The Future of Catholic Schools: Parents and educators respond to Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
In the September 13-20 issue of America Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York calls upon all Catholics to recommit themselves to the mission of Catholic education. "The truth is that the entire parish, the whole diocese and the universal church benefit from Catholic schools in ways that keep communities strong," Archbishop Dolan writes. "So all Catholics have a duty to support them. Reawakening a sense of common ownership of Catholic schools may be the biggest challenge the church faces in any revitalization effort ahead." In the interest of continuing the conversation, we have asked a panel of educators, scholars and parents to respond to the archbishop. Responses follow from Melanie M. Morey, Maureen T. Hallinan, John J. Convey, Robert Sullivan, Patrick J. McCloskey, Joseph M. O’Keefe, S.J., and Kristina Chew.
Formation, Formation, Formation
‘We need Catholic schools, not simply schools operated by Catholics.’
Melanie M. Morey
In challenging American Catholics to rebuild the Catholic school system, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan insists rightly that the effort be rooted in long-term financial security. Catholic schools in this country will disappear unless we can find a viable economic model that is sustainable over time. But there is another critical issue that also must be addressed if we hope to have vibrant Catholic schools in the future. It is the religious character, identity and culture that distinguishes Catholic schools and makes them so successful. To meet the challenges of our own time we need Catholic schools, not simply schools operated by Catholics. In order to be vibrantly Catholic, however, Catholic schools need educators who are prepared and willing to do three things:
1. They must be knowledgeable about the Catholic tradition.
2. They must be prepared and willing to integrate the Catholic tradition across all aspects of school life, including in academic subjects beyond religion classes.
3. They must give public witness to the integration of the faith in their own lives.
In the past, religious sisters, brothers and priests staffed Catholic schools, establishing and sustaining their robust Catholic culture. In choosing their religious vocations, these individuals assented to what the church teaches and became visible witnesses to the faith, able and anxious to share it with others. The education and religious formation they received prepared them to integrate their faith across all areas of school life.
Committed lay people are now leading the schools and teaching in them. According to Paul Galetto’s research findings, reported in Building the Foundations of Faith (1996), lay Catholic school faculty are knowledgeable about some aspects of the Catholic faith, but they are less well-informed about others. Also, while they believe some tenets of the faith, they do not accept others and there is little existing data about the extent to which they actually practice their faith.
Lay Catholic school teachers are required to participate in on-going professional development workshops and seminars. But their religious formation is largely their responsibility both personally and financially. They are being asked to do the same work as the sisters, brothers and priests who came before them, but without the equivalent support in terms of their religious preparation and formation.
Most Catholic school teachers and administrators attend secular colleges and universities where little or no attention is given to religious issues. But even those who attend Catholic colleges and universities will find little in departments and schools of education that adequately prepares them for their uniquely Catholic educational ministry. In 1999, Sr. Mary Traviss, O.P. found that only 26 of the over 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States offered specific programs for the preparation of Catholic school teachers and administrators. And she found there was very little that was religiously distinctive in most of these programs. Traviss concluded there was a real problem that needed to be addressed and she called upon bishops, superintendents and Catholic colleges and universities to cooperate in addressing this apostolic challenge.
If Catholics are going to “recover our nerve and promote our schools for the 21st century,” as Archbishop Dolan urges us to do, we must address the real issue of teacher preparation and formation. If we fail to do so, our schools—no matter their number—will be Catholic in name only.
Melanie M. Morey is coauthor of Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Renewing Parish Cultures (Sheed and Ward, 2008).
‘Catholic school students may no longer outpace their public school counterparts in terms of achievement and other outcomes.’
Maureen T. Hallinan
The severity of the Catholic school crisis described by Archbishop Dolan raises a number of questions about the contribution that contemporary Catholic schools make to the church and to society. Some answers may be found by examining the cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of a Catholic school education.
