Tag Archives: Social studies

More Slavery Math Problems: Another Example of Clumsy Content Integration in NYC

slaverymathditto152acf8d-97a2-4cc7-993a-52fe818552fdToday’s post is proof positive that not every teacher visits the Neighborhood—especially when it’s for their own good.

A year ago, we looked at the plight of a Georgia teacher who made a clumsy and altogether disastrous attempt to integrate social studies with mathematics, using the brutality of slavery to teach word problems.

Not only was the attempt slapdash and insensitive (the latter through no fault of the teacher, I’m guessing) but grossly inaccurate and leaving students with less of an understanding of BOTH subjects.

At PS 59 in Manhattan yesterday, someone (who probably didn’t read my post of a year ago) attempted a similar integration effort, using social studies content with word problems for a class of 9-year-olds—in a neighborhood where many were the children of UN personnel.

Again, slavery was the subject of the day—which was another not-so-bright move given the school’s community base.  Here are two examples:

“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?”

“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”

And once again, a teacher trying to do the right thing in her mind gets herself in hot water.

Jane Youn assigned these kinds of questions for homework and almost handed them to a second class before a student teacher noticed the inflammatory questions and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

The Chancellor and the DOE displayed the appropriate amount of outrage, and “disciplinary action” will follow for the teachers responsible.  Yet as in the Georgia case a year ago, what exactly is Ms. Youn’s crime?

Was she being deliberately insensitive?  I would guess not.  Slavery is so explosive as a topic that any instruction—of any level—could be construed as inappropriate or insensitive given the audience.  After all, being around diplomat’s kids would give anyone a heightened sense of moral outrage over any perceived slight.  Putting a dinner fork in the wrong place could cause an international incident.

Yet is Ms. Youn at fault for clumsy, irresponsible lesson design?  Absolutely.

It’s not her fault entirely.  Such is the current trend of integration that science and social studies content miraculously show up on standardized tests aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards we hear so much about.  In this frenzy, a teacher with little, if any, time for content instruction would sneak social studies or science in any way they can…even if it means a math problem about slavery or a reading exercise about the discovery of the DNA double-helix.

However, it isn’t an excuse for bad planning.  Real content integration—true integration—uses the vehicles of English Language Arts and math to expand understanding of content knowledge, or the “stuff” you have to know.  A student should hone practical skills in reading, writing and math and also learn more about a subject.

For example, the way Ms. Youn phrased her questions leads me to believe she really didn’t give a shit about teaching the kids about slavery, but would rather assess their math skills.  It’s obvious since her scenarios are so wildly unrealistic: whipping an enslaved man 5 times a day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to sell him?  How often did slave revolts happen during the Middle Passage?  My guess: not very likely.

How about questions that showed how much commerce slave-based industries such as cotton contributed to the growth of Northern industry?  Or if you dare touch the Middle Passage, how much an enslaved African was sold for on the market, and the profits of the slave-merchants per person?

If Ms. Youn really cared about content, she would’ve done enough research on slavery (as well as appropriate math skills) to answer the following:

  1. What do I want the kids to know about (insert content area here)?
  2. How can I use (insert ELA/Math skills here) to help my kids understand (insert objectives about content area here)?

In education today, the debate between content-driven versus skill-driven instruction has devolved into a chicken-before-the-egg argument: do skills drive content, or vice versa?  The reality is that skills are necessary to understand content, yet skills cannot be mastered without basic content knowledge as a foundation.  There’s no good answer to this.

Yet for the sake of Jane Youn and others who simply see social studies and science as a backdrop for their test prep, I do hope future teachers take integration seriously.

There’s too much at stake not to do so.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: What the Ancient Greeks Did for Us

Since I work double-duty as a social studies AND science teacher, I’m always looking for ways to combine the two…sometimes out of piquing interest, often out of laziness.

Today’s offering is just plain fun.

I’ve seen various episodes of this BBC series over the years.  What the Ancients Did for Us is a 2005 series on  BBC that detailed the accomplishments of various ancient societies and their impact on our lives today.  It was derived from earlier shows that looked at contributions from earlier periods of British history, such as the Tudor period, the Stuart era or the Industrial Revolution.

Yet this is no ordinary history documentary.  Ancients was produced in conjunction with the Open University, the largest British university by student enrollment and a pioneer in distance learning.  As such, it not only provides information on the civilization (names, dates, and whatnot) but also practical demonstrations of the kind of technology used at that time period–often with amazing results.

