Leadership Thoughts | Issue #87
I recently visited two Catholic Elementary Schools and a Catholic High School. Although I am not of the Catholic faith, I have a great appreciation for the faith and educational system. As I reflected on my day at the schools, the culture and climate of each building left a lasting positive impression. The culture and climate represented the shared beliefs and values in each building. The visitations inspired me to think more deeply about how a school's culture, climate, and values impact student achievement. I decided to focus on school values for this issue of Leadership Thoughts.
“It is a myth that schools are value-neutral. All schools reflect some underlying values system.” – Raymond Domanico.
It is risky to bring up political issues in the context of an educational blog post. The teaching of values in schools is one of those issues. I know this, and I have chosen to ignore these risks to bring attention to the importance of values and a possible new mental model. As I write about schools and talk with people about schools, I am constantly reminded of the problems with many schools in my country and the good examples of some of the better schools. It is not just what is taught inside the classroom that makes a good school, but also how the school delivers this information and if the culture and climate stem from every present set of core values.
In a recent Manhattan Institute report, Ashley Rogers Berner of John Hopkins University writes: “Education is not a neutral enterprise. Schools instruct children, whether explicitly or implicitly, about meaning, purpose, and the good life.” Should a school wish to teach ethical values, it must present a clear moral framework unapologetically without hesitation.
A report from Education Next shows that Catholic schools outperform public and charter schools on the 2022 National Report Card data. There are three possible explanations for this outcome: students with a greater willingness to succeed may choose Catholic schools; Catholic schools may have a greater focus on education due to their religious nature, or the differences in test scores could be attributed to the Catholic school experience.
In preparation for my visit to the Catholic schools, I have found two resources that re-ignited my thinking on this issue. A book called How the Other Half Learns by Robert Pondiscio, which I will be reading soon, and a recent (and much shorter) report called Catholic on the Inside: Putting Values Back at the Center of Educational Reform by Kathleen Porter-Magee. It is my goal to explore each of these thoughts below.
Kathleen Porter-Magee | Report: December 2019
What if the secret sauce is the Catholic school experience? A school where every student is seen as having equal worth? That’s the idea the author proposes in her article, Catholic on the Inside. She says that driving toward a larger, more enduring “why” is more important to changing long-term outcomes than just perfecting a more narrowly defined “what.”
Regardless of the answer, my visit affirmed that Catholic schools form lasting habits of the mind and inspire aspirational values in their students.
Porter-Magee explains that values are at the core of what Catholic schools do; she says that it is impossible to avoid teaching values, which is why passionate debates have always existed about what students should learn.
I’m writing this article because everyone agrees that positive culture, climate, and values are essential; however, what that looks like in practice varies from person to person. Therefore, I believe accepting the responsibility of imparting values to our students is necessary. We must be completely transparent about our school’s explicit and implicit values.
What if test scores correspond directly with the school's culture, climate, and values? What if, in our attempt to be neutral toward values at school and acquiesce to all values being equal is why we fail to instill the larger, more meaningful purpose of education? Focusing on achievement is necessary, but inspiring students through value acquisition is the path to success.
One of the essential drivers of Catholic education is “the objectivity of truth.” Today our world seems to be embracing the “subjectivity of truth.” We often hear people referring to others’ truth as “your truth,” inferring that there is more than one truth. When the focus on academic rigor revolves around the belief that truth is objective, the goal of education is the search for objective truth. Therefore, pursuing knowledge goes beyond academic achievement to answering questions about objective truth.
Do you believe that practices and policies can’t drive academic achievement, but students’ big-picture success stems from the culture, climate, and values of a school transferred to students? Remember, values cannot be taught; they must be cultivated! I want to leave you with the following to “think about.”
In the movie Shrek, a donkey tells Shrek that the world needs more Shreks. The big green ogre laughs in his face. When the donkey asks how many Shreks he needs, Shrek says, “to save the world? Seven, plus or minus two.”
In many ways, our world also needs more Shreks. After all, this is the individual who sees beyond the way things are to see how things could be better. This person can change an organization from within and make it stronger from their contributions. What if we had more leaders like this?
Shrek thinks the world needs to understand better how to create a village where everyone belongs and succeeds. Perhaps the most important lesson is that Shrek’s view of being a leader is that it is not about him but about others. In this sense, we see that he embodies servant leadership.
This type of leadership is not self-centered; it is focused outward on others. With servant leadership comes caring and compassion for everyone on their team and in their village (community). As we study history through the lens of servant-leadership, we see how those leaders became better human beings by focusing on how they could help others succeed.
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