Wednesday, December 21, 2005

May God have mercy

I’ve been in Catholic education for 21 years now. A few days ago, I attended the funeral for a former student who committed suicide. It was my fourth such funeral.

The first student was a son of a doctor, who killed himself in the early 1990’s, while a sophomore in college. The second was a most troubled young man, even in high school, who ended his life at the age of 28 about five years ago. The third was a 1991 graduate of Catholic High, a priest and our chaplain, who died this July at 32 years. In this latest case, we buried the only son of a female faculty member, who killed himself at the age of 34.

Interestingly, all were young men. I know each of these families well, and I cannot deduce any common denominator beyond that, except that they all came from loving families, contrary to what one might think. Two were raised by single mothers, two were part of in tact families. Two were only children, whereas two were from larger families. One was intelligent, the other three were average in academic abilities. With the exception of the second student, nothing about their lives in high school “red-flagged” them as suicide risks. Life treated them poorly after graduation.

Still, I am angry. Suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness. If that sounds too harsh, one need only attend any of these four funerals and witness first hand the anguish and guilt that the mother, father, sisters, aunts, grandparents, cousins, teachers, friends and ministers felt on that occasion. They are haunted by the questions "What more could I have done?" and "Why?" For these families, everything in their lives came to a crashing halt for several weeks, assuming that they are able to resume some sort of normalcy in that length of time. Some will never recover entirely.

One image I cannot shake from this recent funeral is that of the broken mother, a colleague of mine and a woman full of spirit and strength on every other occasion that I have known her. God, I weep for her! There can be no greater hurt than this.

The Catechism has it right when it says:

“(Suicide ) offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.” (2281)

Yet we also know that while objectively these young men have committed an act of supreme selfishness, subjectively, because of their overwhelming mental anguish, their guilt is lessened. For this reason, the Cathechism also says:

”Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” (2282)

Because we believe in a loving and forgiving God, we know that God will forgive each of my former students. Despite whatever crosses they carried, there will be a resurrection, for God will have mercy on them.

My prayers are for the tormented families who remain behind. May God have mercy on THEIR souls most of all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Do High School Grades Really Matter?

Do grades matter? Let me say with enthusiasm, yes! And with equal enthusiasm, no!

In order to dissect this oxymoronic answer, let me first speak from the perspective of college admissions. Grades don’t matter as much as you might think. That’s because colleges have several problems relying on grades to make admissions decisions. First, grades are ridiculously inflated across the country. In Alabama where I live, the average ACT score is a full point below the national average, but according to the self-reported section of that test, our average g.p.a. is 3.1 (a B). If the letter grade of “C” were truly accurate, reflecting the “average”, our g.p.a. should be somewhere in the 1.8-2.0 range. It’s no different in other states. The effect, quite frankly, is that colleges cannot trust grades as accurate reflections of achievement or abilities.

The second problem colleges have is that grading varies wildly from school to school. A typical state university may get 10,000 applications from 2,000 different high schools. Among the 2000 may be elite private, urban public, public magnet, rural, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and evangelical Christian schools. Each has a different mission, caters to a different demographic, comes from a community with a different expectation, and aims for different outcomes. The net result is that a “4.0 g.p.a”, for example, simply doesn’t mean the same thing from school to school. As an example, in one large public school in Montgomery last year, there were 17 students who graduated with perfect 4.0 averages. In the 21 years I’ve been associated with our school, there has only been one student who has graduated with a 4.0. Colleges know that grade point averages don’t allow them to make “apples to apples” comparisons of applicants from different schools.

Finally, even within the SAME high school, grade point averages do not reliably compare students. A student who takes an honors and A.P. curriculum for four years may have a lower grade point average than a student who has taken less demanding classes.

As a result, colleges don't rely heavily on high school grades for college entrance. Rather, they are far more trusting of national standardized tests, either the SAT or the ACT, precisely because they compare students by the same measuring stick. To the extent that grades matter at all, some schools compare test scores to g.p.a. to determine work habits (a high test score with mediocre grades reveals something about character), while many of the elite colleges ask for a student’s class rank (which helps them contextualize a student’s grade point by comparing it to their school’s peers). Grades mean little on their own.

You may be thinking, “But don’t some scholarships require a certain grade point average”? Yes, but look carefully at the criteria. Typically, the top scholarships will say something like “minimum 32 on the ACT and 3.5+ grade point average”. Roughly 20% of those attending college have 3.5+ high school grade points, but less than 1% score a 32+ on the ACT. The true discriminator for academic scholarships is almost always the test score, not the grade point average.

If all that is true, what is the best strategy for positioning students for college entrance? Quite simply, students should take the most difficult and challenging set of courses that with hard work, they are able to earn a “C” or better in. As a former principal, I used to hear parents say “I don’t want my son/daughter to take _________ (fill in the demanding class) because it will hurt his/her grade point average. “ Nothing could be more wrong-headed! Yes, sometimes parents may judge it’s not in their child's best interest to take all the tough classes because of the stress of juggling them with his or her other commitments (are the priorities right?), but if the intent is to produce a higher grade point average so as to put their child in better stead with college admission counselors, it’s simply misguided for two reasons:

First, being stretched for four years by demanding classes will yield higher test scores, which, as I have argued, is the criteria that matters most.

Second, schools like Notre Dame and other elite schools are beginning to ask school counselors this question as part of the application process:

“On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most demanding curriculum available at your school and 1 being the easiest, rate the difficulty level of the student’s curriculum”.

What colleges now realize is that the student's choice of courses, especially in his junior and senior year when there are more electives, is often a better predictor of college success than even the grades the student may earn in those courses. It’s better to get a “C” in A.P. Physics or Calculus than it is to make an A or B in lesser science or math electives, regardless of the impact on the grade point average.

What, then, is the point of striving for a good grade? Aha!--this is precisely where grades really DO matter—to the extent that they represent how hard a student is striving! For sure, students will always see grades as an end in themselves. That’s OK. But as adults, we need to value grades not in themselves, but as feedback to us as to how hard our child is working. If we have a very bright child who coasts through classes with a “B”, we should be very upset with our child. If we have a child who truly struggles but does his homework every night, attends after school tutorials, and pays attention in class, then we should take evident pride in our child, even if he fails from time to time and his report card is littered with “D’s”. I recommend that the parents of these hard working, less able children take their child to dinner to celebrate their “success” and their pride in their child’s effort, even before report cards come out.

In the end, grades are carrots. Good teachers understand this, and forever dangle the carrots a little further beyond what students think they're able to achieve, so as to stretch them to achieve even more. As parents, our expectation for our children should not be for a certain set of grades, but for consistent effort. We want our children to learn to work hard, and we want them to attend a school which is courageous enough to tell them the truth about how hard they are working, even if they sometimes earn less than stellar grades. If they learn to work hard, then the grades—and college admissions—will take care of themselves.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Layered Assessments

I. The “dilemma” of academic diversity

Because we are an archdiocesan school, Montgomery Catholic is blessed by an extraordinary diversity of academic talent, ranging from students who are merit finalists to students who really struggle to achieve minimal course goals. With the exception of Math and English (which are tracked in an honors/non-honors sequence), all students attend classes together. Even within the tracked classes, there is a range of talent and ability.

Teachers, when designing an assessment, must make an impossible choice: Do we create a test that truly challenges our best and brightest, at the expense of our weakest? Or do we create an assessment that is “doable” for weaker students, but does not extend the top students? Faced with this choice, most teachers aim for the middle, where the negative effects on both groups are minimized, yet remain. Over the course of a 7th-12th grade curriculum, the effects of aiming for the middle are predictable: high achievers have college test scores that are not as high as they could be, and less able students have a VERY difficult time in the curriculum, as reflected in grade point averages which are lower than anyone wants.

II. Three ways to address:

There are only three ways that I know to address this dilemma substantially.

The first is to rigidly track students up and down the curriculum, allowing teachers to target each test to the class based on their ability. Without this article becoming a war over the pros and cons of tracking, suffice it to say tracking gives up a lot in terms of building a community of students, putting student leaders in a position to be leaders in their peer group (can we reasonably expect our good students to lead peers who they only know as acquaintances in the hallways?) and there’s at least some research that says tracking hurts the lower track students and doesn’t help the higher track. Besides, for us it’s a moot point, because we couldn’t do it anyway without re-structuring our program completely.

