No School Reform without the Right School Culture


Fixing our districts’ broken schools is a priority for everyone — from state legislators to parents and to all of us who serve in education. As taxpayers, too, we will willingly shoulder the burden of fixing our schools. Why? Because we care about our children, and because we know that it’s even more costly to do nothing. Educational poverty is as damning for a child as economic poverty, and the former often ensures the later.
Recently, a student who transferred to a Catholic high school was asked what she found different about enrolling in a Catholic school. After a pause, she said, “Well, taking a religion class. I wasn’t used to that.” But, she added, the teacher is funny, and “he makes the class enjoyable, so I don’t mind.” Finally, she was asked if being a student in a Catholic school was harder academically. “No, not really; I’ve always pushed myself,” she responded. But after further reflection she offered, “But what is different — what’s really different — is that everyone in my school wants to work hard and do well.”
Students in Catholic schools outperform their peers in public schools. This has been well-documented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “Nation’s Report Card.” Other studies point to the near 100 percent graduation rate of Catholic school students, including those students from minority and low-family income families. What’s not as well-documented, but not a mystery to anyone in Catholic education, is why Catholic school students do so well.
We know that it’s not about selective admissions processes because Catholic schools generally have the same social and economic diversity, and often more, than the public and charter schools in their areas. It has little to do with new school buildings, high-quality curricula, support for multilingual students or abundant mental health professionals, because these are limited resources in most Catholic schools. It does, however, have almost everything to do with one factor — school culture.
In Catholic schools, that right culture begins with teachers who care deeply and personally about their students. They know that each child or young person has a meaningful future as a member of society and a desired eternal future with God. It’s the teachers’ sacred role, collaborating with one another in this endeavor, to assist and partner with the students as they prepare for their contribution to society and, no less importantly, to help guide them along the path to eternal life. This confers an incomparable dignity on teacher and student, which, in turn, provides a motivating expectation for both.
Broken schools and underperforming educational systems can’t be fixed until school culture is addressed, and that is much more than high expectations. Anything less is throwing good money after bad, expending resources on efforts that will not prove effective, and, in the end, fails our children and young people — again.
Daniel J. Ferris is superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Providence where he serves to make
Catholic schools available, accessible and affordable to every child who desires a Catholic education.