On Register Radio this week, Elena Rodríguez spoke with Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director for the Secretariat for Catholic Education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A Dominican Sister from the St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn., she is responsible for supporting and assisting the bishops in the development, management and communication priorities, plans and policies for Catholic education.
Making Catholic Education Part of the New Evangelization
Sister John Mary spoke of the importance of building an intellectual tradition and the beauty and development of a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“Even though children’s needs may change, their need for God never changes,” said Sister John Mary. “The first duty of Catholic education is to present the Gospel, the person of Jesus Christ, in a loving and caring environment.”
The two goals, to teach children to live well in this world and to live with God for all eternity, don’t change over time, she said.
Catholic education can be a vehicle for the New Evangelization even when parents have not had access to religious education themselves, she said. Sister John Mary stressed the importance of the school as a community of the New Evangelization, a vehicle to re-present the faith.
While the academic elements are very important, schools have a great opportunity to reach out to families in creative ways. The USCCB is encouraging parents to be participants in teaching the faith in their homes and encouraging schools to reach out intentionally to families and including them as part of the overall teaching of the faith.
The U.S. bishops are addressing the needs of the growing Hispanic population and the question of why Hispanics are not very active in Catholic schools. Sister John Mary said that the bishops’ conference recognizes that all involved have to do a better job of explaining what Catholic education is in this country in order to address why the Hispanic, Asian and African-American communities are under-represented within Catholic schools.
While the first area is awareness, the second area is financially oriented. Financial assistance is something many families in don’t realize they have access to, even though 93.9% of Catholic elementary schools provide assistance.
Dan Burke discussed a Catholic response to the Common Core curriculum with Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation.
Father Stravinskas has taught in and administered Catholic educational institutions at the elementary, secondary and university levels. He founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, and he is the author or editor of more than 50 books and 600 articles.
Father Stravinskas began by sharing a bit of the history of Common Core. It actually goes back to the 1970s, when concerns began about the low academic performance of American students compared to other students around the world. All of the presidents during this time have had a hand in raising national standards of achievement.
“The program itself is fraught with difficulties,” Father Stravinskas said of Common Core, “not least of which, at least in terms of Catholic schools, in many instances, it would be lowering our standards instead of raising them. Catholic education has consistently had a high bar.”
Father Stravinskas also shared concerns that one size doesn’t fit all and that the standards could produce a curriculum that is not in the ethos of Catholic education. Catholic education is not focused on college- or career-readiness, he said, noting, “We educate for life.”
Elements of the Common Core are adaptable, and in some sense, Catholic schools will have to adapt, if the SATs or ACTs become more clearly linked, he said.
Why would Catholic schools give in to the pressure to conform to Common Core when their students consistently test higher? Father Stravinskas cites an “inferiority complex” that has made professional Catholic educators (the opinion-makers) react in this way.
“Why should we be part of the guinea-pig experiment?” asks Father Stavinskas. If Common Core is good, it will last, so Catholic schools need to be discerning for now.
There was very little public involvement in the process of making the Common Core guidelines, he noted, and two of the prime movers for math and language arts dropped out of endorsing the final product because the standards were not as high as they had envisioned or were not what they wanted. These educators, Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, were also concerned that there were no professional child or educational psychologists and no classroom teachers at the elementary or secondary levels involved in developing Common Core.
Parents need to be informed, the priest emphasized. Don’t react to the myths, but know what the facts are. Be sure to check out the excellent resources available from the Cardinal Newman Society about Common Core.
Listen to the interview to hear Father Stravinskas’ full conversation with Dan.