The second way is to give broad, open ended assessments which are graded on a rubric, instead of objective tests that are graded on a percentage. If, for example, I ask students to engage in a debate or perform a musical piece and grade this debate or performance on a 1 (low) and 4 (high) rubric, my less able students may work toward a 2+ or 3, whereas my top students could work to achieve the 4, without either group affecting the ability of the other to be successful. There are many web sites that assist teachers in developing such rubrics like this one which make our jobs easier. I believe we should give more of these kinds of assessments; they can often be exciting, interesting tools that significantly extend the “dryer” content of the class.

Still, even teachers committed to giving these open ended assessments would agree that objective tests should be a standard part of the teacher’s assessment “arsenal”. What then?

III. Layered Assessments

The third way of handling academic diversity on tests is through what is often called a “layered assessment”. Though there are many ways to implement this idea, here’s how I would advocate we should do it at Montgomery Catholic:

Layer I: The first layer will be comprised of factual recall, translation and simple application problems and questions. Typically, this layer will comprise the bulk of the overall assessment. This layer is graded like any other test, by percentage correct (or by rubric). A student who scores less than 60% fails, between 60-69% a D, 70-79% a C, 80-89% a B. The only difference is a student cannot earn an "A" on this layer. Students may get up to a “B+” on this layer if they score 89% or higher.

Layer II: The second layer will be comprised of more advanced application problems, analysis or synthesis level questions. Successful completion of this level (70%+) adds a full letter grade (or 10 points, if scored numerically) to whatever is achieved in layer I. Thus to earn an “A” for the assessment, a student must receive a “B” on layer one, and pass layer II to increase their grade for the A.

If, in the opinion of the teacher, a student does reasonably well on layer II but does not pass it (for example, 50%), the teacher may award 5 bonus points to the overall layer one score, provided that this doesn't elevate the student's grade to an A. The only way to achieve an A is by successful completion of Layer II.

All students, then, should be required to attempt both levels, since it can only help them.

IV. Grading examples:

1. A student gets 73/90 on layer one (= 81%). So on level 1 he has a “B-”. He then scores a 7/10 on layer II, which means he has passed the second layer. This means the teacher adds one full letter grade to his B from layer I = A- for the overall assessment. The teacher records an “A-” (or a "91") in the grade book.

This works the same if the same teacher wanted to give an essay on either layer I or II, rather than grade by percentages. The teacher creates a rubric to determine if each essay is successfully completed. Whatever grade the layer one essay earns, if the student passes layer II, the overall grade is increased by one full letter grade.

2. A student gets 73/90 on layer one (=81%=B) as above, but gets 2/10 on layer two. The second layer isn’t successfully completed, so there’s neither a bonus nor a penalty; he receives a B- (or 81) for the assessment.

3. A student gets a 70/90 on layer I (=78%=C) and a 5/10 on layer II. Though he did not pass layer II, the teacher may give that student 5 points toward level I, which would elevate his layer I score to an 83 (=B). In effect, the layer II acts as a "bonus" question here.

4. A student gets a 90/90 on level I. He has a B+ so far. If he passes layer II he will receive a full letter grade bump to an A+. If not, he has a B+.

5. Typically, a student who does poorly on layer I will likely do poorly on layer II. Nevertheless, the same principles apply: A student who fails level I but passes level II gets a letter grade bump from an “F” to a “D”.

V. Benefits of a Layered Assessment:

The layered assessment is an attempt to challenge the top tier students with meaningful, challenging extensions of class material, so that over the course of their 6 years at MCPS, they will be able to think at higher levels. We believe this will translate into higher ACT, PSAT and SAT scores for college.

At the same time, the layering aids less able students grade-wise. Since the higher level questions are bracketed in layer II, these questions do not hurt the weaker students’ ability to get as high as a B on the test. A traditional test which contains 10-20% of “A-level” questions (that a weaker student is less likely to successfully complete) significantly narrows the window of success for less able students; they must get a high percentage of every other question correct to pass.

Also, by labeling the questions clearly as “level I” or “level II”, the teacher helps the weaker student by identifying those questions which gives him the most chance of success. (Sometimes, weaker students will spend too much time on questions that are beyond their scope.)

In some cases, the stronger student benefits grade-wise from this system, too, by giving him more margin for error in obtaining an “A”. In a traditional system, to achieve an A, the student must get just about every question right, or “92%+. But using the layers, a student may miss a few “layer one” questions and still be able to achieve an A. In the grading example from # 1 above, by way of illustration, if the student were graded traditionally, he’d have an 80% (73/90 + 7/10) or a B. But in the layered system, he would have an A.

Everybody wins.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Three Proposals Regarding Catholic Schools

Applying the Bishops' Recent Statement to the Archdiocese of Mobile

The United States Bishops recently wrote a pastoral letter on Catholic schools, entitled “Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools” (2005). In this statement the bishops commit to the goal “of making Catholic education available, accessible and affordable to all Catholics and their children, including the poor and the middle class. “ This commitment is the right one, the bishops say, because “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the fourfold purpose of Christian education: namely to provide an atmosphere in which the Gospel message is proclaimed, community in Christ is experienced, service to our sisters and brothers is the norm, and thanksgiving and worship of our God is cultivated”.

As a practical matter, if it’s true that our Catholic schools provide the fullest and best opportunity for the education of our children, how do we ensure the future health of these schools in our archdiocese? I would like to pull out three ideas from this letter and suggest concrete ways for making them happen here:

1) Under the section on finances, the bishops write:

"The burden of supporting our Catholic schools can no longer be placed exclusively on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition. This will require all Catholics, including those in parishes without schools, to focus on the spirituality of stewardship."

I agree, but this is too much of an abstraction to prompt a plan of action. In our diocese, most parishes with Catholic K-8 elementary schools spend a hugely disproportionate share of their parish tithe on Catholic education compared to those parishes without schools. Yes, the parishes without schools subsidize the Catholic school dependent on the number of children from their parish that attend the nearby Catholic school, but this subsidy doesn’t even begin to even out the parish resources being spent between the two.

Therefore, I propose: Establish a diocesan parish tax for our Catholic schools based on a percentage of the annual parish tithe. This is in effect how we run our chancery offices, levying a 5% tax on the total income of each parish. The monies collected could be used as an archdiocesan scholarship fund for needy families or used to defray operational expenses in our schools, keeping tuitions lower for all.

2) The bishops remark further:

"While we have made progress in opening offices for development, endowments, marketing, and institutional advancement, we must expand those efforts on both the diocesan and local levels… Diocesan and school leaders should continue actively to pursue financial support from the business and civic communities. Our total Catholic community must increase efforts to address the financial needs of our Catholic school administrators, teachers, and staff."

In our diocese, whatever progress we've made in development, endowments and marketing relative to Catholic schools has been a function of individual schools, and not the diocese as a whole. Schools with resources have hired development directors, but the schools who arguably need it most cannot afford such a "luxury". Therefore I propose an archdiocesan endowment fund for Catholic schools. This is hardly radical, as many dioceses all over the country have begun such funds years ago, some with great success. Once the fund has reached a pre-determined level, the interest can be used for the benefit of scholarships for needy families or to offset operational costs.

The advantages of a diocesan endowment fund vs. local school endowment funds are many: First, an archdiocesan fund allows the bishop to be a major actor in the solicitation of funds (perhaps through an annual appeal, similar to Catholic Charities). Second, poorer schools and parishes don’t have the kind of affluent connections which make fund-raising a success. Third, larger businesses are likelier to give a single donation to a single annual cause than to the thousands of small causes, which each of their employees may champion. Finally, we can entrust our diocesan funds to professional money managers, rather than expect our beleaguered principals or pastors to make informed investment decisions.

3. The bishops write:

“Our challenge today is to provide schools close to where our Catholic people live. In areas where there currently are no Catholic schools, we should open schools that have a mission to evangelize.”

The current configuration of our Catholic schools is the result of historical happenstance, with little system-wide planning since. This isn't so much a criticism of anyone, as a recognition that our schools were formed as parochial structures, serving the needs of individual parishes. But our parochial assumptions now need a critical re-evaluation. Schools in once thriving neighborhoods are now in poorer areas, struggling to say open. Three schools in our diocese have closed in the last five years, with several more hanging on heroically. Rather than allow a kind of Darwinian evolution to take place, I propose we commission the equivalent of a “Blue Ribbon Commission” (ala the BRAC commission regarding military base realignments) to study the needs of Catholic education through-out our entire diocese, recommending new Catholic schools where the evidence suggest they will thrive (a Catholic high school in Baldwin County? an elementary school in Autauga/Elmore County?) and recommending the regionalization of schools where appropriate. Of course, the bishop would have to approve any of these recommendations.

