Phonics and the Science of Reading

The following blog was contributed by Wiley Blevins, an author and phonics specialist living in New York City. Mr. Blevins holds an M.Ed. from Harvard University.

Recently, a national conversation in schools and the media has emerged around how we best teach our young learners to read. This conversation has been couched under the umbrella of the Science of Reading. We certainly have a large body of ever-evolving information about how to teach children to read. This information comes from educational researchers, cognitive scientists who do brain research, linguists, school practitioners like yourself, and so on. Unfortunately, some of this knowledge—especially that from outside of education (e.g., brain researchers)—is largely unknown by classroom teachers and not applied to many of our most commonly used reading programs. As a result, districts around the country have begun reexamining the materials they use to teach children to read to ensure these materials are aligned to this body of knowledge.

Two older established models of reading have emerged during this national examination of our early reading curriculum: the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope. The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that reading comprehension is a product of decoding (e.g., phonics) and language comprehension (e.g., vocabulary and content knowledge).

Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001) fine-tuned this model to specify aspects of each area of reading instruction and how they intersect. As a student’s decoding skills become more automatic and they become more strategic in using their growing language comprehension skills, these skills intertwine. The result: students develop into skilled, fluent readers.

In these models, the decoding piece includes foundational skills like phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, concepts of print, and phonics. So how do we align our phonics instruction to the Science of Reading? There are four important guideposts to consider.

Guidepost 1: Scope and Sequence

In order to effectively teach phonics, we need a clearly defined scope and sequence. This is a scope and sequence that goes from easier to more complex skills. Confusing letters and sounds are separated, and so on. This scope and sequence provide the spine on which all of the instruction rests. It is a roadmap for teachers. What to teach. When to teach. And how much focus to give each of these skills.

But having a scope and sequence isn’t enough. A scope and sequence must be more than a list of skills that you march through in an exposure-focused way. In order for a scope and sequence to be impactful, it must also have a built-in review and repetition cycle. Once we introduce a new skill, for most of our students, it takes a significant amount of time to get to mastery. Students have to get to mastery so that they can transfer those skills to all reading and writing situations. So after a skill is introduced, it should be reviewed, applied, and assessed for at least the next four to six weeks. 

Guidepost 2: Systematic and Explicit Instruction

Phonics instruction needs to be systematic and explicit. Systematic is related to having a scope and sequence and teaching those skills as a system. But teaching phonics as a system means that we go beyond skill-and-drill practice. We must also have robust conversations with our students about how that system works. So great phonics instruction is active, engaging, and thought-provoking, whereby children are observing and talking about how words work. Activities such as word building and word sorts (with follow-up question prompts like “what did you learn about these spelling patterns?”) aid in these conversations.

Explicit refers to the initial introduction of a phonics skill. Teachers need to explicitly state the sound-spelling connection (e.g., the /s/ sound is represented by the letter s). In an explicit introduction to the skill, the teacher models how to sound out words with the new skill and then gives children guided practice opportunities to apply the skill in isolated words and in connected text. This avoids the pitfalls of discovery learning, which require students to possess prerequisite skills that some may not have. 

Guidepost 3: Daily Application to Reading and Writing

Daily application to reading and writing during the phonics lesson is critical. It is in the application where the learning sticks. This requires students to read, reread, talk about, and write about decodable (accountable) texts in which they can apply their newly acquired phonics skills to get to mastery faster. These texts have a high percentage of words that can be sounded out based on the phonics skills children have learned, as well as some irregular high-frequency words and the occasional story word to make more engaging reads.

The most impactful instruction has students not only read and discuss these stories but write about them as a follow-up. If it’s a fiction story, students can write a retelling. If it’s an informational piece, students can create a list of facts learned. This requires students to apply their growing reading skills to writing immediately. The book can serve as a useful and supportive scaffold. 

Guidepost 4: Assessment

Assessment needs to inform instruction. When it comes to phonics, assessments must be viewed through two lenses: accuracy and automaticity. This tells us if students have knowledge about what has been taught (accuracy) and if they have acquired fluency with those skills (automaticity).

