Catholic schools’ use of Common Core scrutinized

The nation’s bishops and Catholic school superintendents in recent weeks have been inundated with questions about the Common Core, a set of K-12 educational standards that 45 states have adopted and a growing number of dioceses are using to craft their curricula.

Concerns from some corners that the standards could weaken educational quality and undermine Catholic schools’ identity prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Education in late October to poll about 195 diocesan education superintendents on whether they were adopting or adapting the Common Core, or using another set of standards.

The secretariat told the superintendents that it was preparing to brief the bishops at the annual USCCB General Assembly Meeting in Baltimore. Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director of the secretariat, was not available for comment in early November.

Defending Common Core

Several Catholic education officials told Our Sunday Visitor that much of the criticism is misinformed and based on innuendo and misunderstanding.

“A lot of the criticism I’ve seen seems to come from political agendas involved with this. None of the criticism indicates that people have actually read the standards,” said Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association.

Lorraine A. Ozar, director of the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University Chicago, told OSV that the Common Core — which consists of standards for language arts and math — would not prevent teachers from exercising their judgment on how best to teach academics in a manner consistent with their schools’ Catholic identity and mission.

“The commitment to high quality education doesn’t change in Catholic schools. I’m at a total loss as to how people see the standards as dumbing down education,” Ozar said.

‘Grave disservice’

But not everyone agrees. More than 130 Catholic university scholars recently signed a letter to the nation’s bishops that said the Common Core is “deeply flawed” and does a “grave disservice to Catholic education.” The scholars — including University of Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley and Providence College literature professor Anthony Esolen — called on the bishops to ignore the standards or repeal them.

The scholars argued that Common Core will not prepare students for college-level work. They said the standards create a “bottom line, pragmatic” approach to education that encourages teachers to focus more on non-fictional “information texts” at the expense of the humanities and works of classic literature. 

Other critics have expressed concerns about more standardized testing, and many have questioned whether principals and teachers are prepared for the reforms. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, compared Common Core’s rollout to the botched implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, people in various public hearings across the country have questioned whether the federal government is pulling the strings behind the scenes, and using the standards to collect students’ personal data. The federal government supports the move to Common Core, and has provided funding for two organizations developing the associated exams, but officials said that states and private schools decide whether to use the standards.

Gates Foundation link

The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes Catholic identity on college campuses, is joining several Catholic groups in sponsoring an upcoming meeting in New Jersey with Catholic educators to discuss concerns about Common Core.

The Cardinal Newman Society said it recently polled 50 principals from its “Catholic High School Honor Roll” — schools recognized for Catholic identity and academic rigor — and found that only 13 percent of respondents thought the Common Core would improve their school’s education. 

The Cardinal Newman Society also reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — which the Cardinal Newman Society noted supports Planned Parenthood — paid a $100,000 grant to the NCEA for teacher training and materials in implementing the standards.

Sister McDonald said the NCEA applied for the Gates Foundation grant, but she added that the foundation has no control over how the NCEA conducts its Common Core workshops for educators. She said the NCEA has been conducting professional development classes and workshops for educators on how best to implement technology and classroom instruction to meet Common Core standards.

“Having people think critically are really what the standards are calling for,” she said.

Room for adaptation

The Common Core State Standards were written by a panel of teachers, researchers and experts convened by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Officials said they were concerned that children in some states were receiving a subpar education. States that have adopted the Common Core will begin using assessment tests aligned to the standards by the 2014-15 school year.

Catholic and other private schools are not bound to adopt the entire Common Core. Some dioceses have decided to use all the standards, while others have borrowed some elements.

In the Archdiocese of New York, where the Common Core has been adopted, Dr. Timothy J. McNiff, the superintendent of Catholic schools, said the archdiocese decides what textbooks and instructional materials to use. He noted that the Common Core is a set of standards, not a prescribed curriculum.

“There is nothing in it that challenges our Catholic identity,” McNiff said. “To us, this is the right way to go.”

The idea behind the Common Core standards, education officials said, is to emphasize critical thinking over memorization, reading primary sources instead of textbook summaries, and understanding the concepts behind mathematical and language arts principles.

“We find there is a lot of value in these high-level standards in terms of the particular direction they have for college preparatory and career preparedness, as well as in the dimension of critical thinking,” said Daniel J. Ferris, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Providence, R.I. Ferris said his diocese is not using Common Core, but he added that many textbook publishers are already aligning their content with Common Core standards.

Need for standards

“From what we have studied, with the Common Core, there is much more emphasis on reasoning with information and much more emphasis on reading primary sources. There is more emphasis on applying and reasoning with information rather than just knowing the answers to questions,” said Dr. Karen L. Tichy, associate superintendent for instruction (K-12) and special education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Dr. Tichy and George J. Henry, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, told OSV that the archdiocese has not adopted or adapted the Common Core, but they added that the school system is reviewing the math and language arts standards.

“If we are going to continue providing an outstanding Catholic education, we have to know what the other schools are doing,” Dr. Tichy said. “We continuously look for best practices.”

Henry added that the schools in the archdiocese have been using a set of academic standards for more than 20 years.

“I don’t know how you teach without standards,” Henry said. “How do you know what you want to teach to a classroom of children, what you want them to know, if you don’t have standards to measure against what it is you’re doing? If you don’t have standards, you’re going to be all over the place.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.