Benchmarks for achievement in Catholic education

The first phase of the nationally implemented Common Core State Standards Initiative was adopted in June 2010 to provide a clear and consistent framework of what American students are expected to learn to prepare them for college and the workforce. 

The program was developed by the National Governors Association Best Practices and Council of Chief State Officers, and adopted by 46 states. While Catholic schools weren’t required to come aboard, most did. 

The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Va., went even further by creating the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools. Its purpose is to infuse a religious dimension to those state standards, a vision that NCEA president Karen Ristau calls uplifting. 

“We now have a road map leading to a revitalized Catholic educational network for this century,” she said.

Creating the program

The program was initiated by Jesuit Father Michael Garanzini, president of Loyola University Chicago, and led by Loyola’s Center for Catholic School Effectiveness, and the Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. The NCEA and nine other Catholic colleges collaborated in the development. 

The program was published in March 2012 and was the focus of a conference, the Common Core Catholic Infusion Initiative, held in June in Arlington. Also known as the Catholic School Standards Project, it sets the pace for the Catholic identity that separates Catholic schools from public schools. 

“The document presents standards and benchmarks that describe a mission-driven, program-effective, well-managed, responsibly governed school,” Ristau said. “It says exactly what a Catholic school is.”

Aiming high

There are nine defining characteristics centered on Jesus Christ, sustained by the Gospel, distinguished by excellence and committed to educating the whole child. Another 13 standards describe policy, governance and leadership, and schools can use the 70 benchmarks to self-assess their current level of implementation in the four domains: Mission and Catholic Identity, Governance and Leadership, Academic Excellence and Operational Vitality. 

With those guidelines, schools and dioceses can build on the Common Core standards with the faith, principles, values and social justice themes inherent to the mission and identity of Catholic schools. 

“Catholic-identity conversations need to go on continually,” Ristau said. “It’s not that you say, ‘Here it is, you got it, we’re done with it.’ It’s part of your life journey. It’s always a conversation. And Jesus is always going to be at the center of our mission.” 

Ristau has been in Catholic education all her life, from her own Catholic schooling to teaching and administration. Many things changed in that time, and not just the shift from mostly religious teaching the classes. 

“I think our worldview is bigger,” she said. “At one time, Catholics were more insular and kind of clung together. After Vatican II, people were experimenting with different things, like the liturgy and with textbooks, and they stopped doing some of the traditional things. We went through a period when there was little content in religion classes in the schools and parish education programs. In those years, we were very good at making banners and collages. For a while, we probably were throwing out the baby with the bath water. In the past 20 years or so, we’ve been coming back and saying, ‘Oops, maybe we shouldn’t have thrown out the Rosary and traditional practices.’” 

Gone are the days, too, when priests “told people that their kids had to go to Catholic schools or eternal damnation was around the corner,” she said. “I would not want to go back to that. People now are freely choosing Catholic schools, and because of that, their faith is deeper.”

Moving forward

So, what do teachers and administrators think are the best ways to create a Catholic and Christ-centered environment? 

In 2010, John Convey, the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., collaborated with Leonard DeFiore, the Brother Patrick Ellis Professor of Education, to find out. 

St. Leo the Great students and teachers wear Blue Ribbon shirts at Mass. (see sidebar below) Angela Mansour photo, courtesy of The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton

They surveyed more than 3,300 administrators and teachers in elementary and secondary schools about their understanding of “Catholic identity.” The vast majority of respondents viewed a school’s culture or faith community as the most important component, with stronger responses from teachers and administrators who have been on the job 20 or more years. 

Convey published the study in the September 2012 issue of Boston College’s Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice. 

On average, 92 percent favored beginning the school day with prayer, compared to 94 percent among respondents who have been Catholic educators for 20 or more years. Additionally, 63 percent (average) and 67 percent (20 plus years) thought that each class should begin with a prayer. 

Other significant responses comparing average to 20 plus years were: 91 percent and 94 percent thought that religion classes should present Catholic teachings, 89 percent and 93 percent listed periodic schoolwide liturgy, and 77 percent of both groups thought that a crucifix should be in every room.  

When asked if the vast majority of teachers should be Catholic, the average response was 39 percent yes, and 45 percent from those with 20 or more years. However, only 14 percent of personnel with the highest longevity thought that the vast majority of students should be Catholic, compared to 15 percent on average. Nationally, about 85 percent of students in Catholic schools are Catholic. 

“We look at how many are concerned about spiritual development of their students, and it’s usually close to 50 percent who have that as a very important goal to teaching their academic subjects,” Convey said. 

That’s one focus that changed since the 1980s, he added. It wasn’t that teachers didn’t believe in teaching Catholic doctrine, but that they were more interested in the social justice issues. 

“There needs to be a balance,” he said. “The social teachings of the Church are very important, and the doctrinal teachings are important in terms of Catholic education. One should not be emphasized over the other. They should go hand in glove, with one flowing from the other.”

Valuing identity

Something else sets Catholic schools apart. When Convey recently visited a school in San Antonio, all the children in a classroom wanted to give him a blessing before he left. 

“That’s not going to happen in public schools,” he said. “And we need that supportive environment. If we have only a good academic program, that’s not sufficient reason to have a Catholic school. We have to have both, and each one is important. The Catholic identity is the reason we are in business.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. 

Diocese of Biloxi, Miss.
Diocese of Trenton, N.J.