Catholic Education

Restoring the purposes of Catholic education

I've recently joined the team at Missio Dei, a network publication of Catholic writers dedicated to evangelization through the written word. My first two essays were on theological themes. The first was on the Christian conception of love (caritas) and the second explored the resurrection of the dead and why this is such an important Catholic teaching. But my last two essays have turned back toward my core area of expertise: education.

As a former Catholic school teacher and principal, and now as a Catholic parent, I'm keenly interested in the quality and integrity of Catholic education. In Restoring the "Catholic" in Catholic Schools I argue that while Catholic schools have seen a recent surge in enrollment, we should expect this to last. The learning in many Catholic schools is increasingly similar to their secular, government-run schools. Catholic schools need to rediscover their core reason for existence, and orient their work toward three purposes, and in the proper order. Read the whole thing here.

As a follow up, my most recent essay is geared toward Catholic parents, who should understand themselves to be the primary teachers of their children. Parents are even more responsible that teachers for seeing that  children grow up immersed in the core purposes of Catholic education and embed those principles in the everyday life of the family. I offer a 7-part roadmap for Catholic parenting.

My hope is to build on both of these essays with tools geared toward Catholic educators and parents for further discussion, reflection, prayer, and planning.

Why I support scholarship tax credits for Kentucky - and you should too

I've become convinced that if we want to unleash meaningful innovation in education and create more personalized learning environments for students, we have to give more families the chance to choose a school that best meets their child's individual needs. For far too long we've expected public schools to be all things to all students, an impossible burden for teachers, instead of empowering all families with more education options. That's why I support creating a scholarship tax credit for Kentucky which would encourage private donations to scholarship programs that enable lower income students to have access to tuition-based schools.

Two bills have been introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly that would create such a program, House Bill 134 and Senate Bill 36. On Thursday of this week the Senate Education Committee will have its first vote on SB 36 and I want to encourage every Kentuckian to contact your representative and state senator to support these two pieces of legislation. Please use this easy VoterVoice link to have an email sent immediately to your legislators urging them to support these bills. Past versions of these bills have enjoyed bipartisan support.

I've written about scholarship tax credits before (see links below), but let me briefly describe how this policy works and address some of the common concerns or objections. [Disclosure: I serve on the board of directors for EdChoice Kentucky, a non-profit coalition advocating for scholarship tax credits; Disclaimer: as always, opinions expressed here are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (where I work) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).]

The basic issue is that many low-income families would love to be able to select a tuition-based school for their children but simply lack the resources. Needs-based scholarship programs for many private schools exist, but donations to these programs are not sufficient to meet demand. In fact, based on their applications for assistance, Kentucky's two main scholarship granting organizations, the Catholic Education Foundation and School Choice Scholarships, estimate at least $21 million in unmet need each year. And that's based only on student applications; many more families might like such an opportunity but don't know that it exists.

HB 134 and SB 36 would create a tax credit for private donations to such scholarship programs (many more of which would surely emerge if the bills are passed). Ninety-five percent of the amount of the donation would be credited to the donor's tax bill at the end of the year (but a donor could not receive back more money in credits than she paid in taxes), up to a total of $25 million in donations for the first year (and increasing by 25% the next year if donations reach at least 90% of that amount).

To be eligible for a scholarship, students' family income may not exceed 200% of the eligibility level for free and reduced-price lunch, and about 50-60% of all scholarship recipients must be fully eligible for free lunch (the same percentage as the state's student population as a whole). Students in foster care will automatically be eligible, and students with special needs would also be able to use scholarship funds to cover other services like speech/language or physical therapy.

To reiterate: scholarship money comes from private donors, not taxpayers. And while the tax credit will temporarily lower overall state tax revenues, this amount will be more than made up by reduced public school expenditures for students who receive scholarships. Eighteen other states have similar scholarship programs, most of which are actually larger in scope than what is proposed for Kentucky under HB 134 and SB 36. Florida's scholarship program, which is the nation's largest, has demonstrated positive long-term educational benefits for students. Scholarship tax credits empower low-income families with the same kinds of educational options enjoyed by the affluent while saving tax payers money. This is a strong win-win strategy for Kentucky.