Phonics instruction requires two critical types of assessments: comprehensive and cumulative. A comprehensive phonics assessment is a survey of all the skills a student would learn in a phonics continuum (from identifying letter-sounds to reading words with short vowels, long vowels, complex vowels, and finally multisyllabic words). This assessment is essential at the beginning of a school year to identify which students have not mastered previous grade-level skills, which are meeting grade-level expectations, and which are beyond the scope of skills covered in a grade.

A cumulative assessment is what’s missing from most instruction and is critical for phonics success. A cumulative assessment assesses the new target skill and previously taught skills (generally looking back 4–6 weeks). This assessment monitors skill growth over time—a more accurate assessment since it takes weeks for most students to get to mastery on a taught skill. It can also alert a teacher to decayed learning (skills in which not enough review and application has been provided and the skill has “slipped away”) so that course corrections can be made to avoid potential and serious learning issues as students move from grade to grade. In addition to these assessments, teachers need to regularly listen to students read aloud and evaluate their writing for evidence of transfer.

These four guideposts alert us to key aspects of phonics instruction that need to be in place, how to teach them (see the 7 Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction link), and how to assess them. Evaluating our phonics curriculum against these guideposts can strengthen our instruction and maximize student learning.

Resources

7 Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction eBook

Meeting the Challenges of Early Literacy Phonics Instruction Leadership Literacy Brief

Selected References

Blevins, W. (2021). Choosing and using decodable texts. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Blevins, W. (2020). Meaningful phonics and word study: Lesson fix-ups for impactful teaching. New Rochelle, NY: Benchmark Education.

Blevins, W. (2019). Meeting the challenges of early literacy phonics instruction. Literacy Leadership Brief No. 9452. International Literacy Association.

Blevins, W. (2016). A fresh look at phonics: Common causes of failure and 7 ingredients for success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Blevins, W. (2017). Phonics from A to Z: A practical guide. 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Overcoming the Forgetting Curve: Conceptual Interleaving a Consistent Ethic of Life

The following blog was contributed by Sarah Kernan, a high school theology teacher in Denver, Colorado.

As a high school moral theology teacher, and especially after a tumultuous political season, I’m deeply invested in whether my students gain a solid understanding of a consistent Catholic ethic of life—which recognizes the human person’s inalienable dignity from womb to tomb. Whatever their future vocation, I hope they retain a deep-in-their-bones conviction that all human life, and indeed all of God’s creation, has profound value that must be nurtured and protected.

But how can we make sure a consistent life ethic “sticks” with our students? How can we best nurture in them a life-long commitment to the Church’s social mission, as a vital aspect of discipleship? 

No doubt you’ve experienced the so-called (and rather depressing) “forgetting curve”1 in your classroom. Without reinforcement, we human beings tend to forget prior knowledge at alarming rates—approximately 56 percent after one hour and 75 percent after six days!2 Fascinating neuroscientific research suggests that our brains are actually wired to forget rather than to remember information.3 But on the bright side, this same research highlights strategies that help students actually retain their learning. I’d like to explore what they might look like as we educate students about Catholic Social Teaching and a consistent life ethic.

One strategy that helps learning “stick” is called “conceptual interleaving.” Interleaving involves helping students make as many connections to an idea as possible—typically to other, seemingly unrelated concepts—creating a “‘spiderweb’ of neural connection.”4 So let’s say students are discussing harmful cultural trends concerning human sexuality in a Christian Life course. These include an exaggerated notion of personal autonomy, loss of genuine intimacy and mutual responsibility in relationships, and a contraceptive and abortive mentality that hurts everyone involved. Then what if, in English class,5 these same students could analyze poems by three Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, in which these women reflect poignantly on their deeply personal experiences of motherhood, abortion, and loss. And in a Social Studies unit,6 they could review historical examples of the systematic extermination of marginalized groups, such as Native Americans, but then consider the present-day practice of disability-selective abortion (DSA) as another example of this kind of injustice.

