Changing Catholic Schools In ChicagoColumn

March 21, 1990 6 min read

In the following excerpts from an essay published in the Chicago Tribune, the writer Eugene Kennedy places in its historical context the plan of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin to close at least six of the archdiocese’s schools:

The people and priests who sacrificed so generously in the 19th century to build what is now the Catholic Church in Chicago made no small plans. They constructed and staffed churches and schools where none had previously existed to meet the educational and spiritual needs of largely immigrant flocks.

This vast, energetic, and authentically visionary undertaking succeeded beyond any prophesying of it. Out of its parishes, schools, and universities rose a well-educated people who, in this generation, have claimed their rightful place, dreamed first for them by their forebears, in the professions and the arts as well as in public service and private business.

The success of the pioneering Catholicism of the last century demands the kind of vision, as bold as that which begot it, that is being offered for the next century by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

After years of consultation with representative members of the clergy and the laity, Cardinal Bernardin has rightly concluded that Catholicism as a faith can no longer live in the style that it achieved, indeed longed for, as an aspiring and ambitious immigrant culture. Were the spiritual reality of Catholicism tied inexorably to any specific historical period, no matter how glorious it may have been, it would long ago have shriveled into a memory as fragile as last autumn’s fallen leaves.

The changes that Cardinal Bernardin and his collaborators now propose recognize that the Catholic Church can no longer afford and should not try to house itself in the architecture of a wonderful but bygone era. ...

What Cardinal Bernardin is saying is that the Catholic Church must now draw on its imagination rather than only its memory if it is to serve its people and its community in the 21st century. His scheme of action, in beginning to consolidate parishes and to develop regional schools as well as to examine the possible sale of all property, including his own residence, recognizes that Catholicism must change its vesture in order to preserve its essence.

Writing in the winter issue of the Heritage Foundation journal Policy Review, Patricia Summerside notes that despite low funding for schools in South Dakota, students in that state rank near the top nationally on test scores and graduation rates.

A former research analyst for the South Dakota legislature, Ms. Summerside argues that the state’s experience demonstrates that “money doesn’t matter” in education:

This does not mean that reforms [aimed at emergency situations] are ill-advised. Where the educational system has a dead battery, it needs first of all to be jump-started. Many states in educational trouble also have large numbers of children in poverty, and school reform may help establish a positive dynamic for self-improvement.

But states like South Dakota tell us that the best way to improve schools is to build a sound social infrastructure. We can’t expect a student to be excited about learning if her school is a diploma mill or his personal life is in chaos. That’s why strong families that stay together, small schools that are community centers, and old-fashioned values produce educational achievement.

Families, small schools, and old-fashioned values are very probably the most effective institutional incubators for many other desirable social outcomes as well, from low-crime neighborhoods to productive economies to civil public discourse. If we really want these things, we cannot afford to take their prerequisites for granted.

We cannot pretend that all lifestyles are equally valid or that the answer to every social problem is more government bureaucracy. We have to give healthy, small-scale, time-tested social institutions our active support; we have to consciously resist their political erosion and their cultural delegitimization. Otherwise, we will be trying to grow plants without roots.

In an address to education-school juniors beginning their student-teaching last month, Jon Westling, interim president of Boston University, stressed the importance for teachers of continually advancing their own learning:

[T]he vocation you have pledged yourselves to requires more than a little learning. It requires more than the traces of information one passively acquires from television, from casually read books, from in-service training, and from the steady passage of what is sometimes called “life experience.” The real learning to which you must dedicate yourselves if you are to become genuine and excellent teachers is learning for the sake of honest understanding.

Unless you have the capacity to be awed by the mystery of things, you will not seek knowledge. Unless you have the humility to realize how little you know and how much there is to be known, you will be satisfied with superficial and second-rate knowledge. Unless you find pleasure in stretching your mind, you will soon weary of the effort--both for yourself and for the task, which is in some ways even more difficult, of stretching the minds of your students. ...

For teachers do not purvey merely a specialized body of professional knowledge and skill: Whatever else you teach, you will inevitably also teach yourself--who you are, what you know, where you are going.

You cannot avoid being an exemplar to your students of what it means to be learned. There is thus nothing that you can learn--from history and literature to ornithology and economics and neurobiology--that will not enhance your effectiveness as a teacher.

The obligation of schools to satisfy the demands of their public constituency on the one hand and to meet the needs of classroom practitioners on the other helps explain why many reforms recur over and over again without substantially altering the “regularities” of schooling, writes Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University, in the January-February issue of Educational Researcher:

The unique organizational characteristics of this tax-supported public bureaucracy governed by lay policymakers merge with the imperative to retain the loyalty of the system’s constituencies. Both help to explain schools’ obvious vulnerability to pressures for change from external groups. ...

To ensure that the organization is both efficient and effective, the district has a bureaucracy to coordinate what occurs in classrooms and elsewhere in the system. Any departures from policy and procedures are scrutinized. ...

The tight coupling vanishes, however, when it comes to the core of schooling: classroom instruction. ...

Inspections and tests are the standard bureaucratic tools used to control what teachers do in their classrooms. But teachers work as solo practitioners, isolated from their colleagues.

Administrators, who depend on teachers to achieve any degree of school effectiveness, basically trust their teachers’ craft. They do formally evaluate teacher performance a few times a year, but both parties to the process report that the occasions seem ritualistic even when high stakes are involved. ...

Testing is the other bureaucratic means for controlling what occurs in classrooms. Teachers give their students tests frequently. Most of these are teacher made or linked to textbook assignments. Seldom, if ever, are the results of these tests used to gauge teacher productivity. Although standardized achievement tests are ubiquitous, it is rare that student scores are used to assess individual teacher performance. ...

Decoupling classroom teaching from administration and policymaking in the organization occurs because policymakers and administrators need to retain the support of practitioners while maintaining the district’s credibility in the eyes of the families that send children to school, citizens who pay taxes, and state and federal bureaucracies that monitor district actions, teachers, students, and others. ...

Here, then, is an organizational perspective ... that begins to explain why certain school activities and teaching are insulated from externally driven pressures for fundamental changes.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Changing Catholic Schools In ChicagoColumn