The following are some common questions or concerns about scholarship tax credits:

Wouldn't such a plan violate the principle of separation between church and state since many scholarship students might seek to attend a faith-based school? No. Scholarships utilize private money to assist students with tuition. Tax credit programs in other states have withstood every legal challenge brought against them. Furthermore, there are other examples of programs that actually do utilize tax dollars to help students attend education institutions of their choosing, including faith-based options, like Pell grants and federally-subsidized student loans. Most Kentuckians support these programs because they recognize they are based on the public good of helping low-income students access a variety of high-quality educational choices.

Wouldn't such a plan primarily benefit students who are already attending tuition-based schools? No. Currently only about 10% of non-public school students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. If new donations are made to scholarship programs as a result of the tax credit, the overwhelming beneficiaries will be low-income students who will switch from public to non-public schools.

Then how can this proposal not cost local public schools money if they lose students? Because they will not have the expense of educating students who switch, but will retain all local and federal education dollars not based on enrollment.  Presently the state of Kentucky saves $287 million per year because it does not spend money to educate the Commonwealth's 72,000 non-public schools students (whose parents pay state income and local property taxes to support public education), but that number has been in steady decline. Stabilizing or growing the population of non-public school students actually has a net positive effect on the state's fiscal resources and frees up additional monies to spend on students who remain in public schools. [Updated, 1/9/2018: See this collection of research studies on existing scholarship tax credits, which finds that in every state the impact has been fiscally neutral or positive for taxpayers].

Update, 1/26/2018: One of the criticisms that keeps popping up is that, even if scholarship tax credits have an overall neutral or positive impact on state revenues, there is still a cost to public schools when a student leaves (and the school losing the state SEEK money associated with that student) because fixed costs (staff, transportation, utilities, etc.] remain the same for the district unless very large numbers of students depart. There is some truth to this, but it's also true that students depart from districts all the time, just as new students are arriving all the time. Per pupil state funding does not account for the bulk of school spending in most districts, particularly the districts where students might likely switch to a non-public school, and schools are well equipped to deal with these kinds of small fluctuations in enrollment. By way of context, in other states with scholarship tax credits, history shows that approximately 1 to 1.5 percent of students statewide will take advantage of scholarships and switch to a non-public school in the first year. That's a change that is well within the normal variation in public school enrollments, which often rise and fall each year based on a wide variety of factors. It is simply not the case that if we pass scholarship tax credits, suddenly 5 students will disappear from a class of 30. Realistically, you might have 1 student leave out of 3 or 4 classes making up 100 students. So the argument that we can't allow a scholarship tax credit because it is going to cost public schools a punitive amount of money just does not hold up.

Won't high-income individuals get the most benefit from this tax credit? No. The beneficiaries of this proposal are low-income students who are likely struggling to fit in and be successful in their assigned public school and whose family could never afford an alternative. While it's true that donors to scholarship programs are likely to be higher-income individuals (they actually have the disposable income to make such donations), current tax guidelines around charitable donations are not encouraging sufficient donations to scholarship programs to meet the need.  Remember, the donor isn't making any money off this proposal; the tax savings he experiences are going directly to benefit a needy child. If we can incentivize affluent families to give more of their money to help the less-affluent, that's a good strategy. 

We use tax policy all the time in ways that let a taxpayer keep some of his or her money for personal expenditures that are nevertheless public goods, like the current federal deductions for home mortgage interest or the federal dependent child tax credit. Home ownership and helping parents afford daycare are public goods in themselves, and thus these are extraordinarily popular tax policies. Similarly, education is a public good and empowering low-income families to enjoy the same kinds of schooling options middle- and upper-income Kentuckians enjoy isn't just good policy from a fiscal and educational standpoint, it's also fair and just. Many different schooling structures and delivery methods make up the landscape that is "public" schooling; all families deserve access to that full landscape, regardless of their income level or ZIP code.

