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Catholic School Leadership

reviewed by Martin Scanlan - July 12, 2018

coverTitle: Catholic School Leadership
Author(s): Anthony J. Dosen & Barbara S. Rieckhoff (Eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681232715, Pages: 216, Year: 2015
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Catholic School Leadership is the seventh book in the Research in Religion and Education series by Information Age Publishing. The edited book is organized into ten chapters, the vast majority authored by the two editors from DePaul University in Chicago, Fr. Anthony Dosen (who wrote Chapters One through Five) and Barbara Rieckhoff (who wrote Chapters Seven, Nine, and Ten). The book aspires to provide research-based approaches to addressing issues of Catholic school administration, with a particular focus on items not typically addressed in leadership preparation programs.


The book is loosely structured, with chapters taking a range of forms. On one hand, most of the chapters provide resources for further reading, and many begin with vignettes of actual school leaders to set a context. On the other hand, there is not a consistent presentation style from one chapter to the next. Some provide a straightforward list of advice for principals, while others discuss theory before suggesting implications for practice.


The first two chapters provide a bird’s eye perspective on leadership in this sector. Chapter One focuses on leadership identity in the Catholic context, weaving in connections to several theories of leadership such as transformational, servant, authentic, and distributed. Chapter Two moves from leadership identity to school identity, referencing the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (Ozar & Weitzel-O'Neill, 2012).

The next eight chapters address a range of overlapping topics. Chapter Three touches on the legal context, including a brief discussion of both canon and civil law, before discussing different governance structures in Catholic schools. Chapters Four and Seven both discuss enrollment patterns in Catholic schools, with the former presenting recent historical trends and the latter presenting discrete elements for successfully recruiting and retaining students.

There are two chapters addressing the operational vitality of schools; the first (Chapter Six) focuses on “the financial challenges and needs to sustain Catholic schools” (p. 83). The second fleshes out several discrete strategies to meet these challenges, including financial planning and specific examples of financing Catholic school operations (e.g., tuition, fundraising, and parish subsidies).

The specific role of the pastor in Catholic schools is taken up in Chapter Nine. According to canon law, “the pastor is ultimately the leader of an elementary school” (p. 154), so this chapter is particularly relevant for the subset of schools that fall under this governance structure.

Finally, two chapters specifically tackle teaching and learning in Catholic schools. Chapter Five addresses issues of curriculum, while Chapter Eight discusses professional development. The book closes with an Afterword that presents a lengthy personal reflection by a veteran Catholic school principal, written in a manner to provide both advice and encouragement.


One strength of Catholic School Leadership is how various themes are raised in one chapter and revisited in others. For instance, the importance of having a clear mission and vision is addressed as a key feature of a Catholic school’s identity (p. 22) and later as a “key element in the process of recruiting and retaining students” (p. 111). Three of the chapters (Two, Five, and Ten) make explicit connections to the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (Ozar & Weitzel-O'Neill, 2012). The editors, however, fail to draw the reader’s attention to these recurring themes. In my view, the book would have benefited from utilizing a common organizing framework. Lacking such a schema, the reader is left to serendipitously stumble upon linkages, not guided to notice them more intentionally.


One strength of the book is that while focusing on the context of Catholic schools, many chapters strive to engage with broader bodies of literature. For example, in Chapter Two, the discussion of educating the whole child (a central tenet to a Catholic philosophy of education), is aligned to Dewey’s (1956) philosophy of experiential, inquiry-based education. As another example, in Chapter Five, the curricular foundations of Catholic schooling are placed in conversation with both classic (Tyler, 1949) and modern (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006) curricular scholars.


This dualism, focusing on the Catholic context while making connections to secular contexts, is important. Too often Catholic schools are considered to be, in a word, parochial. This can be limiting for the teachers and administrators working within these schools because they may fail to incorporate lessons from colleagues outside of Catholic schools. But this parochialism is harmful in both directions, with educators in secular schools failing to learn from religious schools in general, and Catholic schools in particular. On occasion, scholars strive to engage in this dualism. One approach is to explore one’s research questions across Catholic and non-Catholic contexts (e.g., Drago-Severson, 2007; Drago-Severson, 2012). Another approach (the one I’ve tried to take) is to examine how leadership in Catholic schools can be applied more generally, such as in efforts to reform special education service delivery (Scanlan, 2009) or to educate culturally and linguistically diverse populations (Scanlan, Kim, Vuilleumier, & Burns, 2016). In my view, the editors could have addressed this dualism more directly and robustly.


Books focused narrowly on leadership in Catholic schools are few and far between. Aside from work published by the National Catholic Educational Association, one might have to go back nearly two decades to find another volume with similar aims and in which a wide array of scholars present essays addressing foundational issues, teacher development, and leadership (Hunt, Oldenski, & Wallace, 2000). Catholic School Leadership will add to this short list, serving the niche audience it aspires to reach. Looking forward, perhaps the field needs books that reach beyond the niche audiences and look more deliberately and holistically at educational leadership across diverse school contexts.


Dewey, J. (1956). The school and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, Press.

Drago-Severson, E. (2007). Helping teachers learn: Principals as professional development leaders. Teachers College Record, 109(1), 70–125.

Drago-Severson, E. (2012). New opportunities for principal leadership: Shaping school climates for enhanced teacher development. Teachers College Record, 114(3), 1–44.

Hunt, T., Oldenski, T., & Wallace, T. (Eds.). (2000). Catholic school leadership: An invitation to lead. New York, NY: Falmer Press.

Ozar, L., & Weitzel-O'Neill, P. (Eds.). (2012). National Catholic school standards: Focus on governance and leadership. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Chicago, Center for Catholic School Effectiveness.

Scanlan, M. (2009). Leadership dynamics promoting systemic reform for inclusive service delivery. Journal of School Leadership, 19(6), 622–660.

Scanlan, M., Kim, M., Vuilleumier, C., & Burns, M. B. (2016). Poco a poco: Leadership practices supporting productive communities of practice in schools serving the new mainstream. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(1), 3–44.

Tyler, R. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design (2nd. expanded ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Education.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 12, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22428, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:00:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Martin Scanlan
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    MARTIN SCANLAN is an associate professor in educational leadership and higher education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He is currently working on several research projects supporting networked improvement communities advancing educational equity, with a focus on culturally and linguistically diverse populations. He has studied Catholic schools extensively, most recently publishing an article on "Meeting students’ special needs in Catholic schools: A report from the USA in International Studies in Catholic Education" (2017).
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