Having worked in our archdiocese for over twenty years now, I know these are unsettling proposals. I also know that unless we begin to think creatively, the magnificent gift to our local church which is Catholic education is in peril. Left on their own, our Catholic schools will die….one school at a time.

Monday, September 19, 2005

What accounts for Catholic School Quality?

Four Differences Between Public and Catholic Schools

What accounts for the quality of Catholic Schools? Nationally, this is a question which has been garnering more attention, as educational reformers look to our schools as a means of improving public education. Let me say at the outset that our schools are hardly perfect, and frankly, some of the public school teachers I've known are better than we are. They are often better trained. Still, I believe there are four differences at the structural level that account for the general quality of Catholic schools.

A. Market-Driven

I’d like to begin with an obvious comment, which is also true of all private schools—we must be market-conscious. The reality is if we begin to not do our job, if we are not responsive to the needs of our parents or students, they simply vote with their feet by withdrawing their children, and pretty soon, we don’t have any kids left and our school closes down. Competition is good for us, I believe, and it motivates us to work harder. If the local private school has a better athletic program than we do, does that affect our enrollment? Absolutely, and we better improve. If the other builds a new school building, does that affect us? If the third has National Merit Scholars and we don’t, that hurts us. Again, I think that one of the real dilemmas that public education faces, everywhere, is that if their families do not have the financial wherewithal to leave their school for area private schools, they have very little incentive to improve and they hold an educational monopoly. That can often make them unresponsive to parental concerns.

This theory is, of course, what is behind the move by some to push for vouchers for public education. Vouchers are a means to introduce market variables into the public school equation. I think they’re worthy of at least trying on a limited scale at first, but I am not convinced they are a panacea, because there are two caveats that we must watch out four being a school that is competing in the market place, and which public schools would also have to be wary about:

• The first is there is often a temptation to be focused on the wrong things. Does being “market-driven” force us to spend too much of our educational dollars, as an example, on marketing, using valuable dollars that could otherwise go into the classroom? Using my city in Montgomery, Al as an example, the amount of time, attention and money the area private schools are spending on marketing is becoming almost over the top—it is ridiculously competitive in Montgomery for students, due in part because there are too many schools chasing too few students. I was the United Way rep for private schools in Montgomery two years ago, and I was staggered to learn there were over 35 private schools K-12 or parts of K-12 in Montgomery. On the one hand, you better be good. On the other hand, you better be savvy in marketing—and I worry about this—could we be spending this money more productively on raising teacher salaries? Purchasing classroom supplies? Updating our technology?

• The second caveat is that when you are market driven, there is some pressure to relax standards or to give in where in principle we should not. If a child is struggling academically, one might guess that there is conflict in the home, and where there is no “domestic tranquility” there is often squawking to the school about a particular teacher who is too difficult, or a grading system which is too hard, or a teacher who “doesn’t like my child”. And if the school doesn’t handle these complaints well, pretty soon they begin to lose students—so there is a temptation to give in. I believe this partly explains grade inflation in colleges and universities, as well as in K-12 schools.

These two caveats aside, however, I believe on the whole that being in a competitive market helps create a dynamic for responsiveness and quality which is essential to Catholic school success. For this reason, I would think that vouchers would be a worthwhile experiment to try on a limited basis as a means of improving public education. Florida, for example, gives vouchers to families whose children attend what the Florida Department of Education declares are failing schools, and these families can use that voucher to attend a local private or Catholic school. I have a hard time finding fault with that, unless one wants to argue that the school’s fate, which may close if too many families leave, is more important that the children it is failing to educate.

B. Subsidiarity.

The organizational principle which characterizes Catholic schools is subsidiarity—This is an idea also stressed in our Catholic social teaching tradition, which emphasizes that “higher” organizations should never usurp the role and responsibility of organizations below it unless the lower organization is unable to accomplish the task. To put it more directly, things are best handled at the lowest level possible. So in the area of politics, Catholic social teaching would argue for limited federal intervention in state affairs, and limited state intervention in local affairs—only to the extent necessary. In the area of schooling, most Catholic diocesan school offices are set up to give broad oversight to schools, to establish broad umbrella policies within which schools work and set local policies, but then to encourage local school boards, principals and faculty to customize their school according to the needs of their various communities. Here’s how that plays out in practical ways:

1. Each individual Catholic school has its own school board which sets policy for local school
2. Each school board sets its own budget, tuition and salary rates (ratified by superintendent)
3. Each principal has relative freedom to interpret policy and implement policy at the school.
4. Monetary decisions are made, consistent with budget, by the local school principal
5. The local board hires/fires principal
6. The principal hires/supervises/fires faculty and staff.

I submit that is a very different organizational structure than is typical of public schools. Typically, public schools have one county or city school board which is responsible for as many as 30-50-100 schools. That school board establishes district policy, which principals then implement. The amount of revenue each school receives is set by the state on a per pupil basis. Budgets are passed for the entire school district by this board, and then the superintendent works with those numbers for each school. Individual principals have very little discretion over how money is spent in their school. I worked with a large public high school (+2000 students) in the metro area, and talked with the principal about what parts of his budget he exercised control over. His budget was over 7 million dollars, but the only piece of it he controlled was the revenue they made from the coke machines at lunch time!

I believe the principal of subsidiarity is a critical component to Catholic schools’ historical success in this country. By way of analogy, from 1,000 feet in the air, every farmer’s crop looks the same---little rectangular patches of farmland. The poor man’s fields look the same as the rich man’s fields. But at ground level, you can see the nuances between them. The wealthier farmer may have an irrigation system that insulates his crops against droughts, and resulting yields are much higher.

Relative to schools, the question is always, what are our greatest needs? Where do we need to spend money and how can we spend it to be most effective? Who should we ask to run this or that program? I have so much more discretion and flexibility to answer that question than my colleague at this large public school had.

I believe there are two very practical effects to subsidiarity, both of which turn out to be critical to schools' success:

1. Schools end up spending money more efficiently. Because public schools are so highly centralized, they have comparatively large central offices. There was a 2002 study which studied the organizational structures of several large public school systems and the three largest Catholic school systems in the country. The differences are staggering. New York public schools employed 2311 central office personnel per 100,000 students. Los Angeles public schools employed 1646 personnel per 100K. Chicago employed 983 personnel. By contrast, the New York archdiocese employed just NINE central office workers per 100K, whereas the Chicago archdiocese had 19 and LA had 24. New York public schools employ 256 times as many central office staff as New York Catholic schools per 100,000 students. Not surprisingly, then, the average per pupil expenditure in Catholic schools are typically MUCH less than in public schools. In the New York comparison, even after subtracting the government funded special programs and compensatory programs for children in poverty, bilingual education for non-English speakers, special programs for various categories of disability, the costs of transportation and the cost of food services, the average per child expenditure for Catholic schools was 46.8 % of the public school costs.

Our budgets are created at each local school, by a local school Council. We’re able to target that money to the point it is most needed on an annual basis. Circumstances sometimes change, and because budget decisions are made at the local level, we’re able to respond to changing circumstances quickly. In the long run, that allows us flexibility that highly centralized systems don’t have, and allows us to spend our money well.

2. Second, and this may even be more critical than the money—subsidiarity encourages direct parental involvement in the school. In our school, for example, our local board is made up of parents in the school. Our parents have the ability to set school policy. Our parents have the ability, therefore, to set tuition rates, create salary charts for our teachers, and create and pass the budgets. When you give parents real authority, you get involvement and you get ownership. I often hear public school advocates moan about the lack of community ownership, the lack of parental interest, in their schools. But I believe this is partly bred by the fact that if you are a parent at that school, you have very little power to effect change. You must go before a district board that runs 30-50-100 schools, and they often don’t have time or the inclination to get into nuances that may affect one segment of one school among the many they serve.

C. A Common Mission

One of the greatest blessings we have as a Catholic school, different, even, from private schools, is that our essential mission is a given, a non-negotiable, and this allows us a certain amount of freedom that some schools don’t enjoy. The mission of every Catholic school in America is to help children develop as faithful, educated people, helping them develop an integrated world view of faith and academics. To put it directly, our job is produce well educated, happy and holy children, and there are established philosophies, practices and doctrines that are defined by our Church as pivotal ways to do this. We don’t have to worry about questions that often tear other schools apart, like whether or not to teach about evolution, or safe sex—these are settled questions in Catholic doctrine/morality (we can and we can’t, BTW). We don’t have to spend an enormous amount of money on vocational programs, trying to be all things to all people, because our high school mission (and name) says we’re a college preparatory program. In an increasingly pluralistic society, it’s increasingly hard for other schools to define a mission specifically enough where it can weed out good ideas from bad ideas—this clearly plagues universities, which offer everything from degrees in Physics to degrees in the circus, literally.