Please help promote educational access for all families by supporting HB 134/SB 36. Contact your state legislators today and urge them to support these bills by using this quick and easy VoterVoice link.

Related links:

A classical education reading list

In recent years my thinking about school-level education improvement has focused almost exclusively on pedagogy and how we can create more student-centered and instructionally responsive learning environments. But over the last year, my interests have shifted back toward curriculum as the centerpiece of education.  I've argued that we can't really teach kids how to think, if we don't give them something meaningful to think about, and the content of that something matters very much.  I've argued that wedding a rigorous curriculum with student-centered learning may represent the best of both worlds, especially in terms of revitalizing Catholic schools.  And I've become enamored with classical curriculum as the best hope for offering just such an education.

Classical education is a language-rich approach to curriculum that emphasizes history, science, art, and great literature as the foundation of learning and expects students to develop a well-trained mind adept at logic and rhetoric and capable of participating in the Great Conversation of ideas that has shaped and driven the development of Western civilization.  It represents the best of what is sometimes conceived as a "liberal arts" education, though that term has become so watered down as to be nearly meaningless, and classical education does not shy away from mathematics and hard sciences but rather provides a strong foundation for advanced studies in all disciplines.  Above all classical education understands that education should primarily be about the acquisition of virtue, and only secondarily about vocational preparation.

I want to share some of the key books and essays that have informed my understanding of classical education.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but represents where I have started my own journey.  I did not read these books in the order that follows; I discovered them more haphazardly, but have sequenced them in the order I think makes most sense for someone exploring these topics for the first time.

Start with Dorothy Sayers' 1948 essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning," which is foundational to the modern movement for classical education.  Sayers describes the Trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric that framed medieval education. According to Sayers, the early grades should focus on intensive absorption of a rich and varied, language-based curriculum.  In direct contrast to our modern trend of reserving social studies and science for the upper grades, classical education incorporates science and history from the earliest grades onward, along with the study of classical languages like Greek and Latin.  By the middle grades, students should be introduced to dialectic (logic) and start to synthesize all the content they've learned previously.  And finally the upper grades should have a focus on rhetoric, or argumentation, in which students learn to articulate their own ideas and opinions with evidence from the treasure trove of world civilization and participate fully in a virtuous life as adult and citizen.

Well trained mindNext, to get a clearer idea of what this looks like in practice, I recommend Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.  While Bauer's intended audience is homeschooling families, anyone seeking a grade-by-grade breakdown of the kinds of subjects and activities students in classical education might encounter (along with recommendations on specific book titles, text series, and other materials) will benefit.

Likewise, I recommend the St. Jerome Classical School's curriculum plan for another carefully-crafted sequence of classical materials.  St. Jerome's curriculum, like the one presented by Bauer, is explicitly Christian.  But I've been excited to learn about Great Hearts Academies, a chain of charter schools in Arizona and Texas, that offers a classical curriculum in a non-sectarian environment, suggesting that classical education isn't just for faith-based schools.

After understanding the basics of classical education, I recommend readers explore its philosophical foundations with David Hicks's 1981 book, Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, and Christopher Dawson's fantastic work, The Crisis of Western Education, published in 1961.  Dawson describes how education has been historically undermined and taken over by various secularist ideologies, and argues that without a strong system of learning founded on the concept of universal truth, the very fabric of free society is vulnerable.

Finally, if you are interested in Christian, and especially Catholic education, I recommend the late Stratford Caldecott's lovely book, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education.  Caldecott's was actually the first book I read about classical education, and the gateway to my interest in the topic.  More recent, and slightly more accessible, is Ryan N. S. Topping's The Case for Catholic Education: Why Parents, Teachers, and Politicians Should Reclaim the Principles of Catholic Pedagogy, which I reviewed here.

