Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What's wrong with Catholic schools

It's not exactly news that Catholic education in America has entered a period of decline. Robbed of much of their vitality by the violent implosion in religious orders, especially those devoted to teaching the young, over the past forty years, they have struggled to stay alive--and many have closed their doors forever.

But this Time article misses much of the point of the story of the decline and fall of the American Catholic school:

Of that, there is no doubt. Nearly 1 in 5 Catholic schools in the U.S. has closed its doors this decade. To non-Catholics, this may not appear to be something worth worrying about. But parochial schools are one of the largest (if not the largest) alternatives to the American public-education system, and their steady decline inordinately affects urban low-income minorities who would otherwise be left at the mercy of public schools that have proven incapable of educating them.

Many Catholic schools, however, are following in the steps of their public brethren and trying to survive by changing the way they do business. Mandating that students work to pay off tuition, forging partnerships with philanthropists and foundations, converting to charter schools, and taking control away from pastors and putting it in the hands of lay experts — these are just some of the ways dioceses (essentially a church district) are hoping to stem the school-closure tide, which has reached worrisome proportions in America's urban areas, where close to half of all parochial schools are located.

"We have no choice," says the Rev. Timothy Scully, CSC, founder of the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, a sort of Catholic version of Teach for America, which trains college grads to work in underserved parochial schools. "We either reinvent ourselves or I don't see how we don't ultimately disappear from America's inner cities. The model upon which we were founded was so different, both from a cost and supply side."

Enrollment in Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s, when more than 5 million students attended nearly 13,500 parochial schools. Since then, both enrollment and the number of schools have dropped by more than half. Why? For starters, the number of priests, nuns and brothers able to teach for free has plummeted. In 1950, 90% of the teachers in Catholic schools came from religious orders; by 1967, the figure was 58%; today, it is 4%. This shift has meant that schools have had to raise tuition in order to pay more lay teachers. Meanwhile, increasingly middle-class Irish and Italian families started moving to the suburbs, leaving urban Catholic schools to cater to a majority of lower-income blacks and Hispanics. Less money coming into the church has led to even higher tuition, fewer students who can afford to attend the schools and the potential for even more closures.
Do you notice how the Time article shifts from talking about the Catholic school to talking about the urban Catholic school, giving the impression that the problem here is due to white flight and that it is primarily an inner-city problem?

It's not, though. According to this, in 1965 about half of the Catholic families in America sent their children to Catholic schools, while today only about 15% do. Such a staggering decrease has not only impacted urban schools; suburban and rural areas have seen closures or school consolidations as well. If "white flight" were the root cause of school enrollment decreases, we would expect that enrollment would merely have shifted away from urban Catholic schools and to suburban or rural ones. We would not expect that only 15% of Catholic families would educate their children in Catholic schools.

I think there are two main reasons for the decline and fall of American Catholic diocesan schools. The first reason, economics, is the one that gets talked about all the time. Without all those religious men and women teaching for very little pay, the costs of Catholic school tuition skyrocketed; it has become cost-prohibitive in many parts of the country to pay for Catholic education. Just for illustration, a parish school near us charges the following: $4930/year for one student, $8550/year for two students, and $11,720/year for three (I don't know what happens if a large family with more than three children in school at a time wishes to apply). The local Catholic high school charges more than $10,000 per year per student in tuition and fees.

Very few families with one full-time, stay-at-home parent can afford such costs as these. But when I was in Catholic schools in the 1970s and 1980s, fewer and fewer of my peers had a stay-at-home mom. By the time I was in seventh or eighth grade, a classroom discussion of "what our parents did" revealed that there were only four or five of us left whose mothers didn't work full-time outside the home, placing the children in day care after school (or all day, for younger siblings). The only way Catholic education has been affordable for many for the last thirty years or so has been for two working parents to pay for it.

If educations at diocesan Catholic schools were producing many saints, the costs to the family of having two working parents, as well as the costs in general, might be worth paying. But that leads to the other reason why Catholic education is failing: it is failing because it is faithless.

Sure, Catholic schools still teach religion class (some of them, only a few times a week). But aside from religion class and the occasional school Mass, there is little evidence of Catholicity in many Catholic schools. From my own experience, I recall a "Catholic" teacher in a class misnamed "Health" class, teaching all of us girls--it was an all-girls' school--all about the methods of birth control. When a classmate and I objected, she sneeringly dismissed NFP as "the rhythm method," and implied that people using this method abstained twenty-five days out of thirty; if we had further objections, we could take them up with our religion teacher, as her job was to teach us "health." And that was more than two decades ago.

