.  For that reason, I would simply offer my suggestion, particularly for those directly connected to Catholic schools, to go read the article…

Yeah…what he said.

What does it mean to be a Catholic school?  A few weeks ago the New Jersey Assembly advanced a bill that should cause pause for supporters of Catholic schools to evaluate the implications of their responses.  The bill (A2806) would allow hundreds of high-performing private and parochial schools in failing districts to convert to charter schools as long as they remove religious teachings and symbolism from curricula and facilities.  The author of this news report wrote that the bill had support from lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie, but that it was “opposed by the Catholic [C]hurch, an organization the bill stands to help.”  He concluded that the bill, if enacted, would help the Catholic Church because “[d]eclining enrollment has led the state’s parochial schools to close in record numbers over the past decade, and the bill aims to alleviate that shortage. Many families that pull students from parochial schools do so because they can no longer afford the tuition.”  His rationale is that if tuition is no longer a barrier, more students will be in these schools, which will lead to greater resources for the schools, and therefore the Catholic schools stand to benefit.  What’s the issue then?  Well, everything really…particularly that the identity of these Catholic schools would be fundamentally undermined.  I’m fearful that others – including supporters of Catholic education – would find this logic appealing.  And it is for those who already value a Catholic school education that this message is directed.  I am “preaching to the believers” in this case.

At the core of a Catholic school’s mission is educating the entire person.  If a Catholic school is effective at fulfilling its mission, students will not only undergo a transformation in their ability to think critically, write succinctly, and speak articulately, but they will also have spent time discerning their vocations (i.e., where their God-given talents meet the world’s needs) and exploring their faith in a meaningful way.  Just as we acknowledge that students’ minds should be educated, so too should their hearts.  Equipping students with the prerequisite analytical skills to effect societal change is not the only element of effective teaching.  Exposing students to the ills that plague society and moving their hearts to unceasingly yearn for justice is another crucial aspect.  Could we even ask for a better context to do so than in that of the Christian faith – one whose central figure is a man who not only dwelled among the poor and downtrodden but emphasized that we are judged by our treatment of these groups?  Advocates of Catholic schools desire students to depart, much like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, with their hearts set on fire.  The hope, then, is that they will use this fire kindling within them to go forth, do good, and set the world aflame.  How then could it possibly be in the best interest of these schools to prohibit discussion of the Holy Spirit’s presence working in their midst?  For those who really value the integral role that Catholic schools can play, increasing enrollment at the sake of sacrificing identity cannot even be considered a trade-off.  It’s an admission of defeat, conceding that Catholic schools are not worth fighting for.

Some contend that lessons in character-building can still be taught without explicitly using religion as the vehicle.  The religious symbols – the crucifixes in the classrooms, the statue of Mary in the hallway, the quotes from Scripture painted on the walls – do not confer knowledge.  Plus, the same teachers will be teaching in the same building in the same classrooms.  Surely the schools can find a way to have the same success, right?  Unfortunately, the schools’ culture would be so radically changed that the schools would no longer resemble what they once did, schools with conditions that enabled them to achieve their institutional missions.  This realization is absolutely crucial for true Catholic school advocates.  How can a “charter” Catholic school serve the same function as an actual Catholic school if the person whose life (and death…and resurrection) is the sole reason for the existence of the school cannot be discussed?  Imagine if a public school, like say Henry Harris in Bayonne, New Jersey, was entirely forbidden from mentioning Henry Harris.  That would be ludicrous.  It’s the same thing with truly Catholic schools…except that if Henry Harris didn’t live, that school would still exist just with a different name.  If Jesus didn’t live, that Catholic school would not be there.

From August 2009-May 2011, I taught at Resurrection Catholic School in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  If I were to ask students to name a few of the sources of greatest growth for them during the past school year, undoubtedly a high number would cite their class retreats as one of those causes.  For some others, weekly prayer group meetings were another source of individual and collective growth.  I know how important they were because students would regularly tell me.  And this isn’t unique to a small school along the Gulf Coast.  It was the exact same way when I was a high school student at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Catholic schools are going away; sadly, there is no disputing this fact.  Legislation that makes it easier for these schools to disappear needs to be vociferously opposed by supporters of Catholic education.  If a person holds the conviction that Catholic schools serve the common good, passive acceptance of Catholic schools’ demise is simply unacceptable.  In the end, it is a matter of whether or not people are willing to commit to sustaining a school system that provides concrete opportunities for the entire person to be educated.