I’ve attached the episode on the Ancient Greeks, as this is the next unit we will be studying in my class.  I’ve already previewed the film to a few students of mine, and they all saw the experiments (from Archimedes’ screw to Hero’s steam Jet engine) as great ideas for science fair projects.  One even wanted to try out Archimedes’ famed “Death Ray” – the mirrored weapon used to angle the sun’s thermal energy towards wooden galleys with devastating results.

I’m not sure that will fly with the principal (nor the fire chief) but the series is a great connection between science and history.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Story of Papal Names; or, Why is there no pope named Jimbo?

English: PORTRAIT OF JOHN XXIII Español: IMAGE...

John XXIII (1881-1963), A great Pope, a not so original name (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that the supreme pontiff, the personification of Christ on Earth, was once called Fabian.

Some were even Silverius, Soter, Zachary, Hilarius, Conon, Anacletus, two Pelagiuses, and even a Sylvester—three of them.

When Benedict XVI announced his resignation effective February 28th, the Catholic Church reeled in shock, even though his Holiness had been hinting at retirement for some time now.  However, I’m sure the cardinals started jockeying for position once their pacemakers kicked in.  With the doors of the Sistine Chapel closed and locked, the conclave of the College of Cardinals will be busy in their voting, politicking and burning of paper in the process of selecting a new pope.

Since any one of these red-hatted guys can get the top job, they all probably have one thing in mind—what will be my papal name?

Since the 6th Century, almost all popes of the Roman Catholic Church have used a regnal or papal name during their reign.  The early popes, being usually in hiding, on the run, or martyred in an arena in cruel and entertaining ways, really didn’t have much time for picking new names.  Yet the acceptance of Christianity in 313, followed by its adoption as the state religion of Rome in 395, gave the papacy some long-needed breathing room for pomp, ceremony, and especially the affectations of monarchy—hence the papal name.

The first papal name was chosen by Mercurius in 533.  Once he was elected, Mercurius decided to change a really pagan name (he was named after the Roman god Mercury) to the more Christ-friendly John II.  It made sense: There were no Roman emperors named Yahweh or Osiris, either.  This change became more commonplace after the 10th Century, and would be de rigueur for all popes since the 16th Century.

The papal names followed no particular pattern.  Most popes chose the names of predecessors they admired, though some chose names of family members, members, even fellow clergymen who shared their ideas of politics and dogma.  The names cover an amazing range of styles (Adrian, Eugene, Boniface), languages (Alexander, Celestine, Miltiades) and perceived moral attributes (Innocent, Clement, Pius).

Until 1978, all popes picked one name.   John Paul I decided to honor two of his predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI (which didn’t help him much since he died 33 days later).  John Paul II continued this tradition, yet his successor Joseph Ratzinger went old school with Benedict XVI—a nice touch for a German theologian who tended to always look in the rearview mirror.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Some names just keep coming back: There were 23 Johns, the most of any papal name, with 16 Gregorys, 16 Benedicts, 14 Clements, 13 Innocents (most of whom were probably not true to that namesake), 13 Leos (though not of the zodiac sign of the same name), 12 Piuses (again, you’re just asking for criticism if you choose a name like Pius), 9 Stephens, 9 Bonifaces (an excellent choice of name, in my opinion), 8 Urbans (though none named Rural, oddly), and 8 Alexanders, of which the sixth one you may recognize as Jeremy Irons on Showtime.

Even with the free-for-all in nomenclature, there are some unspoken no-nos.  There is no Peter II, for example.  Peter, as in Peter the apostle, was the first pope, and no one could be pretentious enough to claim they are a second Peter (although Jeremy Irons comes close).  That’s almost as snotty as naming yourself Jesus II; and I don’t have to explain why.

Also, names often go out of fashion, sometimes thanks to one bad apple.  For over 500 years, there was no pope named John.  This was because the last John (John XXIII) was not only an antipope (or false pretender), but he was morally corrupt and such a scheming little shit that even the mention of his name would probably have gotten you excommunicated.  When Giuseppe Roncalli  was elected in 1958, they weren’t sure if he was John XXIII or John XXIV, since that other John carried such a stain.  Roncalli, the kind son of Italian sharecroppers, was no such blight on the name, and took on the moniker of John XXIII, as if the other prick never existed.

So what will the new guy choose?  It’s difficult to say, since rules and fashion continue to shift and change.   For the Neighborhood, we feel the next pontiff might do well to give one of the older, more obscure monikers a try.  We’re not ready for another John Paul.  John, Leo,  Pius or even Benedict (at least now) seems a little safe.

