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"The Challenge of Catholic Schools
to be Excellent"

The following speech was delivered by Dr. Dr. Leonard DeFiore during his term as president of the National Catholic Educational Association. We gratefully thank Dr. DeFiore for his permission to us to reproduce this important speech here.

Dr. DeFiore is now on the faculty at Catholic University in the Education department where his primary concern now is preparing others to be administrators in Catholic schools and dioceses.

The Challenge of Catholic Schools to be Excellent

by Dr. Leonard DeFiore, President
National Catholic Educational Association

Fourth Annual Fall Conference of
National Forum for Catholic School Principals
San, Diego, California
November 2, 2000

Can our schools be academically excellent as well as authentically Catholic? Of course they can. As former New York Yankee manager Casey Stengel used to say, "You can look it up!" The more traditional way to phrase that question is to ask: Are faith and reason compatible? Again, we would respond, "Yes." Although they differ in methodology, both faith and reason have the same object -- a search for truth. I would submit that they are different ways of searching for the truth. Since we believe that God is truth (as well as love), I would argue that faith and reason ultimately are partners in this search. Clearly, then, the Catholic school is precisely the correct vehicle for conducting this search. We employ both rational, i.e., academic, and faith-based methods, separately and integrated when appropriate.

Since this is a conference on how to make our schools more effective especially academically, I want first to briefly review the record of the effectiveness of Catholic schools. Secondly I want to discuss some of the reasons for school effectiveness generally.

Obviously, as school leaders, we want to maximize the use of strategies which have the most promise of effectiveness and avoid those things that are not as effective. Third, I want to review the key elements in the historic debates about curriculum. Finally I want to look at insights from the field of Cognitive Psychology about two aspects of the nature of learning. Hopefully, an overview of these issues will provide a useful context for this conference. At least, Bob Kealey hopes so.

First, then, a very brief summary of the highlights of research findings about the effectiveness of Catholic schools. We can say generally and with some confidence that Catholics (and others) who attend Catholic schools derive significant advantages---academic, religious and social -- not available to Catholics who attend public schools. (Caveat: The findings I will cite about Catholic school effectiveness are to be proceeded by the phrase "on average.")

  1. Catholic school students perform significantly better academically than public school students.
  2. Catholic school attendance uniquely is a powerful agent of religious formation with significant adult outcomes. ("on average"-"saints and sinners")
  3. Students from disadvantaged and deficient families are especially successful in catholic schools.
  4. Catholic schools are especially effective academically with students who actively practice their faith.
We do not have time to explore these in any detail, but you can "take them to the bank" as the saying goes! Let me provide two brief examples, one a religious outcome, the other an academic outcome.

(a) Religious outcomes:
(Greeley) Compared to Catholics who have not attended Catholic school, those who have attended Catholic school tend as adults to
  1. Know more about religious topics
  2. more often hold Catholic attitudes and values (e.g. on abortion, marriage, and race) and
  3. exhibit more patterns of religious behavior (mass, prayer life, even financial support).
(b) Academic outcomes:
(Coleman) Students in public schools who come from either disadvantaged families or one parent families are twice as likely to dropout than other students. In Catholic schools, this difference disappears.
The Catholic school impact is substantial. However, often it is difficult to get a feel for the size of the impact. A 1999 study conducted by the Heritage Foundation provides an estimate of the magnitude of the Catholic school impact on learning. This is a study about differences in math achievement between public and Catholic school students in Washington, DC. Based on the differences in academic achievement, Heritage researchers found that the Catholic school impact is more important than either family income or family structure. Further, referring to a study in Tennessee they found that the Catholic school impact was more powerful than a change in class size from 25 to 15 students. By any definition, these are "world-class" impacts, as powerful as any you will find in school effectiveness research.

To say that our schools have an academic impact is one thing; to try to determine exactly why this impact occurs is much more difficult.

Given the findings about the impact of Catholic schools, the question arises, What causes or at least what is correlated with these findings? I am going to answer this question in two parts: the first is to ask what are the causes of student achievement generally. The second is to ask what in schools is associated with learning outcomes. (Condensed version, but still accurate.)

Let's begin! What are the causes of student achievement? By category, there are three general causes.
  1. The first is student ability, intelligence, aptitude -- call it what you will. Researchers call this personal capital. All other things being equal, those with greater cognitive abilities will do better in school. (common sense)
  2. Family background (SES: socioeconomic status) -- (Family capital), SES is a composite of several variables: parental income, education, and occupation as well as such items as learning tools in the home (books, computers, etc.) Besides providing resources and genes, parents also provide the values which impact student performance: valuing learning and schooling, work habits, delayed gratification, etc. They also provide educational support and help -- like with homework -- and re-enforce schools values. Simply by choosing a neighborhood and a school, parents help choose their children's friends, who in turn influence their children's attitude about education. (e.g., Potomac/West Catholic/inner city)
  3. What happens in school -- its organizational features and its educational practices? Some practices are more effective than others and clearly we want to do more of those that are effective. One variable that we know is not correlated with student outcomes is per pupil spending. (e.g. many inner city public schools spend two times the national public school average with much poorer results)
(I) AUTONOMY -- defined as local discretion in matters of educational policy and practice as well as personnel matters. Its opposite is bureaucracy especially with central control of these issues. Local autonomy (P.S. -- site based management) is correlated with student achievement. It is also the pre-condition for other significant factors to exist. Among these factors are:
  • Strong local leadership
  • Clear goals
  • Effective teaching
  • Sound educational practices
  • Development of a community, a team leading to social capital
When there is sufficient local autonomy, strong leadership is possible. The core components of effective academic leadership by the Principal are:

  1. Articulating a clear vision for the school
  2. A high motivation to lead, i.e., to transform that vision into goals that are shared broadly by the school community and attained
  3. A strong dedication to teaching manifested by control of the curriculum and attention to teacher performance
Of what must this VISION consist? Effective schools are characterized by the existence and the priority of clear and ambitious academic goals for all. (Of course, as Catholic schools, we want clear and ambitious religious goals in addition.)

In effect, everyone should know the answer to the question "what is important around here"?

(II) Probably, the most important component of an effective school is PERSONNEL -- the faculty. And nowhere is the need for autonomy more crucial. The Principal must be free to build a professional team based on performance and not on paper credentials. A Principal must be able to form a community of teachers whose values, talents and personalities mesh well together and who are able to promote the cooperative pursuit of the clear and ambitious goals. Effective schools are those which have teachers who operate as a true community of professionals characterized by informal cooperation, collegiality and mutual respect.


There is no one best way in education. There is no recipe to follow that ensures success. Indeed, there appear to be many educational practices that seem to be effective in different circumstances. But there are two essential characteristics that seem to be associated with effective learning outcomes.

  1. Effective schools are demanding academically; they have high expectations for all their students and they spend quality time on academic tasks both in school and for homework. I will return to this shortly.
  2. Fair and effective discipline
    • There exists an agreed upon and well-understood set of values and standards that are applied fairly
    • The adults model desirable behavior
Let me return to the issues of a demanding academic program that is offered to all -- not just some -- students. At the turn of the 20th century, there began a nearly century-long, two-pronged debate in American education. On the one side -- mostly the losing side -- were those who argued that all students should receive what we would call an academic or liberal arts education.

All should study history and literature, science and math, language and the arts. The basic idea was that an equal diffusion of knowledge would both equalize and socialize. Another way of putting it is to say that knowledge is power -- intellectually, socially and professionally.

The other side -- actually those who came to dominate -- argued that just the elite few should follow such a curriculum; the rest, the majority, should take practical studies more in tune with their future occupations.

Thus began, as Diane Ravitch describes it ...
a century-long, series of unrelenting attacks
on the academic mission of the school.

Thus began, as Diane Ravitch describes it in her new book, Left Back, a century-long, series of unrelenting attacks on the academic mission of the school. (Parenthetically, this was accompanied by a century-long, unrelenting attack on the mission of character/moral formation of the schools also. But that is a story for another time.) On the curricular front, academic content was de-emphasized under a variety of banners commonly called "progressive" and/or "scientific" education.

Among the banners in various eras were: utilitarianism and realism; social welfare; social efficiency; relevance; open education; life adjustment; socialization; self-esteem; social engineering and reform; child centered movement. All of this led to curricular differentiation -- academics for the few, practical programs for the many.

Who studied what was to be determined by the experts, the school system, "society." The opinions of classroom teachers, to say nothing of parents, were deemed not relevant. For example, after studying at Teachers College in the 1920's, the Superintendent of schools from Burlington, Iowa went home and eliminated separate subjects from the curriculum and reorganized it into 4 activity units: Language activities, Health and Happiness, Social Science/Living together; and Mathematics and Construction. The underlying premises were that the academic curriculum conflicted with the needs of children and of society. In light of all of this Ravitch advises her readers that "anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague."

There was a small minority of contemporary critics of all of this. Some still argued that what students needed was to be able to capitalize on accumulated human experience, to learn efficiently what other had learned slowly and painfully, both intellectually and morally. Among the critics was Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago who asserted: "Education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same."

Where did this debate and practice leave American education? One way to describe it is to observe that by the 1980's approximately 50% of high school graduates were going directly to college but only 9% of them were taking what we would call a minimum program of preparation: 4 years of English, 2 years of foreign language, and 3 years each of social studies, math and science. Thus, it is no wonder that in 1984 Terrel Bell, Secretary of Education under President Reagan published A Nation at Risk

In one of its most memorable passages, the report warned in tones reminiscent of Old Testament prophets that
"The intellectual foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people ... If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
Rhetoric aside, the eternal question for educators is: How do we best prepare our students for lifelong learning?