D. Legal structures

Private/Catholic schools and public schools operate under different legal parameters. Public schools are essentially controlled by constitutional law. In Catholic schools, teachers and administrators function “in loco parentis”, in the place of parents, which gives us much more freedom in our handling of kids. We operate not out of “constitutional law” parameters by through “contract law”, which means we must spell out policies in our student handbooks and then follow those policies very carefully. Should we get into a lawsuit, the ultimate question will be “Is the school following the rules it layed down and spelled out to all?” If yes, by the voluntary participation in that school, a family agrees to those rules and must abide by them. If we haven’t followed our own rules, then we’re in trouble.

What I personally believe, and the way we’ve tried to run our school, is that schools need to have maximum flexibility to do what it needs to do to help kids become the kind of people God wants them to be, so if we’re smart, we’re not going to define things too specifically in our policy handbook. In our public schools here in town, there is a disciplinary handbook that defines punishment depending on the type of offense, and there are level one, level 2, level 3 offenses with a certain punishment assigned for each offense. When I was much younger, I used to think this is the way we should run our school. Before I was a principal, I was critical of our previous principal because he didn't do it that way. Once, two students were caught doing the same thing wrong—something like cursing at the teacher. In one case, the principal gave the young man a 3 day out of school suspension. In the other case, he gave the young man a long list of summer projects in the early summer—weeding flower beds, dusting tops of fans. I thought that was unjust and unfair.

So, when I became principal, I vowed to be "fair". I created my own "disciplinary handbook" to help me mete out justice blindly., After three months, however, I tore up the handbook and threw it away, because it was forcing me to do things to students that I KNEW were ineffective for particular students.

Instead, I have come to realize that my ability to discipline kids is only limited by my imagination to help them get the message—I’ve had kids do volunteer work in the community, wax the school bus in my neighborhood, yes, the tried and true practice from the nuns of scraping gum from under tables, washing blackboards, picking up paper in the parking lot, shoveling gravel rock into school pathways….anything to help them take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Doesn’t mean we won’t suspend kids, if I think that is effective. Just means there is very little that merits automatic consequences. My mission as school disciplinarian is not to mete out justice, but to shape lives and do what is most effective, a child at a time, to affect that.

Shortly thereafter I wrote a brief parable which was autobiographical:

And it so happened that a new principal, wishing to make a good impression, said:

“I will treat all students the same for fairness sake”.

Shortly thereafter, two students were sent to the principal for the same disciplinary infraction. The principal said: “Policy dictates each of you receive a 3 day out of school suspension”.

The first young man, working closely with his parents, came back to school with a resolve to do better. The second young man dropped out of school.

And everyone agreed the principal was fair”.

What I have come to understand is that the essential ingredient needed for school success is the ability to do whatever I need to do for each individual child to help them grow into the people God wants them to be. In other words, an essential ingredient to a school is the ability of the school to love its students.

I do not suggest for a second that public school teachers don’t love their students—I think the good ones, like our good ones, really DO love the kids. But they are institutionally hamstrung by a legal structure that FORCES them to treat kids essentially the same, in ways that will meet constitutional and legal scrutiny. We are able, in contrast, to craft school policies in such a way that builds in flexibility. Here’s the sum of what our student policy handbook says about discipline:

“Disciplinary action will be taken with students who intentionally disregard policies and regulations”

I have left it deliberately vague so that I have maximum flexibility as a principal to do whatever I need to do for that student.

E. Summary

So, in summary, I believe there are four areas in which Catholic schools, and I am guessing some private schools, are able to insure quality:

• Being market driven, which forces us to be responsive to our student and parents’ needs

• Following the principle of subsidiarity, which allows local schools to have real authority for themselves, and set school policies and create budgets to meet their specific needs, and which also encourages parental involvement in the school.

• Having a non-negotiable mission, which allows us to be selective in how we use our resources

• Being able to operate within a legal structure that allows us maximum flexibility, which I claim is a necessary component in handling each student with love. As with all of us, what we ultimately need is love.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Home-Schooling, Canon Law and the Catholic School Apostolate

In the interest of disclosure, I should say at the outset that the rise of the Catholic home-schooling movement is a personal issue for me. I have been a Catholic school teacher, principal and president for over twenty years, while friends whom I admire greatly have opted not to send their children to any of the Catholic schools available to them, choosing instead to home school.

Using these friends as an example, this is the dilemma for our Church: They are wonderful, creative, well-educated parents--in other words, fully capable of educating their children well. On the other hand, it is precisely these kind of parents that Catholic schools depend upon to be leaven for the school communities they serve.

Reflecting on this issue has led me to re-read many of the documents of our Church regarding parental responsibilities and rights and Catholic schools. The materials are voluminous, but I believe I can fairly present the essence of our Church's teachings in a couple of statements from the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law:

"Parents and those who take their place are bound by the obligation and possess the right of educating their offspring. Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances." (Canon 793);


"Parents are to entrust their children to those schools in which Catholic education is provided; but if they are unable to do this, they are bound to provide for their suitable Catholic education outside the schools." (Canon 798)

The first canon recognizes a long-standing principle in Catholic theology and educational philosophy, that parents are the primary educators of their children and as such have both a right and duty to educate them in the faith without undue interference from the state (see also canons 226, 1136, or "Gaudium et Spes" #50, Vatican II). Thus our Church gives parents wide latitude in making educational decisions they believe are in the best interest of their children, including, when necessary, the right to home-school, as long as they are making a sincere effort to educate their children in the Catholic faith.

At the same time, canon 798 indicates that Catholic schools should be the presumptive choice of Catholic parents to educate their children in the faith, unless these parents are unable to do so (see also "Gravissimum Educationis" #8, Vatican II). Obviously, "unable" would apply in the case of parents who find themselves in areas without Catholic schools, or those who, if their parish or school doesn't provide financial assistance, cannot afford a Catholic school. But in light of the latitude parents enjoy as primary educators, might the meaning of "unable" be extended further?

In a widely circulated article over the internet ("Home Schooling in Canon Law", see Benedict Nguyen, chancellor of the diocese of La Crosse, WI, a canon lawyer and home-schooler, argues that "unable to do so" could either mean physically or morally unable. Thus, if parents believed that a Catholic school misrepresented the faith, or wasn't "Catholic enough" or even if parents had no religious objections to a school but instead thought the school could not academically challenge their child, they would be "morally unable" to send their child to the Catholic school and acting within their rights as primary educators, in accord with both canons 793 and 798.

I find Mr. Nguyen's position ultimately persuasive, but with the following considerations:

First, our teachings do make clear that Catholic schools are to be the presumptive choice of parents absent compelling or serious reasons to the contrary. Catholic schools are not to be regarded as one choice among many options, but the preferred choice of our Church for our children. To argue to the contrary is to render canon 798 and other like statements meaningless.

Second, in the event that parents exercise their right to choose to home-school their children, they have a duty in conscience to be well informed about the serious reason they reject the Catholic school option. Frankly, as a Catholic school principal, I am often astounded how many good, well meaning folks are willing to judge a school on the basis of a rumor, an impression or an isolated incident. Often their impression is formed by recurring myths, like "Catholic schools don't challenge the top students" or they "don't teach the faith" or they "accept too many problem kids" or whatever else might be said. They would never buy a car or an investment property on the basis of such scant information, but they're willing to render judgment on the local Catholic school with almost no facts. As a principal, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with these parents, talk directly about their concerns and invite them to talk with other, informed parents prior to their decision to home-school. I'm sure many pastors would feel likewise.

Finally, while I believe Church polity gives parents both the right to choose and benefit of the doubt in making these choices, there is an other layer to this question beyond "rights" which ought to come into play, reflecting back to my comment that Catholic schools need parents like my friends as leaven. Specifically, Vatican II makes it clear that as laity, we share in our Church's apostolic mission to bring Christ to the world (Apostolicam Actuositatem, Vatican II). This is a mission that extends beyond the mere reaches of our family. When Catholic families embrace our schools and become active within them, when they become board members, room mothers, coaches, team moms, guest speakers, lawn cutters, cafeteria workers, PTO representatives and all the other hundreds of things they can become as a school parent, they participate in a very concrete, powerful way in our school's apostolate--our Church's apostolate--to bring Christ's healing and wholeness to a broken world.

