'Values and Visions' of Catholic Schools Now in the Hands of Lay

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Last September, 95 lay faculty members at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, N.Y., walked off the job, claiming that the $14,000 average salary they received was too low.

They are still striking--although the school year is over--and will continue to do so until their demands are met, according to Robert M. Gordon, president of the Lay Faculty Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (aft).

Mr. Gordon asserts that the school will close next fall--for lack of teachers--if it does not bargain with his group soon. "Not many teachers want to scab," he said.

But a spokesman for the school said that summer school is about to begin and next year's faculty is 98 percent in place. "We have no intention of closing," she added.

Strikes and their attendant bitterness are still rare in America's Roman Catholic schools. And until 25 years or so ago, so were the kinds of teachers represented in the picket line at Christ the King School.

But a fundamental shift in the structure of Catholic education has transformed parochial schools. Traditionally institutions staffed by members of religious orders--principally nuns--the schools, in the space of less than two decades, have replaced their dwindling religious teaching force with lay staff members, who are now in the great majority.

That rapid overturning of the historic pattern has been, says Bruno V. Manno, director of research at the National Catholic Educational Association (ncea), the most dramatic of the several major changes experienced by Catholic schools. In its wake, Catholic educators across the country have had to evaluate the significance of the decline of the most obvious symbol of Catholic education--the religious instructor--and to develop new ways of talking about the special qualities of a Catholic education. They are also continuing a variety of efforts to work with new lay teachers to instill in them the theme of this year's ncea national convention--"values and visions."

Stabilization in Enrollment

Enrollment in Catholic schools began to decline around 1965, and it has continued downward until recently, when the number began to stabilize. Enrollments in 1981-82 were approximately 3,100,000. But during the period from 1965 to 1978, Catholic schools lost over two million students.

At the same time, growing numbers of minority students--many of them non-Catholic--entered parochial schools, especially in the inner cities, a phenomenon educators attribute to the interest of black parents in the educational quality and orderly environments of the schools.

During the period, a complete turn-around in the relative numbers of lay and religious teachers also occurred.

In 1960, for example, only 27 percent of all Catholic elementary-school staff members were lay teachers. By 1970, that figure had climbed to 53 percent, and today it stands at 75 percent of a total elementary- and secondary-school teaching staff of 146,000, according to the ncea

Catholic educators cite several reasons for the change. First of all, the number of teaching nuns and brothers has dropped sharply--from nearly 50,000 to about 38,000 in the period from 1977 to 1981 alone. Also, the nuns and brothers who do remain in teaching are a relatively older group.

A profile of teachers contained in a soon-to-be-released study of 64 inner-city Catholic schools conducted by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in Milwaukee, reveals that three-quarters of the nuns and brothers have had more than 10 years' teaching experience. And many of them are nearing retirement age.

At the same time, the number of nuns and priests in the country continues to decline, and fewer men and women are entering religious orders. According to P.J. Kenedy & Sons, publisher of The Official Catholic Directory, there are now 120,000 nuns in the country, down from 180,000 in 1968.

The directory also predicts that the number of American priests will be halved by the year 2000.

Catholic educators commonly point to the changes that occurred in the Catholic church as a result of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 (Vatican II)--with its emphasis on increased involvement of lay Catholics--as the driving force behind the declining number of nuns and priests and the greater role of lay personnel in the church and schools.

In an unusual confluence of circumstances during the 1960's, while the laity were being urged to take a greater role in church affairs, said Rev. Timothy J. O'Brien, director of the study of inner-city private schools, fewer people were choosing the religious life, many nuns and priests returned to the lay state, and for those remaining, issues such as the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement seemed more compelling than education.

"It was more or less a coincidence of theory and practice coming together," said Rev. Alfred A. McBride, community planner for the St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wis., and author, for the ncea, of a set of guidelines on "The Christian Formation of Catholic Educators," a project undertaken in direct response to the growing number of lay Catholic teachers.

Increased Involvement

"For some time there had been an awareness of a need for increased involvement of the laity," he said. "It didn't happen too easily because nuns and priests were taking care of it all. Then from l960 to 1970 we lost around 50,000 nuns and 10,000 priests, and the shift came quickly."