Resurrect old standards like Urban, Boniface, Sixtus or Celestine.  He might even choose Gelasius, Theodore, Paschal or even Zephyrinus.

Whatever name is chosen—in the grand scheme of things, a papal name is not necessarily the measure of a papacy.

Then again, would we ever gain spiritual strength today from a pope named Lando (reigned 913-914)?

Probably not…unless there’s a Star Wars convention nearby.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Revolutionary Age – the Winter Edition of History NOW

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 Septembe...

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782″. By John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), c. 1783 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revolution is truly like a pox, spreading from person to person.

This particularly human sickness is the subject of this winter’s issue of History NOW from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  Ten essays from a collection of eminent historians detail how the revolutionary fervor of the Americas would spread globally, to France, to Haiti, to Cuba and beyond.

Several of the essays caught my eye.  First was Patrick Spero’s interesting piece on the truly global nature of the American war of independence.  Unbeknownst to many on this side of the pond, the longest and largest battle of the War of Independence did not occur on American soil and involved no US lives: the Spanish seige of British-held Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783.  The British victory was celebrated in a painting by John Singleton Copley, demonstrating the US struggle’s overall limited place in what became a global war.

Susan Dunn’s comparison of the French and American Revolutions is also of note.   The analysis is hardly new–that the moderating nature of the American Revolution made for a long-lasting, yet flawed system, while the increasingly radical French Revolution would self-destruct.  What is new is the view of the American Revolution from the French point of view, particularly how the French perspective changes from that of doting admirers to critical ascendant revolutionaries bent on correcting and improving on the American model.

I would be remiss if I forgot the contributions of my old friend, UCLA professor emeritus Gary Nash.  In an article recovered from Gilder Lehrman’s arch, Nash examines the social and intellectual roots of the Revolution, particularly the various movements advocating for independence and social change.  The ideals of revolution manifested itself through various avenues, as Americans of all stripes struggled to create a new society–a society that would be on the backburner as forces of reaction and stability placed the war and the ensuing Constitution as a priority over social change.

As with any Gilder Lehrman product, History NOW is laden with primary sources for educators to utilize the ideas of the authors.  This issue contains the Stamp Act, Jefferson’s letters on the Haitian and French Revolutions, the Monroe Doctrine, even the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.

The Neighborhood is usually very enthusiastic of Gilder Lehrman resources, and History NOW is no exception.  Take your time and really sift through the treasure trove of analysis and insight…it’s among the best issues yet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

This Day in History 2/5: Jean Baptiste Bernadotte becomes King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden

English: King Carl XIV John of Sweden and Norw...

English: King Carl XIV John of Sweden and Norway (1763-1844) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of many ways I like to annoy my beautiful fiancée is to poke fun at her Swedish ancestry.

What’s not to love about Sweden–the near-arctic temperatures, the overtaxed welfare state, modular furniture, a penchant for experimental pornography and a cuisine that has had few true winners since the days of the longship.

Yet of all the things to knock the Swedes for, I always come back to one—deep down, the King of Sweden isn’t even a Swede.

He’s the descendant of a down-on-his-luck field marshal from Gascony.

On February 5, 1818, Field Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, former Marshal of the Empire, former Minister of War, former governor of Hanover, Prince of Ponte Corvo, became King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and King Karl III Johan of Norway.  He would be the first of the House of Bernadotte, the royal family that still reigns over Sweden today.

The story of Bernadotte’s peculiar rise to a Scandinavian throne is something out of a Hollywood comedy.

Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was a son of a tailor and small-town lawyer in the town of Pau in southwestern France.   He had the good fortune of reaching manhood at the cusp of the French Revolution: a perfect time for an ambitious boy with no apparent prospects.  By the time of the rise of Napoleon to power in 1799, Bernadotte had risen from tailor’s son to accomplished general and Minister of War under the Directory (the government in power before Napoleon’s coup).

Napoleon knew a good general when he saw one, and made Bernadotte a Marshal of the Empire in 1804.  He distinguished himself in the 1805 campaign at the victories at Ulm and Austerlitz.  As a reward, Napoleon made Bernadotte Prince of Ponte Corvo, a hick town in central Italy that was only good as a strategic location (which didn’t help its fate…it was flattened during World War II).  He was even married to the sister of Napoleon’s sister-in-law.

It looked like Jean Baptiste had it made.  So why would he hightail it to the fjords five years later?

