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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.

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)

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.

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


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

Thanks to Nick Senger at the Catholic School Chronicle for catching this nice response of Pope Benedict when asked what it means to be a teacher today.

Being an educator means having joy in one’s heart and communicating it to everyone so as to make life good and beautiful; it means providing reasons and goals for life’s journey, presenting the beauty of the person of Jesus and making people love Him, His lifestyle, His freedom. … Above all it means holding up the goal of … that ‘extra’ that comes to us from God. This requires personal knowledge of Jesus, a personal, daily and loving contact with Him in prayer, meditation on the Word of God, faithfulness to the Sacraments, the Eucharist, Confession; it means communicating the joy of being part of the Church, of having friends with whom to share, not only the difficulties but also the beauties and surprises of a life of faith.

You will be good educators if you are able to involve everyone in the good of the young. You cannot be self-sufficient but must make the vital importance of educating the young generations felt at all levels. Without the presence of the family, for example, you risk building on sand; without a collaboration with schools it is not possible to create a profound knowledge of the faith; without the involvement of the those who work in the sector of leisure and communication your patient efforts risk being unproductive and ineffective in daily life.

Alright, I’m gonna do it.  I’m gonna go and get a little philosophical on you.  I’ve been thinking about something lately that first got me interested in Catholic education.

We talk a lot about how Catholic schools offer an advantage to urban minority youth and help close the achievement gap, one of the main problems and injustices in the American education system.  We talk a lot about how they have high graduation rates and send kids to college with incredible success.  But the real Catholic school advantage is something quite deeper, I think, and bigger.  It stems from the vision of what Catholic education is all about, and I think it is something of fundamental importance to American society, and something we need more of.

The full purpose of Catholic education is not only to produce able and employable workers and college graduates, though Catholic schools are exceptionally good at this.  The full purpose of Catholic education is not only to form engaged, generous and responsible citizens that participate robustly in society and the democratic process, though Catholic schools are the best in the business at doing this as well.  Catholic schools are about doing both of these things, but they are about something bigger and I think, of more fundamental importance.

Catholic schools are able to embrace a vision of education and a vision of the human person that is broader than a merely economic and political vision.  A true education should be oriented towards the formation of the human person towards the fullness of life, towards the good, the true, and the beautiful, towards God. Education, to be full and real, must cultivate children towards the highest calling and the broadest vision of what it means to be human, towards the full realization of the good life.  If we neglect the higher purpose and the higher calling of education, it is stunted and breeds a stunted society.  It is impossible to engage in an education of this ideal kind without considering the fundamental questions of humanity.  Questions like: What is the good life?  What is the purpose of life?  How should the good and just society be ordered?  What is my responsibility within society?   Is there a God?  How can I be truly happy?  How can I be truly free?

Catholic and faith based schools are able to engage fully in these deep questions and orient themselves explicitly towards this loftier ideal of forming children as whole human beings.  It is, I suspect, perhaps even their secret sauce.  Our faith informs our morality.  Our morality informs our understanding of civic and social responsibility.  Our faith and our morality inform our vision of ourselves and others, which in turn helps determine our goals for life, both academic and professional… and tangentially, as a by-product of this secret sauce, we send kids to college and form responsible and engaged citizens.  But first and more importantly, Catholic schools form human beings and they orient children towards a more just and perfect vision of life, society and beyond.  This, in the end, is of paramount importance.  This is the real Catholic school advantage.

A CNS article discusses a new effort of the Western Catholic Educational Association to include Catholic identity standards in the accreditation process for Catholic schools.  The Association accredits Catholic schools in 26 dioceses in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Guam, encompassing about 308,000 students in 1,000 grade schools and high schools. Bishops of these dioceses developed the standards in 2008 in response to a concern that some Catholic schools might be failing to embody their Catholic mission and identity.

The new norms for accreditation include a “Catholic Identity Factor” stating that the school is Catholic and approved by the local bishop. The school also must provide authentic Catholic teaching, opportunities for community worship and participation in the sacraments, and promote evangelization and service to the community. Teachers’ own formation for catechetical and instructional competence must be ongoing.

I think this is is a great step in the right direction.  Clearly articulated standards are a helpful tool and serve to raise the bar and at least set the minimum.  They help identify core areas of focus, providing a framework within which to work.  Standards do not equate to a robust Catholic identity, and I would suspect that even some schools that “pass” the standards might have a weak-ish Catholic identity.   I say this because though it is important to provide religious education classes and regular masses, it is difficult to assess the quality of these things and their real life and vitality.  At the end of the day, Catholic identity in Catholic schools is much more about who you are than what you do.  In other words, you can check of all the standards, but it depends upon the people in the community and what is in their hearts and souls as they seek to be disciples and live the Gospel as Catholic educators.  If you have a vibrant community of Catholics serving as educators in the school, you will almost certainly have a vibrant Catholic identity.  Finding the right people to serve as teachers, staff and school leaders, and offering them an effective formation as Catholic educators, is the key.  Then creating a vibrant and Catholic school culture, which is a leadership question in large part, is the second major factor.  This, of course, is likely to include hitting all of the standards, but a lot depends on HOW you meet the standards, not just that you are meeting them.