A secondary benefit of this interdisciplinary “interleaving” is that students can begin to think creatively with the Church’s rich Social Tradition, learning to apply pro-life principles consistently and transcending a simplistic liberal-conservative framework for recognizing and addressing social injustice. Having considered well the tragedy of abortion, students could consider immigration, racism, and environmental degradation as life issues, too.7

Sounds awesome, but also like a lot of curriculum work for teachers, right? Here’s the great news: Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life continues to add to its Teaching Life and Human Dignity series, a one-of-a-kind collection of free, high-quality learning resources that incorporate a Catholic vision of human dignity into curriculum areas like English, social studies, economics, mathematics, and even health class. The curriculum “heavy-lifting” is already being undertaken by leading pro-life scholars and educational specialists.

Theology teachers need help forming the next generation of compassionate, courageous pro-life leaders. And the latest research suggests how much our students will benefit when we overcome the artificial silo effect between academic disciplines and help them discover the Gospel of Life where they might not expect it. Our colleagues who teach outside of theology are essential partners in doing just that.


1https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0120644
2https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-students-forget-and-what-you-can-do-about-it
3https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(17)30365-3?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0896627317303653%3Fshowall%3Dtrue
4https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-students-forget-and-what-you-can-do-about-it
5You can access the unit, Women’s Hidden Experiences: Poetry about Motherhood, Abortion, and Loss, at Mcgrath.nd.edu/liferesources.
6You can access the unit, Making Sense of Historical Atrocities, at Mcgrath.nd.edu/liferesources.
7If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend Dr. Charlie Camosy’s recent book Resisting Throwaway Culture and his online course through Notre Dame’s Satellite Theological Education Program (STEP). 


About the Author

Sarah Kernan is a high school theology teacher and graduate of Notre Dame’s M.T.S. program. She also facilitates online theology courses through Notre Dame’s STEP program. She lives in beautiful Denver, Colorado with her husband Matt and their three daughters.

The Year of the Catholic School

The following blog was contributed by Philip Dujardin, theology teacher at the Cambridge Matignon School in Cambridge, MA.

Our Catholic schools have been nurturing the faith and evangelizing to families since they were established. In fact, nurturing and sharing the faith have always been their primary purposes. They should be celebrated in this time of uncertainty. It is time for our Church to declare a “Year of the Catholic School.”

Within a culture that challenges the idea of truth itself, most public educational institutions deliberately avoid acknowledging God. In contrast, Catholic schools offer students a sense that God is in control. Most begin and end the day with prayer, dedicate an entire class period to religious instruction, and display faith-filled pictures, statues, crucifixes and words of encouragement in their rooms and hallways. Surrounded by these reminders, teachers and students grow in confidence that the Lord loves them and has the power to overcome all evil.

Celebrating a “Year of the Catholic School” will rejuvenate a vital ministry of the Church. Our Catholic schools are facing a major crisis. It is time for all Catholics to acknowledge Catholic schools as a priority. Just as God wrote the Bible through human authors, God built our Catholic schools through the sacrifices of parishioners, families, priests and religious brothers and sisters, most of whom responded to a call from God’s Self to serve.  God anointed them with a vision that is still as important as it was when the schools were founded.

Our urban Catholic schools offer opportunities for disadvantaged youth, combating racial inequities inherent in many school districts. A “Year of the Catholic School” could garner support from within and beyond the Church. Some believe that our schools should be able to stand on their own, that if they cannot sustain themselves then they need to close. The reality is that Catholic schools are ministries, not small businesses.  All schools, especially those that serve the poor, need support from all Catholics. Catholic schools, especially those that serve the poor, would benefit from public funding. Celebrating our schools would provide an opportunity to promote school vouchers, giving struggling families the same choices granted to the well-to-do. Latino families would recognize Catholic education as an option that supports their deep faith as well as academic opportunity, providing schools with an influx of students that would sustain them.

