There are some things that are just distinctly October. Flannel shirts, pumpkin spiced lattes, the changing leaves . . . and the Chicago Cubs.
What’s that, you say? The Cubs haven’t been to the NLCS in twelve years? The Cubs, infamous for having not won a World Series since 1908, have long been written off by baseball fans as being “cursed.” So while Cubs fans might still associate October more with Steve Bartman than with success, there’s no question that in addition to a crisp breeze, there’s a buzz in the air. The Cubs are rolling.
And that made us think — since baseball is the mother of all metaphors, we in the Catholic school world realized there might actually be a few similarities between the Cubbies and Catholic schools. Here are some thoughts:
LESSON #1: STRONG LEADERSHIP IS THE KEY LEVER OF CHANGE
The first sign of life from the Cubs was the hiring of Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations in 2011. Epstein is the architect behind the Boston Red Sox’s World Series win in 2004 after an eighty-six-year championship drought. With the Red Sox, he was willing to throw out the playbook, trading Boston’s beloved fan-favorite and team leader Nomar Garciaparra because he didn’t fit Epstein’s vision for the team.
If Epstein ever wanted to take a break from baseball, he’d probably be a pretty decent Catholic school superintendent. He has a clear vision for excellence and how to achieve it, and whether fans agree with his decisions are not, there’s no denying he knows where the Cubs organization is heading.
Fast forward to 2015, and enter Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager. A veteran manager with the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon was the perfect leader to take the Cubs from good to great. He knew how to win, he bought into Epstein’s culture, and brought his own cultural aspects that he had picked up from years in the business. Always willing to change things up, take risks, and make the best decisions for the team to succeed, Maddon has successfully brought the Cubs to the NLCS for the first time since 2003, and clinched the first playoff series win at Wrigley Field in the history of the franchise.
Over the past few years, Catholic schools have come to the inescapable conclusion that leaders are the key lever of change in any school. There simply aren’t any great Catholic schools without great leaders — they don’t exist. And what we’ve seen in our nation’s most effective Catholic schools are leaders who, like Epstein and Maddon, are willing to experiment and try new things in their attempts to achieve excellence.
LESSON #2: CULTURE MATTERS
When Epstein arrived in Chicago, he immediately began to change the culture around the Cubs organization. Years short on success bred a culture of mediocrity — if they weren’t terrible, that was a success in itself. Epstein’s attitude focused on being great rather than just not being terrible. He knew that a culture change, an attitude change, was the first step toward becoming more than mediocre.
The Catholic schools that have massively increased enrollment are those that see themselves more as just the “Catholic alternative” or a “safer option” for students; they’re the schools that have set out to achieve greatness. In addition to being strong and unequivocally Catholic, their cultures are intentional. Everyone, from the principal to the teachers to the secretary to the parents, knows the core values of the school and lives them out daily in all aspects of their work. For the Cubs, the goal is that the culture in the front office is the same as that in the locker room, or in the dugout. The same is true of our great Catholic schools, where a positive Catholic culture is lived out from the gym to the chapel to the classroom.
LESSON #3: USE DATA TO DRIVE DECISION MAKING
Epstein is also famously a proponent of an analytical approach to forming and running a baseball team, made famous by the book (and subsequent movie) Moneyball, about Oakland Athletics executive vice president Billy Beane. This approach used sabermetrics, non-traditional statistics that give a better grasp of how teams win, rather than the traditional, right-kind-of-guy approach that had been used in baseball for years. Once again, Epstein threw out the playbook and made the team his own, one that he knew could eventually have success.
In the past, many Catholic schools have been reticent to share performance data and neglected innovation. Though Catholic schools should never seek to be cold, calculating enterprises that divorce results from relationships, there is something to be said for the use of data to inform instruction. The Catholic schools in which leaders and faculty work together to break open and analyze achievement data — and formative assessment data in particular—are those that have seen the greatest gains in student success.
LESSON #4: LEADERS MUST DEVELOP TALENT
Epstein’s long-term view of running the team led to a greater focus on the Cubs’ farm system. The Cubs, after years of being below average, had built up a rather exceptional farm system with a number of highly touted prospects. Epstein chose to continue to build the farm system and invested in their training. Winning a few games today wasn’t as important as becoming a championship contender tomorrow, and the future would be built on the formation of talented, excellent leaders from the beginning of their careers.
In the wake of massive numbers of consecrated religious retiring over the past decade, many Catholic schools and dioceses are still working hard to build up their pipelines of talent. The ones doing this the best, however, are those that are systematically managing a talent pipeline. Many superintendents and their team are seeing the need of “farm systems” of their own, wherein the highest-performing educators are encouraged to pursue leadership roles, given steps along the way to develop into new roles (such as instructional coaches, assistant principals, deans, etc.), coached and trained on key skills, and are given continual support into their time as school leaders.
LESSON #5: HAVE FAITH
After more than 100 years without a World Series victory, the Cubs had been left for dead. Even when they made the playoffs and advanced to the NLCS in 2003, they lost in dramatic circumstances that just reinforced the “cursed” and “doomed” language. The Cubs were the punchline of every joke about teams that would always be bad. But through a visionary leader, an emphasis on talent, and a veteran manager in the trenches, all surrounded by a culture that truly believed they could succeed, the Cubs have beaten the odds and brought playoff success back to the north side of Chicago.
While the challenges and successes of Catholic schools don’t exactly follow the Cubs’ trajectory, there are a few similarities. The departure of many religious men and women, the rise of secular culture and the flight of many Catholics away from urban areas and into the suburbs all contributed to the closings of around 2,000 Catholic schools since the year 2000. Critics have said Catholic schools’ best days are behind them, but if anyone’s paid any attention to the Catholic education landscape the past few years, they’ll see nothing can be further from the truth.
The increase in access to Catholic schools in the form of school choice and voucher programs, the rise of innovative new networks, and the emphasis on forming and cultivating talent have led many—both in and outside the Catholic educational landscape—to conclude that Catholic schools aren’t going anywhere. Indeed, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
Unlike the Cubs, the proof of Catholic schools success will not be a trophy or a pennant, but rather when thousands of kids use the education they receive to reach their full potential, living out their calling as children of God, making their way to college and heaven, and bringing as many people with them along the way.
And that will extend far beyond October.