Take Liturgy, for example.  Are the liturgies vibrant and full of life?  Do the students participate and feel a part of the liturgies?  How often do they occur, monthly or once a week?  Do the students understand what is happening during the liturgies?  Are they well prepared to participate as readers etc.?  Are the priests that celebrate the Eucharist part of the life of the school community?  Do the teachers sit with their students?  Are they engaged and providing a compelling witness?

Standards likely cannot get as deep as the types of questions mentioned above, but they can serve as indicators and basic benchmarks, and most importantly, they provide accountability.

When Catholic schools were at their zenith in the 1950s, they were staffed by 95% vowed religious men and women.  At that time, there was little question of their Catholic identity.  It was visible in the habits of the sisters that ran the schools, and informed by the years of religious formation that the priests, brothers and sisters brought with them into the classrooms.  Today Catholic schools are staffed by 97% lay men and women.  This is an unbelievable transformation and a miracle that Catholic schools have survived the incredible transition.  But as a result, Catholic identity cannot and should not be taken for granted.  Lay staff tend to lack anything that approximates the theological and spiritual formation of vowed religious.  As a result, the current lay leadership of our Catholic schools have needed to step-up in a big way.  I think this is a wonderful thing, a wonderful opportunity for lay ministry in the Church through Catholic education!  However, it is not always easy and it is something that many lay leaders and teachers need to grow into and be given support and appropriate formative experiences that can help facilitate their ministerial role as Catholic educators.  At the end of the day, careful selection of staff and formation and guidance in areas related to the Catholicity of the school and education program are some of the major solutions to the Catholic identity question.  But clear standards and accountability through accreditation is a critical and helpful step.

I would welcome your thoughts.

This past Wednesday, March 3, was the feast of St. Katharine Drexel.  Rocco Palmo offers a beautiful reflection on his blog.

It is worth recalling a great quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to Catholic Educators:

Dear friends, the history of this nation includes many examples of the Church’s commitment in this regard. The Catholic community here has in fact made education one of its highest priorities. This undertaking has not come without great sacrifice. Towering figures, like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and other founders and foundresses, with great tenacity and foresight, laid the foundations of what is today a remarkable network of parochial schools contributing to the spiritual well-being of the Church and the nation. Some, like Saint Katharine Drexel, devoted their lives to educating those whom others had neglected – in her case, African Americans and Native Americans.

I’m sorry to have missed posting something on her actual feast day, but was still getting my feet back under me after the birth of my beautiful baby girl, Ceclia, one week before.

As he did in April of ’08 in the U.S., Pope Benedict XVI praised the contribution of Catholic schools in Scotland while addressing the Scottish Bishops’ Conference.

I think its fair to say that we have a strong Catholic school advocate in Benedict XVI.

If you have not seen the text of his Address to Catholic Educators in the United States, I recommend it.  It is, among other things, the inspiration for this blog’s title.

Notably – and counter-intuitive to some – the Pope praised Catholic schools for overcoming sectarianism.

You can be proud of the contribution made by Scotland’s Catholic schools in overcoming sectarianism and building good relations between communities.  Faith schools are a powerful force for social cohesion…

Secularists are confounded by such a comment.  As far as they are concerned, Catholic schools ARE sectarian.  But the data, at least in the U.S., supports the Pope’s remarks.

  • Catholic schools tend to produce graduates who are more civically engaged, more tolerant of diverse views, and more committed to service as adults (Campbell, 2001; Greeley & Rossi, 1966; Greene, 1998; Wolf, Greene, Kleitz, & Thalhammer, 2001).
  • Graduates of Catholic high schools are more likely to vote than public school graduates (Dee, 2005).

A second point of special emphasis, the Pope urged strong religious education:

As you encourage Catholic teachers in their work, place special emphasis on the quality and depth of religious education, so as to prepare an articulate and well-informed Catholic laity, able and willing to carry out its mission  “by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God” (Christifideles Laici, 15).  A strong Catholic presence in the media, local and national politics, the judiciary, the professions and the universities can only serve to enrich Scotland’s national life, as people of faith bear witness to the truth, especially when that truth is called into question.

Some, again, see contradiction in these words.  But the point is an important one.  The formation of authentically Catholic men and women will be leaven for the world and bring a vitality to civic life born of the wisdom, hope and love of Christian tradition.  Aware of this gap between perception and meaning, the Pope offers these rather beautiful words:

The Church offers the world a positive and inspiring vision of human life…  It is rooted in God’s infinite, transforming and ennobling love for all of us, which opens our eyes to recognize and love his image in our neighbour (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 10-11 et passim).  Be sure to present this teaching in such a way that it is recognized for the message of hope that it is.  All too often the Church’s doctrine is perceived as a series of prohibitions and retrograde positions, whereas the reality, as we know, is that it is creative and life-giving, and it is directed towards the fullest possible realization of the great potential for good and for happiness that God has implanted within every one of us.

For a full-text of the speech, see here: Address by Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland