Part One

Why this issue?

More than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States each year, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. Other studies show 68 percent of American eighth-graders cannot read at grade level and that our top math students rank 25th out of 30 countries when compared to their peers around the world.

“Our response will have an indelible impact on the future of our society.”

– Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.,
Notre Dame president

At the same time, the last decade has seen exciting and transformative educational innovations. At-risk students at Catholic schools are 40 percent more likely to graduate high school and college. In many urban areas, public schools and school systems are taking ambitious steps to meet their students’ needs.

Finding the keys to helping all young people succeed academically is one of the most pressing issues facing our nation today. This is why the 2011-12 Notre Dame Forum is dedicated to examining topics related to K-12 education.

Noting that the topic “is both absolutely critical to the future of American civil society and directly implicated by our mission here at Notre Dame,” Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., reflected upon “A Nation at Risk,” the seminal report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which led to a series of local, state and federal reforms aimed at improving schools in the United States when it was published in 1983.

“Almost 30 years after the report’s publication, our K-12 educational system continues to lag behind its global peers, particularly with regard to the education of at-risk children,” Father Jenkins said. “At the same time, the last decade has seen some of the most exciting and transformative educational innovations since the launch of the common school movement. It is clear that we have before us a set of unprecedented challenges and opportunities in this field, and our response will have an indelible impact on the future of our society.”

A number of campus events were held on campus this fall as part of the Forum, titled “Reimagining School: To Nurture the Soul of a Nation.”

In September, Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor and founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, addressed the dramatically changing landscape of K-12 education, and discussed how the Notre Dame community can play a vital role in providing vision and leadership in crafting a vibrant education sector for all children.

The Architect: Radical Education Reform for the 21st Century featuring Jeb Bush

That same month, a panel discussion titled “The Conversation: Developing the Schools Our Children Deserve” welcomed four of the most prominent voices in K-12 education reform for an honest conversation on the extraordinary challenges and opportunities facing our nation’s schools and schoolchildren.

The Conversation: Developing the Schools Our Children Deserve

“This year’s Forum is really at the heart of Notre Dame’s mission – as Father Sorin said – ‘to be a powerful force for good in the world,’” said Nicole Stelle Garnett, a Notre Dame professor of law and co-chair of the Forum, along with Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C., professor of political science and director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives. “We’ve brought together some of the most influential figures in American education to lead us in an authentic discussion on the unique role that Notre Dame can play in revitalizing this amazing experiment that is our school system.

“These are figures who have served as models in K-12 education; who have taught us so much about what can and must be done for our schools and our children. To bring this kind of vision and witness together for a dialogue on what we believe is Notre Dame’s unique role in re-imagining K-12 education is a truly historic opportunity, both for Notre Dame and for the country.”

Part Two

Back to the Future

The enterprise of K-12 education has enjoyed a long and storied legacy at Notre Dame, as the University has sought to bring life and hope to schools and school children from the very beginning. In 1843, Rev. Basil Moreau, C.S.C., founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, sent four Holy Cross sisters to northern Indiana to assist Holy Cross priests at the newly established school for boys that would later become the University of Notre Dame. These sisters, who would ultimately become the trailblazers for Notre Dame’s service and leadership in K-12 education, represented that acclaimed vision of Father Sorin for this humble new school in the northern woods of the Indiana Territory - to become “a powerful means for good in this country.”

“Our aspiration today is to ensure that all children receive an excellent education infused with the vitality of our faith.”

Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C., Co-founder of Alliance for Catholic Education

Notre Dame began offering formal courses and programs to train future teachers early in the 20th century. By 1918, a Department of Education had been established, and Rev. William Cunningham, C.S.C., became department chair. In 1924, Notre Dame formed a School of Education, with curricula to prepare secondary school teachers, social workers, and practitioners of physical education and health education. Through these efforts, Notre Dame prepared scores of teachers and leaders for at-risk schools and schoolchildren across the country, and helped shape the landscape of K-12 education.

The School of Education was repositioned in 1931 as part of an effort to integrate education coursework into the College of Arts and Letters. By the 1960s, the University had begun to scale back its undergraduate education coursework as a means of focusing more attention on graduate programming. In 1977, the University decided to close the doors on the Department of Graduate Studies in Education, which represented the only remaining formal institutional programming in K-12 education, so as to cultivate interdisciplinary scholarship and service in the field.

For almost two decades, Notre Dame restricted its investment in K-12 education to this interdisciplinary approach, attracting scholars in economics, sociology and other fields with a demonstrated record in K-12 schooling, and providing at-risk schools with talented Notre Dame students and alumni through its diverse service portfolio. In 1993, the University took a bold and providential step to re-establish its formal commitment to K-12 education, when Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C., and Rev. Sean McGraw, C.S.C., founded the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE).

ACE student and teacher

Originally designed in response to the well-documented shortage of qualified teachers in at-risk Catholic schools in the United States, ACE has blossomed into a comprehensive teaching, research and outreach enterprise serving schools and school systems nationwide, and is now the largest provider of teaching and leadership talent in the country.

“Our aspiration today is really the same as the one that animated the extraordinary women and men that launched Notre Dame’s investment in K-12 education – to ensure that all children receive an excellent education infused with the vitality of our faith,” Father Scully said. “Although much has changed, both here at the University and in the education sector broadly, we consistently return to that inspirational vision, and we hope to advance it with the same zeal and spirit of imagination.”

Notre Dame Academics - Alliance for Catholic Education

In 1996, Notre Dame established the Institute for Educational Initiatives (IEI) to foster cutting-edge research on and service to K-12 education, with a particular focus on Catholic schools. Maureen Hallinan, an acclaimed scholar in the sociology of education, served as founding director of the Institute, which now includes the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity (CREO), the Center for Children and Families, an undergraduate minor in Education, Schooling and Society, and the ACE Program.

In September 2011, Notre Dame celebrated the dedication of Carole Sandner Hall, which serves as the new home of the IEI and ACE. Sandner Hall’s most prominent feature is Remick Commons, a magnificent gathering space which now serves as a study lounge and lecture venue for Notre Dame students and faculty.

In many ways, both Remick Commons and the IEI building which it adjoins serve as a testament to the extraordinary legacy of Notre Dame’s service in K-12 education, as well as a reminder of how vital its recent re-emergence in the field is. For it was Father Sorin himself who designed Remick Commons as a chapel back in 1842, and its very first inhabitants were the Holy Cross Sisters sent by Father Moreau. More than 160 years later, a new generation of teachers and leaders stand in their place, engaged in the critical work of serving schools and schoolchildren that shines at the heart of Notre Dame’s mission.

Part Three

Education and Innovation

Notre Dame has an important voice in the big picture conversation about K-12 education in this country. At the same time, its faculty researchers and community engagement programs are at the forefront of innovative approaches to learning in and out of the classroom.

Here are some examples of the important work that is happening around campus and beyond.

Math research that adds up

Notre Dame psychologist Nicole McNeil has a theory about why American school kids are so bad at algebra—and it has to do with the way arithmetic is taught in school. “The ways we’re taught may actually hurt our natural abilities to think about math,” she says.

Math Research That Adds Up

“The ways we’re taught may actually hurt our natural abilities to think about math.”

— Nicole McNeil, Ph.D.

McNeil, the Mary Hesburgh Flaherty and James F. Flaherty Assistant Professor of Psychology, investigates the ways children think, learn and solve problems in math. She says there are many differences in the Chinese and American educational systems. “In Asia, they spend more time in school, and they learn more math,” she says. “But they’re also taught differently.”

Take the following math problem involving equivalents: 3+4+5 = 3+__. Eighty percent of American children get the answer wrong, while 90 percent of Chinese children get it right. American children learn arithmetic in terms of facts: 1+1 = 2, 1+2 = 3. Children in East Asian countries learn arithmetic in terms of equivalents: 3+4 = 7, 5+2 = 7. “I think the way we teach children when they’re little has a lasting effect,” McNeil says. “Students educated in East Asian countries look at the equal sign as the central thing. The U.S. students read from left to right.”

Equal opportunity learning

The research of William Carbonaro, a faculty member in Notre Dame’s Department of Sociology and assistant director of CREO, focuses in part on the ways unequal learning opportunities both within and between schools affect student outcomes. He has studied the benefits and challenges of single-sex classrooms and the impact of this environment on boys and girls.

ND Expert: Are Single-Sex Classrooms Better for Children?, William Carbonaro

“Figuring out what the individual child needs regardless of gender seems to make a lot more sense,“ his research suggests.

Exploring the issues

Through programs such as those administered by Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, the University continues to explore the complex issues around K-12 education. The Center for Research on Educational Opportunities (CREO) conducts basic and applied research on schools and the learning process in hopes of making a significant contribution toward attaining educational excellence and equity in American education. “Our research is essential,” says Mark Berends, CREO’s director, “because issues of educational equity and excellence will be critical for years to come.”

Notre Dame’s interdisciplinary Education, Schooling and Society (ESS) minor is one of the largest minors in the College of Arts and Letters. Designed to help students acquire diverse perspectives on important questions in education, ESS encourages them to view educational issues through the lenses of anthropology, English, history, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology and theology, thus enabling them to better understand the complexities of education and education reform. “We work with students on developing research methods and conducting interviews, focus groups, discourse analysis and ethnography,” explains Stuart Greene, ESS director. “They do a capstone research project which allows them to see firsthand the effects of issues like poverty and segregation in schools.”

All in the community

Beyond the walls of school buildings, Notre Dame also is taking an inventive approach to learning through community engagement.

Through the IEI, a new Notre Dame partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) will help to bring STEM college-level courses to more students in secondary schools across Indiana.

The Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC) was started in 2001 as an off-campus educational initiative of Notre Dame’s President’s Office at the University of Notre Dame in partnership with Northeast Neighborhood residents of South Bend. An estimated 500 participants come through the doors of the center each week for regular programming and the center also partners with the community schools in the South Bend area, with program outreach that connects with nearly 8,000 additional youth per year. This level of outreach is only possible due to strong and intentional relationships with community partners and the shared resources of the University and community.

Overview: Robinson Community Learning Center at Notre Dame

The center features gathering space and a learning center where hundreds of college volunteers participate in the RCLC tutoring program each year, matched one-to-one with area children. In addition, the RCLC maintains a commitment to provide a high-quality technology center and offers classes in basic computing, Microsoft products, financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and more. GED classes and English as a second language are offered by the South Bend School Corporation’s Adult Education Office.

“The Robinson Community Learning Center has been a bright light in the community for a decade, and Notre Dame remains committed to the educational opportunities offered there,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president, on the occasion of the center’s 10th anniversary in 2011. “I’m confident the next 10 years will continue the momentum for the center’s students and their families.”

In communities across the United States, representatives of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) are pursuing the mission to “sustain, strengthen, and transform Catholic K-12 education” by assisting principals and dioceses in a variety of ways. The signature ACE program, founded in 1993, sends young teachers to serve in under-resourced Catholic schools as part of a two-year formation process that combines an M.Ed. curriculum with community-building experience and personal spiritual growth. Learn more at and

To join the conversation on K-12 education, visit to learn about upcoming Notre Dame Forum events.


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