Why Would Catholic Educators Listen to Chester Finn?

Blanchet Catholic School - Salem, OR Photo credit: Tedder (CC-By-3.0)
Blanchet Catholic School – Salem, OR
Photo credit: Tedder (CC-By-3.0)

I’m not Catholic so I’ll need some of my readers to explain why Catholic educators and education leaders would listen to Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn?  Last week Flypaper published an excerpt of his talk to “a private group of Catholic education leaders and philanthropists.”

Here is where he would have lost me entirely.

First, families now have myriad choices, many different kinds of schools and ways of getting educated, so we no longer take for granted that our child will go to your neighborhood or parish school. Second, we now judge schools by their results, not by their inputs, intentions, or reputations, and we’re increasingly hard-nosed about those results, looking—probably too much—at test scores and graduation rates and such.

Both of these changes have tended to leave Catholic schools behind. With some worthy exceptions, their leaders haven’t tried very hard to take advantage of them. They haven’t been nimble or enterprising in making use of the opportunities presented by new forms of publicly supported choice. Nor have they—or private schools generally—done well in accommodating the shift to judging schools by quantifiable and comparable outcomes.

Integral to both big shifts has been the creation of uniform, statewide, grade-by-grade academic standards. Accompanying those standards are statewide assessments, followed by complicated reporting and accountability schemes. In some places, Catholic schools must participate in these, usually as a condition of receiving students with vouchers; in a handful of places, diocesan authorities have willingly joined in, but nobody would say there’s been a great rush by Catholic schools to be compared—with charter schools, with district schools, with other private schools, even with each other—on the basis of academic achievement.

Granted yes there are a variety of choices out there now with a growing number of private schools, online schools, charter schools, home schooling, etc.  So in that sense they do need find ways to be more competitive as their enrollment has shrunk.

Catholic schools (as well as other private schools) have always stacked up well against public schools.  Why in the world would they want to shift as a result of the education reform fad foisted on public schools?  If you want to provide an alternative you can’t emulate what is happening in the public school system.

Embracing Common Core and the over-testing culture, for instance, would probably exasperate the problem of declining enrollment not help it.  I won’t say that every single one of Finn’s suggestions is bad (like putting more effort into starting new schools than reviving dying ones) but he starts on a shaky foundation.

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