Schools of thought

Standards have long been an integral component of education.

For decades, public, private and Catholic schools have relied on standards to craft curriculum and measure student achievement. In several instances, Catholic schools have taken the states’ public school educational standards and adapted them to reflect their Catholic values.

“For our schools to not be aware of what the public school academic standards are, to not be familiar with where our students need to be, that would be irresponsible. In fact, I don’t think parents would expect us to not be aware of those things,” said Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education.

Catholic school leaders across the country now are responding to the latest trend sweeping public education in the United States: the Common Core.

So far, 45 states have signed on to the Common Core, which is a set of educational standards in English language arts and mathematics for students in kindergarten through the 12th grade. The idea of the Common Core State Standards is to create a universal set of expectations for each grade level so that, for example, a sixth-grade student in South Carolina will be as well-educated as a sixth-grader in the Northeast.

“There has been great concern related to academic rigor in the country for quite some time,” Sister Fleming said.

Supporters of the Common Core say the standards are challenging, built on a coherent philosophy of how students learn and retain information, and that they represent a shift from rote memorization and fill-in-the-bubble test-taking toward an educational system based on solid writing and reasoning skills also marked by an understanding of abstract mathematical and English language concepts.

“We feel the Common Core State Standards are rigorous, more clear and better aligned than previous standards,” said Kevin Baxter, superintendent of elementary schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which this year is implementing the Common Core’s English language arts standards.

But not everyone agrees.

Differing opinions

In what is already a polarized political environment, some critics see the Common Core State Standards as a thinly-veiled national takeover of education that will erode local control from parents and teachers.

Meanwhile, several Catholic scholars and observers have criticized the Common Core for what they see as a pragmatic, bottom-line approach focused more on providing a baseline of basic knowledge and skills necessary for beginning college or entering the job market, rather than on educating the entire person, which is part of the unique mission of Catholic schools.

The dissenting Catholic scholars also say the Common Core’s emphasis on reading “informational texts” — such as magazines, journals and newspaper articles — comes at the expense of studying great works of literature.

“With the Common Core, it’s coming out of the public school system, and it has a very utilitarian twist on education. It’s basically saying, ‘Our mission is college and career readiness,” said Dan Guernsey, the headmaster of the Rhodora J. Donahue Academy of Ave Maria, a private K-12 independent Catholic school near Naples, Fla., that espouses a classic Catholic education rooted in teaching the classics of Western Civilization.

Common Core’s supporters counter that the new standards do not curtail literature, but Guernsey, who also serves on the board of trustees for the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools, touched upon a key component of the Common Core opposition when he told Our Sunday Visitor that Catholic schools have a different nature and mission than their public counterparts.

“Our mission is much broader, much more focused on the human person,” Guernsey said. “College and career-readiness is a natural byproduct of what we do, but it’s not why we do what we do.”

Concerned that students in the United States were lagging far behind their peers in other developed countries, the nation’s governors and education commissioners — through the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — encouraged the development of the Common Core State Standards in 2007.

Officials said teachers, researchers and leading education and childhood experts developed the Common Core’s standards in English language arts and mathematics, which some states began adopting in 2010. The states that have adopted the Common Core will begin using assessment tests aligned to the standards in the 2014-15 school year.

Supporters say the Common Core builds on the highest standards that some states have already been using. The idea is that by the end of each grade level — in an “ascending staircase” of expectations — the students will have mastered the same basic skills and attained a common baseline of knowledge.

The National Catholic Educational Association has called the Common Core a set of “high-quality academic expectations” that represents a “fundamental shift” in the teaching and learning process.

“There is a new emphasis on reading non-fiction and improving reading skills across the curriculum, and that comes from colleges that have complained for years that [incoming freshmen] students are not prepared to read and use college texts,” said Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association.

Core’s specifics

The Common Core’s English language arts (ELA) standards contain at least six noticeable shifts in how students are taught reading and writing.

What Common Core State Standards Mean for Catholic Schools by National Catholic Education Association

In what is perhaps the most controversial shift, the Common Core places a higher emphasis on reading informational, or nonfictional, texts. Based on the premise that 80 percent of what people read in college and their careers is informational, the Common Core says students, by the time they are in the 12th grade, should have 80 percent of their reading course-load as informational.