I could tell many more, similar, stories; readers may have their own to share, as well. But the distinct impression I get these days is that students at Catholic schools end up being, or reverting to, Catholicism in spite of their educations, not because of them. Instead of being challenged to be heroic in the defense of life, for instance, students are told to keep their religious views out of biology class (we wouldn't want to offend the non-Catholic students, don't you know). Instead of being taught the beauty of God's plan for marriage, the students are surreptitiously taught the culture's undermining of that plan, with the blessing of their teachers, many of whom are Catholic dissenters from Humanae Vitae themselves. Instead of being given the fullness of Catholic teaching, the students are taught a sort of bland equivalence so as not to rock the boat of inclusiveness and accommodation. They're not only not being given a faith worth dying for--they aren't even being taught a faith worth living for.

The crisis in Catholic education won't be solved by new boards and groups and committees. It won't be solved by layers of bureaucracy and lay oversight. It won't be solved by initiatives or fund-raisers or cultivating potential benefactors.

It will be solved if, and only if, Catholic education decides to go back to being Catholic.

And until then, we Catholic homeschoolers and other Catholic parents who care about Catholicism will do the best we can to carry the torch and keep the flame of faith alive for the next generations.

UPDATE: Think I'm being too hard on Catholic schools? Larry D has a timely post illustrating that, if anything, I'm not being hard enough on them.


Lisa Sweet said...

You are spot on! I feel, as a Catholic, homeschooling family, that we are on the "front lines" of this culture war. Honestly, I am bone-weary of pseudo-Catholic leaders who waffle on the big issues and cater to the wealthy and politically correct while we on the front lines are carrying out the difficult work of living the TRUE faith.

"And until then, we Catholic homeschoolers and other Catholic parents who care about Catholicism will do the best we can to carry the torch and keep the flame of faith alive for the next generations. "

My sentiments, exactly! Well done.

Todd said...

"It will be solved if, and only if, Catholic education decides to go back to being Catholic."

It's a nice motto, but I don't think it has anything to do with the reality.

Catholic schools used to be part of a culture that was rooted in the parish, and in immigrant urban communities.

Blaming catechesis doesn't work when most parents want their kids to get the full education that will allow them to go to college, get a good job, and join the American mainstream.

I don't know that the sunset of parish schools is a bad thing. It may well be an opportunity for Catholic educators to focus on religion, faith, liturgy, the arts, and cut themselves loose from computers, classrooms, and athletic fields.

freddy said...

... and it's not just the faith that isn't being taught, it's the faith that isn't being lived, either. When parents are being run ragged trying to afford their kids' education, when they're not available to rear their children, when they choose to use birth control out of desperation to afford the fees they see mounting up, so that their kids can have a "better life," when the sisters and brothers that used to teach morphed into being just like everyone else -- in dress, language, and goals, Catholic education has lost its reason... and its soul.

c matt said...

Blaming catechesis doesn't work when most parents want their kids to get the full education that will allow them to go to college, get a good job, and join the American mainstream.

To a large extent, this is true. It really depends upon what you mean by "failing." If you mean that Catholic schools do not create very many courageous orthodox Catholics, you are 100% correct. If you mean that the schools aren't providing a quality secular education, then that is simply wrong. There is a huge demand for the better secular Catholic schools (odd description, isn't it?) with waiting lists, exhorbitant tuition, and still people getting turned away.

So, yes, in their Catholic mission they are miserable failures; in their secular mission, they are astounding successes.

LarryD said...

Thanks for the link, Red!

Great post, btw.

Jared Dees said...

Yes, I think you are being too hard on Catholic schools. To respond to your two arguments:

1) Economics – Yes Catholic school tuition is a huge family sacrifice (one that my wife and I are willing to make for our daughter). Unlike other countries in the world, the US does not provide government funding for faith-based schools, thus tuition and scholarship assistance programs like the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago are essential. But look at the numbers. The mean parish elementary tuition is $3,159 while the per pupil cost to educate is $5,870 (private philanthropy makes up the difference). The national public school per pupil expenditure is $10,259 – that is nearly twice as much! Catholic schools are doing an excellent job with the resources they have.

2) Catholic identity and religious instruction – to this I feel a personal calling. I started my blog to address this need. However, I disagree with your assessment. Religion is a key part of the Catholic school curriculum and in the schools that I have been a part of Mass is not “occasional.” Read the recent circular letter on Religious Instruction in Catholic Schools to see how important religion is to Catholic school curriculum, but also how the mission of the Catholic school is to provide a synthesis of culture and faith. Walk into a Catholic school spend some time there then go to a public school – you can’t tell me there is little evidence of Catholicity.