It is vital that our schools be a place where Catholic teachings can be taught. A “Year of the Catholic School” would solidify the connection between the official teachers, our bishops and those who teach on a daily basis in our schools. Priests, bishops and families would recognize the good work of our schools. Dioceses would encourage and equip them to promote the faith as taught by the magisterium. There would be an opportunity for real dialogue between school communities and bishops about why the church teaches what it does and how this can be promoted.

By celebrating a “Year of the Catholic School,” communities of faith would honor the work of these institutions to educate so many in the faith, past and present, many of whom are still in the pews of our churches. Imagine the possibilities. We could strengthen the trust between clergy and the schools, garner much needed public support for our schools, mend the pain that school closings have caused families who fought to keep them open, advertise our remaining schools to families and discover creative ways to make Catholic education available, especially to the poor. A renewed commitment to Catholic schools will provide hope in a world that needs it.

Encountering the Humanity of the Unborn through Pro-Life Teaching Resources

The following blog was contributed by Colleen Halpin, theology and mathematics teacher at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, Utah.

If education is to be transformative, it must engage the mind, capture the imagination, and spark a desire for real engagement with the world. Julián Carrón writes, “Education is not explaining reality or forming some argument about it; it is helping another person… enter into reality.”1 This kind of education is not a passive memorization of facts, but rather an “encounter.” Such encounters captivate the attention, propose “a hypothesis of meaning”, and inspire students to search for what is good, true, and beautiful.

How might this culture of encounter inform the way we address life issues in the classroom? Often, discussions surrounding life issues become sterile and even hostile. We become entangled in the complexity of divergent opinions and lost in the disparaging rhetoric of this highly politicized issue. When I started brainstorming how to discuss the issue of abortion with my Moral Theology class, I was intimidated. How can I showcase the humanity of the unborn in a compelling way? Is it even worth it to try to teach on a topic that’s become so controversial?

Soon after, I stumbled upon the Teaching Human Dignity series from the McGrath Institute for Church Life. These are a series of free resources that empower teachers to incorporate life and human dignity issues into existing curriculum. I realized the lessons on Disability Selective Abortion (DSA) that were part of a social studies unit: Making Sense of Historical Atrocities could be easily adapted for my class. DSA refers to the widespread practice of aborting unborn children who are positively diagnosed with Down Syndrome through prenatal testing. By inviting my students to encounter the reality of DSA, I hoped to open their eyes to the injustice of abortion of any kind.

My students viewed news segments that covered the prevalence of DSA. Along with the video links and accompanying worksheets, the lesson included a discussion guide and answers that went beyond just the basic facts of the video, helping the students to probe what was said, shown, and left out of the videos and how all of this conveyed a particular message. It was amazing to see my students recognize how society’s idolization of productivity and fear of suffering lead to a devaluing of those who suffer and “fail” to meet standards of productivity.

Through videos produced by the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation, my students and I encountered a new narrative. We saw that those who live with Down syndrome live full lives in which they struggle heroically, achieve greatly, work creatively, and love fiercely. As a class, we acknowledged that people with Down Syndrome suffer, but who in life is free from suffering? Who are we to say that their particular suffering is unacceptable, while mine is acceptable?

These videos were profoundly moving for one student in particular. As the last video finished, I noticed tears in her eyes. She explained that her brother has a developmental disability and that she has spent time working with other people who have disabilities. She spoke of their love and their joy. Her witness uncovered the humanity of those who are regularly discarded—those whom others deem “unproductive” or doomed to a life of suffering. Her authenticity and genuine love spoke louder than any set of statistics ever could. In Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (§41). I am grateful that these resources allowed me to step aside and make room for my student to witness to the dignity of all life, and so become a teacher to us all.


1Julián Carrón, “A Communication of Yourself,” in Disarming Beauty (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).


