What is it that we want our students to know and be able to do? Answering this question before we align to standards, set curricula goals, and form lesson objectives is imperative to establishing a Catholic school’s strong academic formation of its students.
According to Archbishop Miller, part of the answer is to be “strong and responsible individuals, who are capable of making free and correct choices” and it demands “an education that responds to all the needs of the human person.”
The USCCB notes that it is, “to live morally and uprightly in our complex modern world,” and therefore students must be provided “an academically rigorous and doctrinally sound program of education” (2005).
Notre Dame ACE Academies simply defines it with two words, “college” and “heaven.”
With clarity of purpose, the specifics regarding a holistic, academically rigorous, and doctrinally sound education can take shape. However, even with this, the implementation of strong curricula and research-based techniques remains no small task. Catholic school leaders must articulate a clear vision for academic excellence (the WHY), guide curricula decisions that flow from the vision (the WHAT) and build capacity among their faculty (the HOW) in order to provide strong academic formation for their students.
1. The WHY - Articulate a Vision for Academic Excellence
Catholic education is intentionally directed to the growth of the whole person. An integral education aims to develop every capability of every student: his or her intellectual, physical, psychological, moral, and religious capacities. (Miller, p.42)
It's important to specify a vision that promotes holistic development and belief in every child. A school leader articulating these or similar beliefs sends a strong message to guide instructional practice. Also important is operationalizing the terms, “holistic, academically rigorous and doctrinally sound” so that each faculty member understands them and their significance. Clarity in meaning is needed to develop a shared vision in which every member works towards the same end.
Here are a few practices a leader can undertake to support a vision for academic excellence:
- Articulate expectations of excellence and belief in every child;
- Visit classrooms frequently and affirm excellent practices/discuss ineffective ones;
- Promote a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement;
- Protect instructional time (intercom announcements and disruptions to the schedule are avoided when possible).
2. The WHAT - Guide Curricula Decisions that Promote Academic Excellence
An excellent Catholic school has a clearly articulated, rigorous curriculum aligned with relevant standards, 21st century skills, and Gospel values, implemented through effective instruction. (Standard #7, The Catholic School Standards Project)
A strong academic formation requires curriculum that is comprehensive and coherent, aligned to standards, sequenced appropriately, and supported with quality resources, assessments and professional development. Critical to an academically rigorous curriculum is faculty involvement. Teachers must work together to ensure vertical alignment and eliminate gaps or unnecessary repetition.
There are many practices a leader can undertake to guide curricula decisions. Here are a few:
- Work with faculty to align curriculum and assessments to instructional goals (standards);
- Involve faculty in ensuring program coherence and vertical alignment;
- Allocate sufficient resources for implementation (time for planning, materials, technology, PD).
- Connect Gospel values to decision making
3. The HOW - Build capacity for academic excellence
Five common areas for capacity building are noted in the research literature: teacher knowledge, skill, and disposition; professional communities; program coherence; technical resources; and leadership. (Anfara and Mertens, 2012)
Capacity building has become a popular phrase used to highlight actions to promote teacher efficacy and improve student learning. Professional development is one means to build capacity. Research shows that sustained professional development focused on teachers’ knowledge, instructional practice and how students learn specific content has the potential to impact teaching and student learning (Darling-Hammond and Richardson, 2009).
Here are a few practices a leader can undertake to build capacity for improving student learning:
- Emphasize use of data for instructional improvement and differentiated instruction
- Provide sustained professional development that might include peer observations, reflection on practice, and shared planning;
- Encourage use of targeted core teaching practices sometimes referred to as high leverage practices and provide professional development to strengthen these.
In the end, the strength of a Catholic school’s academic formation is measured by its outcomes. Articulating a clear vision, guiding curricula decisions that reinforce the vision and building capacity among faculty are practices that support the school’s commitment in providing strong academic formation.