Bernadotte was never easy to figure out.  He never went along with Napoleon’s coup d’etat, and rumors were circulating that he was an erratic hothead and a closeted Jacobin (rumors Bernadotte never refuted).   Unlike the other field marshals, Bernadotte made his bones during the early years of the Revolution—he was already a name before Napoleon rose to power and never needed his short coattails to rise to anything.  Loud, impulsive, fun-loving, Bernadotte would never have the best of relations with Napoleon, who saw him as a bulldog of a general but possibly as a potential rival.

Furthermore, Bernadotte’s battlefield behavior was growing more erratic, at least from Napoleon’s low horizon.  On an expedition against the Danes in the northern European port of Lubeck, he treated Swedish prisoners with kindness and respect, making connections that would prove fortunate for him (and not for Napoleon).  The Lubeck expedition was supposed to lead to an invasion of Sweden which never materialized.  In 1806 Bernadotte took his sweet time bringing up reinforcements at Jena and Auerstadt.  He led a contingent from Saxony in the 1809 Battle of Wagram, and on his own, issued an Order of the Day crediting his Saxon regiments with the victory.  Never mind that Bernadotte’s men, exhausted and ill-trained, had retreated against the Emperor’s instructions—even while Bernadotte himself tried to rally the men forward.

It was during Wagram that Napoleon stripped Bernadotte of his command.

Demoralized and notably pissed off, Bernadotte returned to Paris a dejected has-been.  He was to prepare defenses in the Netherlands against a British invasion which wasn’t happening (most of the invading forces died of fever).  Then came the meaningless post of governor of Rome.  It appeared Jean Baptiste’s best days were behind him.

Then, a letter arrived that would change everything.

It seems that Bernadotte’s antics made waves across the Baltic.  In Sweden, the aging King Karl XIII Johan was childless, as his heir unexpectedly died of a stroke.  Frantic, the Swedish ministers searched across Europe for a new presumptive heir to the Swedish throne.  Their main rival was Russia, so a man with a military background was preferred.  However, Napoleon was an ever-looming threat, so maybe a French general would work so that the Emperor would back off.

Bernadotte arose as the ideal candidate.  He was an accomplished general, who still ( at least on paper) had Napoleon’s support.  Furthermore, his kind actions towards the Swedes at Lubeck made him immensely popular with the Swedish army.  After much debate, on August 21, 1810, Bernadotte was elected the new Crown Prince by the Swedish Estates General, and subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces.

When the letter came that fall, Bernadotte didn’t believe it.  He never saw it coming.  Napoleon thought the whole thing was a joke.  He didn’t support the move, but didn’t oppose it either—he probably though Bernadotte would fuck this up like the retreats at Wagram.

Looking at the situation, you have to agree with Napoleon to a point.  It sounds like a bad fish-out-of-water movie.  You could hear the awkward first time Bernadotte walks the streets of Stockholm (“Bonjour mon peuple, je suis votre nouveau roi … me prendre à votre …smorgasbord.),

or his first Swedish winter (“Sacre bleu…It’s so cold I’m freezing my boulettes off!”),

or his first encounter with local cuisine (“Lutfisk?  Merci…[sniffs]…Merde!!!”).

Yet the fuck up didn’t happen.  On the contrary, it was the beginning of Bernadotte’s spectacular second act.

Somehow, he must have seen this as a new lease on life.  When Bernadotte arrived in Stockholm on November 2, 1810, he figured if he was going to do this, he would do this right.  He received the homage of the Estates General, and the old king officially adopted him as his son, naming him Karl Johan.    He didn’t have long to get used to the job.  With a dying king and a council of ministers divided, Bernadotte became the most powerful man in Sweden.

His first act?  Turning on his old boss.

In 1813, Sweden joined the Sixth Coalition, the alliance of countries opposing Napoleon led by Great Britain.  Obviously, there was a selfish end to all this: Sweden hoped to solidify its claim on Norway.  Regardless, as commander of the Northern army, Crown Prince Karl Johan defeated two of his old buddies, Marshals Oudinot and Ney.  Later on, he decided to ditch the coalition and focus on taking Norway, which he finally did after beating up the Danes in 1814.  After the allies recognized his claim, Karl Johan was now the heir to the thrones of both Norway and Sweden.

1818 saw death of the old king and the coronation of King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and Karl III Johan of Norway.  Even though he never learned a word of Swedish (nor Norwegian), Karl Johan worked hard to be a good king.  He became a Lutheran, which made him even more popular among the people.  His reign witnessed the completion of the Gota Canal, and he managed the country’s postwar finances.  He kept both Russia and Great Britain as allies, keeping Sweden in an almost perpetual period of peace to this day.