One of the false dichotomies that has developed over time
is between developing skills vs. acquiring knowledge

One of the false dichotomies that has developed over time is between developing skills vs. acquiring knowledge. Of course, we want our students to acquire useful skills such as questioning, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, interpreting, problem-solving etc. These are important skills and well-educated people possess them. One debate among educators is whether these are best taught directly or are they best acquired in the context of subject matter study. In a recent article entitled "You Can Always Look It Up ... Or Can You?" (American Educator, Spring 2000), Prof. E. D. Hirsch (UVA) addresses this question. He argues that

"There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively... In order to be able to use information that we look up -- to absorb it, to add to our knowledge -- we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research."
Looking things up turns out to have an element of Catch 22: you already have to know something about the subject to look it up effectively. (Maybe that's why the "help" menu in computer programs is rarely actually helpful to me.)

Cognitive psychologists tell us that the novice has difficulty for several reasons.First, the human mind is capable of assimilating only 3 or 4 new items before further elements evaporate from memory. (Circuit overload?) A second research finding is fascinating in that it attempts to quantify the difficulty. Apparently, in order for us to understand something that we read or hear or look up, the percentage of already-known words must be around 95%. Thus, in order to make it worthwhile to look something up, besides prior knowledge -- a context on the substance -- we already need to know 95% of the words-- the code if you will.

(Hirsch) "Thus, it appears that a critical characteristic of human learning is that it is gradual and cumulative. We extend and refine our knowledge and vocabulary slowly over time -- but only to the extent that we have opportunities to do so."
And the "code" in which knowledge and ideas are expressed is vocabulary, i.e. "words." And where do we learn and expand our knowledge of the "code", of words? From reading! Most of the unusual words that educated people know are rarely heard in conversation but picked up in reading. Thus, our common sense intuition is correct -- the ongoing process of building knowledge and vocabulary is cumulative and interactive and based on reading. (I support the use of hi tech methods to enhance teaching; however, I am also a proponent of "low tech" methods such as a library card for all students.)

Researchers find that a critical difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children is vocabulary size. For example, an advantaged 17-year-old high school graduate knows about 80,000 words. A disadvantaged peer knows a fraction of that. Given the connection between knowledge, knowledge acquisition and vocabulary, it is critical that from an early age our programs be content rich -- i.e. academically strong -- and that language skills especially reading be a major emphasis. Knowledge is encoded in words. Further, new knowledge builds on already acquired knowledge slowly. The more that one knows the more readily one can learn something new, because one has a lot more analogies and points of contact for connecting new knowledge to what one already knows. Thus, the most effective learning environment is one that guides students through manageable, incremental advances in knowledge which at the same time builds their vocabulary.

In sum, the research appears to support the validity of a content-rich curriculum, which builds knowledge, vocabulary, and a variety of learning skills simultaneously.

Catholic educators have tended
to side with Prof. Hirsch
who had urged schools to teach
not just generic skills but knowledge

Fortunately, in this debate Catholic educators have been on the side of the angels. While Catholic schools were not immune to these developments, in the main they held onto the more traditional concepts of education: academics and moral formation for all. Catholic educators have tended to side with Prof. Hirsch who had urged schools to teach not just generic skills but knowledge. He argued that knowledge is power and that access to knowledge is crucial in a democracy. Such an academic curriculum, he argued, would promote social justice by distributing knowledge to all children.

In Catholic schools, we have subscribed to that approach and more. We have relied upon time tested truths in education: an academic program for all, as well as dedicated teachers who are eclectic in their methods and are willing to use different strategies depending upon what works best for the children in front of them.

We are all God's children
and God does not make junk!

We believe that all children can benefit from and succeed in an academic curriculum. We will vary the teaching strategies and the time needed to learn when appropriate. This fits our Christian anthropology -- To state it pithily: We are all God's children and God does not make junk!

In conclusion, we know as a general rule that social organizations do not succeed unless they focus on what they do best -- their core mission. For schools, we believe that consists of academics and character formation.

We know from hard experience that schools are not effective agencies of social engineering and reform of various kinds. We know further that schools cannot compete as an entertainment medium. But the mass media, which are impersonal and superficial, can not compete with teachers who establish rapport with their students, who inspire them, who guide them and introduce them to the joy of learning -- really the joy of living.

Let me end by returning to two of the questions that I raised earlier. First, can we be academically excellent and authentically Catholic too? Second, what I termed the "eternal question in education:" How do we best prepare our student for lifelong learning? Maybe the best way I can answer those two questions in summary form is to outline what I think are the essential roles of teachers and therefore of school. Very succinctly and maybe slightly idealized, here goes:

A teacher must be an
  1. Academic instructor, both of substance and skills.
  2. Spiritual guide, open to the student's spiritual life as well as sharing one's own.
  3. Mentor, available for individual dialogue and other age-appropriate interactions.
  4. Moral gatekeeper, articulator and enforcer of behavioral standard and limits, the ultimate goal being self-discipline.
  5. Role model, an example of a well-educated, practicing Catholic adult
When we fulfill these challenging roles well, we know that we will have successful schools. Beyond that, we are promised even greater rewards. When we read in the scriptures in the 12th chapter of Daniel, we find a promise for those who fulfill the roles of teacher well, namely, "they will shine like the stars in heaven forever." No other profession may be as challenging, but surely no other profession has such a great, really Divine promise.

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