In a society characterized by an intense interest in student achievement, many Catholics feel secure in the longstanding reputation of Catholic schools as providing an outstanding education. This positive reputation has been referred to as the “Catholic school advantage.” It is based on empirical evidence that throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Catholic secondary school students attained higher standardized test scores in reading and mathematics than public high school students.
Yet these findings are dated and may no longer accurately describe the academic benefits of Catholic schools. Recently, the federal government has taken aggressive steps to improve public school achievement. Considerable financial resources have been made available to schools through President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation and President Obama’s Race to the Top competition. In response to these programs, public schools have implemented a number of educational reforms, some of which have been quite successful in raising test scores. In contrast, under-funded Catholic schools are struggling to provide a solid education for their students within strict monetary constraints and typically cannot implement many of the reforms adopted in public schools. In light of these changes, it is important to determine whether Catholic school students still outpace public school students in terms of achievement and other student outcomes.
An analysis of nationally representative, longitudinal surveys allows for an evaluation of contemporary schools. A few studies indicate that at least at the high school level, students in today’s Catholic high schools, on average, still outpace those in public high schools. More research is needed to determine whether this is a stable pattern and whether it extends to earlier grades. A recent analysis of seventh and eighth grade students in middle or elementary schools in a large urban environment failed to find a Catholic school achievement advantage in reading and mathematics for the average student; but it did show evidence of a benefit for disadvantaged and minority students in these grades. Another study reports that children who attended kindergarten and early elementary grades at Catholic schools received slightly higher, though barely statistically significant, test scores than those in public schools. These findings provide evidence that while Catholic schools may not provide a strong academic advantage for K-8 students, it does benefit certain subsets of students, namely, those in most need of academic support to succeed in school.
Catholic schools are also highly valued for their emphasis on social and emotional development. Research by Anthony Bryk and others shows that by establishing strict order and discipline, Catholic schools facilitate student learning while reducing instances of bullying and other violent behavior. The unique communal organization of Catholic schools also provides an advantage: families and other community members share with school personnel the task of teaching children humane values, civic and community involvement and service to the poor.
So for both academic and developmental reasons many parents still choose to send their children to Catholic schools. But the benefits of Catholic education may not outweigh the financial burden of maintaining these schools. In the final analysis, however, one compelling reason should override all others in considering whether to sustain the Catholic school system: a Catholic education provides strong training in our common faith tradition. It gives children a vision of the meaning of life and how it should be lived as a Christian. The question parents of school-age children must ask themselves, then, is how much value they attach to this religious training. This is the same question that all Catholics must answer in responding to Archbishop Dolan’s plea to preserve the American Catholic school system.
Maureen T. Hallinan is the White Chair in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow in the Institute for Educational Initiative at the University of Notre Dame. She is the former director of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity.
‘The loss in the number of Catholic students is more dramatic than Archbishop Dolan indicates.’
John J. Convey
Archbishop Timothy Dolan lays out a strong case for the importance of Catholic schools. He is correct in asserting that Catholic schools are necessary for the overall health of the church in the United States and that the church cannot afford to lose many more of them.
The number of Catholic schools has declined dramatically since the mid-1960s and unfortunately the decline has accelerated in the past decade. The loss in the number of Catholic students is more dramatic, however, than Archbishop Dolan indicates. In the mid-1960s practically all students in Catholic schools were Catholic. While the total population of Catholic schools is about 2.2 million (2008-2009), Catholics number only 1.6 million in grades 1-12, a decline of more than two-thirds since the high point 45 years ago and this despite a larger and wealthier Catholic population.
The reasons for the decline are as Archbishop Dolan states: demographic shifts, increased costs, and a shift in the thinking of some American Catholics about the importance of the schools. But the archbishop overlooks another factor: the lack of strong leadership in the church to build a sufficient number of Catholic schools in areas where the Catholic population has moved in droves. And while some American Catholics have abdicated their responsibility to support Catholic schools, many have not. The surveys my colleagues and I have conducted at The Catholic University of America as part of diocesan planning studies have indicated strong sentiments among older Catholics to support Catholic schools, especially among those who have grown children who attended Catholic schools or who have attended Catholic schools themselves. Often they have not been formally asked to support the schools. We need to change that.