For sure, it's quite possible that a home-schooling family can be actively involved in some other parish apostolic activity outside of their primary mission to educate their young. But let's also recognize this reality: there's only so much of us to go around! When our child enters kindergarten, as parents we begin a journey that for the next 13 years will consume our time, energy and passion. Choosing a school will not only define our child's fate, but will also determine who we are by our friendships and the commitments of our time to our children's various causes. By joining a vibrant Catholic school community and becoming active within it, we are able to simultaneously and seamlessly contribute to the education of both our own and other families' children.

Or, to put it in another way, speaking as a Catholic school principal, directly to my friends and other home-schoolers across the country:

We need you!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Grading "Rules of Thumb"

The Problem: Grade Inflation. All of us give grades as teachers. Students have a tendency to see them as the purpose or the “end” of their studying, but as teachers, we should view grades as the “means”. We use grades as carrots, really, to inspire the kids to learn. They are powerful motivators if we use them well, making A’s truly representative of superior achievement, making F’s the “earned” grade for students who are not working, and reclaiming the “B” as a grade indicative of above average achievement or effort.

There are many theories as to why our educational system is wanting, and perhaps there’s an element of truth in all of these theories. One contributing factor, for sure, is grade inflation. If obtaining good grades is easy, then it’s obvious that there is less motivation to work hard. In the self-reporting section of the ACT test, Alabama students intending to go to college report an average high school cumulative average of 3.1. At the same time, the average ACT score is 20.2, or .7 points below the national average. Most grading scales would claim that a “B” is “above average”, but the fact of the matter is a B is now the average grade, and perhaps even more alarming, the “A” is the mostly commonly given of all grades in our nation’s high schools.

What’s true of the high schools is true for our colleges. One university professor I know, so disturbed by the grade inflation at his school, wrote an open letter to the university, suggesting, tongue in cheek, that the grades of B through F be eliminated entirely from the grading scale, and replaced with A+++, A++ , A+ and A, with an A being the lowest passing grade!

Rules of Thumb: If then, this is the environment in which we work, what are some reasonable “rules of thumb” we ought to consider when awarding grades to students? By “rules of thumb”, of course, I don’t mean rules which are inviolable, as every class is unique, and some more talented than others. However, I would argue the following guidelines are about the right balance for high school teachers:

1) First, the grade of an “A” ought to be for superior achievement alone. A’s ought to be reserved for the purpose of stretching our most intelligent students. To be blunt, average ability kids, even those who work very hard, should not generally be able to “earn” an A, as the level of thought and sophistication required to earn an A is beyond their intellectual ability.

There will be some teachers who balk at this, claiming it smacks of intellectual snobbery or elitism. Shouldn’t every child, unless impaired by some learning disorder, perhaps, be able to earn an A? My answer is simply “No”. Here’s why: If you show me a class where the average ability student is able to earn an A through effort, I will show you a class where the top students, frankly, aren’t challenged intellectually. Over the long term, we do a tremendous disservice to these students, who are never challenged to work at their potential.

2) A “B”, on the other hand, ought to be representative of EITHER “above average achievement” or “above average effort”. An average ability child who works very hard ought to be able to earn a B and a bright student who works on an average level ought to be able to receive a B.

A “B” needs to be reclaimed as a good grade, not the average one. Students of average ability who graduate from our high schools with cumulative GPA’s around a 3.0 ought to be recognized as solid citizens and extolled as hard workers. If the student is very smart but doesn’t work particularly hard, it’s possible to demonstrate “above average” performance. Similarly, an average student can earn a B through sheer, consistent effort.

3) A “C” should be an indication that students have learned what is “minimum and essential” in the class.

Put in a different way, a student who receives a grade of “C” in an Algebra I class should have the minimal tools to be successful in Algebra II. No, the student doesn’t have a superior grasp of the material, or even an above average one, but they know the basics.

4) A “D” grade should be rarely given, except as a semester/trimester/yearly average.

If in fact the C represents what is minimal and essential, then what does a “D” really mean? If a student hasn’t learned what is minimal within a specified grading period, he or she should generally fail.

I can think of one exception: when a teacher has an extremely weak student who is working very hard. Because the student is weak, they may not be able to complete work at the “C” level. But because they are working hard, it’s inappropriate to fail them. That’s when I would give a student a D. It tells the student that hard work matters.

Schools that adopt this “D” policy can honestly say to its weakest students and their families that “If the student works hard, he or she will not fail”. That’s a powerful statement for weak students--their ability to pass all core classes in the school is in their hands. Coupled with better grades in P.E. and lighter electives, it's possible for these kids to be successful.

5) An “F” should be given for students who don’t do homework or don’t work in class.

We are reluctant to give F’s because, we say, we are afraid of hurting kids’ self esteem. This is nonsense. The worst lesson we can teach our kids is they can get away without doing what is required of them. Frankly, in any random mix of kids, we probably should have a percentage of F’s in our grades, at least initially, because there will always be a couple of students who will test to see if it really matters if they do homework. It should! In many school systems, despite teachers' rhetoric to the contrary, it doesn't, because those same teachers are unwilling to fail the student.

A typical grading distribution: What, then, would a school’s grading distribution look like if it adopted these principles? That depends on the school and the students within that school! For a school like ours, which is an archdiocesan school that accepts students from the highest to lowest abilities, yet which has an average ACT score of 23.1, I suggest that the following distributions would be the norm for early in the year:

A’s (10-20% in core classes)
B’s (30-40% in core classes)
C’s (30-40% in core classes)
D’s (5-10% in core classes)
F’s (10-20% in core classes)

The average GPA in those core classes would be close to a 2.5 Once other classes, like P.E. and some electives are added in, the GPA might be in the neighborhood of 2.7 –2.8, or a B- average.

As the year progressed, and as students understood that not doing homework yielded a failing grade, I would expect the percentage of F’s to go down, with most of those grades becoming C’s or better.

An anticipated objection: Would a school that graded this stringently hurt their students’ chances of getting a scholarship? If grade inflation is the norm, won't it hurt our students to grade in a manner inconsistent with the norm?

It is hard to convince parents, but the truthful answer is “no”. Here’s why: Colleges understand that grades are inflated around the country. They also understand that different schools have different standards, such that a 4.0 in one school is in no way equal to a 4.0 in a different school. Even further, a GPA within the SAME school may mean something very different—for example, as in the case of two students, one of whom takes an honors curriculum, and the other who takes the easiest classes available. Faced with these myriad problems in comparing GPA’s, most schools base scholarship (and admission) criteria on nationally standardized tests. The ACT and SAT are the great “gate-keepers” for our colleges because they are equalizers in the assessment of abilities.

But aren’t some scholarships contingent on certain test scores AND GPA’s? Yes, but read these criteria closely. For prestigious universities, the typical scholarship criteria would be something like “32+ on the ACT and 3.5+ G.P.A. The reality is that the 3.5 GPA is not a particularly high standard (in most high schools, fully ¼ of the student body would have a 3.5+). But the 32 eliminates just about everybody except the most elite of students. In other words, the GPA's as stand alone criteria really don't matter that much--test scores do.

What some universities have begun to do is pay much more attention to class rank, which in most schools is a combination of GPA and difficulty of courses taken. But because that is an internal number, where students are measured against each other but not relative to other schools, the student is not penalized if the school "grades hard". In addition, schools look at other factors, like involvement in extra-curriculars, leadership positions held, service rendered to others, unusual responsibilities--all of which are grade neutral.

In reality, far from hurting students, if a high school insists that students from the freshman year forward must demonstrate truly superior work for an “A”, that stretching will actually HELP students for college admissions and scholarships, because it will yield higher test scores.

I promise! As an anecdotal story, my oldest son graduated from our high school last May. His GPA was a 3.7— good, but not great. However, his mother and I insisted he take every AP course and honors course our school offered, and his teachers were stingy with the A. The result? He did well on the SAT test, and because of that, was not only accepted to Notre Dame, but received a generous scholarship.

Grades are carrots, and little more. Let’s use them to stretch our kids as far as we can.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Handling Students with Learning Disabilities

Practical advice on what the family/student and teacher/school can do:

"L.D." or "learning disabled" is a generic term that can apply to a wide variety of problems that are neurological in origin and which impair learning. It is helpful for teachers to remember that many learning disabled children, though often unsuccessful academically, are usually of average to above average ability (Albert Einstein, shown here, is a famous dyslexic, as is Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Graham Bell, and entertainers Tom Cruise, Whoopi Goldberg and Jay Leno).

