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Lessons From Charter Schools for Catholic Education?

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Catholic schools, which have seen their enrollments decline, can help themselves financially and academically by borrowing strategies from an emergent competitor—charter schools—a new report argues.

The Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank based in Arlington, Va., says that academic models such as "blended learning," which combine technological and traditional instruction, can allow Catholic schools to customize academic strategies to the needs of individual students and also save those schools money.

Charter schools have become major competitors to Catholic schools in recent years, notes the report, highlighting a trend identified by other researchers. Many charters are opening in urban neighborhoods where Catholic schools traditionally have had a strong presence. Charters, like Catholic schools, are attractive to families who want a demanding curriculum and a stuctured approach to academics and discipline, notes the author of the report, Sean Kennedy. Today, charters "offer an education of comparable quality [to Catholic schools] for no cost," he writes.

According to Kennedy, charter school enrollment will surpass that of Catholic schools for the first time during the 2012-13 academic year. The number of students in each sector is currently roughly the same—a little more than 2 million. In an interview, he said that projection assumes that the decline in Catholic school enrollment continues over the coming year and that charter school enrollment continues to grow at its current pace.

Incorporating blended learning into instruction, Kennedy argues, will bring several advantages to Catholic schools. It will give them access to richer and more immediate data on student performance. It will allow them to make use of tests that can guide instruction and help teachers modify lessons to student needs—a strategy known as "formative assessment." It will make it easier for them to engage parents, giving them faster access to information about their children's performance and tips about how mothers and fathers can help with homework. And it will allow for a "rebranding" of Catholic schools as leaders in promoting cutting-edge instruction.

Adopting those kinds of practices would represent a serious philosophical shift for the Catholic school community, Kennedy acknowledges.

"Catholic educators, who put great stock in their success at avoiding most of the worst education fads of the past half-century, are reticent to embrace data and prefer to continue traditional instructional methods," he writes. Catholic schools seek to do much more than focus on metrics and improve learning outcomes, says Kennedy; they're also trying to build students' understanding of Catholic identity, and strengthen their character through the church's teachings. But his report concludes that Catholic schools are also under increasing pressure—from parents, funders, and others—to provide data showing why their instructional approaches are successful.


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