Lest you think all of this has limited relevance the world of Common Core-beholden P-12 public schools, I urge you to consider the work of Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  Among many other education topics, Pondiscio writes about the need for a stronger, content-based curriculum in the early grades.  In this recent blog post, he argues that in the NCLB/ESSA era schools have started emphasizing reading as a skill so heavily that vital subject material that actually builds students' academic vocabulary (and thus reading comprehension) is routinely undermined.  And the effects of this imbalance are most negative for students of poverty who don't necessarily get exposed to a rich vocabulary and cultural experiences away from school.

Pondiscio argues for a much richer and more rigorous curriculum in the early grades, especially for public schools that serve large numbers of low-income children.  The Common Core friendly Core Knowledge Foundation (where Pondiscio used to work) offers just such a curriculum, and while it isn't exactly the same thing as classical education, the parallels are clear.

And so is the case that the content of what our children learn matters a lot, perhaps now more than ever.

Related posts:

Yes, kids need to know about the American Revolution

I was at a (very fine) workshop for educators recently with a highly-regarded speaker who confidently declared that, "Kids don't really need to know about the American Revolution!" 

His point was that we no longer need to teach kids what to think, because there's a virtual compendium of all human knowledge in our smart phones.  Rather, our job is to now teach kids how to think.

The problem with this approach is that you can't teach kids how to think (especially how to think critically, globally, and wisely) without giving them something to think about.  And the content of what they think about really does matter.

I've been thinking about this issue of "what" (content) versus "how" (pedagogy), and have paid a lot more attention to the pedagogy side, for some time now.  As I wrote last summer:

...The digital natives who occupy America's classrooms now have the entire body of human knowledge at their fingertips.  What they need are thinking skills that help them process this wide world of information and use it to solve problems.   This emphasis on "21st century skills" has been accompanied by a concern for the widely varying developmental needs of children who are often ill-served in schools that have arbitrarily decided that all children sharing the same birth year should be grouped together and taught the same, fragmented curriculum at the same pace.

In response to these concerns, my interests have turned toward Montessori, Sudbury, homeschooling, personalized learning, and other methods that place a much heavier emphasis on the agency of the individual child in the learning process.

I still believe schools must move beyond their 19th-century, industrial, one-size-fits-all model of education.  Teaching must become far more personalized and sensitive to the vast differences in children's readiness levels and preferred pace of learning.  But at the same time, I've become convinced that curriculum does matter immensely if we want students to not only to be critical thinkers and successful competitors in the global economy, but also good citizens and virtuous people.  The world's factual knowledge may be in our smartphones, but that doesn't mean the collective wisdom of Western civilization can be accessed, understood, and lived out via a Google search.

John Hattie, author of the highly influential Visible Learning agrees.  At last year's annual Visible Learning conference, I wrote of Hattie's opening talk:

He [Hattie] discussed how we need to be striving for a much greater balance between acquisition of surface-level knowledge and deeper processing skills.  Schools should be criticized for over-emphasizing surface-level learning (though this is a product of what standardized tests really measure).  But likewise, today's educational innovators should be careful not to also over-emphasize "21st century thinking skills" in the absence of meaningful content knowledge. 

"If students are going to think deeply, they must have something to think deeply about," Hattie said.  He presented a framework that categorized various instructional and intervention strategies along a continuum of learning that starts with the introduction of new knowledge (surface) then proceeds to deep acquisition and consolidation of knowledge - all geared toward helping students transfer that new learning to new contexts and situations (a skill that is virtually unaddressed in most schools).

He offered examples like memorization - a skill that is highly-frowned upon today - but noted that memorization is an excellent technique for embedding new information into memory; but if the student does not move immediately into deep processing of that new information, the value is minimal.  Likewise, higher-ordered activities like problem-based learning are often ineffective when students are lacking sufficient content knowledge, but for the purpose of deep consolidation of information and transfer - it is a powerful tool.

So content matters.  And, I believe, not just any content.  I've become convinced that a classical education - one that focuses on the training of a child's mind by using the great ideas of history and literature - is essential to developing critical thinking and the kind of character and virtue necessary for navigating the politically and economically volatile 21st century.