The following discusses some common L.D. types and what we should do as teachers:

1. "A.D.D" or "A.D.H.D" (Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) The most commonly diagnosed of all L.D. problems, both refer, as the name implies, to difficulties with attention spans in students. In the first case, students are predominantly inattentive. IN the second case, they are inattentive and hyperactive, which often creates real problems in the classroom.
Signs of possible A.D.D :

• easily distractible, with even the slightest things. Has difficulty refocusing once distracted
• has difficulty completing tasks, often shifting from one task to the other
• disorganization (keeping track of assignments, directions, often loses books, pencils)
• note taking and handwriting is poor
• often "phases out"/appears to daydream often

Signs of possible A.D.H.D:

• all of the above, but also:
• often blurts out answers, reacts before thinking
• engages in much activity, often accomplishing little
• can't remain in seat, often fiddles with things, distracts his classmates
• is volatile in personality, becomes both defiant on some occasions, apathetic in others
• is sensitive to criticism due to low self confidence, feels he or she is "dumb" or "bad"

Handling the A.D.D./A.D.H.D. child in the classroom:

Successful handling of children with attention deficit is usually a partnership between doctor, families, and the teacher. From the medical side, several drugs have been found to significantly help these students; the most frequently prescribed are Ritalin and Dexedrin. The effect of these drugs on A.D.D. children is usually pronounced, helping them concentrate better, and calming them down. Individual children require different dosages to maximize effectiveness, and often parents will solicit the teacher's help in analyzing behavior relative to dosages, and we should be supportive of these efforts. The most frequent problem with medical therapy is that students often forget to take their medicine on a timely basis. Other problems include taking medicine in the morning that has lost its effectiveness by the afternoon (though there are now time released pills that are helpful) and the understandable reluctance on both parents and students' parts to become totally reliant on medication, which leads to frequent adjusting of dosages.

The other side of treatment involves behavior modification on the part of the family and teachers.

The family and child can do the following:

1) Given the problems he or she has organizing, the child should keep an assignment pad for homework and upcoming events.
2) The family should establish inviolable routines in the household for when homework should be done, where it should be done, how much time it should take.
Homework should be done in a place free from noise and distractions.
3) The family should keep close tabs on their child's progress.
4) The family should remember that A.D.D. is an explanation, it is not a crutch or an "excuse". We ought to help families understand that the same amount and level of work is expected for their children; at the same time, we are willing to give assistance and make reasonable accommodations to help them achieve this work. We can cripple ADD children permanently by making excuses for them, requiring less of them or grading them differently. However, they will need us to do more to help them achieve these standards, and we ought to be willing to give it.

The teacher can do the following:

1) Establish routines in the classroom. When homework is assigned at random times in class, for example, it is predictable that A.D.D. kids will have a hard time keeping track of things.
2) A.D.D. kids should be made to sit in the front of the room, where they will be less distracted by other students. Being in the proximity of the teacher often helps them listen better. The teacher can give quiet, gentle correction when needed.
3) Writing assignments /directions on the board for students to copy is preferable. Give only one task at a time.
4) A variety of classroom activities during a block of class time is essential. Long lectures invite problems. That is simply good teaching, even apart from handling A.D.D. students!
5) Keep more frequent tabs on A.D.D. kids. Contact their parents more often--not just for bad news! Remember that parents of A.D.H.D. kids are often embattled. Positive phone calls would be deeply appreciated and likely cause great positive momentum in your class with their child.
6) Be patient with them. They may often need you to repeat instructions. They may miss things. Teachers can hold up expectations, even as they indicate they care for their students' welfare. Don't mistake an "I don't care attitude" for the real thing. This is often a defense mechanism for their felt inadequacy.
7) During test and quizzes, background noise, music, talking, laughing are terrible for most A.D.D. children. They have problems filtering out these distractions. A well ordered classroom is the best gift we can give ALL of our students.
8) Use graphic organizers when possible in having students complete reading and writing assignments—this helps in the organization of thoughts and in their attentiveness to detail. For a listing of all types of graphic organizers, go here:
9) Because of distractibility and organizational skills, students often work slower. Allowing students to come back after class to finish an essay or extended time for tests should be allowed when possible.
10) There are many other techniques and accommodations an experienced teacher may use to help his or her student with attention deficit disorders. You can find other suggestions on the internet, such as here.

2. Dyslexia
Dyslexia is perhaps the second most common learning disability. There are, as with other learning difficulties, more severe and less severe cases. Signs of dyslexia are usually that the student, who is otherwise a normal to strong student, may spell terribly. Letters are inverted ("b vs. d"), syllables are often off ("aminal" instead of animal) and often their reading is disjointed, skipping words, pausing at the wrong place, etc.

There are different types of this problem, but generally, we can help these students by doing the following:

• We should anticipate that when students are "under the gun" writing timed essays or taking tests, that there will be frequent misspellings. There are two ways of handling this: The first way is to minimalize the impact of spelling on grading. The second way, preferred, is to give the student additional time to "proofread" his or her work after school, after class, etc. with the dictionary in hand. We can insist on better spelling when time is less a factor (as the case when work is done at home), but it should not be a grade determining factor when work cannot be checked for accuracy.
• We should be careful when asking these students to read in class. They are often very embarrassed by their slow reading.
• There are several excellent sites for assisting teachers in helping dyslexic students, such as here.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Discipline in Catholic High Schools, part III

Handling Day to Day Discipline Issues as Principal

In my first article, I discussed what I believe must be the underlying philosophical difference between Catholic and secular schools regarding discipline. In the second article, I tried to apply this philosophy to the “hard cases” a principal might face—namely, those serious enough for the principal to consider expulsion—and spelled out two general circumstances where expulsion was warranted. Thankfully, most of the occasions of discipline we handle in Catholic schools are not of this nature! Rather, most of the disciplinary issues we face are routine: a sophomore girl that cannot keep quiet in class, a senior boy who skips school for a day, a freshman who lets his anger get the best of him and says something inappropriate to the teacher. How do a school and a principal handle these type things efficiently? That will be the focus of this article.

We should begin by establishing a basic point: It is the responsibility of every adult in the building to create an “adult-like” environment in our school. A long time educator once told me he could size up the quality of a school within a minute of walking down the hallway: Was it an adolescent environment or an adult one? If you listen carefully to the conversations, watch the interactions of students, observe how teachers and students relate to one another, it’s not hard to determine. But the obvious point here is that one principal, no matter how influential, cannot singly create an adult environment. He or she cannot be everywhere, and so it depends on the faculty and staff of the school to insist on adult behavior through-out the campus—not just in their own classrooms, but in the bathrooms, in the hallways, in the gym and around the fields for athletic events. Teachers and staff who are unwilling to insist on adult, Christian behavior in their presence, where-ever they find themselves on campus, simply have no place in our Catholic schools, because they reject our most fundamental reason to exist: to help students become the kind of people God wants them to be.

Having everyone take responsibility is easier said than done! There is a tendency within any system, whether we’re talking about corporate America or a school, for subordinates to pass their problems up the ladder without handling them on their own. If you’ve been a principal for a while, you’ve no doubt experienced this tendency first hand, as teachers too often send children to the office for matters of discipline without having done anything to remedy the situation at their level first. This is poison! For one, it undercuts the teacher’s authority in the eyes of the students. Students read the teacher (correctly) that that they do not need to pay much attention to what he is asking them to do, except up until the point that he becomes so frustrated that he may send them to the principal. Second, it trivializes the role of the principal, because when the principal rightfully assesses the incident doesn’t merit “lowering the boom”, and thereby doesn’t lower it, the principal begins to lose a “mystique” that is appropriate and helpful. I define this desired mystique as part fear and part unfamiliarity. Seeing Johnny every other day as a freshman because Johnny is a chatterer isn’t going to bode well for the principal’s effectiveness in handling Johnny if he ever begins to do things seriously wrong in his later years of high school!

So I believe it’s important, in the day to day running of the school, to have a clear understanding with faculty and staff as to what constitutes an “offense” that should be handled by them and what is appropriately handled by the principal. Here’s the truth: 95% of the incidents in our school should be initially handled by the teacher. How? Following the tradition of the sisters of Loretto who founded our school, we believe that time after school works, provided teachers insist the time is kept. I tell every teacher to decide on a day during the week to give “time”, and when students are late for class, or talking too much in class, or chewing gum, or out of uniform, they should be given 15 or 30 minutes of after school time on this day. If they miss this time, I encourage teachers to call parents and double the time for next week. Teens will test the teacher to make sure he is keeping track of things carefully, or to gauge if missing time really matters. For teachers who develop the reputation that it does matter, students become reasonably compliant, and the teacher is well on his way to establishing an orderly environment in his class room.

