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

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

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

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

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

Structural Change:

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

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

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

Mission-Driven Leadership:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.