The growing Latino population, almost all of which is Catholic and currently underrepresented in our Catholic schools, is also of concern to the church and its future. Approximately 275,000 Hispanic students attend Catholic schools, about 12 percent of all students in Catholic schools. But according to the 2009 report of the Notre Dame Task Force on the Participation of Latino Families in Catholic Schools, this represents only about 3 percent of the number of Hispanic students of school age. The church must make a greater effort to provide meaningful experiences for Hispanic Catholics to help acculturate them into the American church and enroll their children in Catholic schools.
The success or failure of Catholic schools depends on the initiative and foresight of the Catholic population and its leadership. Every Catholic school must have a strong academic program, an equally rigorous program of religious instruction and a culture that has a clear Catholic identity. The future of Catholic schools depends upon the willingness of Catholic parents to spend more of their discretionary income on tuition, the support of all parishes for Catholic schools, and the implementation of strong programs of stewardship that will help all parish ministries, including Catholic schools. Let’s heed the call of Archbishop Dolan, regain our nerve and renew our confidence in the jewel that is the Catholic school.
John J. Convey is the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education at the Catholic University of America.
‘We need not think that our church will exist only if we push children through religious schools.’
As a parent, a catechist and a one-time young person who went to public school, let me offer this response to Archbishop Dolan’s rallying cry for Catholic schools. What if, in short, Catholic schools moved into the future by being more catholic than Catholic? Given the troubled state of U.S. public schools—not just in low-income and immigrant neighborhoods but everywhere—Catholic schools might specialize in emphasizing the things that many public and even private schools have lost sight of in their pursuit of higher (but meaningless) test scores and the all-or-nothing race to college. What if Catholic schools focused on the writing and reading and the study of, say, Latin, a tool for exploring the roots of language, not to mention Western thought? They might teach math as a vocational tool, or science in conjunction with local universities, looking to grow area jobs.
What if, moreover, these schools deemphasized religious education? In so doing, the school itself—educating young people to be thinking, interested citizens, conversant in the arts and history, in addition to perhaps theology and philosophy—would be an act of social justice, and, as well, a continuation of the American church’s historic role as host to immigrant communities, especially in cities, but also in suburbs where immigrant populations have increased greatly over the past decade. There is historical precedent: in Reformation Spain, Jesuit schools exempted Protestant students from religious studies. Rather than act as evangelizing mechanism, schools might operate more on the model of Catholic hospitals, or even Catholic colleges, which accept and encourage the presence of a variety of religious beliefs, not to mention non-believers.
Yes, I recognize that some studies have shown that Catholic schools can be an effective means of passing on the faith. But I remain skeptical of the idea that young people who attend Catholic schools are more likely to attend Mass later on. In my own experience, the most important indicator as to whether or not the young person will or will not attend Mass is unmeasurable and mysterious and has mostly to do with the parent. (If you could plot it would have the parent’s own relationship with his faith on one axis and his or her relationship with their children on the other.) And parents could use an institutional church that stops trying to be the church of the 1950s, all the Catholic kids in the neighborhood schooled by the parish. Just because the American Catholicism is in decline as an organizational operation doesn’t mean it is in decline as a place of spiritual value, at least for those who see a reason to practice. Our strength will be in our acceptance of a logistical limitedness. We need not think that our church will exist only if we push children through religious schools. If we think that, we only undermine what we believe. Rather, we need to be accepting and welcoming, and, if we are able, we could be there at the door of America, acting in a way that a Catholic young person can understand as not concerned with the continuation of power but of selflessness and the love of a vibrant civic and cultural life.
Robert Sullivan is the author of, most recently, The Thoreau You Don't Know.
"Undoubtedly there are adequate intellectual and financial resources in the Catholic community to meet current and future challenges."
Patrick J. McCloskey
Archbishop Dolan eloquently articulates the value of Catholic education and the tragic consequences of school closings. Saving Catholic schools should be our top priority, as the archbishop emphasizes in quoting his mid-19th century predecessor, John Hughes. Then as now, “the school is more necessary than the church” (italics added by the archbishop).
Catholic education reached its zenith in the mid-1960s, after which over 45 percent of schools were shuttered at the same time as the Catholic population increased by the same percentage. School closings have become a peculiar Catholic rite of spring, averaging 145 schools a year—and worse, enrolment losses have outpaced closings. Most remaining schools are barely hanging on, especially in the wake of massive job losses during the recent recession. Catholic education risks collapse, leaving behind small clusters of elite schools for affluent Catholics and a token number of schools for the disadvantaged.
The big question is how to save Catholic schools? The underlying financial issues have frustrated stakeholders for decades, causing many dioceses to sink into what Archbishop Dolan describes accurately as the “hospice mentality.”
The good news, however, is there are solutions, which I discovered on a recent tour for my book The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem. I spent 12 months at book-signing and speaking events, where I had the opportunity to talk with educators across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Numerous answers to fiscal and other challenges have been implemented successfully, albeit not widely known. American dioceses with less relative wealth than troubled urban systems, for example, provide Catholic schools with low or even no tuition.
Combining successful initiatives with best business practices and a “sense of common ownership” (as Archbishop Dolan stresses) by the entire Catholic community enables resolutions to local fiscal challenges and the development of a national framework to stabilize troubled schools and revitalize Catholic education. Proven and creative financial solutions will be the focus of my next book since all issues in Catholic education risk becoming moot points as schools close.
Undoubtedly there are adequate intellectual, managerial and financial resources in the Catholic community to meet current and future challenges. An abundance of brilliant leadership and expertise is available among top professionals, academics, CEOs, CFOs and so on in dioceses across the country. If ordinary Catholic families increased parish donations by half (from $300 to $450 a year on average, and still less than Protestants) and these funds were dedicated to education, endangered Catholic schools would not want. Affordable housing could be provided to many teachers, bolstering recruitment and retention, which are crucial to improving academic quality and strengthening mission.
Also crucial is effective leadership from the hierarchy, as Archbishop Dolan demonstrates. The fierce passion, which characterized prelates and religious orders from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, needs to be recovered where lacking throughout the Catholic community. Collectively the bishops must assert ownership for their schools and begin forging a national campaign. And if schools are more important than churches, then inculcating future generations in the faith should take precedence. A fraction of the church’s equity-in-the-ground could be leveraged (not sold) to fund the reinvigoration of Catholic education. The greater risk is not the potential loss of underutilized facilities but of the minds and souls of Catholic children.
Patrick J. McCloskey is a freelance journalist and author of The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem, University of California Press, 2009.
'Now is not the time to weather the storm; rather it is time to chart a new course.'
Joseph M. O’Keefe, S.J.
First a foremost, I am grateful to Archbishop Timothy Dolan for his timely article, and I am happy to provide some thoughts in response.
Most of the 100,000 Catholic schools worldwide enjoy government support. The prohibition of direct government support for p-12 faith-based schools in the United States warrants careful re-examination. In today’s contentious political arena, unfortunately, the school issue often gets clouded by other partisan concerns. It is important to emphasize that an equitable plan for school choice, in which people from all strata of society have the same opportunity, is the best way to support Catholic schools. Can philanthropic efforts, however well meaning, provide the sustained financial foundation required by 21st-century schools, especially those that serve the poor?