But what of the case, as often happens in a typical high school, when a student has been talking, the teacher has given time, and the student continues to be disruptive of the classroom environment? That’s when, I believe, it’s appropriate to send a child to the office. The teacher has taken steps to address the problem first, but the student persists in inappropriate behavior which makes it impossible for other students to learn. At our school, we make those students “sign in” to the principal’s office.

What next? First, the teacher who referred the child to the office must fill out a “behavioral referral form” at their next available opportunity. This is so when the principal addresses the issue, he or she has the adult perspective as to what happened. The form also asks the teacher to explain what steps he took prior to the office referral. Also, this form, once the principal has acted, gets sent home to the parent.

I don’t recommend that the principal gets into the mode of handling each and every disciplinary incident as they occur. The immediate crisis—the fact that the classroom was rendered un-teachable by the student’s behavior—has been averted by moving the student to the office. One of the biggest obstacles facing a principal is that his time is not his own. If he is held hostage to responding on the spot to every incident in his school, he is unable to plan, keep appointments, visit classrooms and complete other important duties. So in our school, when a student gets sent to the office, he or she usually sits quietly in the office for the remainder of the period. I deal with it later, after I have received the written referral from the teacher, and I usually handle a couple of incidents at a time.

What do I do with these referrals once I act on them? I always first talk to the student and ask him for his version of events. I want the student to tell the truth and own his actions. The general thrust of my talk is “Being an adult doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. It means accepting responsibility for the mistakes you make and being willing to pay the consequences”. After we have established the facts, I typically give anywhere from one to two hours of time on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. (I set up Saturday detentions once/month). I then record the incident in a d-base and send a copy of the behavior referral form to his parents, which includes the consequence I imposed. Once the “time” is served, the incident is over.

Usually, only when a student begins to develop a pattern of office referrals would I begin to “up the ante” to suspensions, and if the problem persists, to consider expulsion. (There are those rare cases, of course, where the action itself requires an immediate suspension, but these are relatively rare.) I have no set formula for how many referrals one needs before the ante is upped. Much of it depends on my assessment of the child, his maturity level, the length of the intervals between incidents, his willingness to own his behavior and the role his parents play or don’t play in resolving the behavioral problem.

A final note: Based on the number of disciplinary incidents, the principal will have a pretty good idea of which teachers are having consistent problems with their students. Where patterns emerge, there is room for work with these teachers. I have written elsewhere on ideas that teachers may employ for improving the overall environment of their rooms, and I would recommend these ideas to these teachers.

How a Catholic school handles discipline is perhaps the best test of our school’s mission and ministry. I have tried over the last three articles to outline the philosophical basis for discipline in Catholic schools, the handling of “hard cases” that may lead to expulsion, and the day to day processing of routine incidences within a high school. I invite your response and feedback!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Discipline in Catholic High Schools, part II

(Practical Considerations for Principals Regarding Expulsions)

In my previous post, I argued that Catholic schools must view discipline differently than their public or private school counterparts. Namely, whereas secular schools might see school disciplinarians as judges who hand out "punishments to fit the crime" independent of the “criminal”, I argued that Catholic school disciplinarians are ministers of Christ who must use their creative abilities to design consequences for a particular child that helps him grow to be the person God wants him to be. Whereas "retributive justice" tends to be the aim of discipline in secular institutions, then, conversion must be the goal of Catholic school discipline. Whatever works to achieve this conversion, Catholic schools must be willing to try, even if it means, at times, “harming” the institution’s image for holding onto a kid longer than the local private school down the street might.

I believe this is a fundamental principle for a school that takes parables like the lost sheep seriously. Still, one might object on pragmatic grounds. One teacher on our faculty put it this way: “I understand going after the 100th sheep", he said, “but if you go after it, leaving the flock behind, what happens when you return and only find 85 sheep left? “

Great question! Faced with the decision to expel or not to expel a child, I have often wondered how Jesus would reply. I suspect the Jesus of the gospels would say: “You seek out the lost. Trust that I will shepherd the 99”.

Still, it raises the point: where do we draw the line for kids who are consistently disruptive, compromising the school’s ability to minister to other kids? Is there NEVER an occasion where the shepherd must let the 100th sheep go?

Yes, there are such times. I believe they boil down to two general circumstances:

a) When the child is a threat to the health and safety of other students. For example, we immediately expel students involved in the selling of drugs to other students. Regardless of our desire to help these children, we have a duty to protect the safety of others. In my mind, these decisions are most often made on the basis of a single incident, whether or not the child has a disciplinary record. I once expelled a National Honors Society student for lighting the boys’ bathroom trash can on fire, something I believe he thought was a playful prank. One stupid act is enough to jeopardize the safety of all. These expulsions are usually difficult for the parents (and principal!) since no one "sees it coming". Still, there are non-negotiables, and the safety of the other students over-rides everything.

b) When it becomes apparent that by “holding on” to a child, using as many creative punishments as we can for a time, that we are now becoming “enablers” of that child’s illicit behavior.

Like the wife of an alcoholic husband who must kick her husband out of the home to help him get well, sometimes the most loving thing we can do is insist a child leaves in hope that he will take responsibility for himself.

Typically, this second circumstance for expulsion comes at the end of a long series of events in which the student has been given series after series of punishments and the parents and principal have met many times before. What I usually do when I begin to think the school is now playing an enabling role is to set up a “1-2-3 strikes you’re out” interim step, in which I tell the child, with his parents present, that the next incident will result in an automatic 1 day suspension, that the second incident will be an automatic 2 day suspension, and the third strike will be “you’re out”. I do this because I want to put the student in the driver’s seat, which will help him or her take more ownership of the expulsion, if it comes to that (and not insignificantly, will help the parents handle the expulsion better, too).

The truth is that in over 50% of the cases, depending on how late in the year we set this arrangement up, the child will end up leaving before the year is over, but usually the expulsions go more smoothly because everyone saw it coming. I had two parents this year, upon learning their child had “struck out”, thank me for trying so hard to work with their child. While that’s nice, what’s even more important is the parents aren’t at home blaming the school for the expulsion, which means the expulsion has a far greater chance of being a significant moment for conversion in the child’s life.

If we handle expulsions in this second way, we are consistent with our mission to put the child first. We are not expelling a kid because he makes the school “look bad” or that he “annoys teachers” or even that he embarrasses us. We’re not expelling him for the sake of the school. If we do expel him for those reasons, we cannot avoid the damning criticism of one mother who told me, when I asked her to withdraw her child, “You’re just getting rid of the unwanted child, and I thought your Church was AGAINST abortion”.

That's not a bad test for us as we weigh whether or not we should expel a child from our school. Is it, in fact, an "abortion"? Or staying with the mother’s metaphor, is the expulsion more properly labelled a "miscarriage"? It seems to me that with the exception of a child who is threat to the safety of other students (as noted), we cannot ask a family to withdraw their child unless we can honestly conclude it's a "miscarriage".

Let me end my reflections with a re-telling of the parable of the rich young man from Luke 18:

And it so happened that a veteran teacher approached Jesus.

“Good Rabbi”, he asked, “what must I do to become a more professional teacher?”

“Why do you call me good? Jesus responded. “No one is good but God alone. You know the rules. Design interesting lessons. Create good assessments, grade them carefully and turn them back on time. Be excellent in your teaching and you can expect excellence in return.”

The veteran teacher beamed: “I have done these things since my first day of teaching”.

Jesus, eyeing him, said; “There is one thing further you must do. Take the student who is most troublesome to you, and treat him as your only son.”

At this, the teacher walked away sad, for he was a busy man.

In my third and final post on Catholic school discipline, I will look at day to day disciplinary incidents and how we handle them in our school.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Discipline in Catholic High Schools, part I

(Philosophical Considerations for Principals)

If you ask parents what they want in a Catholic school, a “well disciplined environment” ranks right up there with a strong academic program and a community of faith for their children.

But what marks a well disciplined Catholic school? Is a good Catholic school different from its public school counterparts only in that it is a MORE disciplined environment, or should we mean something different altogether?

I argue that Catholic schools, if they are going to be true to their mission and founder, must regard discipline differently. Whereas public and private schools might describe a good disciplinarian as one who "keeps order" and "acts fairly", I suggest in a Catholic school, a good disciplinarian is one who creates conditions that encourage each child grow into the person God wants him or her to be and makes decisions accordingly.