Perhaps it won't matter if students don't know the significance of General Washington's decision to take his army across the Delaware River (though they will be ignorant about an iconic piece of American art).  But they most certainly need to understand the clash of ideas that drove the American Revolution, how those ideas fit within the broader scope of world history, and how those ideas inform the same kinds of questions that shape our political and economic landscape today.

The same speaker who said kids don't need to know about the American Revolution lamented the emergence of Donald Trump as a leading presidential candidate.  But the American Revolution led to a system of government deliberately designed to restrain the tendency of republics to lurch toward demagoguery in the face of crisis.  Trump's candidacy challenges Americans to not only think about the role of the state and its executive powers, but to make value-laden decisions about such matters. 

Certainly, our traditional approach to teaching history, with its emphasis on a factual narrative with little overarching conceptual structure, must change.  But if we want our students to think and act effectively - and virtuously - about history (which is to think and act effectively and virtuously about the world we currently occupy), what we teach them about history matters a lot.  And the same applies to what we teach them about mathematics, science, literature, art, and more.

Related posts:

Catholic Schools and the 21st Century Challenge

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.

Case for Catholic EducationBut 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.

Related posts:

Classical education, Montessori, and the tension between the "what" and "how" of learning

In recent years my philosophical thinking about education has focused far more on the how of learning than the what.  That is, I've become much less concerned about curriculum and far more concerned about pedagogy as I've been convinced that the industrial, one-size-fits-all model of American education needs to be replaced with something that is much more student-centered.

After all, my reasoning has gone, the digital natives who occupy America's classrooms now have the entire body of human knowledge at their fingertips.  What they need are thinking skills that help them process this wide world of information and use it to solve problems.   This emphasis on "21st century skills" has been accompanied by a concern for the widely varying developmental needs of children who are often ill-served in schools that have arbitrarily decided that all children sharing the same birth year should be grouped together and taught the same, fragmented curriculum at the same pace.

In response to these concerns, my interests have turned toward Montessori, Sudbury, homeschooling, personalized learning, and other methods that place a much heavier emphasis on the agency of the individual child in the learning process.

But saying a child should have a lot more control of what, when, and how she learns does not necessarily mean there is no place for curriculum.  Adults still have a critical role to play in these decisions.  As a Catholic Christian, and especially now as a parent, I believe that education serves a greater purpose than to simply prepare children for adult life.  Indeed, the well-guided journey of the human soul is the ultimate purpose of education.  And not just any learning facilitates such an essential and important process.

This is why I've become interested in the use of student-centered pedagogies in Christian education, where the possibilities of blending such methods with a rigorous, soul-supporting curriculum are quite rich.  As I wrote on this blog a few months ago, rediscovering Montessori (as one example) might be a key strategy in the revitalization of Catholic education, which has suffered setbacks in recent decades in terms of enrollments, vibrancy, and religious identity.

That blog post was spotted by a friend who connected me with Corpus Christi Classical Academy, a tiny but thriving independent Catholic school in Simpsonville, Kentucky (Shelby County).  My friend, whose wife is a teacher there, wanted me to know about Corpus Christi's aspirations to integrate classical education and Montessori in the same school.  So on a hot spring day during the busiest time of the school year for both me and my hosts, I carved out some time and drove to Simpsonville to meet with Corpus Christi principal Leslie Genuis and visit her school.

Corpus Christi has had a long-standing presence in the Shelby County community, but nearly closed last year due to declining enrollments and the retirement of its long-time principal.  Genuis took over with a mostly new school board and a vision for revitalizing the school.  During my visit, it was a pleasure to see middle school students reading and thoughtfully discussing Homer, with other classics like Wuthering Heights and As You Like It tucked in their desks. 

Genuis, whose has experience both in homeschooling and Catholic education, showed me school's curriculum, which draws heavily from materials developed by Memoria Press, an offshoot of Louisville's Highlands Latin School.  But the staff at Corpus Christi has thoughtfully modified and adjusted the selection of materials to best meet the needs of their students. 