Who are the lay teachers and what is bringing them to Catholic education? No national statistics are available on the religious, racial, and educational backgrounds of the nation's 110,000 lay teachers, but among the teachers questioned in the inner-city schools study, the majority are Catholic, with smaller numbers of Baptists, Lutherans, and other denominations.

The study also found that most of the teachers in the inner-city schools are women, that there are roughly twice as many white as black teachers (and relatively few Hispanics), and that 96 percent of the teachers have a college or graduate degree.

[Because their sample included only schools with 70 percent or more minority enrollment, the researchers say, it would be dangerous to extrapolate these figures nationally.]

The percentage of Catholics among lay teachers varies considerably from city to city, however. New York and Los Angeles have higher percentages of Catholic teachers, for example, than do New Orleans or Newark.

The teachers in the inner-city schools reported that they are attracted to Catholic schools primarily because their environments are "positive and productive." (Ninety-three percent of the teachers reported that the "general atmosphere" in their schools stimulates learning.)

The religious and moral environments of the schools were listed second, but were "far less important than the first factor," the researchers said. They concluded: "The teachers think more of effective teaching relationships than they do of the religious and moral milieu of the school."

(The researchers also found that parents choose the schools first for the quality of the education they offer and second for the emphasis on religious and moral values.)

Rita C. Schwartz, secretary-treasurer of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers (NACST), a union representing 2,500 teachers, characterizes many of the Catholic lay teachers as "people who went through the Catholic school system and want to give back to it what it gave to them. Also, you are able to teach. The atmosphere is there, the values and discipline are there."

Father McBride said today's lay teachers have a greater "sense of mission" than they did in the past. "Today, they come and see this as a kind of ministry to the church. Ten years ago they often came simply to teach."

Most Catholic-school administrators, diocesan officials, researchers, seem to agree that the lay teachers have brought a commitment to the Catholic schools and that they are strengthening the schools' functions both as educational institutions and as nourishers of the types of religious values and beliefs the Catholic Church wishes to emphasize.

"The schools will definitely remain Catholic," commented Sister Dorothy Merth, director of personnel for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. And she seems to speak for most school officials and parents.

But the increase in the percentage of lay teachers has posed difficult practical and philosophical problems for Catholic educational leaders.

As a group, the lay teachers are less experienced than their religious counterparts, partly because of a high turnover rate among them.

Fifty-six percent of the the inner-city lay teachers, for example, have less than five years' teaching experience (only 11 percent of religious teachers are that inexperienced); and almost 15 percent of the lay teachers are in their first year of teaching.

Low Pay Primary Reason

The primary reason for the turnover is low pay relative to that in the public schools, and salary is one of the most common complaints among Catholic lay teachers.

Most of the teachers in the study of inner-city schools made between $6,500 and $9,500 in 1978-79--about 50 percent of what public-school teachers earned in the same period, the researchers said.

Ms. Schwartz of the nacst said that a survey of her group's members showed that the average salary of Catholic high-school teachers is about $16,000--a figure she said is at least $5,000 lower than comparable public-school salaries in the districts surveyed.

One Catholic-school researcher calls this "the dilemma of teaching Christian values [with] inadequate pay."

But Ms. Schwartz contends that her union members are more concerned about their "lack of a voice over the conditions of employment."

"The church has written all kinds of beautiful encyclicals about the rights of workers to organize, but when we attempt to organize, they say, 'A union is fine, but not here,"' she said.

Catholic-school adminstrators believe that the shift to more lay teachers has brought other problems, foremost among them higher personnel costs that have combined with inflation and other factors to produce a 172-percent rise in per-pupil expenditures in Catholic schools from 1970 to 1980. That situation, they note, has been accompanied by sharp increases in tuition.

In 1970, according to the ncea, 72 percent of the nation's Catholic schools charged less than $100 in annual tuition. Today, about half charge over $400, and the most frequent tuition rate is in excess of $500.

The rise in personnel costs and the subsequent need to raise tuition have come during a period fraught with other problems as well for the Catholic schools. Especially in the inner cities, they are serving a poorer clientele.

