Monday, June 20, 2005

A National High School Catechetical Curriculum?

Spurred on by concerns about the quality of high school catechetical materials, the Bishops’ Committee on Catechesis began several years ago by evaluating the high school textbooks. Now it proposes a national catechetical curriculum for high schools. As a Catholic high school teacher for twenty years, I support the bishops’ intent to improve catechesis, but I believe that standardizing curriculum and textbooks is the wrong way to accomplish this intent.

On the one hand, both of these initiatives make sense: for several years now the “Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism” has been evaluating religion textbooks like the cart before the horse—how can textbook series be evaluated without an agreed upon curriculum that these textbooks are supposed to support? It is not enough to say that current textbook evaluation efforts are designed only to measure conformity to the catechism and not their alignment with a particular curriculum. That begs the central question: Since textbook publishers and teachers must aim their materials at a certain age level, what is the age appropriate level that specific portions of the Catechism ought to be taught?” The Catechism agrees it is important that students read Scripture contextually, but are the implications of a contextual reading appropriately discussed in 5th grade classrooms or late in high school? For over five years, we’ve been evaluating textbooks like this question doesn’t matter. A national, sequenced catechetical curriculum would provide a rational context within which textbooks could be truly evaluated.

Still, it won’t work. School populations are different, teachers are different, and programs are different. One size does not fit all! The three high schools in my diocese of Mobile, Al, are a good example of the problem with this approach. McGill-Toolen and my school, Montgomery Catholic, have similar percentages of Catholic students (about 75-80%). However, McGill resides in Mobile, with a large Catholic population typical of Gulf Coast communities, whereas we’re located in a largely fundamentalist town (Montgomery, AL), with only 5% of the population Catholic. Not surprisingly, this affects our sequencing of classes in the religion curriculum. McGill begins its program with 9th grade Scripture and is able to quickly distinguish literalism from contextualism, and thus how Catholics and Baptists read Scripture differently. Were we to launch into this controversial subject as the introduction to our high school religion program, not only would our non-Catholic families in be scandalized, it is likely that many of our Catholic families would be also offended, influenced as they are by the predominantly fundamentalist culture here. So we do not tackle these issues explicitly until the junior year; prior to that time, we work to open students toward contextualism by studying Church history, Sacraments, symbols and rituals. Not only are students more ready to read Scripture contextually by then, but also their parents know us and trust us enough to know we’re not trying to ruin their children’s faith.

Also in Montgomery is St. Jude Institute, which is a part of a Catholic complex founded in the1930’s to evangelize non-Catholics and minister to the needs of the poor in west Montgomery. The City once included a hospital and low cost apartments, but still maintains a high school, a Social Service Center, and a developmental center for the mentally and physically handicapped. Because of its historical mission, the high school is less than 10% Catholic. In the proposed curriculum, the bishops have sacraments taught in the junior year. Were this to become the norm, St. Jude students would be asked to participate in school wide Masses they likely do not understand for over two years.

This theme could be echoed in different ways throughout our country. But there are other questions as well: Should the amount and quality of prior religious training influence how a high school program is structured? Does it matter, in selecting textbooks to support the national curriculum, whether the school is comprised of students of high reading abilities vs. schools with struggling readers? Will it make a difference if we’re choosing texts for a high school CCD program, which meets 26-30 times a year, or for a high school classroom, which meets 175 or more? Does the training of the teacher make a difference in the depth of the textbooks he or she should select? I think we can all agree that these things matter!

A national curriculum and a single catechetical series, then, will not address the unique needs of local students. The principle of subsidiarity from our social teaching tradition argues against trying to micro-manage remotely from above. Flying over farmlands at 1000 feet, all crops look the same. It’s not until we are on ground level that we can discern the differences between the rich man and the poor man’s fields. As a religious educator, it’s my job to fully understand the needs and abilities of my students, and then choose which sequence and which textbooks bring them to the fullest knowledge of Christ, his Church and his teachings over the course of their high school careers.

Still, I recognize the bishops have both a right and a duty to insist I am teaching the faith well, and frankly, until recently in my diocese (as in most dioceses), we’ve had no real data which indicates whether or not religious educators like me are doing their job. The success of teachers in other disciplines can be measured by student performances on ACT or SAT tests, or A.P. tests, or in some cases, high school exit exams. But in theology, with the exception of the ACRE assessment used in some dioceses, there is simply no hard data. Students may like me, their grades may be exceptional, parents may be happy with me, but is there any thing I can produce that gives my bishop or his representative EVIDENCE that I have transmitted the faith well to my students?

This, then, is where I think our bishops should focus their efforts: in designing a national religious education assessment for outgoing seniors. Rather than continuing to analyze each new textbook or to create a single curriculum, the bishops should define what they expect a graduating senior to know about their faith and then authorize a national test to measure how well they know it. Is the ACRE assessment, put out by NCEA, sufficient? If not, design something else. Let schools sequence the curriculum however they believe it best, let teachers choose whichever textbook series they want, but in the end, insist on accountability by an annual test, and then keep track of scores from year to year. If a school does consistently poorly, then it’s pretty clear that something is wrong and things must change.

The data these tests generate can be analyzed by diocesan offices of Religious Education in a way that accounts for differences in the program. One would anticipate, for example, that school scores would be higher than parish catechetical programs. Presumably, schools with a higher Catholic population would score higher than schools with less Catholics. Programs with a higher preponderance of better readers may do better than other schools. In other words, the results can be contextualized by diocesan offices and judged within this context, even while we agree the ultimate goals of a 9th-12th grade program are the same.

We in religious education don’t like tests which “measure” our students’ faith, and I can predict loud objections from my colleagues to the very IDEA of a national catechetical test: “There’s more to being a person of faith than what a pen or pencil test can show”, “What about piety? Service? Virtue?” To be sure, a national test would not measure these things. But it could be a reasonable barometer of how much religious knowledge our students have, and surely, that’s a large part of what we aim to impart, even if not the only part. And I would also say to my colleagues: “Consider the alternative.”

A mandatory national curriculum would be a real mistake for our Church.

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