Why Catholic School Reform Isn’t Like Other School Reforms

Last week, Eliza Shapiro published an article at Capitol New York that explored the “charter-like” approach the Partnership for Inner-City Education is bringing to its Catholic schools. In many ways, that characterization is true. We are, after all, partnering with some pioneers from the charter world. And we’re implementing many of the best practices that so many of us have learned from the most successful CMOs.

At the same time, though, there is a lot that it misses. We are much more than “charter-like schools”; we’re Catholic schools. And our rich history is the foundation of what we do. Some of the differences are obvious: We can wear our faith on our sleeve and teach values unequivocally. We teach religion. We prepare students for the sacraments. We operate on shoestring budgets.

But there are other differences that have a more subtle—but perhaps more profound—impact on the work that Catholic schools have had on their students and their communities.

For starters, Catholic schools in general (and the Partnership Schools in particular) are deeply rooted in the communities they serve. We call our schools “hundred-year-old start-ups” because as much as we seek to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of charter schools, we know that we are also stewards of deep community roots that were planted long ago.

Our schools were initially founded to serve Catholic families and students who had been neglected by a traditional school system openly hostile to their faith. One hundred fifty years ago, the only way Catholics in New York City could secure an education for their children was to accept indoctrination in Protestant values as part of an overtly anti-Catholic agenda pushed by the city’s elites. Parishes responded by creating an entirely new and different system of schools that welcomed not just Catholics, but anyone who wanted an alternative to traditional public schools.

This effort often included a special outreach to African American and Latino students, as well as others who had been marginalized. From the beginning, we were a community of outsiders who drew strength from our belief that all students deserve a school that makes them feel welcomed. These parish schools have been heavily subsidized since their founding by the church community so that, as much as is possible, finances aren’t an obstacle to any family who wants a different education for their child.

These are schools born from, nurtured by, and sustained through rich interactions with the communities they serve. It’s hard to tell sometimes where the school ends and the community begins. The schools wouldn’t be the same without the communities. And the communities, as we’ve recently learned from Margaret Brinig and Nicole Garrett’s work in Lost ClassroomsLost Communities, suffer without the schools.

Something special happens in schools rooted in enduring relationships and timeless values. Far beyond what their initial test scores might predict, students in Catholic schools tend to experience strong and lasting results. They graduate from high school at greater rates, are much more likely to complete college, often enjoy more stable marriages, and are more likely to be civically engaged and give back to their communities as adults.

These are schools with a mission and a lot to offer the communities they serve, but by most standard input measures, our schools would fare badly. We are poorly resourced and spend very little per pupil. Our class sizes are big compared to traditional public schools. Our teachers are paid less than their traditional public and charter peers. And we have far less in the way of flashy technology and “innovation” than you’d come to expect from a high-quality school.

Yet if I’ve learned anything over the course of the past year, it’s this: Looking at Catholic schools only through the lens of what we have come to expect from traditional or charter school models misses much about what makes them special. Yes, they need to improve in some fundamental ways. But that improvement will come by building upon their unique strengths rather than trying to Xerox the habits and practices of high-performing competitors.

Here are two key lessons I’ve learned about how the reform approach in these hundred-year-old start-ups needs to look different:

Turnaround, not turnover

Increasingly in the traditional and charter school world, school turnarounds have become synonymous with turning over teaching staff. When operating within a large public bureaucracy, that’s one way to spur what’s necessary to drive change. When it comes to turnaround proposals, the more “serious” the plan, the more “fresh blood” will be often brought into a school.

While it may well be necessary elsewhere, that approach would have caused us to overlook the very real strengths we’ve found in our schools, starting with teams of teachers who are as committed to the mission of our schools as they are talented.

One of the things that has been most exhilarating about my first year at Partnership Schools is the amazing instructional growth and buy-in we’ve seen. Some of our greatest success stories so far have come from teachers who don’t perfectly fit with the reform narrative that has emerged elsewhere.

Take, for instance, the middle school English language arts (ELA) teacher I mentioned in my last post, whose students recorded our highest achievement on the New York ELA test last year. (Early results indicate that she knocked it out of the ballpark again this year.) She is a forty-year veteran in the archdiocese, a devout Catholic, and a loving Latina with a high school degree and a passion for literature. She wouldn’t pass the certification barriers elsewhere, but forcing her out would have been a real loss to our students and our community.

Similarly, the fifth-grade teacher whose students demonstrated the most significant growth (as measured by our curriculum-embedded and interim math assessments) is a twenty-five-year veteran. After my first observation with her, I joked that she was “teaching like a champion” two decades before Doug Lemov sat down to write his book (a fact that would surely not surprise Doug, who has long said that he merely names and describes what great teachers already do).

While the strengths of experience are often overlooked in education reform, our teachers also confound the traditional school belief in credentials. Our highest-performing sixth-grade teacher is a young mother who just wrapped up her third year teaching. The summer after she graduated from college, she walked into St. Athanasius—inexperienced and with few job prospects—and asked the principal to give her a chance, even though she had no formal experience or preparation. Marianne Kraft (a principal with more than forty years’ experience at her school) had a good feeling, gave her that shot, and has never looked back.

I share these stories not just because they’re amazing and humbling, but also because we might have mistaken some of our very real strengths for weaknesses had we not filtered other schools’ “best practices” through the unique lens of our communities, our teachers, and our students. Catholic school reformers need to look with more discriminating eyes than that.

Stewardship, not ownership

The Partnership doesn’t own these six Catholic schools; they have been owned by their communities from the beginning. Our task is one of stewardship: to help make them as relevant and successful today as they were one hundred years ago and ensure that they will be relevant still one hundred years from now.

That doesn’t mean we are any less committed to securing near-term results. But it does mean that we combine the urgency of now with a longer view of the role these “cathedrals of learning” will play in the lifespan of our students and generations to come.

The power that comes from a deeply felt spiritual mission is unlike anything I have seen in education reform. The passion our teachers feel for their schools, for their students, for their principals, and for their communities is palpable. We see this passion and commitment in countless ways. Sometimes they manifest in respectful but forceful pushback to new ideas that aren’t well explained or rolled out. In other instances, they create the buy-in we get from teachers who see our curricular and instructional changes for what they’re meant to be—ways to support them in their efforts to serve their students.

Catholic school reform must be different from the education reform we have seen elsewhere, because the strengths of our schools are different, and our challenges are unique. We will never have as much money as our charter and traditional public school peers, which means that we will always need to find creative solutions in our quest for excellence. And it’s important to remember that, as we’ve seen throughout our history, many of the constraints we’ve faced have forced choices that make our schools great.

In other words: As we bring in best practices from our charter and traditional public school peers, we should be careful not to break those things about Catholic schools that make them effective. In the end, it’s clear that schools born in communities of faith are different. By embracing that difference, we will achieve the results that our students deserve.

– Kathleen Porter-Magee

This first appeared on Common Core Watch

This post is the second in a series reflecting on the author’s first year as superintendent at the Partnership Schools, a nonprofit school management organization that (thanks to an historic agreement with the Archdiocese of New York) was granted broad authority to manage and operate six pre-K–8 urban Catholic schools. The first post is available here.

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