I know many of your readers are homeschooling parents. Parents are and must be the primary educators of their children. Dropping your child off at a Catholic school or CCD isn’t the answer to positive faith formation. Parents must catechize their children and share their faith with their kids. Thank you to those who feel passionate about their faith and let their kids know it! A reminder of canon law 798 “Parents are to send their children to those schools which will provide for their catholic education. If they cannot do this, they are bound to ensure the proper catholic education of their children outside the school.”

Join me in my mission to improve the Catholicity of Catholic schools at thereligionteacher.blogspot.com

p.s. I taught the Theology of the Body to high school sophomores in theology class. Your experience with NFP being dismissed as the “rhythm method” is quickly changing in schools and parishes all across the country.

Anonymous said...

As a child, I (and lots of other kids I knew) attended Catholic schools that matched Red's description almost exactly. The faith was not taught, and the expense of attending the school mounted until few families found it worthwhile. That said, the Catholic school I attended was academically much preferable to the local public school. So, I do think it's true that the Catholic schools still succeed in the secular aspect of their mission.

I do think there is some evidence that Catholic schools are turning around in regard to catechesis. In college, I did student teaching at a small Catholic school in Northern Virginia (founded by a group of parents, I believe) that offered an excellent foundation in the faith. I'm sure there are parts of the country where Catholic schools are truly faithful--but in many areas they are still not.

--Elizabeth B.

Jeannette said...

I'm going to say this as carefully as I can; please don't add extra words: Our Catholic school does a good job of catechizing the students, and they succeed academically as well. But it's still not "Catholic enough" for several of the homeschooling families (I'll admit, several of these are sympathetic to Regnum Christi). So this kind of complaint is often met with rolled eyes by the Catholic-school-enrolled, NFP-practicing, Hallowe'en-celebrating, Harry-Potter-reading Catholics in good standing, then a sigh, and walk away muttering "yes, I know, you're more Catholic than we could ever hope to be."

PS (I go to Daily Mass and I see the school kids there much more often than I see homeschooled kids)

freddy said...

Jeanette, I'm a homeschooling mom, and I do know what you mean. I've had other parents wonder why I let my kids read H.P. or dress up in "secular" costumes at Halloween too, and there is in some a mentality of what I call the "holy checklist."

On the other hand, my kids do participate in Scouting through our local parish, and we've gotten to know many fine families.

Few, however, have more than 2 or 3 children, few, however have moms (or dads!) who stay home, most have far more material goods than we do, many allow their older children to participate in activities I find questionable. (Some even sponsored by the parish or high school: coed overnight retreats or nights spent sleeping on a city-grating to see what homelessness is like.)

Truly, I think Catholic schools and homeschooling parents could do each other a lot of good, sharing resources, ideas and even challenging each other as to what constitutes a good Catholic education.

JMB said...

A book worth reading on this subject is Steve Kellmeyer's "Designed to Fail Catholic Education in America".

We transferred our oldest two children out of our parish school for two reasons: the teaching quality was very poor and the emphasis on fundraising and social status overtook and squashed out the feeble religious idenity of the school. Basically it was a high priced alternative to the public school and morphed into a club for alumni parents and their children and newbie Hedgefunders and Wall Streeters who could afford to pay both the extremely high property taxes of our town (average 12K per year) and tuition at the same time (4K per child, no discounts).

As someone who lives in a suburb, I'm not seeing tons of parents choosing to send their children to parish schools. Ours only exists because it is drawing in students from recently closed parish schools from other towns. But the number of parishoners who do send their children there has remained flat at about 5% for the past 10 years.

The single sex Catholic high schools in my area are doing well simply because they are athletic power houses and can draw students from all over the county and beyond. Religious education is secondary factor, if that.

JMB said...

Jeanette, I take my children out of public school for Mass on Holy Days of Obligation (when the Catholic schools are closed) and don't even see any parents or students there from the Catholic school. It's sad.

Sonetka said...

My son is in special ed preschool and my daughter isn't even one yet so the question isn't immediate, however from what I saw of Catholic schools growing up I'd not be inclined to send them unless we came across one that was really serious. Otherwise, they seem more like a vaccination - just of enough of the surface appearance to keep you from digging deeper and emerging as someone with actual knowledge of the religion.

