Controversy, properly engaged, can serve to focus and renew. The early introduction of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) into some Catholic schools has stirred controversy and led to some confusion.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Catholic Education has now weighed in on the controversial Common Core in an effort to encourage thoughtfulness and to focus on Catholic identity. The opportunity for Catholic schools to refocus, enhance and articulate their unique academic and spiritual goals in response to the Common Core is ripe for development.
The CCSS are new national public-school standards adopted by 45 states in 2010. Subsequently, a number of Catholic schools and dioceses, with the encouragement of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), jumped on board the Common Core wave and adopted or adapted the standards. Many of these schools have said they were concerned that curricular resources, professional development, government testing and regulations and college entrance exams would be so influenced by the Common Core that the wider educational community — including parents/consumers — would expect Catholic schools to significantly adopt or adapt the standards.
What school leaders may not have foreseen is the hostile reaction to the standards at the grassroots level. Because of the top-down development of the Common Core on the national level and subsequent top-down rollout into many Catholic schools, local administrators, faculty and parents were caught off guard. In addition, the standards brought attention to the fact that many Catholic schools had been following state standards for a while, perhaps without the sort of discussion about particularly unique Catholic educational standards that has burst forth in recent months.
Enter the bishops’ April 14 document, "Common Core State Standards FAQs." Issued some two years after the NCEA’s early recommendation of quick adoption of the Common Core, the document is more cautious in its approach and states that it is seeking to respond, in part, to concerns that the standards "were adopted too hastily, in some cases, and with inadequate consideration of how they could change the character and curriculum of our nation’s Catholic schools."
The response takes the form of considering the Common Core "through the broader lens of the purpose and mission of Catholic education and the principle of subsidiarity."
The U.S. bishops’ document helpfully reminds us that "a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and the good of [society]." This is markedly more comprehensive than the standards’ exclusive focus on "college and career readiness." The document also recommends that schools have standards that "support an appropriate integration" of Catholic understanding in each discipline. The document rightly points out that, according to the principle of solidarity, "consultation with the bishop, pastors, teachers and parents" should have been undertaken by the schools and diocesan schools’ offices. In the early rush and hope of the Common Core, such comprehensive consultation was not carried out in some dioceses as fully as it might have been.
But it is not too late to pause and listen to the concerns of pastors, teachers and parents and adjust course as needed. Recently, the Diocese of Pittsburgh moved from a position of initial support of the Common Core in its schools to a more guarded approach, after months of reflection, meetings and parental input.
The bishops’ document reminds us that Catholic schools are supposed to be at least as academically distinguished as other schools in the area and seems to assume that, therefore, we cannot ignore the Common Core State Standards — but we should not be too quick to assume that public schools’ adoption of the standards has suddenly catapulted them ahead of our efforts. There is, as of yet, no comprehensive data on this.
We do know that what we are doing works better than the public schools.
Catholic-school eighth-graders have led public-school eighth-graders by double-digit margins for the last 20 years on federal reading and math tests. Our college preparation is outstanding, with more than 99% of our students graduating from high school and 84% going on to four-year colleges (almost double the public-school rate). Once they get to college, Catholic school graduates are twice as likely as those from public schools to graduate from college within eight years of high-school graduation (62% vs, 31%). The fact that our ACT scores are outstanding (23.2 vs 20.8), that the ACT test is not substantially changing due to the Common Core and that colleges already love to get our students all bodes well for our schools. It is possible the new standards will make the public schools even worse — but let us hope not.
We do not need, at this point, to follow those whom we already lead.
Perhaps the most important part of the bishops’ document on Common Core is the acknowledgement that "the CCSS is of its nature incomplete as it pertains to the Catholic school" and the recognition of the Church’s role in curbing secularization by helping "parents and families sift through the realities and difficulties of the culture and provide a solid foundation and basis for living as disciples of Jesus Christ."
The disturbing reality is that the secularizing influence was in our Catholic schools prior to the Common Core and will still be present, even if some schools reject the standards. The secular and relativistic focus of the textbooks we use and the influence of any teachers who might be uninformed about the fullness of Catholic educational thought related to the subjects they teach is the greatest threat to our Catholic schools.
But by refocusing on Catholic identity and by getting parents, teachers and school administrators discussing the best formation for students, we have a great opportunity for positive development and growth. The benefit of the Common Core controversy is that it has surfaced some of the threats of secularization in our schools.
And now is the acceptable time to root them out.
Dan Guernsey, Ph.D., is headmaster of the Rhodora J. Donahue Academy of Ave Maria, Florida.
He serves on the board of the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS)
and the advisory board of the Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic High School Honor Roll.