"Classical education" is now a very hot topic in the world of non-public education.  Memoria Press defines classical education as "the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through meditation on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This is accomplished in two ways: first, through training in the liberal arts; and secondly, through a familiarity with the great books and the great thinkers of the Western tradition."  Classical education, done well, is a traditional liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the development of Christian virtues.  In this sense, it is a curriculum that is rigorous, thoughtful, and structured in such a way that a natural coherence of all subjects is maintained and emphasized.

But Genuis and the parents and staff at Corpus Christi recognize that a rigorous curriculum does not preclude alternative pedagogies.  This is why they are launching a Montessori pre-school program for the 2015-2016 school year.  Genuis is participating in online Montessori training and has already started incorporating Montessori elements at the school.  I visited the classroom and saw the familiar pink tower, tracing letters, and other distinctive hallmarks of a Montessori pre-K environment.  And while the school only plans to institute Montessori in the preschool for now, visiting the lower primary class it was evident that the Montessori philosophy is making inroads there as well.

Is there a natural tension between a structured curriculum and a student-centered learning approach?  Probably, but Genuis and her staff seem eager to explore this tension and discover what is possible.  The Montessori Method includes its own, well-developed curriculum, after all.  And there appears to be nothing in classical education that precludes the possibility of students exploring that curriculum with a high degree of choice and self-pacing.

Corpus Christi Classical Academy is not alone in its faith that Montessori and classical education go together.  This fall I look forward to visiting Bob Nardo and the Libertas School of Memphis, a new charter school that will blend Montessori and Core Knowledge, a secular curriculum that nevertheless shares many of the same features as classical education.

It will be in schools like Corpus Christi and Libertas that educators will pioneer new modes of learning that embrace the student-centered, personalized focus emerging in conventional schooling but with the wisdom and accumulated human knowledge of classical approaches to education.  I am most eager to learn from their journey.


Become a teacher? It's complicated...

The Twitterverse and blogosphere are abuzz this week over comments from teacher Nancie Atwell, who just after receiving the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, repeatedly told media outlets that young people really shouldn't consider teaching as a career option.

Atwell, a 42-year veteran who teaches at a demonstration school in Maine, expressed reservations about Common Core Standards and the "hyper-testing, hyper-accountability" culture of schools in explaining why she was unenthusiastic to encourage young teachers unless they could work in a private school.

I'll not try to catalog the range of reactions that greeted Atwell's comments.  Rather, I had to pause and consider the question for myself.  After 20 years in the education business, would I encourage a young person to become a teacher?

It's not merely an intellectual exercise for me, as a beloved nephew of mine, soon to graduate from high school, is strongly interested in elementary education.  He would be following me, his mother (my sister), and his grandmother - all of us career educators - if he becomes a teacher.  And I have to say that my advice to him is..."It's complicated."  But not really for the reasons Nancie Atwell cites.

The overemphasis on testing in our schools is a problem, for sure, as is our obsession with curriculum standards.  But these things don't have to dominate teachers' work lives.  School leaders simply choose to make these things their focus, because doing so is easier than articulating a compelling vision of instructional improvement that would meaningfully alter what happens in classrooms.

And besides, things teachers sometimes associate with testing culture - like the emphasis on common formative classroom assessment, or data analysis for the purpose of meeting students at their current level of learning - are the product of real growth in our profession. 

There was a time when teachers had full autonomy to teach as they saw fit.  It was call the 1970's (and all the decades before that).  These were not exactly halcyon days for student learning, as student achievement gaps were huge back then too and there was no general sense of concern or urgency about that fact.

Moreover, policy makers are obsessed with rigid, top-down accountability efforts because, as Mike McShane argues, we have a system in which the government operates a monopoly on educational delivery.  When most families have no other options for education than their local school district, draconian measures are often needed to ensure quality.

There are better alternatives (which McShane describes), ones that would give teachers far greater flexibility and autonomy, but these involve confronting powerful institutional forces that fight like hell to keep school structures exactly as they currently are.

