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Best education policy is respecting teachers

Most of us have never been inside a nuclear plant or stood at an operating table, but virtually all of us have been in classrooms -- explaining, I suppose, why most people don’t fancy themselves experts on nuclear engineering or brain surgery, but everyone thinks they know how to teach.

Any teacher knows how it goes: Parents wonder why you can’t grade tests overnight, not realizing that your day may well begin at 5 a.m. and run past 10 p.m. if you coach, advise, or -- God forbid -- hope to see your family outside of June to August; kids express surprise when they run into you at a grocery store or movie theater, as if they hadn’t realized you could assume corporeal form off-campus; and rookie teachers arrive full of pedagogy and scholarship, only to realize the job is just as much about dealing with butt humor and boyfriend problems. The nitty-gritty reality of teaching, the stuff that makes it so hard, simply escapes most folks.

The “anyone can do it” theory does ring true, however, to this extent -- almost anyone can walk into a room, tell the kids to shut up, hand out some busywork and thereby keep the machinery of schooling moving. But to actually teach -- to get kids to transcend themselves, to care about something distant or abstract, to push them to become better than they knew they could be -- requires talent and faith and above all persistence.

It’s important to open on that note, because most of the articles in this special issue have a fairly broad policy sweep. Stan Karp makes an eloquent case for a coalition of public and Catholic school advocates around the social justice dimensions of the education issue. James Youniss ruminates on the historical currents bearing Catholic schools along today. Joseph Claude Harris critiques the approach the U.S. bishops have taken in planning for Catholic education and Leonard DeFiore surveys the state of Catholic schooling. Despite their divergent points of view, all are superb introductions to the pressing educational issues facing the church.

Nevertheless, we would go wrong if we assume that these policy issues are the core of the Catholic school enterprise. As critical as vouchers, the public/private debate and the implications of lay governance may be, the miracle of education still happens -- or fails to happen -- classroom by classroom, teacher by teacher. And if we assume that the proper policy decisions will, by themselves, translate into better teaching, we’re making the same mistake as those who think fancier equipment would make Milli Vanilli sound better -- if you can’t sing, a better mike just lets you warble more loudly.

To put the same point differently, while I believe education in America would benefit if the Catholic community rethought its position on vouchers, doing so wouldn’t necessarily change anything about Mrs. Smith’s math class tomorrow morning.

So, if you’re concerned about the role of the church in education, by all means study the issues and take a stand. But the best step you could take is simply to show Catholic school teachers some respect -- and demand that bishops, board members and principals do the same, not just in their speech but in their deeds.

Speaking of classroom miracles, we’re fortunate to have in this issue an essay by Judy Bromberg, familiar to NCR readers as a regular reviewer of books. Judy is also an English teacher and counselor at Notre Dame de Sion High School in Kansas City, Mo., where she enjoys a reputation as a superb educator. Judy offers the fruits of her experience as an antipode to our bigger-picture offerings.

One final thought. Today, really for the first time, the American Catholic church has the luxury of approaching the education issue from a posture of strength. For most of the early 20th century, we built and maintained schools because of the anti-Catholic ethos in the public system. When that hostility abated after World War II, Catholics moved out to the suburbs and sent their kids to public schools, causing a circle-the-wagons mentality among Catholic educators who watched enrollments tumble and schools close.

As Abraham Maslow long ago noted, starving people have a hard time acting on their highest ideals. Instead, they take care of themselves, as Catholic leaders by and large have done -- narrowing their educational interests to the well-being of Catholic institutions. Good educational policy, from this frame of reference, was anything that brought students and/or dollars into Catholic schools. Public education was, simply, the enemy.

But today Catholic education isn’t starving. Enrollment is up, closures have slowed and the press is full of good news about Catholic schools. So perhaps, finally, it’s time for the church to transcend self-interest and embrace the education issue writ large, speaking on behalf of all our nation’s schools and students, advocating policies that benefit everyone, most especially the poor. Perhaps we can finally recognize that our natural allies are not the forces seeking to deconstruct the public sector but the public educators serving the same kids we do -- and, in fact, serving more of them than we could ever hope to.

As Stan Karp notes, voucher proposals are a consciously crafted wedge issue, designed to draw Catholics into an alliance with right-wing advocates of free markets and social Darwinism. Today, given the general health of the Catholic system, there’s little excuse for not seeing the issue for what it is -- and pitching our tents elsewhere

National Catholic Reporter, March 27, 1998