Solving the Unseen Crisis in Catholic Schools: 9 Steps to Free Students from Progressive Harms
We’re about 100 years into the experiment of progressive education and it’s been a disaster in all areas. Intellectually, emotionally, and morally, children are less prepared to live a good life than they were generations ago. Sadly, this is the case even for many students at Catholic schools.
That’s because, until recently, most Catholic schools had been nearly indistinguishable from government schools. Over the course of decades, Catholic schools had borrowed the materials, methods, and objectives of progressive education, even training their teachers in state programs. Through no fault of their own, Catholic educators inherited Catholic schools that were only nominally Catholic: they offered a sprinkling of Catholicism—a religion class and weekly Mass—on top of a secular curriculum ordered, not to Truth, but to the achievement of state goals.
This may explain why today's Catholic young adults who stop practicing their faith in college do so at the same rate (85%) regardless of whether they attended Catholic schools during their formative years.
It also may explain why fewer Catholic parents send their children to Catholic schools every year. Why pay twice—once through taxes to support government schools and again from income or savings to cover Catholic school tuition—for a ‘Catholic’ education that is essentially the same as what the government schools offer?
When people talk about the ‘crisis’ in Catholic education, they are usually referring to plummeting enrollment and school closings: national Catholic school enrollment has decreased nearly every year since 1965[i] and approximately 100 schools close every year..
But the bigger crisis has to do with the poor formation Catholic school students have received for decades—and continue to receive at schools that are not in immediate danger of closing. Far too many young adults who should be prepared to live as faithful Catholics are not receiving an education that will equip them to be a force for Christian truth and goodness in the world.
Over the years, too few Catholic educators and parents have known to demand better from Catholic schools.
This is beginning to change. Across the country, schools are swapping out a secular culture and curriculum for the Church’s longstanding education tradition, transforming whole school and parish communities and bringing Catholic families closer to Christ.
Catholics everywhere are taking notice—and wondering if change is possible at their school.
It is possible. And many pastors, principals, and other school leaders are feeling called to be the impetus for that change.
But what steps should they take to begin such a monumental undertaking?
If their school is in danger of closing, the good news is that they may be able to act quickly because they will face less opposition; there are simply fewer people holding on to pet projects at failing schools. This is the position that the leaders of St Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland (2010) and Sacred Heart Academy (2012) in Grand Rapids, Michigan found themselves in more than a decade ago. They made sweeping changes to provide a robust Catholic formation that saved their schools. Their quick and decisive actions transformed their communities and raised the bar for families and educators in Catholic schools nationwide.
Those seeking to save their school can find immediate help by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But what about the leaders of Catholic schools providing a progressive formation that are not in danger of closing? What can be done to fix this unseen crisis in Catholic education today?
This is the question we recently posed to Michael Van Hecke, president of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE). He offered practical advice based on his more than 30 years of experience as a headmaster, teacher, and consultant collaborating with Catholic teachers, parents, pastors, and dioceses.
This article grew out of that discussion and our work here at Catholic School Playbook.
Here are nine steps all educators and pastors overseeing Catholic schools can take to begin the important process of providing an authentically Catholic formation for the young people entrusted to their care.
1. Educate yourself about the Church’s longstanding education tradition
Most educators have been immersed in progressive ideas about education since they were a student themselves. They may have internalized certain assumptions—for example, that their value as a teacher can be measured solely by their students’ scores on state assessments—without realizing it. But any educator who has retained a passion for cultivating a love of learning in their students will be deeply intrigued to learn about the Church's longstanding education tradition.
The Catholic education tradition was developed—not by atheist John Dewey, who is one of the architects of progressive education—but by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other Catholic intellectuals. It’s a tradition rooted in the ancient Jewish and Greek pursuits of wisdom and virtue and enriched through the ages by the greatest thinkers and creators of art, literature, philosophy, theology, and other works, all understood through the illuminating lens of Christian Truths.
All Catholic educators should investigate why it’s important that young Catholics receive an authentically Catholic formation. These three books are a great place to start:
Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision for a Secular Age, edited by R. Jared Staudt
The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB
The Heart of Culture by Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership
These articles will help Catholic educators better understand their vocation:
Restoring Wonder in the Classroom by Elisabeth Sullivan at Catholic Mom
How Not to Staff a Catholic School by Mark Bauerlein at First Things
Can Catholicism be Passed on Without Culture? by David G. Bonagura, Jr. at Catholic World Report
Countercultural Schools Can Save the American Catholic Church by Kimberly Begg at Catholic School Playbook
The ‘Unworthy Instruments’ who are Saving Catholic Education by Kimberly Begg at Catholic School Playbook
Free The Teachers by Johanna Webber at Catholic School Playbook
How Catholic Schools Can Steal a Key Metric from the Business World by Michael Ortner at Catholic School Playbook
The Renewal of Catholic Education is Fueled by Families—Not Institutions by Mark Bradford at Catholic School Playbook
Give Kids More Freedom in These 4 Areas and They’ll Thrive by Shane Ayers at Catholic School Playbook
These schools are thriving after bringing the Catholic education tradition into the classroom:
St. Agatha Academy in Winchester, Kentucky
St. James Catholic School in Crete, Nebraska
St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, Arizona
St. Mary’s Catholic School in Taylor, Texas
Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Classical School in Denver, Colorado
These websites provide helpful resources for educators who are interested in the renewal of Catholic education:
Catholic School Playbook shares the best practices of successful Catholic schools. Compiled from interviews with experienced educators and school leaders, the site features a Playbook (all 7 chapters are available for free), popular blog, and weekly email for Catholic parents and educators called The Light.
ICLE offers a myriad of resources, including an annual national conference (in-person and online), a Catholic Educator Formation and Credential program, a School Leaders Academy, a map of member schools, and other assistance for Catholic schools and educators.
2. Rethink faculty meetings as gatherings of professional friends
The weekly faculty meeting is an often-under-utilized opportunity for professional and spiritual growth. Too often, it is spent discussing a combination of gossip and business items that are better handled over email. That can be corrected by developing an agenda where the first 15 minutes are spent on scheduling and other business items and the last 15 minutes are spent addressing student problems. Pushing back student problems to the end reduces the amount of time spent on unhelpful venting and piling on, while still giving teachers the opportunity to raise healthy concerns.
The time in between should be used for learning, collaboration, and professional growth.
Every week, one faculty member might give a 15-minute presentation for the purpose of generating discussion. The presentation could open with a brief summary of two situations that happened in the classroom—one that worked out well and one that did not—and have colleagues weigh in to ask questions and offer suggestions. The exercise must be done in a spirit of humility and friendship, with the goal of elevating the professionalism and preparedness of the full teaching faculty.
This is the kind of team spirit that unlocks great advancement in medical advances, scientific discoveries, theological insights, and even football teams going from good to great. It is common in always-improving great companies. It's natural that those charged with the critical task of educating children should want to collaborate with peers to improve their craft.
All faculty members could also participate in a seminar-style discussion of a short article shared in advance. The article could cover any number of topics related to pedagogy, child and teen development, cultural trends, and other topics aimed at building an authentically Catholic culture rooted in friendship.
Turning faculty meetings into culture-building exercises serves a bonus administrative purpose: it unmasks teachers’ attitudes and suitability to work towards a more authentically Catholic vision.
3. Host optional faculty seminars
A goal of all teachers, regardless of what subjects and ages they teach, should be to form lifelong learners. Teachers can’t give what they don’t have, so they must be learners themselves.
At least once a month, schools could host an optional seminar for faculty members to discuss a passage from a great work of theology, philosophy, literature, poetry, or history. Seminar leaders can rotate, giving different faculty members the opportunity to select and share favorite works while practicing the art of leading seminar discussions. This practice is valuable for all teachers, regardless of whether they lead seminars in their classrooms, because asking good questions and guiding group discussions are skills that all teachers must continually hone. It also helps teachers develop an affinity for good works.
The Cana Academy offers exceptional training, teaching guides on classic works, and other resources for teachers seeking to better understand classic works and explore them more effectively in seminar-style discussions. Teachers can sign up to receive a weekly newsletter, Toolkit, which contains links to blog posts, podcasts, and materials curated for teachers, in addition to a discount code to receive 10% off all teaching guides and other materials.
4. Make it a part of the faculty culture to visit each other’s classrooms
Some of the articles shared in faculty meetings (see #2 above) should focus on Catholic pedagogy and the importance of developing a community of learners. This will remind teachers that theirs is a noble vocation requiring continual training and support from their peers.
One of the best ways a school leader can support teachers is by visiting their classrooms frequently and encouraging them to visit each other’s classrooms. This is a major departure from what happens at most school, where infrequent observations leave teachers feeling isolated and dreading their required observation days.
Frequent observations serve several purposes at a faithfully Catholic school. First, they give school leaders and master teachers the opportunity to provide continual feedback. This is especially important for the training of new teachers. Written feedback is an important component of this process. Second, they give teachers the opportunity to observe and learn how different teachers approach the art of teaching. Third, they prioritize great teaching as a goal of the whole faculty. Fourth, they facilitate conversations among teachers based on shared classroom experiences and observations. Finally, they cultivate a culture of friendship among the faculty that spills over to the broader school community.
5. Rethink teaching contracts
When a community of educators recommits itself to better serving school families—and God—many teachers become reinvigorated by a newfound passion for their vocation. But some become resistant to the change happening around them. Sometimes the most important change a school leader can make is not renewing the contracts of teachers who, for whatever reason, become obstacles to the vision of renewal. To succeed in building a school that takes its responsibility of Catholic formation seriously and prepares young people to live as faithful Catholics in the world requires a fully committed faculty. New contracts should reflect the expectation that teachers will participate in regular intra-faculty activities aimed at building a faculty of friends and community of learners.
6. Send a weekly note to parents
When parents entrust their children to a Catholic school, they do so in their capacity as primary educators. The hope is that the school reinforces a faithfully Catholic culture that children receive at home.
While it is increasingly common for parents to seek out schools that are faithfully Catholic, many parents don’t realize how thoroughly the progressive agenda has infiltrated most Catholic schools. They may have biases based on their own schooling experiences and may not fully understand what is necessary to provide an authentically Catholic formation.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to share a school’s vision and build a culture around that vision is by including a short note to parents in a weekly newsletter. Parents are a captive audience. They’re eager to hear from their children’s school and they’ll be receptive to messages that convey a sincere love for their children.
The note should convey that the school is a privileged place where the transfer of culture occurs and students, faculty, and parents grow together as a community. It can cover a broad range of topics, including those introduced in weekly faculty meetings (see #2). It can also include links to articles and excerpts from works explored in classes and faculty seminars (see #3). It should appear in printed form (to go home with students at dismissal) and online (presented with an archive of old notes and newsletters).
In addition to informing parents, a weekly note builds good will and trust, both of which are essential for generating parental support in times of proposed changes.
Van Hecke said that this was one of the most important things he ever did as a headmaster. "It became a prime duty of my week, and ultimately one of my favorite things to do because it made me reflect on our vision, mission, culture and our ultimate end—for us as a school, and for every member of each of our families."
7. Bring parents together in person
Sharing weekly notes is the first ‘first step’ to building a supportive culture among families. The second is bringing parents together in person to explore important topics.
Hosting lectures, morning (after drop-off) coffees, afternoon (before pick-up) teas, and wine and cheese events (evenings) are a wonderful way to engage busy parents to think deeply about education and important cultural and ,theological topics, all while strengthening their bonds to the school community. Gatherings can take different forms, for example, leading parents in the study of a poem or exploring a common parenting issue.
It’s best to avoid labels—for example, “liberal education” or “classical education”—that risk creating misunderstanding. The goal should be to focus on the school’s partnership with parents to provide a faithfully Catholic education.
8. Bring rich materials into humanities classes
A benefit of inviting the faculty (see #2, 3, 4) to think more deeply about their teaching is that it will build excitement about cultivating their students’ imaginations in their classrooms. They will be eager to get started.
One change teachers can make right away is bringing richer materials into their classrooms. Many primary source materials are available for free online.
In addition, they can swap out problematic or lesser-quality materials for great works and texts. Here are a few curricular suggestions to provide a richer experience for students in the following disciplines:
Cana Academy’s Classic Books Reading List
Catholic School Playbook’s The 27 Books Every Child Should Read from Kindergarten to Eighth Grade
Part IV: Materials of the Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy
A Course in Religion by Fr. John Laux, MA
Spirit of Truth by Sophia Institute Press
Classic Hymns for Catholic Schools, edited by Andrew Seeley and Kathleen Goodrich
9. Develop a three-year plan for renewal
Becoming a Catholic school that offers an authentically Catholic formation is possible with prayerful, intentional work. A school leader who undertakes the first eight steps can be ready to develop a three-year plan for renewal in as soon as one year.
All situations are different. But here is a sample plan that can be used to guide discussions. Many of these suggestions are explained in more detail in the seven chapters of the Catholic School Playbook:
Introduce daily Mass, weekly rosary, and the celebration of feast days
Institute a technology policy that promotes safety and a healthy interior life
Focus on the cultivation of virtue
Admit children with disabilities as a core part of the school’s mission as an extension of the work of the Catholic Church
Incorporate sacred scripture, papal documents, saints’ stories and writings, and sacred art in the teaching of theology
Replace social studies with history. Consider cycling twice through the history of ancient civilizations, the Modern Age, and America, as St. Jerome Academy does and coaches other schools to do
Swap out modern literature for classic literature
Encourage new and seasoned teachers to apply to ICLE's Catholic Educator Formation and Credential Program, which is an alternative to state licensure that also counts as nine credit hours toward the Augustine Institute's new M.A. in Catholic Education
Instill an understanding of the beauty and order of God’s created world in the mathematics curriculum
Concluding advice: pray
The single most common piece of advice we hear from leaders of Catholic schools is this: rededicate yourself to prayer. Pray every day for your school. Pray with a pure and sincere heart. Pray on your knees before the Blessed Sacrament. Know that it is not your efforts, but your cooperation with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that will save your school. Work hard. Be humble and charitable in your dealings with others. Keep your eyes fixed on Christ at all times.
Also, know that the father of lies has a special interest in, and hatred for, faithfully Catholic education. Expect obstacles. Go to Mass and confession regularly. Thank God for the privilege of serving Him and partnering with parents to bring children closer to Him every day.
[i] Today, 1.6 million children attend fewer than 6,000 Catholic schools. That number was 1.7 million in 2019 and higher nearly every year before that going back to 1965. That’s a 70% decline in enrollment since the peak of Catholic education in 1965.
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 more than 20 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)