If that strikes you as a mushy distinction, let me share a story about myself as a young principal that may clarify the point. When I was a teacher at our school before becoming its principal, I was critical of the previous principal, who had been in place 17 years. He never seemed to handle the kids in the same way. Worse, I noticed that even in the case where two kids did the same thing wrong, his punishment varied. Since he was a mentor to me, I asked him about this, accusing him of being seemingly “unfair”. He asked me what I meant. “Well”, I remember saying, “it’s simply wrong that different kids get a different punishment for doing the same thing wrong. Your discipline is idiosyncratic and that’s wrong. Punishment should be based on the action, not the person.” “Well if that’s what you mean by unfair”, I remember him saying, “then I plead guilty as charged”. I was puzzled by his response but made up my mind to do things differently when I took over.

The public schools around town at that time had adopted a “uniform code of conduct” that impressed me. They categorized routine disciplinary issues common to high school life as level one, two or three depending on the severity of the act, and with each level came a set of proscribed punishments which escalated based on frequency of offense. In that way, no matter the kid, everyone knew up front what would happen and this consequence would be evenly applied across the school system.

So the summer I became principal, I wrote out an unofficial “uniform code of conduct” as a guideline for myself. For two months that first fall, I labored to be absolutely consistent in applying these consequences to the many students and incidences I handled. Somewhere around Thanksgiving, I was faced with a situation that demanded (by my code) a three-day out of school suspension for a troubled sophomore boy, a consequence I was reasonably sure would cause his family to withdraw him from our school. If he left for the local, massive public high school in town, I didn’t like his chances. So I balked at my code, convinced that it wasn’t the right way to handle that kid. He was a good kid. He was “save-able”. Instead, I made him come out to the school on consecutive Saturdays and an in-service day (something I now call a “reverse suspension”) to do “gardening” (i.e. weeding the school flower beds) , scrape gum from under cafeteria tables, pick up trash and whatever else I could dream up to make the point. It worked. Over the course of his sophomore year, his behavior improved and he later graduated. I tore up my unofficial code of conduct by Christmas of my first semester and have handled disciplined idiosyncratically ever since.

As I am apt to do, I wrote a parable that reflected this new self-understanding:

A new principal, wishing to make a good impression, said “I will treat all students the same, for fairness sake”.

Shortly thereafter, two young men were sent to him for a disciplinary incident. The principal said “Policy dictates a three day out of school suspension for both of you.”

The first young man, working closely with his parents, came back from his suspension with resolve to do better.

The second young man dropped out.

And everyone agreed the principal acted fairly.

My role as a disciplinarian at our school is NOT to be a judge who dispassionately hands out punishment to fit the crime, as I once argued. Rather, my role is to be a minister, willing to do anything that helps a child become what God wants him or her to be. Don’t take that wrongly-- I don’t mean that a school should substitute discipline for touchy feely nonsense. There should be consequences for every action, and in the case of severe actions, severe consequences. What I do mean is that we in Catholic schools shouldn’t rely on scripted consequences that ultimately prize “fairness” more than what is in the best interest of the child we serve. Secular schools understand discipline as a means to create order. We are first and foremost interested in the child’s conversion. “Fairness” and even “order” misses the point by prioritizing the institution’s needs over the child’s. Our "punishment" shouldn't fit "the crime" but "the person". The reason the parable of the lost sheep is so challenging to us is that it’s counter-intuitive: unlike the famous phrase from Star Trek, the “needs of the many" should NOT "outweigh the needs of the few” in Catholic institutions.

Instead, I am charged to use all my creative thinking to design consequences that work for THIS child, but may not work for others. That’s what I mean when I say discipline in Catholic schools should be aimed at “creating a set of conditions which encourages each child to become the kind of person God wants him or her to be” and how I see that Catholic schools are different than their public or private school counter-parts.

Catholic school principals, then, should not create disciplinary policies that are so specific that their hands are tied when confronted with a unique student and situation. For this reason, our student handbook has only this to say about discipline: “Students who violate the rules and procedures of this handbook or who act in a way contrary to our mission as a Catholic school will face disciplinary consequences as determined by the teachers or principal, depending.”

“OK, OK”, you might be thinking. “That all sounds good in theory, but how can a principal, given the demands on his or her time, possibly run a school such that EVERY child and EVERY situation is handled differently?” You may be also thinking, “Is he implying that Catholic schools should never expel a kid?”

Those are good, practical questions, and I will address them in my next article.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Rest in Peace, Father Labadie

One Friday afternoon not so long ago, I was observing classes and came to Fr. Labadie’s sophomore Catholic Doctrine class. Suffice it to say that a doctrine class doesn’t normally make a 15 year olds’ top ten list of places they’d like to be on a Friday afternoon, and to make it worse, they were apparently reviewing for a test. Fr. Labadie was pulling out all the stops to keep their attention. He was standing on top of his desk, peering over the edge, crying out in mock pain: “Rebecca, if you don’t know the answer to this question, I’ve failed as a teacher and I’m going to jump”. Everyone watched with anticipation and amusement, hoping Rebecca would get it wrong.

The Fr. Labadie I will remember was this teacher—energetic and creative. Folks often ask me what makes a good teacher, and I say they need to have two qualities: they must know their subject matter very well, and they must have that hard to define “with-it-ness” – a certain quick-wittedness and quirkiness—that all good teachers seem to possess. Fr. Labadie had both.

He combined them with a real zeal to serve the Lord and his Church. He attended ball games. He could talk sports with the boys and tease with the girls. He heard confessions. He said Mass and gave thoughtful, passionate homilies. A black woman, hearing him preach one day, told me “he had the anointing”. Students loved him.

Very early morning, June 28, 2005 he took his own life.

What a loss for our school! What a loss for our Church! What a waste.

I suppose the “why” question is inevitable at moments like these, but like Job, we get no answers other than God’s ways are not our own. Still, it’s easy to second guess: earlier that day, he had called me and talked on the phone about teaching in the fall: Yes, I was hoping he could be our chaplain, yes, I’d like him to teach a couple of classes. Yes, I hoped that he would be assigned as an associate in a local parish. “Idleness is not good for us men” I had joked. “We need to stay busy”. He laughed and agreed with me. All lights were “green” for this fall.

Well, not all the lights.

Here’s what I do know: Despite his talents and faith, Father Labadie was sick with depression. He had been sick for a long time. Like most men that I know (I could see myself doing the same thing), he tried to deny his sickness was mental. If he ate differently, he would be OK. If he got more sleep and exercise, things would work out. If he could get the right prescription, perhaps that would work. But it was slipping away. He missed classes, was late for appointments and was increasingly unable to do the most ordinary of things. By January, it was apparent that something had to change. He couldn’t remain a teacher without getting well. The archdiocese sent him away to get well.

Fast forward four months, when Father Labadie came to our graduation in late May. He wanted to be with the first class he taught at Catholic. He looked so much better. He had gained back weight that he lost. He seemed more alert. He was happier. Yes, he said, he had been sick, but he was almost better--just a few more weeks in the program. He was eager to return to teaching. He missed the students and they missed him. After visiting with them, he went back to the program to finish the business of getting well.

Now, here at the end of June, he returned as part of his program’s “therapeutic week”. Visit your home town for a week, make arrangements for your support group, get things in place, and return back to the program for the final two weeks to discuss things and make final preparations to get on with living. That’s why he had called me about the fall. He was making the arrangements, eager to get on with living.

Until early that next morning.

One of the more helpful remarks that I’ve heard as I’ve mourned his loss with others is that battling depression is a lot like trying to balance in the midst of waves. Just about the time you get your balance, a large wave comes and knocks you off your feet. You didn’t see the wave coming.

That wave hit Father Labadie on Monday night. It wasn’t premeditated. It wasn’t planned. Everything in his life these last five months was about planning the opposite: to get himself well enough to be in the classroom again, standing on the edge of that desk and pulling out the stops to teach the faith to others. That was his love and his passion. He became a priest to bring others closer to the Lord. He did that here at Catholic in the short time he was with us.

If there were any doubt as to his effect, one need only have been in our high school since Tuesday. As word of his death spread in our student community, streams of students began visiting our chapel to pray for him and his family. There was a board outside our chapel, in which students were invited to write notes. One note struck me hard: "So here we are Father, doing as you taught us to do, coming to the Lord to pray when we're hurting inside."

Their prayers are an eloquent eulogy for a young priest who lived too short a life.

In the end, as to why, I have no answer--only the answer of our ancient faith:

“I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen. “

Rest in peace, Father Labadie.

Faustin N. Weber