On a pettier note, I have to wonder how on earth you can keep track of who attends Mass and who doesn't when trying to keep track of your own kids? I barely have time to look around, and I only have two! Not to mention that my church, like most, has several Masses on Sundays and days of obligation, so not seeing someone at "my" Mass is hardly a guarantee that they're not there at all. Furthermore, having "material goods" and few children is not some sort of automatic black mark. We have two hard-won children, with a spell of infertility and several miscarriages along the way. We are unlikely to have more, though they would be welcome. I don't say that everyone is in this position, but undoubtedly more are than you might imagine. (When we were in the worst of infertility, before we had any children, I was on the receiving end of some sly remarks about selfish young people not procreating. I have NOT forgotten that). When you're rightly deploring the "holy checklist" you might want to avoid assuming the worst about people with two or three kids. Sorry to be sharp, but seeing that kind of thing hits a very sore spot.

Emily said...

I agree with you and also understand the hurt that stems from infertility. It's so painful to hear that having only one or two children is not enough to be thought a "good" Catholic family. Very, very painful. I'm so glad you were blessed with your two children.

I will direct you to an excellent post in which Karen Edmisten points out that often only 1-2 children means that the parents are suffering in some way.


On another note, I had very very good experiences in the Catholic schools I attended, with 3 nuns teaching and monthly mass and religion every day...I feel I was well-catechized and extremely well-educated. I'm sorry not everyone's experience was as good as mine; it seems I was very lucky.

kat said...

Could I put this in the Carnival of Homeschooling this week? I'm a Catholic homeschooling mom of 6 who is often tempted to put my children in the local Catholic school, but can't afford the tuition and am worried that they wouldn't be getting a good Catholic education.


paladin said...

As a Catholic high school teacher, I empathize with the people who are defending them... and I do admit that things are getting better than they were (may the new teaching orders of religious sisters prosper and multiply!)... but I have to say, ultimately, that the typical "Catholic" diocesan school is in a shambles.

Yes, there are new people working their way (slowly) into the system, who have a heart for re-evangelizing the (forgive me) "Baptized Pagans" who currently make up a distressingly large percentage of current parents, teachers, administrators, and diocesan school officials involved in diocesan schools... but--unless you have a near-miraculous oasis of orthodoxy and vibrance in your local schools and systems--it's little short of delusional to say that diocesan schools are anything other than pale reflections of what even a mediocre Catholic school should be.

If you doubt:

Try enforcing a modest dress code. ("What are you trying to do--institute Sharia law, and have all the girls wear burqas?")

Try removing songs with sexualized lyrics (and/or sexualized choreography) from proms, from sporting "cheers", from dance teams, from student iPods, etc. ("Good grief, what's your problem? The parents join in these "shake your booty" cheers, and some of these songs are in Disney movies! What a prude!")

Try removing immodest dressed from school dances ("But that's all they sell! You're being unfair/unrealistic, and maybe even Manichaean!")

Try to find a staff where no one votes for a pro-abortion candidate. (My experience of middle-aged Catholic teachers is, "Democrat 'till you die"... which is fine, if you live in the South and have a few Democratic politicians who haven't yet sold their souls to the culture of death... but in the Midwest, at least, it's rather a problem!)

Do you see my point? I'm not trying to excuse any abuses or denigrating language from either side... but for Catholics to scoff at, scorn, or otherwise alienate homeschooling (and homeschoolers--many of whom are virtually alone in their areas, trying to defend Catholic ground that "Catholic" school officials/staff have written off, neglected or abandoned, years ago. Catholic schoolers and homeschoolers should be NATURAL ALLIES, not enemies! I work in a Catholic school because I try to minimize the damage done by the currently flawed institutional system (copied/pasted from the public schools, with its staff trained in secular teacher training programs); but I bend over backwards to encourage and help homeschoolers whenever I find them. It's the only sane thing to do, IMHO.

(Erin, you are seriously a light in the darkness! :) Or, more colloquially: you rock!)

paladin said...

Whoops! My text editor ate a line from my comment, and made it sound weird:

but for Catholics to scoff at, scorn, or otherwise alienate homeschooling (and homeschoolers--many of whom are virtually alone in their areas, trying to defend Catholic ground that "Catholic" school officials/staff have written off, neglected or abandoned, years ago) is nothing short of insane.

Red Cardigan said...

Kat, I'd be delighted for you to include it!

Paladin, your comment is very helpful. You are inside the system, so your words carry much more weight than mine.

I'm not saying Catholic schools are hopeless or irredeemable. But the mission has to be to provide a truly *Catholic* education, countercultural values and all. And though there are isolated schools that are valiantly trying to do this, they still seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

I know that some parents whose children attend Catholic schools may feel as if they are being personally attacked when criticisms of the schools arise, but that's not the point. If Catholic school is the best option for your family then no abstract criticism of the system in general should matter; the same is true if public school is a family's best option. But surely we wouldn't say that we must avoid criticizing the real problems in public schools just because these schools are the best option for some, would we?