Philadelphia Catholic schools pledge to pull back the curtain

The Philadelphia school district’s plan to lift itself out of financial and academic distress may have overshadowed a profound development this week for Catholic education in the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia Archdiocese agreed Monday to join a compact with public and charter schools in the city to make sure that kids have access to quality schools.

Two conditions of the agreement make this momentous and should give Catholic leaders throughout the nation something to consider:

  • This so-called Great Schools Compact will add Philadelphia’s Catholic schools to an online clearinghouse being developed that will provide families information on public, charter, and Catholic education in the city, and;
  • The Archdiocese will make its standardized test-score data available for that clearinghouse. Most Philadelphia Catholic schools currently administer the Terra Nova, but the Archdiocese has signed on to the Common Core State Standards.
The Archdiocese also has pledged to do something most Catholic schools have not: open up student performance to public scrutiny.

Finally, a group committed to enhancing urban public education has recognized that the urban Catholic school shares a common purpose, and the Great Schools Compact is doing more than paying lip service. But the Archdiocese also has pledged to do something most Catholic schools have not: open up student performance to public scrutiny.

Most Catholic schools fail to disclose test scores and other key indicators of student achievement. While regulations accompanying voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Florida will soon be changing that practice, the agreement in Philadelphia represents a rare, voluntary move to embrace academic transparency. Other Catholic school systems should follow suit.

Why? They will aid their own survival by publicizing their academic outcomes. As my Fordham colleagues observed in their 2008 report, Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools, an era of No Child Left Behind has heightened the expectation that Catholic schools must measure student performance and make the results easily accessible to everyone.

But that isn’t important only for the principle of accountability. Catholic schools should market their performance. That’s what driving the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which had, at one point, disclosed school-by-school test results before ending the practice years ago. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who was appointed to his Philadelphia post in 2011, believes his school system can provide the city’s children an outstanding education, but he knows he has to prove that.

Earlier this year, Chaput announced that the Archdiocese would close 49 schools due to plummeting enrollment. Transparency and branding alone cannot reverse the slide, but Catholic schools still have attributes to show off. And they must: Gone are the days when parish priests could simply admonish their flock to pursue a Catholic education.

The Philadelphia School Partnership, which oversees the compact, is seeking a share of the millions that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making available to aid schools, and it contends the collaboration with the Archdiocese will make Philadelphia stand out. It should stand out. But for the sake of Catholic education, the compact shouldn’t be unique for long.

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