"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
Fourth Annual Fall Conference of
National Forum for Catholic
San, Diego, California
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.")
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.
- Catholic school students perform significantly better
academically than public school students.
- Catholic school attendance uniquely is a powerful agent of
religious formation with significant adult outcomes. ("on
average"-"saints and sinners")
- Students from disadvantaged and deficient families are especially
successful in catholic schools.
- Catholic schools are especially effective academically with
students who actively practice their faith.
(a) Religious outcomes:
(Greeley) Compared to Catholics who have
not attended Catholic school, those who have attended Catholic school
tend as adults to
(b) Academic outcomes:
- Know more about religious topics
often hold Catholic attitudes and values (e.g. on abortion, marriage,
and race) and
- exhibit more patterns of religious behavior (mass,
prayer life, even financial support).
(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
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.
(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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
When there is sufficient local autonomy, strong leadership is
possible. The core components of effective academic leadership by the
- Strong local leadership
- Clear goals
- Sound educational practices
- Development of a
community, a team leading to social capital
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.)
- Articulating a clear vision for the school
- A high
motivation to lead, i.e., to transform that vision into goals that
are shared broadly by the school community and attained
- A strong
dedication to teaching manifested by control of the curriculum and
attention to teacher performance
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.
(III) EDUCATIONAL PRACTICES
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.
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.
- 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
- Fair and effective discipline
- There exists an agreed
upon and well-understood set of values and standards that are applied
- The adults model desirable behavior
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
A teacher must be an
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.
- Academic instructor, both of substance and skills.
- Spiritual guide, open to the student's spiritual life as well as
sharing one's own.
- Mentor, available for individual dialogue and
other age-appropriate interactions.
- Moral gatekeeper, articulator
and enforcer of behavioral standard and limits, the ultimate goal
- Role model, an example of a well-educated,
practicing Catholic adult
Return to our page on Catholic schools.