Many school buildings are deteriorating and are producing burdensome maintenance costs. Funding sources on which schools have relied, such as parish building funds accumulated in more prosperous times, are disappearing.

One result has been a shift in the schools from the formerly heavy dependence on parish and diocesan subsidies to increasing reliance on tuition and private, longer-range fund-raising programs.

However, in the inner-city schools, Father O'Brien said, further tuition increases could exclude many of the poorest families that use them.

Retaining Schools' 'Catholicity'

Another challenge posed by the increasing number of lay teachers, wrote Brother Medard Shea of the Archdiocese of Brooklyn in an introduction to "The Christian Formation of Catholic Educators," is to retain what he called the "Catholicity" of the schools.

Catholic-school officials, basing their opinions on personal experience and observation, believe the religion- and values-oriented nature of Catholic education is still quite important to lay teachers (although opinions differ on whether lay teachers are, or can be, as effective at or as concerned with the teaching of formal religion as nuns and priests are).

James G. Cibulka, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and one of researchers working on the inner-city study, says that one of the major problems lay teachers face in Catholic schools is "finding a clear mission for themselves."

This matter is a chief concern of the ncea, which made "Values and Visions" the theme of this year's annual convention. The ncea has also created programs offering pre-service and in-service ethical and spiritual training for lay teachers, and will soon offer similar programs for the growing number of lay principals.

To this same end, Sister Margaret A. Daues, vicar for education in the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., is conducting a study, as part of her doctoral work at Fordham University, aimed at determining what administrators, parents, and clergy expect of lay teachers.

"I've noted frustration among lay teachers regarding what is really expected of them. I call it the 'x-factor'--the spirit. But lay teachers want to know what you're talking about."

Many similar programs exist at the archdiocesan and diocesan levels, and prospective Catholic-school lay teachers are carefully evaluated with regard to their values during the interview process at individual Catholic schools.

Sister Merth of the Minneapolis-St. Paul archdiocese--which has the 19th-largest student enrollment among U.S. archdioceses--said it is the responsibility of the individual principal, who must be Catholic, to ascertain in interviews if prospective teachers' philosophies will mesh with what is expected of them in a Catholic school.

The archidiocese--which now has 80 percent lay teachers, up from 35 percent in 1973--requires all new elementary-school teachers to take part in a continuing religious-education program. Most applicants to the district are Catholic, although non-Catholics are hired.

All applicants, Catholic or non-Catholic, receive an information packet describing the aims and requirements of the archdiocese. "They make a decision then whether they really want to conform or not," said Sister Merth.

Sister Lourdes Sheehan, superintendent of schools in the diocese of Richmond, Va., estimates that lay teachers make up 75 percent of the district's teaching staff. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the number of lay principals, she said.

Her district conducts an orientation program for new teachers at the beginning of the year that outlines "what it means to be a teacher in a Catholic school," as well as regular in-service training for experienced teachers.

In addition, Sister Sheehan is developing a program to prepare lay principals to head Catholic schools.

Msgr. John A. Mihan, superintendent of elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (where lay teachers constitute 73 percent of the total staff), said his district uses a number of programs, including an internship program for all teachers--lay and religious--and lay principals, which introduces them to the philosophy of education in a parochial school.

In recent interviews, some Catholic educators across the country said that despite the rapidity and sweeping nature of the structural changes in Catholic education, there are now indications that both the economic and philsophical impacts of the growing numbers of lay teachers have been absorbed.

Robert D. Burke, who is in charge of research and planning for the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, said that according to 1985 projections he has made, the percentage of religious teachers may drop to as low as 15 percent in his district. But, he added, "The difference between 80 percent lay and 85 percent will not be much more financial burden. Catholic schools have swallowed most of the change."

Most school officials said parents are very supportive of the lay teachers--a point illustrated by the willingness of the inner-city families to pay tuitions that represent burdensome shares of their incomes.

And many educators echoed the assessment offered by Father Russell M. Bleich of the office of education in the archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa: "Our schools are every bit as Catholic as they ever have been. We have fewer Catholics giving the lifetime example of poverty that the religious teachers gave, but we have lay people who are giving tremendous examples of self-sacrifice with a powerfully positive Christian impact on children."

Vol. 01, Issue 38

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