Catholic Schools and the Common Good

Bryk, Anthony S & Lee, Valerie E & Holland, Peter B & McGreevy, John T

The good news schools Even those familiar with Catholic education find the statistics startling In 1965, over 13,000 Catholic schools enrolled 5 5 million students, 12 percent of the...

...The good news schools Even those familiar with Catholic education find the statistics startling In 1965, over 13,000 Catholic schools enrolled 5 5 million students, 12 percent of the national total Fast forward a generation This fall, only 2 5 million pupils entered the doors of fewer than 8,500 Catholic schools, schools that will educate perhaps 5 percent of the nation's schoolage population The appearance of Catholic Schools and the Common Good in this context is not without irony The central argument of this clearly written, superbly researched effort is that the nation's public high schools need to mimic their Catholic counCATHOLIC SCHOOLS AND THE COMMON GOOD Anthony S Bryk, Valerie E Lee, and Peter B. Holland Harvard University Press, $37 50, 432 pp John T. McGreevy terparts Catholic high schools, according to the authors, "manage simultaneously to achieve relatively high levels of student learning, distribute this learning more equitably with regard to race and class than in the public sector, and sustain high levels of teacher commitment and student engagement " The book can be viewed as a capstone to a remarkable decade of research on Catholic schools, much of it done by nonCatholic academics working in leading education schools and sociology departments The terrain covered by this literature is a bloodied one, since as the combatants acknowledge, the research has important implications for the intertwined issues of poverty, social mobility, and in the public-policy arena, school vouchers Melding careful case studies with sophisticated analyses of student achievement data, Catholic Schools and the Common Good builds upon claims initially made by James Coleman and Andrew Greeley Perhaps most important, the authors maintain that Catholic schools are particularly effective with low-income African-American and Latino students, and that this achievement does not depend upon the ejection of particular students from the schools or a self-selected group of families already willing to pay for their children's education Instead, the authors stress the transformative effect of what might be called the culture of Catholic high schools Education is educational In the least effective public high schools, students learn to view school as an endless series of consumer choices (that is, classes) made amidst an impersonal bureaucracy By contrast, the Catholic schools examined by the authors emphasize the ability of all students to complete a college-prep curriculum and selfconsciously work at establishing a more communal environment The best Catholic schools encourage students and teachers to view academic success as a joint (and moral) endeavor, too many public schools emphasize individual achievement and teacher specialization at the expense of shared responsibility The novelty of these claims in the sweep of American educational history is worth 16 BOOKS emphasizing Until recently, researchers simply assumed that Catholic schools achieved, at best, pietistic mediocrity John Dewey, who in a 1947 fit of pique termed the Catholic church a "powerful, reactionary world organization inimical to democracy" would presumably be stunned to find parallels drawn between his own educational vision and that of the Catholic "common school" Why, then, don't school boards, principals, and the larger public seize upon these results and revamp a system failing to serve many American students9 The authors view this as their goal, and argue that lessons learned in Catholic schools are transferrable to the public sector The position is an optimistic one Technical solutions—such as smaller class sizes and greater teacher autonomy—only work in particular contexts The recent fixation on computers in the classroom, for example, has often simply meant that lesson plans done on the blackboard get transferred to terminals, with predictably disappointing results For the most part, the authors themselves make this point, emphasizing the importance of Vatican II and shared faith commitments in creating the "communal organization" necessary for educational success They also commend service requirements, liturgies, and student retreats as valuable "occasionfs] for teaching" The problem is that the authors' laudable desire for moral education tends to obscure the fact that Catholic schools emerge from a definable religious tradition Catholic teaching as defined here is remarkably uncontroversial Catholic schools are applauded for not becoming "sectarian" and Catholic schools of the 1950s and early 1960s are casually dismissed as "closed, doctrinaire, and austere " (From where, then, did the leaders of today's Catholic schools emerge9) Somber warnings are given against "Anything that even remotely smacks of 'indoctrination in the mind of the church ' The tension here is that the same Catholic teaching (or "indoctrination") producing successful educational communities and advocating social justice also refuses, for example, to allow the distribution of condoms m its elementary schools Theology matters The thousands of excellent public schools acknowledge this, and develop a sort of hidden moral curriculum, but this task is increasingly challenging in a more pluralistic society Calling for a "prophetic force" to spur discussions of moral education m the public schools is admirable, expecting that discussion not to replicate the moral diversity of our society is unwarranted An implicit recognition of this difficulty may explain the reluctant recommendation in the final chapter for some form of school vouchers For Catholics, the meaning of studies like this one is ambiguous Clearly another potent weapon now exists for hard-pressed Catholic school administrators seeking corporate or foundation support Let's hope it works Plaudits from social scientists, however, can carry the Catholic community only so far Thirty years ago, in her eloquent manifesto, Are Parochial Schools the Answer?, Mary Perkins Ryan correctly argued that the schools should exist only insofar as they properly form Catholic adults and support the educational mission of the church (And one of her 17 most persuasive pleas was for new emphasis on Catholic students in public schools) Ryan later conceded that abandoning Catholic schools for, say, renewed emphasis on the liturgy, was naive, but her instincts were shrewd It is not sufficient, although it is necessary, to manage good schools If it were, the bishops could purchase Phillips Exeter The evidence presented in Catholic Schools and the Common Good concerning the integration of religion and education is largely positive Teachers in inner-city Catholic schools (often with largely non-Catholic student bodies), for example, are clearly serving the world m ways envisioned at Vatican II Less impoverished schools struggle to engage students with Catholic thought on a wide range of matters, including a sense of justice more endunng than noblesse oblige Still, hints of future turmoil are peppered throughout the text Unlike Catholic grade schools, Catholic high schools in the postwar era established only tenuous ties to parish life As costs rise, the schools become evermore dependent on tuition payments—payments that might tempt administrators to tailor curnculums and goals to the demands of affluent, nonCathohc students and parents To the extent that "religion"—meaning liturgy, excellence in theological instruction, and commitment to social justice—moves to the periphery, so too might the specifically Catholic character of the institution, and the rationale for continued church support The parish council or religious order asked (at great sacrifice) to support a barely Catholic school might legitimately ask whether funds and personnel could better be used elsewhere But on this matter, too, Catholics Schools and the Common Good can be seen to bring good news The same Catholic practices so difficult to sustain outside particular moral traditions are, in good measure, responsible for the excellence that prompted studies of Catholic education in the first place...

Vol. 121 • April 1994 • No. 7

Developed by
Kanda Sofware
  Kanda Software, Inc.