The Core’s ELA standards also demand students engage a text on its own terms. Rather than using one’s own value system, the student is now asked to analyze a text by the author’s thinking.

For example, instead of trying to relate one’s experiences to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the student now might be asked to speculate on what prior correspondence informed King’s letter.

That idea, critics say, is problematic because students might not be allowed to analyze a text in the light of universal truth or the Catholic intellectual tradition.

“We want our students’ education to be based on transcendent truth, not the truth in the world of the text,” Guernsey said.


Meanwhile, the new ELA standards also call for students to cultivate an “academic vocabulary” so they can understand words that they will read in articles but not encounter in everyday conversations.

Students are also expected to present arguments and points of view in writing, to read primary sources in social studies classes instead of textbook summaries, and to become fluent in the technical language terms in other academic disciplines.

For the Core’s math standards, fewer concepts are introduced in the early grades, the idea being that students should master fewer basic concepts before advancing to more difficult topics. With that in mind, students would not learn multiplication and division until the third grade. Algebra would not be introduced until the ninth grade.

The new math standards also place a premium on understanding abstract mathematical principles, which some observers agree with, but they warn that younger students should still be taught the mechanics of adding and subtracting before they are asked to understand those principles intellectually.

Adapting and adopting

Several media outlets have reported that at least 100 Catholic dioceses have adopted the Common Core State Standards or adapted some of their elements. The USCCB’s Sister Fleming said she could not confirm that number, but added that several dioceses have been comparing and contrasting the Common Core to their previous standards.

“They’ve done what we would call picking and choosing the best and not using the parts that they don’t think are going to be helpful with their academic rigor,” Sister Fleming said. “Some dioceses have taken quite a bit of the Common Core. Other dioceses have used it as one of many resources they would normally use. I think the dioceses are looking at it in a larger framework of helping their students be academically prepared for college.


“Many superintendents are looking to see how the standards support the Catholic culture in their schools,” Sister Fleming added.

Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, told OSV in the fall that his school system was adopting the Common Core, adding, “To us, this is the right way to go.”

Baxter, the superintendent of elementary schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told OSV that the schools in his archdiocese are incorporating the Common Core elements that best complement their Catholic mission.

“We are not mandated to implement everything,” Baxter said. “We take what we feel is valuable. Anything that we feel aren’t good standards, we dismiss those.”

Before Common Core, Baxter said the archdiocese’s schools used California’s state public school standards.

“Those were secular standards, but we took them and incorporated our faith throughout them,” Baxter said. “We’ve been using state standards for more than 15 years. This is not something new or different.”

Several Catholic school superintendents have told parents they are currently examining the Common Core, while others have decided against implementing the Core. In November 2013, Bishop David Ricken, head of the Green Bay, Wis., diocese, wrote a column in the diocesan newspaper, The Compass, announcing he had instructed his diocesan Department of Education to neither “adopt or adapt” the Common Core, but instead to use the Core as a reference point to improve the schools’ current standards.

“The verdict is still very much out on the Common Core Standards,” Bishop Ricken wrote. “All of the subject area standards have not yet been developed, let alone proved to be successful over time.”

Firm opposition

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has been reviewing the Common Core, a group of parents created a Facebook page — Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core — and have communicated with other parent groups across the country to lobby against the Core.


“We’re asking ‘why embrace a set of standards that are not superior to our own Catholic standards?’” said Coleen Carignan, a member of Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core. “We’re concerned this is going to institutionalize mediocrity in the Catholic schools when we’ve always had a solid record and a solid history to guide us.” Carignan said she has one child in a Catholic school, which she said is supposed to be different from the public school system.

“An authentic Catholic education is supposed to begin with Christ, not as an add-on to secular standards,” Carignan said.

Bob Laird, the programs director for the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that promotes faithful Catholic education and Catholic identity on Catholic college campuses, told OSV that Catholic schools should base their standards on their Catholic identity instead of taking secular standards and trying to infuse them with Catholic terminology.

“We need to start with the basis of our Catholic faith and then build our curriculum around that,” Laird said. “The mission of the Common Core is dramatically different than the mission of Catholic education.”

Guernsey, the headmaster of the Rhodora J. Donahue Academy of Ave Maria, also told OSV that standards are derived from a school’s mission, and curriculum is based on standards.

“Catholic school, Catholic standards, Catholic curriculum,” Guernsey said.

More than 130 other Catholic scholars wrote a letter last October to the nation’s bishops to urge them to either ignore the Common Core or stop its implementation. Sent by Gerard V. Bradley, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, the letter called the Core “deeply flawed” and a “recipe for standardized workforce preparation” that reduces reading “to a servile activity.”

Anthony Esolen, a Providence College literature professor who signed the letter, testified before a South Carolina legislative committee that the Common Core has a “cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought.” Esolen told the committee, “We are not programming machines. We are teaching children.”

‘Untested, flawed’

Sandra Stotsky, a professor emerita at the University of Arkansas, resigned from the Common Core Validation Committee over concerns about how the standards were written and their efficacy. In an address to the Conference on Catholic Concerns about the Common Core in New Jersey last November, Stotsky said the Core’s ELA standards stress writing more than reading at every grade level, to the detriment of every other subject in the curriculum.

Stotsky also said the ELA standards require no British literature, aside from Shakespeare, or other classical writings from ancient Greece and Rome, or even stories from the Bible that would ensure a cultural fluency of Western Civilization.

“It’s good that students learn how to read briefings and memorandums, but not at the expense of reading literature,” Laird said. “In Catholic schools, you’re reading the source documents, whether it’s poetry, whether it’s math. You’re reading the source documents so students get not just a cursory overview, but also understand what it’s all about.”

Guernsey said “non-educators” crafted the Common Core ELA standards, which he said are based on assumptions that were not research-driven. Other critics also make the point that the Common Core has not been not sufficiently “field-tested.”

“They’re untested, and they are flawed,” said Laird, who also criticized the Core’s ELA standards for instilling a “valueless curriculum” where first-graders are asked to peer-review their classmates’ papers.

Laird also criticized the Core’s math standards for pushing algebra back to high school. He said delaying algebra and other mathematical disciplines to the higher grades may prevent some students from pursuing engineering, accounting and other math-based careers.

“This is a good opportunity for school districts, superintendents and Catholic schools to step back and say, ‘Why are we really here?’ and maybe go back, look at the entire curriculum and implement a more classical curriculum,’” Laird said.

Dioceses’ decision

Kathy P. Mears, executive director of elementary education for the National Catholic Educational Association, told OSV that the Common Core does not prevent teachers in Catholic schools from introducing literature to their students. She noted the Core’s often criticized “Appendix B” of suggested readings and lesson plans is optional.

“The integration of faith, the arts, literature — it’s all still there,” Mears said, adding that the Core does not eliminate literature, but rather encourages teachers to be more “purposeful” in introducing nonfictional texts.

“When we talk about a balance, it doesn’t mean that we’re doing away with fiction,” Mears said.

“The first thing that needs to be said is that classic literature is not diminished in our curriculum. Literature is still celebrated,” Baxter said, adding that the increased focus on informational texts deals with the reality of what students’ needs are.

“It doesn’t diminish the value of literature, the classics, and the reading of literature for literature’s sake,” Baxter added.

The Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative — a national collaboration of Catholic universities, the NCEA, corporate sponsors and educators — assists Catholic schools in integrating elements of Catholic identity into the Common Core State Standards. 

The CCCII website says the Common Core standards are “more evidence-based” than most previous standards, and that they are “relevant to the real world, focusing on the knowledge and skills students will need to succeed in life after high school, in both post-secondary education and a globally competitive workforce.”

The Core’s ELA standards also “draw on extensive scholarly research and evidence” while the math standards draw on conclusions from several studies of high-performing countries and states, according to the CCCII.

While saying that a “significant majority” of the Core’s standards are “quite generic and non-offensive,” Guernsey challenged the CCCII’s claims, adding that the Core’s drafters relied on assertions not supported by research or data.

“A Catholic curriculum should be based on the conviction that all truths ultimately converge in their source: God,” Guernsey said. “This standard, among others, is sorely lacking in the Common Core.”

Mears, who sits on the CCCII’s board of directors, said Catholic schools should use their own standards if they find those to be superior to the Common Core.

“I think it’s about being reflective, thoughtful and discerning about what’s best for your children,” Mears said. “Every diocese and every school gets to make that decision, and that might be the Common Core or it might not be.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

A Politically Divisive Issue
The Common Core State Standards are not only controversial in Catholic schools, but at the state level as well.