And schools as they are is what prevents me from enthusiastically endorsing the teaching profession in general right now.  We've discovered so much about how children learn best, and it is almost certainly not in the rigid, teacher-directed, one-size-fits-all industrial mode that characterizes the vast majority of American schools, both public and non-public

Great teachers who want to transform learning into an experience that is far more student-directed and personalized face enormous obstacles from the very structure of schooling itself and all of the cultural traditions associated with it.

In this sense, Nancie Atwell is right: some of the most exciting things happening in education right now - and there are many reasons to be excited about education - are taking place in charter schools (see Libertas School of Memphis as one example) and private schools (like Sudbury Valley or the Cristo Rey network of Catholic schools) outside of the traditional public structures of education.  These are schools where parents and educators that have the freedom to customize the learning experiences for the needs of individual children.

Further exciting developments in personalized learning are taking place outside of the formal structure of schools altogether, including record numbers of families successfully choosing to homeschool, and various entrepreneurial start-ups in digital learning and even a la carte options that blend all three.  All of these represent terrific career opportunities for aspiring educators.

So by all means, yes: become a teacher.  It's one of those rare jobs that is true ministry, where despite all the limitations you can see your daily efforts transform the lives of others.  But understand what you are getting into.  And answer the call to teach for the students, not the institutions of schooling that don't always actually serve students well.  Consider how you might contribute to a revolution in schooling that gives students far more agency in the learning process. 

And understand that university schools of education, while doing an adequate job preparing aspiring teachers for working in schools as they are now, aren't always good at preparing you for schools as they should be, or as they will be in the future.

For this reason, consider first doing a degree in liberal arts, sciences, technology, or some other field that will allow you to learn about yourself and the world, and then pursue teacher training, either through an excellent program like the Montessori training offered by AMI or AMS and other organizations, or in a traditional teacher education program. 

But if you are going the traditional route, be willing to do the independent work to build your understanding of the history of industrial schooling and its alternatives.  The way schools are is not an accident and it's not fate either.  We can do things differently.

And for the record: I haven't given up on public schools either.  To the contrary, I endorse the "three sector" approach articulated by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).  America needs a healthy blend of great private schools, charter schools, and traditional public schools. 

In lone classrooms and in many whole schools, brave public educators are trying to make a shift toward more meaningful personalized learning.  You see evidence in the move toward standards-based grading and assessment, project-based learning, and competency-based instruction.  These are small but significant steps in the transformation American education requires, and many more innovative teachers are needed to help carry out this work.

All of which also depends on courageous, innovative, effective school leaders.  So don't just consider becoming a teacher.  If you are a teacher, or an aspiring one, also recognize the vital role you might play as a principal or in some other administrative role.  Because to make the teaching profession appealing, we also need great school leaders who can articulate this vision of student-centered learning, rise above the pettiness of testing and accountability, and lead teachers, parents, and students toward a whole new way of thinking about education.

And if that's your calling, here's how you can get started.


Saving Catholic Education: Policy and Pedagogy

There's an interesting discussion this week on the excellent website Ethika Politika about the rising cost of Catholic education.  In an essay "The Tuition Is Too Damn High," Mattias Caro covers a lot of ground, noting the decline of Catholic school enrollments, the skyrocketing rate of tuition in many Catholic schools, and the failure of Church leaders to both promote Catholic education for those who can afford it and to respond to the impossibility for families of modest means to choose Catholic education themselves.

Caro notes how Pope Francis' call for justice for the poor contrasts with this situation, and wonders if it's not time for the church to consider new pedagogical philosophies as a means of reviving Catholic education, but what he has in mind are some tried-and-true methods such as "classical" education and Montessori.

As is typical for Ethika Politika, reader comments to the essay have extended the discussion in thoughtful ways.  Several readers pointed out that the cost 0f Catholic education is directly tied to the massive decline in vocations to religious life.  It was easier to provide low-cost Catholic schools when they were mostly staffed by members of religious orders who took vows of poverty.  Now that the sisters and brothers are gone, personnel costs for maintaining a teaching staff of lay people with families are substantially higher.