About the Author

Colleen Halpin received her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2020. She currently teaches at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, Utah. She also serves as a formation assistant for the Echo program, a ministry of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

Writing Lessons Anchored in Human Dignity

The following blog was contributed by John Brahier, a high school theology teacher at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan.

During my second year of teaching, I had a very unique schedule. After my second-hour precalculus class, my sophomore theology students walked into the room for Church history. Given the sharp difference between the two classes and my personal interest in mathematician-theologians like René Descartes and Blaise Pascal, I began asking how I could make my math classroom a place for students to encounter the faith. Certainly, this is the ideal. A math, or any class in a Catholic school, ought to have a distinctive character, a formative dimension that transcends the intellectual component of education.

Simple steps came to mind as I pondered my question. Live as a faith witness.1 Start class with prayer. Display a faith-related poster.

But what about my class content? Could I bring students to a genuine encounter of the Catholic faith through math instruction?

Like many teachers, my lessons typically revolved around an anchor problem or question. This,  to me, was the opportunity to authentically integrate the faith into my class such that it did not appear to students as an awkward tack-on. For example, my lessons on exponential and logarithmic functions provided the right mathematical lens for students to dive deeper into China’s one-child policy. After studying the one-child policy and its origins, I developed an anchor problem for this unit that required students to apply their understanding of exponential and logarithmic functions while also considering the ethical dimension informed by Church teaching. This allowed me to develop students’ abilities to view a situation (like the one-child policy) from multiple perspectives, the mathematical and the ethical.

Anchoring a lesson in a human dignity issue is a natural way to authentically present students with a situation that requires multiple levels of analysis. Developing anchor problems like this requires considering the range of human dignity issues from abortion to immigration to poverty,  careful study and research, conversation with colleagues and consultation of existing resources.2 With an anchor problem in mind, attention must also be paid to the integration of relevant Church teaching. Being intentional about properly framing questions and clearly presenting Church teaching requires significant attention and, in some cases, scriptwriting to ensure that the material is accessible for teachers and students alike.

This might sound like a time-consuming and challenging process. It is! However, it is rewarding both for the designer (especially when done in collaboration with colleagues) and the students. Most importantly, this type of encounter is why Catholic schools exist.

While not all teachers have the time or necessary support and resources to create such lessons, the McGrath Institute of Church Life at the University of Notre Dame is taking the lead in creating resources and making them freely available for any teacher to use. They are also reaching out to the community of teachers already deeply invested in this approach. Through the Teaching Human Dignity Resource Contest, winning teachers can work with the McGrath Institute to have their materials incorporated into the Teaching Human Dignity series and made available to teachers worldwide. The unit Exploring China’s One-Child Policy with Exponential and Logarithmic Functions will be made available this semester for any interested teacher.

The task of a Catholic school “is fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith, and a synthesis of faith and life: the first is reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge  through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel; the second in the growth of the virtues  characteristic of the Christian.”3 Our job is not simply to produce mathematicians, doctors, and lawyers. No, it’s to form students as saints (who are mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, etc). This goal cannot be accomplished with only one department interested in students’ spiritual development. Rather, it takes a community of teacher-ministers united in a commitment to developing students’ minds and hearts through teaching anchored in faith encounters.

1http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19751208_evangelii-nuntiandi.html
2The Teaching Human Dignity series from the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame offers an ever-expanding set of rich resources with this aim in mind.
3http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_19770319_catholic-school_en.html


About the Author

John has taught high school math and theology and enjoys exploring opportunities for the faith to be infused throughout the high school experience. He is married to Annie and has a one-year-old son named Stephen.

Cross-disciplinary Teaching Resources Promote an Integral Vision of Life and Human Dignity

The following blog was contributed by Jessica Keating, the Director of the Notre Dame Office of Life and Human Dignity within the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

For over 2000 years, the Catholic Church has proclaimed that every human person has inherent dignity and inestimable worth. Though one of the greatest gifts handed down to cultures and societies across history, this proclamation is perhaps the most audacious the Church announces in the modern world. Amidst the violence and chaos of the world, the Church consistently calls on each one of us to recognize and act in accordance with the dignity of each and every human being, from conception to natural death. Catholic school educators, regardless of the subject they teach, have a responsibility to inculcate this fundamental belief in their students.