Arms of Sweden. Note the central Arms of the House of Bernadotte. Jean Baptiste’s arms are to the right with the eagle.

His brash ways were also gone.  Over time, Karl Johan went from fiery Jacobin to firm ultra-conservative monarch.  His restrictions on freedoms and his hesitance to modernize Swedish commerce or to institute liberal democratic reforms made him less popular as time wore on.  Yet his intellect, his experience, and his personal charm kept him in power until his death in 1844.  He was astoundingly mourned as a savior of the nation, and one of Sweden’s greatest kings.

That blustery Gascon still affects us today.  His descendants not only reign in Sweden.  There are Bernadottes in Norway, Belgium, Luxemburg and Denmark.  The Swedish coat of arms still carries Jean Baptiste’s old arms as Prince of Ponte Corvo, complete with Napoleon’s eagle under the big dipper.

Finally, it just goes to show how crazy life can be, even for a slightly off French field marshal from the Pyrenees.

I wonder if he ever did try that lutfisk.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why don’t they want history taught right? A response to a History Commentary on Education Week

Cartoon - Why Study HistorySometimes it isn’t about whether someone is right or wrong.

Sometimes you’re just in the wrong conversation altogether.

That’s the vibe I got as I read a recent article in Education Week about how history is taught.   Even though the arguments in the piece are largely plausible and totally defensible,  I got a sense that the debate was altogether needless: the blame is completely misplaced, and the wrong questions are asked.

The article, by volunteer tutor and grant writer Vicky Schippers, stands as a polemic that history shouldn’t be taught as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam.”  Rather, teachers should take her example and make history connect with students.

As a tutor, she has the rarefied opportunity to work one-on-one with a student, in her case a 20-year old named Tony with a four-year-old son.  She uses Tony’s situation, his fears, and his worries as a struggling young parent looking for work to connect with American government, the development of American democracy, the need for taxes, tariffs, and especially the abortion debate, which troubled this young father.

Schippers ends by stating that:

“History is not boring. More important, it is relevant to the lives of every student, but none more than our most disadvantaged. Rather than teaching it as a series of eye-glazing events, it should be presented in a way that affords students the opportunity to delve in; question; and, above all, see in history’s unfolding, how we, the people, have traveled from there to here; and how that journey is relevant to all of us.”

To regular readers of the Neighborhood, this isn’t Earth-shattering.

A slew of comments followed, mostly from history teachers sneering at Schippers’ lack of “real” classroom experience, her rosy-glassed view of history education, her complete lack of understanding of the realities of teaching in the secondary classroom.

I’ve got to be honest.  Both sides are kind of full of shit.

The slew of educators slamming this poor woman are rightfully swamped, but they shouldn’t crucify her simply for stating what all of us history guys already know—that the parade of names and dates is a better  anesthetic than chloroform.

Then again, Schippers really should’ve taken a look around.

If she really took a hard look at how history teachers, good history teachers, are plying their craft today, she would notice that nary a one bothers with textbooks, outlines of dates, events, names of old white men, etc.

We already know how history should be taught.  We’ve been trying to do it for years now, and anyone who hasn’t realized it is either past saving or a complete ignoramus.

The question to ask isn’t “How is history taught?”

The real question is “Why does the education establishment not give a shit about how history should be taught?”

History teachers, often in isolation or in small groups, have been reinventing history education for a while now.  Our classrooms are our laboratories, where lessons, units, projects and assessments are tested, re-tested, evaluated, and celebrated—often to the bewilderment of administrators perplexed at how learning how to think critically could ever get those state test scores up.

The powers that be, the education policy idiots and the talking heads in charge of education administration in this country, were never too swift on the uptake.

Programs that can really reach out and spread our skills and knowledge are first on the chopping block.  Anything related to social studies, especially history, is shoved way to the back burner   History is often forced to “integrate” into other subjects where the content and ideas are buried in reading skills and long division.

We know how the past should be taught.  Why not share the secret so that everyone can teach history the right way?

Schippers herself addressed this in a rebuttal comment on the Education Week site.  Obviously not wanting to shit on veteran teachers, she realized the limitations of the classroom and that “You all do what you must do to get your kids through their coursework. It’s up to education policy makers to make the changes that will allow you to teach history differently.”

Knowing how those policy makers think and operate, I doubt any change is coming soon.  Their conversations will never involve history in a serious way.   They see it as a means to an end—an end that can be charted and graphed.

Again, the wrong conversation is going on…and I’m skeptical about any chance of change.

So…we better teach history the best way we can, as long as we can.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized