In the United States this year, January 31-February 6 is designated Catholic Schools Week. It's a time to celebrate the special gift of Catholic education and its contribution to American society. But it's also a time to reflect on where Catholic education is heading, especially considering the daunting challenges it faces in the 21st century.
As this infographic shows, American Catholic schools serve almost 2 million students in over six thousands schools. with excellent student-teacher ratios, high graduation rates, and strong levels of college attendance. Catholic schools, which in their golden era served millions of first- and second-generation immigrant children, have a history of doing exceptionally well with low-income and minority students. And of particular interest to non-Catholics, Catholic schools save taxpayers about $24 billion per year since the hard-working families they serve pay school taxes but local school districts don't have to pay a dime to educate their children.
But things aren't completely rosy for Catholic schools either. While 27 new Catholic schools opened in 2014-2015 nationwide, 88 were closed; the overall decline in Catholic school enrollments in recent decades has been massive. And as Ryan N. S. Topping lays out in his excellent new book, The Case for Catholic Education: Why Parents, Teachers, and Politicians Should Reclaim the Principles of Catholic Pedagogy, in the face of a secular culture that promotes a moral relativism hostile to the philosophical foundations of Catholic education, Catholic schools are struggling to preserve their faith-based identity and adequately educate students for the unique moral challenges of the 21st century.
The reasons for the enrollment declines in Catholic schools are complex, as is the way toward a sustainable and thriving future for Catholic education. In many communities, Catholic school tuition has become so unreasonably expensive as to preclude many families from participating, a particular tragedy given the excellent history of Catholic schools in educating poor and working class families. Catholics and others concerned about education equity must vocally support a variety of school choice policies like tuition assistance tax credits and education savings accounts which would give more families access to a wider array of schooling choices, including Catholic education.
But as I've written before, besides policy Catholic schools should also revisit their pedagogy. In many communities, the academic program of the local Catholic school is nearly indistinguishable from public schools. There is nothing inherently Catholic about the one-size-fits-all factory design of traditional education, and Catholic schools should actively investigate more student-centered models that are sensitive to the wide variety of learning readiness levels children bring to their studies.
Catholic schools should not only reflect on how learning occurs, but also what is taught. Here Ryan Topping's book, The Case for Catholic Education, is a particularly good resource. Topping makes the case for a rediscovery of classical models of education as a key to revitalizing Catholic schools. The classical approach is the foundation of what we today think of as the liberal arts. It places a strong emphasis on history and literature as the key lenses through which students should enter the Great Conversation about life's purpose and how we come to know, appreciate, and model our lives according to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
The remnants of classical education are evident in almost all Catholic schools, but a great opportunity exists to breathe new life into Catholic education by placing a far greater and more intentional emphasis on curriculum - and not just the religious components of the curriculum - as a key means of deepening our children's understanding and appreciation of the faith and better preparing them to live and defend that faith in the world. In The Case for Catholic Education, Topping provides ample data showing a significant erosion in the understanding and faithfulness of Catholic youth - including those who attended Catholic schools - to Church teaching and practice.
And of course we cannot lay the burden of all these reforms solely on the shoulders of hard-working, severely-underpaid Catholic teachers and administrators. These are our schools, and the entire Catholic community and non-Catholics of good will who support their work must deepen their involvement to support a re-energized focus on curriculum, pedagogy, and policy to meet the moral and economic challenges of the 21st century.
The greatest gift of Catholic schooling is the foundational belief that education is about more than just job preparation. It's first and foremost about the journey of the soul. If Catholic schools can reorient their curriculum to place the development of faith and virtue more firmly at the center, embrace new pedagogical approaches that are more responsive to individual student needs, and help create policy structures to give all families access to Catholic schools, we can expect many more happy celebrations of Catholic Schools Week in the century ahead.
- Saving Catholic Education: Policy and Pedagogy
- Classical Education, Montessori, and the Tension Between the "What" and "How" of Learning
- Does School Choice "Drain Money" From Traditional Public Schools?
- Education Savings Accounts: A Winning Strategy for Kentucky
- EdChoice Kentucky Advocates More Schooling Options for All Families