There are two important dimensions required for a student to respond to this call: knowledge and will. A student must know that the dignity of a human person is due to his or her having both an origin and end in God. It also requires the formation of a person’s will (in Latin, voluntas) or a desire to act in accord with this understanding. Although the family is the first place where children learn about the sanctity of life, this education and formation necessarily, extends to the school. In Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II urges educators to fearlessly take up the work of promoting human dignity (cf. §88). This educational mandate is not simply the provenance of theology alone, but must be taken up by the entire school faculty and integrated across the academic disciplines.

In order to support Catholic educators in this vital work, Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame has collaborated with teachers, educational design experts, and content area experts to support this important work. Its Teaching Human Dignity series is a free, online collection of resources (e.g., units, lesson plans, videos, etc.) that promote the culture of life through education. It addresses life and human dignity issues as they organically occur within the secondary education curriculum. The philosophy guiding this initiative is simple: authentic, meaningful learning occurs when students have the opportunity to discover truth themselves. In other words, it is not enough to directly teach students that every human being possesses incomparable worth. Rather, the students must make sense of this themselves by engaging the complex concept of human dignity as it surfaces while studying social studies, science, language arts, and the other content areas. Doing so equips students with a deep appreciation and love for what the Church teaches as well as its implications for their own lives and the human family. In this way, students fully grasp the truth of human dignity at the level of understanding and will.

The task of teaching human dignity in the classroom may feel daunting–even more so if one’s disciplinary expertise is not in theology; and yet, as St. John Paul II reminds us it is the responsibility of educators to create the conditions for students to grow in knowledge, desire, and love of the good. The resources in the Teaching Human Dignity series, freely available online, are designed to support the essential work of Catholic school teachers. They provide the creative, professionally designed materials that will allow them to present a life-affirming message in the classroom.


About the Author

Jessica Keating directs the Notre Dame Office of Life and Human Dignity in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. In her role, she leads the Institute’s research, education, and outreach efforts on the nature and dignity of the human person and contemporary threats to the sanctity of life.

Catholic School Enrollment and School Closures, Post-COVID-19

The following blog was contributed by Matthew Cordes, associate director of schools, Office for Schools, Diocese of San Diego.

Reviewing the Catholic School Enrollment and School Closure, Post COVID-19 report left me feeling connected to the rest of our nation’s Catholic schools. The Diocese of San Diego was a microcosm of the national report. Our declines in enrollment for elementary and early education were almost identical to the national report. Our high schools saw a small increase in enrollment but nothing too far from the rest of the nation. More of our schools had waitlists in at least one grade because of COVID spacing restrictions. While we haven’t had to close a low-income school because of COVID, the amount that our schools could spend on safety equipment, training and technology varied greatly depending on the ZIP code.

The questions that I was left asking seemed very similar to questions that we were asking a year ago when we looked at our enrollment reports. With access, equity and sustainability at the top of the list, it seems like the pandemic was more of an accelerator than a speed bump. With the exception of the preschool enrollment dip, which I believe will self-correct in time, our issues seemed to manifest themselves faster this year. However, the pandemic did teach our schools the skills of creativity, grit and adaptability. Principals became epidemiologists and our teachers are now Zoom masters. Classrooms have new ventilation standards and students can collaborate while sitting six feet apart. Just like my kindergartener figured out how to be dropped off instead of being walked into the classroom, our schools are now better able to meet any challenge that comes at it (including making sure my kindergartener gets to his classroom).

