This week on Register Radio Jeanette De Melo discusses Common Core and Catholic school with Register correspondent Charlotte Hays and Cardinal Newman Society's Dan Guernsey.  In our second half Dan Burke continues the conversation on education with St. Mary Magdalen College President George Harne.

Common Core Discussion

Charlotte Hays is the Independent Women's Forum's senior editor and director of cultural program. She contributes almost daily to the Forum's blog. She has appeared on cable television programs such as Politically Incorrect, C-Span's Washington Journal, and PBS's To the Contrary.  Her work has appeared in the Wall Street JournalNew York magazine, the Washington Post’s “Book World,” the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard. Charlotte has been a long time Washington correspondent for the Register, where she has recently been covering Catholic reactions to Common Core standards of education—the topic of today’s discussion.

Dan Guernsey, the new chair of the education department at Ave Maria University.  He holds a doctorate in education from East Michigan University and has 25 years of experience working in Catholic schools. For the last seven years, Dan led Rhodora J. Donahue Academy, the independent k-12 Catholic school he founded in the diocese of Venice. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools.  Dan is also the director of k-12 education programs for the Cardinal Newman Society.  He authored the Cardinal Newman Society's article "10 Critically Important Adaptations Catholic Schools Should Make to Common Core." He's been a source for Register stories on Catholic liberal arts education and on Common Core standards. 

Common Core is, according to Hays, “a set of federal standards for schools [and] education. These standards were developed by a lot of money from the Gates Foundation.” On the one hand, she said, defenders will say Common Core is designating specific skills at specific times, benchmarks. Those who oppose Common Core maintain that they’re not rigorous standards (despite what supporters say) and that they’re purely utilitarian.

One of the very controversial aspects, Hays said, is in the list of suggested study materials, called exemplars. “Though supporters say you don’t have to use the exemplars, the suggestions alarm a lot of people,” Hays continued. They’re things like stories with non-traditional families in them and even an EPA document.

“I think the real problem here,” said Hays, “is that it’s purely utilitarian and aimed at making people job-ready.” She continued, “It gets to the issue of why do we teach people. Why do we go to school? The standards don’t really address that. It’s too early to tell… But nobody’s really been using it long enough to tell.”

“I think the controversy stems from the fact that there is the sense that [Common Core standards] are being forced on us,” Guernsey said. “Part of that sense of force is the rush with which they’ve come upon us and the fact that they’re untested.”

“What the Common Core can bring with it is its own set of potential new breaks or inconsistencies that [Catholic schools] need to look very carefully at. It’s raised a number of issues for Catholic education, and if we do it correctly, we can come out stronger,” Guernsey maintained.

“In many cases,” Hays explained, “there’s a financial incentive for Catholic schools to embrace Common Core.” She explained how there are state vouchers that are often linked to certain standards—in this case, Common Core.

The USCCB released a document regarding the Common Core standards and the appropriate Catholic school response to it, Guernsey said. Their advice was prudence and patience, he said: “We don’t need to be in a rush. We don’t need to be in a panic.” The Bishops’ document also highlights that the mission of Catholic education is the formation of the human person, and not college and career readiness.

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St. Mary Magdalen College President George Harne

George Harne is a convert to Catholicism. He and his wife entered the Church in 2006, coming from an evangelical and Anglican background. George is a father of five and is president of the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, where he also teaches music and humanities. He studied medieval music at Princeton University and the Great Books at St. John's College.  

Referencing his recent piece at the Register, Finding God on the Quad, Harne said he was exploring the relationship between Catholic higher education and evangelization.

In the address by Pope Benedict XVI that Harne is discussing, he shared this quote: “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth…In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life.” 

“We’re seeing a divide,” Harne said, between schools. There are those that lost their way several decades ago, who have become more secularized but have Catholic names on their doors. Then there are those schools who are embodying and developing the view Benedict explains are getting stronger and better known.

“Now we’re at a place where we can really evaluate the success we’ve had thus far and how to take it to the next step,” Harne said. Getting good strong leaders and really strong and faithful faculty in these facilities is a key step. 

Harne continued, “When you have those in place, what does student life and the culture outside of the classroom look like, and how culture—student ministry really become a force for evangelization?” It’s not only about the intellectual life of the college, but also about how to bring persons to Christ and see the fount of all Truth.

Harne discussed how the movement of the Holy Spirit is only going to make these Catholic institutions stronger, both those who are actively true to the faith and those who do not seem to be. The changes, he noted, sometimes happen in small ways that we don’t see at first.

Fostering a life in Christ, Harne said, has to be based on the faculty and students having a living relationship with Christ. “We can’t give away what we don’t have,” he said. In the interview process, it’s possible to ask a question such as “Tell me about your journey of faith” and listening for an ongoing conversion process.

He noted that while there are many important factors in the hiring of faculty and staff, it’s equally important to have student life personnel who are able to help students take the next step in their journeys of faith.

Don’t forget that the September 7 issue has the 2014 College Guide in it. (It will be online soon!)

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Listen to this week’s show online or on your mp3 player.