Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Education Reform? Steal From Catholic Schools

The article in The New York Times caught my eye. I focused on a pair of sentences in the third paragraph: “Ms. Ravitch and her book offer evidence of how some public-education scholars and reformers have been learning from what Catholic education is doing right. What one might call the Catholic-school model is perhaps the most unappreciated influence on the nation’s public-education debate.”

The “Ms. Ravitch” to whom reporter Samuel G. Freedman refers is Diane Ravitch, and the book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System. It seems Ravitch, a proponent of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, has made a u-turn in her thoughts about education and moved away from standardized testing as a determining factor for successful schools and teachers, and charter schools as a panacea for what ails our public institutions, and is now advocating quite a different approach to education in America.

Freedman has discovered that Ravitch has a soft spot for the quality education of Catholic schools. “When Ms. Ravitch assails the emphasis on standardized testing, particularly under the No Child Left Behind Law,” he writes, “and when she exhorts schools to use a content-rich core curriculum and emphasize character and build ties to parents and neighborhoods, she is, without overtly saying so, extolling the essential traits of Catholic education.” To put it more succinctly, Ravitch has discovered what millions of people already know: the education offered at a Catholic school by dedicated teachers is as good as gold.

He goes on to say that Catholic schools “never gave over to the obsession with standardized tests.” They also “never conceded their curriculum to progressive trends like whole language, constructivist math and relativistic history.” The result? Students graduating from Catholic institutions “were far more likely to take rigorous classes, graduate on time and attend college.”

The only downside to all of this, according to Freedman, is that Catholic schools are in trouble today. “Already reeling from a shortage of priests and members of religious orders as teachers,” he writes, “already losing enrollment because of rising tuition and falling aid from parishes, urban Catholic schools face direct competition from charters, which as public entities are free.”

I do not think it is the charters that are taking away Catholic school students. The current scandal with pedophile priests has some bearing on the situation.

And then there is the economy.

Middle class and poor families are struggling to stay solvent in this new financial paradigm. They stretch their budget to the breaking point to send their kids to Catholic school. Often, parishes must subsidize the schools and offer tuition assistance. All of this is becoming more and more difficult, putting a strain on the entire system.

To add another dimension to the Catholic versus public school debate, in a separate op-ed piece in The New York Times, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray, author of Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back To Reality, states that charter schools have failed. He also attacks other components of No Child Left Behind like reliance on standardized test scores. “Why not…finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?” In his view, “Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.”

We cannot measure the success of a child’s education with test scores. No Child went off the reservation when scores became the main indicator of good teaching in a successful school. There are so many factors that go into a child’s cognitive development, including maturity, experience, and parental influence. The parent factor is one Murray considers has having the most profound impact on a child’s education.

“What happens in the classroom can have some effect,” he continues, “but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction.” Parents in Catholic schools, even if they are not highly educated themselves, believe in a rigorous education for their children. They are willing to make great sacrifices to pay for a Catholic education.

Catholic schools are successful because the recipe is simple: a challenging curriculum composed of literature, languages, science, math, social studies, history, art, music, and of course, religion. The theme running through every aspect of this curriculum is character—morals, values, ethics, and social justice.

Catholic education works. That is the bottom line. I do not know what the future holds for public schools, and the morass of bureaucracy seems unable to find answers. Public education “experts” are bankrupt when it comes to the currency of ideas.

Catholic schools continue to offer a superior educational program rooted in a classical model of a challenging curriculum and high standards. However, change is necessary.

Catholic educators must find a source other than the Church to support its scholastic endeavors. Parishes struggle to subsidize the schools. The financial base upon which Catholic education rests must be revised, creating a secure economic future for the institutions.

Those of us educated in the Catholic system know that it works. We know the enriching experience of a demanding curriculum taught by dedicated teachers without the distractions of trends, fads, and spiraling bureaucracy. In the end, it is not about test scores, but a solid, rigorous educational program with strong support for learning at home.

Diane Ravitch is on the right path in her advocacy of some of the successful strategies of Catholic schools. Those institutions have educated generations of students. Public education has always viewed its Catholic counterpart with disdain, ridiculing the lack of credentialed teachers and the focus on religious education. It is high time they dropped the self-righteous arrogance and look at what works. The Ten Commandments clearly prohibit stealing, but America will gladly look the other way if public education wants to usurp the educational strategies that have made Catholic schools so successful. In this one case, stealing is a good thing.

2 comments:

Shelley said...

I haven't taught there, but my understanding is that another piece of the success puzzle in Catholic schools is a no-nonsense attitude toward disruptive students.

Paul L. Martin said...

Definitely, Shelley. In addition to the fact that I went to Catholic school, I wanted to teach there, or in a non-religious private school because they take a serious approach to discipline issues. Students who do not behave themselves and fail to maintain their passing grades do not last very long. Not being obligated to educate every child creates a different environment for learning. Only the people who make the grade get a seat, therefore students take things more seriously. There are discipline problems in private schools, but there is a support system for the teacher to handle the situation, and ultimately, if the student does not shape up, he or she is out.

Thanks for the comment.