Now comes the big challenge. As a body of educators across the nation, can we use our newly acquired skills to come up with more creative solutions to meet the underlying issues facing Catholic education? Once we can remove our masks, let’s use our experience to reassess how we use staffing in our schools. Not as a way to lower a ratio, instead as a way that creates the optimal academic benefit for students such as developing new educational models. Let’s collaborate as a staff on the areas of growth for our school and brainstorm creative ideas to meet the needs of every student. We need to adapt our system to figure out new marketing strategies to attract students that have never thought of Catholic education before the pandemic. Finally, we need the grit to evaluate our institutions to see where we have let down our community with access and equity. These tasks will not be easy, but they can’t be much harder than keeping the gospel message alive during a pandemic! So, let us all go face the current reality of Catholic schools with the knowledge of our newfound skills. While reflecting on our topic, the words of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat came to mind, “Shouldn’t we gratefully accept both good and bad as coming from the hand of God, for both are inclined to our advantage if we know how to profit from them.” At this moment in Catholic education, we have accepted both the good and the bad, now we must use our newfound blessing to profit our ministry.

The Serious Work for Catholic Schools Begins Now

The following blog was contributed by John James, Ed.D., professor of educational leadership at St. Louis University School of Education.

Catholic schools stand as an exemplar and a contradiction. They serve as a powerful creator of social capital, a point of engagement with families for the Church and a powerful disciple-making tool; but operate within a complex market economy dominated by a loss of social cohesion and a consumeristic culture. They serve a critical apostolic mission of the Church and spiritual work of mercy, but must close schools for the most vulnerable and for those who might benefit the most. Catholic school closures in 2019-2020 disproportionately impacted underserved families and non-Catholic families. Black families, Title I students, urban communities and non-Catholics were overrepresented in the demographic sample of closed Catholic schools. The decline of 6.4 percent was driven by a 26.6 percent decline in pre-kindergarten enrollment. Maybe it’s parents working from home, taking a shot at home-schooling, and they will return post-COVID; maybe they won’t. This is no time for complacency. There is serious work to be done!

So why did high schools fare better and are there any lessons regarding governance, administration and finance? Possibly. The median elementary school enrollment in 2019 was 215, compared with 510 for secondary schools; larger schools afford greater efficiencies of scale. Parish investment as a percentage of the school operational budget has remained relatively static in the 9-12 percent range over the last ten years. Secondary school advancement as a percentage of the school operational budget increased from 7.3 percent in 1988 to 13.9 percent in 2018. What is the impact on tuition? Between 2006 and 2019, the average tuition as a percentage of the cost to educate a student increased from 61.1 percent to 75.3 percent in elementary schools, and decreased from 81.5 percent to 73.3 percent in secondary schools.

The disparate impact on urban centers, underserved populations and elementary schools is a logical consequence of a fee-for-service model without much equalization aid. Certainly, many archdioceses have generous tuition-aid programs such as the Today and Tomorrow Foundation here in Saint Louis. However, application of distributive justice to support and sustain Catholic schools is a mixed bag. In 2004, only 33 percent of dioceses had policies and guidelines regarding financial support from non-school parishes that have parishioners attending a neighboring Catholic school; in 2009 that percentage had risen to 48 percent. In 2004 only 14.4 percent of dioceses had policies that required financial support for Catholic schools from all parishes, regardless of whether they have a school or not; in 2009 that percentage had risen to only 28.7 percent.  It’s difficult to argue for distributive justice in the public square when we don’t practice it ourselves.

This leads to the last area for serious reflection: mobilizing parents to demand true educational freedom. Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), following Arizona v. Winn (2011) has opened the door for the aggressive consideration of tax-credit student tuition organizations that present opportunities for the poor to attend Catholic schools. This is a watershed moment for every Catholic school board to have a “legislative whip” connected upwards to the diocesan office and to the State Catholic Conference, and downwards to the “class captains” for each grade. It’s one thing to hear of some rumblings about some tax-credit thing going on in an education committee at the state legislature; it’s another thing entirely when the State Catholic Conference puts out a call to its “legislative whips,” who send the message to “class captains” for each grade, and individual parents get a personal email from a parent they know who calls on them to rally for their rights as parents.  Australia had its Goulburn moment in 1962 that led to financial support for its Catholic schools. It’s time for ours!