Other readers pointed out that homeschooling is a viable and perhaps preferred mechanism of Catholic education, and Caro heartily concurs, noting that he and his wife are actively involved in the homeschooling movement.

For my part as a Catholic Christian, a former Catholic school educator, and a soon-t0-be Catholic school parent, I think potential strategies for addressing the problem Mattias Caro so ably lays out include "all of the above."

The Catholic Church has been an early and vocal advocate for the expansion of various public policies of school choice, including vouchers and tuition tax credits.  This position acknowledges that while schooling is a public good, there is no Gospel suggesting that government-run schools are the best or only way to effectively provide for that common good.  As Ashley Rogers Berner described in First Things a couple of years ago, many other countries have workable models of "educational pluralism" that both recognize the value of non-public education to a vibrant democracy and empower low-income families to exercise that option.

Unfortunately I think much of the Church's emphasis on school choice has remained at the level of the bishop's conferences and has not been intentionally pursued at the parish level, so many Catholic parents remain relatively uninformed about school choice and how such policies could benefit their own families and other families who long for a Catholic education but cannot afford it.

I'm hoping that will change dramatically in Kentucky next year as the Catholic Conference of Kentucky tries once again to promote a tuition assistance tax credit policy that would encourage the growth of tuition assistance programs for low-income families.  This strategy bypasses some of the more difficult political and legal hurdles of a voucher policy while expanding access to non-public schools.  But the success of such a bill will depend on educating and mobilizing parents (both Catholic and non-Catholic) at the local level.

Besides policy prescriptions, though, I agree with Caro that the Church needs to broaden its thinking about Catholic education, especially in terms of pedagogical method.  He writes:

In the longer term, the Church should ask not only how to fund her schools but whether the need for such an education might be provided by other forms...If the intellect and moral imagination is being formed by the virtuous past of human tradition, there is no tension between faith and education. Can we consider pedagogies and approaches that are not strictly “Catholic” as still being formed by the Catholic heart, mind, and imagination? The recent recovery of Montessori education as a Catholic education seems to point to the answer being yes.

I would heartily echo that "yes," as my experience of sending my own children to a Montessori pre-school has had a profound impact on my thinking about teaching and learning.

In my experience, many Catholic schools still offer an extremely traditional approach to education.  Classes are teacher-driven, involve tons of rote memorization and regurgitation of facts, and duplicate some of the worst aspects of the "industrial model" of education we see in public schools, including grading practices that don't convey much meaningful information about what students have learned and foster an unnecessary and sometimes destructive emphasis on comparison and competition among children.

There are better ways, and the Montessori Method represents one of them.  Maria Montessori was a Catholic after all, and understood her approach in light of Catholic teaching.  Her student Sofia Cavalletti went on to develop a beautiful method of religious education based on the Montessori method called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

My point is that there is nothing inherently Catholic about the Prussian style of industrial education that has dominated American (and many European) schools for the last century, and Catholic schools should investigate and embrace new pedagogical approaches that reflect what we've discovered in that time about how children learn.  This is actually happening - to a very modest and halting extent - in traditional public schools.  Catholic children deserve the same kind of learning opportunities.

Additionally, I've come to see homeschooling as a completely viable educational option for many families, one that in some cases is preferable to traditional schools, both public and Catholic.  Read my recent, two-part review of Suzie Andres' The Little Way of Homeschooling here and here.  Every family's educational needs are unique, and Catholics (and educators in general) should embrace and support a wide range of meaningful educational options.

Of course, as Mattias Caro implies, Church leaders must themselves come to courageously confront the current crisis in Catholic education.  This means bringing policy battles for school choice in front of parish congregations.  It means confronting the rigid, teacher-driven learning models of Catholic schools by introducing parents and educators to new pedagogical approaches.  And it means supporting and encouraging homeschooling Catholic families.

But above all it means placing a greater emphasis on the natural and necessary link between faith and learning and what it means to raise Catholic children in an increasingly hostile culture. 

So there's lots of work to do, from the bishop's office to the principal's office to the family kitchen table.  Let's get busy.

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