In some dioceses, mostly in the South and West, schools are opening with the expanding Catholic population. In every diocese—and, for that matter, in all schools public and private—affluent people are generally able to offer their children the type of education they desire. The most alarming figures about Catholic-school closures are in large dioceses with a significant number of the urban poor who, according to a wide range of scholars, benefit most from the Catholic school environment. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, 583 Catholic schools in these areas closed or consolidated in the past decade; the total Catholic school enrollment dropped from 940,182 to 682,474. A recent longitudinal, representative study of urban elementary schools conducted at Boston College paints an even bleaker picture: almost 40 percent of the schools surveyed in 2000 closed by 2008.
A perfect storm has caused the dramatic decline. Demographic shifts, deferred maintenance, lack of investment in capital improvements, rising teacher salaries and economic recession have taken their toll. The growing disaffiliation from the church among affluent white Catholics, often caused by issues unrelated to education, has undoubtedly led to decline in enrollment and philanthropic support. Most significantly, the climate of educational practice and policy has changed, and Catholic schools, by and large, have not acclimated. Archbishop Dolan posits that Catholic schools enjoy a high level of academic excellence, but in the current policy environment of school and district level accountability, such claims must be substantiated by sophisticated measures of academic performance. Too often, leaders of Catholic schools have neither the desire nor the infrastructure to compete successfully in the data-driven competitive marketplace of innovative charter schools and increasingly responsive public districts.
These tempestuous times call for broad and deep support throughout the Catholic community. Sadly, bishops, priests and seminarians are often uncertain about the value of Catholic schools. Some influential lay leaders, suffering from donor fatigue, recommend replacing explicitly Catholic schools with charter schools. Catholic institutions of higher education are only now stepping up to the plate. Archbishop Dolan’s article is important.
Now is not the time to weather the storm; rather it is time to chart a new course. Rooted in their mission to hand on the joy of a Catholic life to the next generation, schools must reinvent administrative structures, devise creative curricula, find new models of effective instruction, and create valid and reliable measures of success. The proud legacy of Catholic schools demands no less.
Joseph M. O’Keefe, S.J., is the dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.
"Catholic school has not been an option for Charlie due to the extent of his educational needs."
Our son, Charlie, was born over 13 years ago in St. Louis, Missouri. As we speculated about what our boy's childhood would be like---my husband Jim thinking Little League, me hopeful that I could teach Charlie a little Latin and maybe the Greek alphabet, why not?---we batted around the idea of Charlie one attending one of St. Louis's two Jesuit high schools.
That was the talk of a time gone past. Just over nine years ago, we moved back to Jim's native New Jersey, in search of the best education we could find for Charlie, who'd been diagnosed with autism in the spring of 1999. Charlie's needs--he is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, is minimally verbal, can't really read, and has a history of very difficult behaviors---have long made it necessary for him to receive special education services and only to be taught by teachers and therapists with extensive training in teaching autistic and developmentally delayed children. Catholic school has not been an option for Charlie due to the extent of his educational needs.
That's not to say Catholic schools may not be a good option for autistic children. Both Jim and I teach at institutions of Jesuit higher education in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. We have both been fortunate to have students with Asperger's Syndrome in our classrooms, and thereby to witness how an educational and faith community can provide an accepting and stimulating environment for students whose "difference" can make college life particularly challenging. The Jesuit ideal of nurturing cura personalis, of the "whole person," in ways that recognize and even celebrate a young person's diverse and unique gifts, can create a welcoming setting for students who have not found it easy to "fit in" socially and otherwise. An emphasis on social justice and giving of oneself to others--via Campus Ministry and community service and other programs--can go a long way in helping students who have struggled to connect with others truly to become engaged with the community and even to discover a sense of vocation, of what their life's work can be.
It is our hope that parents of children and young people on the autism spectrum can be encouraged to consider Catholic schools, especially at the level of higher education, as an option and, too, that the communities at such schools can continue to explore how they might be foster the best environment for such students.
Kristina Chew is an associate professor of classics at Saint Peter's College. She writes about her and her husband, Fordham University professor, Jim Fisher's life with Charlie at We Go With Him.