A Look at Catholic School Data

The following blog was contributed by Dale McDonald, PBVM, Ph.D., NCEA Director of Public Policy and Educational Research.

Not another survey! I often hear that from busy Catholic school educators to whom surveys and other appeals for information seem ever-present. Requests to complete surveys often require several follow-up pleading reminders to those being asked for their participation. Yet, without comprehensive, reliable, longitudinal data sets, effective planning is not possible.

Comprehensive, current and complete data are needed to provide an understanding of Catholic education as an important sector of American education, to inform the public discussion of educational policy issues and to encourage and improve practice at the school level.

Since 1970, the National Catholic Educational Association has been tasked with obtaining and managing the collection of Catholic school data. Annually NCEA publishes a report on Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the United States. The data analyzed and presented are based on census data collected by each Catholic arch/diocesan school education on behalf of NCEA. The diocesan superintendents have been important collaborators with NCEA in assuring that all schools report information that is current and accurate.

This annual statistical report presents an overview of the historical dimensions of Catholic education and the context of American education in which Catholic schools operate. Also included are Catholic school enrollment and staffing demographic data that highlight school, student and staffing characteristics, tuition and special services provided to students in Catholic schools. Available longitudinal data that track changes over time, both nationally and regionally, enables dioceses and schools to compare their particular schools with others similarly situated as they assess their viability and engage in strategic planning for the future.

Another NCEA publication is the Annual Financial Report. This is based on surveys of Catholic schools conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. While not all schools choose to participate, this summary report highlights some of the national, regional and specific school-type data about schools’ finances, governance, administrative structures, tuition, financial aid and other relevant fiscal issues. The data provide diocesan and local school leaders with relevant information needed to understand and appreciate the many aspects of school finance that are a prerequisite for planning and good stewardship. 

In addition, this information presents a clear picture of the financial contributions and sacrifices that Catholic school parents, teachers, parishes and dioceses make to educate children. Catholic education is a significant contribution to the common good of the nation, not only in the morally educated citizens it produces, but also in the substantial taxpayer savings of more than 20 billion dollars annually.

Busy school administrators know the importance of having and using data in managing school finances, effective instruction, student learning outcomes and long-term viability and are grateful to have it provided in a format that is readily accessible. But to have good data, all need to help provide it. As the lottery ads used to say, “You have to be in it to win it!” Catholic school leaders, please think twice about what your data can contribute before you hit the delete key!

Our Obligation Is Today

The following blog was contributed by John Reyes, Ed.D., executive director of operational vitality at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

Yesterday, we released a data brief highlighting some of the most important findings of our annual research on school enrollment and staffing in Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Since the 1970s, NCEA has collected and published this data, United States Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools 2020 – 2021, on an annual basis for the benefit of advancing awareness and advocacy for Catholic schools.

Make no mistake about it – these are difficult and challenging findings that demand collective soul-searching and critical reflection. However you choose to dress it, the generational impact of the pandemic on Catholic schools ought to compel us to reflect and act from the deepest convictions we hold about the work we do in Catholic schools.

Most importantly, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, we ought to remember that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

It is NCEA’s deepest conviction that the work we did over the last several months and for decades will be transformative. We know that it will be instrumental to a greater awareness and ownership of the challenges, vulnerabilities and opportunities that lie ahead of us.

In the coming days, expect to hear more voices from the field as to how we ought to galvanize ourselves and each other in the ever-present calling to educate young people and their families in the beauty, truth and goodness of Jesus Christ, regardless of the circumstance.

We at NCEA know the passion and dedication that makes Catholic schools possible. We have been teachers, principals, coaches, colleagues, superintendents, parents and supporters of Catholic schools, and it is from that deep well of experience and response to crisis that we recognize our obligation. Our responsibility is not merely to comfort; it is to empower.

We must acknowledge the facts, while remaining hopeful and focused on finding solutions to the challenges we face.

Our obligation to our students and their families is renewed today.