Although about 100 Catholic schools close every year, hundreds more are thriving and leading a renewal marked by faith, joy, and academic excellence. Lifting up thousands of more schools will require a rededication to serving the natural leaders of cultural renewal: our teachers.
Until recently, Catholic schools have drawn almost exclusively from secular approaches to content and pedagogy across the curriculum.
This was a mistake. A very big mistake.
Especially because many Catholic schools required state licensure for their teachers, even though most states did not impose state licensure requirements at private schools.
In many states, Catholic schools enjoy the freedom to hire and set standards for their own teachers, which is in part a recognition of Catholic education’s higher design.
While the goal of Catholic education is to assist parents in preparing their children to live a good life worthy of heaven, the goal of secular education is to produce workers and citizens that advance state interests that change over time.
Teachers are the lifeblood of a school. It is through their words and actions that students become inspired to pursue truth, wisdom, and virtue. Forfeiting their training to the state normalized the use of utilitarian, secular methods and materials in an environment that maintained the vestiges of Catholicism. Through no fault of teachers who dutifully underwent training, schools inevitably became less focused on helping parents raise saints, even as the crucifixes remained on the walls.
As a result, Catholic schools became less like the Body of Christ and more like the state factory-model schools down the street. Catholic parents began enrolling their children in tuition-free schools operated by the state, setting in motion a steady trend of declining enrollment that began in 1965 and continues today.
But that is only part of Catholic education’s story—and not the most interesting or important part.
Although about 100 Catholic schools close every year, hundreds more are thriving and leading a renewal marked by faith, joy, and academic excellence that far exceeds that of other schools, including those that focus on college and career readiness at the exclusion of our priorities.
The bright stars in Catholic education today are schools that have freed their teachers from the burdens of state training and licensure. Rather than rely on the state to form the hearts and minds of their faculty, they hire and train teachers who are uniquely prepared to instill a lifelong love of learning in their students.
To this end, they seek to recruit new teachers from faithfully Catholic liberal arts colleges and graduate programs, including the Augustine Institute’s Master of Arts in Catholic Education, Belmont Abbey College’s Master of Arts in Classical and Liberal Education, Franciscan University’s Master of Arts in Catholic Studies, the Saint Paul Seminary’s Lay Graduate Programs, the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Thomas Aquinas College, and the University of Dallas. They use the Classic Learning Test and other resources to provide meaningful metrics to support the intellectual development of students. They also provide continual training to their faculty members consistent with the Church’s rich intellectual tradition.
This is a tradition that St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other great thinkers established. It is rooted in the ancient Jewish and Greek pursuits of truth and wisdom, and has been enriched through the ages by the study of history, art, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines understood through the illuminating lens of Christian truths.
Hundreds of Catholic schools have reclaimed this tradition, abandoning the Prussian-inspired approach of reducing education to a series of measurable inputs and outputs, where students consume massive amounts of content, broken down into consumable units, for the purpose of memorizing and regurgitating a subset of facts and terms without regard for the whole.
By embracing a Catholic pedagogy that respects the dignity of students and teachers, these schools have discovered that it is not learning that students find boring, frustrating, and pointless, but learning driven by arbitrary testing cycles.
It turns out that children—who are made to know, love, and serve God—love to learn when they are presented with rich materials that:
Respect the natural hierarchy of learning, moving from the concrete to the abstract (e.g., arithmetic should be studied before algebra, birds and trees should be studied before cells and electrons, and Latin should be studied before coding or robotics, which could be high school electives, but should not be core classes, especially in elementary or middle school).
Provide meaningful encounters with goodness, truth, and beauty that build upon each other (e.g., exposure to the fine arts and memorization of poetry at younger ages prepare older students to take great literature, philosophy, and theological seriously).
Are part of an ordered and integrated whole that helps students make connections across disciplines (e.g., studying literature and history in the same time period deepens understanding of both).
Whole school and parish communities have been transformed as educators develop the skill and confidence to cultivate faith, virtue, and wonder in the children entrusted to their care.
This can happen everywhere.
In every school, renewal begins with the teachers.
And for many teachers, their journey to freedom in Christ often begins with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, whose work benefits from the example and scholarship of Christ’s most loyal servants, including St. John Paul II, who observed:
The greatest challenge to Catholic education in the United States today, and the greatest contribution that authentically Catholic education can make to American culture, is to restore to that culture the conviction that human beings can grasp the truth of things, and, in grasping that truth, can know their duties to God, to themselves and their neighbors.
This is a call to action to all Catholics—and one that can be heeded by learning about and sharing the faithful, educator-led initiatives—including the Catholic Educator Formation and Credential Program and national conferences—that are training thousands of teachers to transform their communities, all while rediscovering a deep love and sense of meaning in their noble vocation.
It’s time to stop dwelling on Catholic education’s biggest mistake and better support our teachers, who are the natural leaders of our cultural renewal.
Kimberly Begg is a Catholic wife and mother of five children who is trying to cooperate with God’s grace to guide her family to Heaven. An attorney with nearly 25 years of experience strengthening Catholic and conservative causes, she serves as director of programs and general counsel for the Ortner Family Foundation and editor of Catholic School Playbook, a website that shares the best practices of successful Catholic schools. She is the author of Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage (TAN Books)