CINCINNATI — When Jim Rigg, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, began implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Cincinnati Catholic schools in 2011, he never dreamed that a firestorm was about to erupt.  

Now, Rigg, like other Catholic schools superintendents across the nation, finds himself caught up in a fierce debate over whether Common Core — federal education standards embraced by 45 states and about 100 Catholic dioceses — are appropriate for Catholic schools.

The battle lines are so clearly drawn that one Catholic family made news in the secular press when it took its daughters out of a Catholic elementary school in Roseto, Pa., because the Diocese of Allentown had adopted Common Core. “As long as there is any Common Core in the diocese, we will not be going back there,” father Dave Herman told the Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call newspaper.

Common Core is voluntary, but many Catholic educators have eagerly embraced it, while others such as Richard Thompson, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Denver Archdiocese, don’t plan to do so.

“We can always learn from the hard work of others,” said Thompson, referring to those who developed the Common Core standards. But Thompson said he saw no need to install Common Core because the Denver Archdiocese’s schools already are “exceeding most of [Common Core standards]. We’re already there and more.”

The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), while not formally endorsing Common Core, has been holding workshops on how to implement the standards in Catholic schools. The Common Core State Standards were developed by state education officials under the auspices of the National Governors Association. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported the process with grants totaling $150 million. The Obama administration is firmly behind CCSS.


Weighing Concerns

Meanwhile, Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, is hosting a conference on “Catholic Concerns About the Common Core” at the Stella Maris Retreat Center in Elberon, N.J., Nov. 5-6. Co-hosts are the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS), the schools office of the Diocese of Gaylord, Mich., and the superintendent of high schools of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The gathering will address such questions as: What are the concerns of Catholic school teachers and parents? What can we embrace in Common Core? What might Catholic educators need to reject or change?

“We certainly don’t have to use the curriculum materials that are being suggested, many of which are very problematic,” Father Stravinskas said. But the priest added that, since SATs and other standardized tests will be geared to the Common Core in the future, Catholics ignore it at their peril.

Emotions are running so high that Father Stravinskas was deluged with email responses after sending out invitations to the conference. One correspondent angrily wrote, “Gee, Father, you are really getting soft. Are you a collaborator now?”

Many Catholic parents fear that using these national standards could water down the essential religious element of Catholic schools. But to that point, Rigg said that in adapting the Common Core to Cincinnati Catholic schools, pains had been taken to “make sure our Catholic identity lives and breathes in our curriculum.”  

“The crux of the Common Core is an intensified focus on instructional standards that are tied to success in college and career,” said the Cincinnati Catholic school superintendent. Rigg prefers the term “adapt” to “adopt” because he said that the Cincinnati Catholic schools “will not take Common Core in its entirety.” He explained, “The philosophical reason for our decision is that, in our minds, there are many good elements of Common Core that make sense to us.”

Rigg admitted, however, that there was another, more practical inducement to align with Common Core. “The pragmatic reason is that the state has adopted Common Core,” he said. “We moved into this willingly, but there was an implication that we could lose [financial backing from the state] if we didn’t.” Financial arrangements with states vary from diocese to diocese. Some dioceses would have no financial incentive to switch to Common Core.


Academically Inferior

Common Core standards are intended to help students acquire specific skills at each grade level rather than relying on the different standards — or sometimes the lack thereof — in 50 states. But many Catholic parents charge that Common Core academic standards are academically inferior to those of Catholic schools, and they are put off by the one-size-fits-all approach. The increased involvement of the federal government in education is also a concern.

It is almost impossible to understate the intensity of this debate. “If [the Bush era federal education law] No Child Left Behind was a hand grenade,” said Vincent de Paul Schmidt, schools superintendent for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., “this is a nuclear weapon. Parents are polarized because so many believe that this is being forced on them at the federal level, instead of the usual educational debates that hover around states' rights.”

Under Schmidt’s leadership, Catholic schools in Wheeling-Charleston have developed a Catholic Common Core initiative based on Catholic teaching and national Common Core standards. “Aligning” Catholic values with Common Core, Schmidt said, is a matter of aligning the content standards with the age when the research says students are most receptive to being able to internalize them. In a message explaining why Wheeling-Charleston made a decision in favor of the Catholic Common Core initiative, Schmidt promised that “our Catholic schools will continue to invest considerable time and educator talent to make sure these standards are reflective of our Catholic identity and rigor for which the Catholic schools have been celebrated.”

Many Catholic parents, however, remain unconvinced.

“Catholic parents are so angry,” said Ann Hynds, who is active with a group called Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core, “because we are the primary educators of our children, and we’re being told not to worry, that they [educators] know better.” Hynds charges that Common Core — which includes a list of suggested texts that have raised hackles among Catholic parents — will jeopardize the classical education long associated with Catholic schools. Supporters of Common Core point out that the texts aren’t mandatory and that particular schools, or even individual teachers, will make decisions about texts and other teaching material.

One of the texts that alarmed Catholic parents reportedly involved asking a child to draw a picture of his family — a minefield, several Common Core critics have charged, in an era of homosexual “marriage.” Others say that they are concerned that the suggested texts don’t include enough classics, a claim Common Core advocates say isn’t true. To give you an idea, suggested English readings for freshmen and sophomores, for example, include the Iliad and the Odyssey, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.

Hynds insists that the Common Core will be detrimental to Catholic education. “[Catholic educators] all say how excellent Catholic education has always been,” Hynds continued. “So why are they doing this?”

Hynds has plenty of company in her staunch opposition to Common Core.

Veteran activist and Eagle Forum’s president, Phyllis Schlafly, wrote a hard-hitting letter to key members of the hierarchy in which she outlined her concerns about Common Core. The letter was published in Crisis magazine under the headline “Common Core: A Threat to Catholic Education.”

Schlafly noted that Common Core had been adopted in 45 states, giving “an appearance of national unanimity”; but this “facade crumbles” when it is pointed out that governors and state boards of education officials, not voters, approved Common Core. “Neither the state legislatures nor the voters ever knew about this radical change in their children’s education until this spring (more than two years after they were adopted),” Schlafly wrote.

Also criticized in her letter is the fact that Catholic school superintendents are often empowered to make the decision about Common Core unilaterally, though the bishop has final say about educational matters in his diocese. Schlafly’s most serious complaints, however, concerned the content of Common Core.

Schlafly charged, “Euclidian geometry was displaced, children were instructed to add in columns from left to right, and ‘conceptual’ math replaced fundamentals. In language arts, ‘close reading’ strategies forced students to read texts ‘in a vacuum’ or without the encumbrance of what was deemed ‘privileged information.’ Furthermore, classical literature was dramatically reduced in favor of reading ‘informational texts’ like computer manuals.”


Suggested Texts

Schlafly’s reference to “informational texts” comes from a list of suggested texts for Common Core schools. Some educators who oppose Common Core have worried that the emphasis on mastery of informational texts — helpful in getting a job but not in reading poetry — could displace literary classics. One suggested text that has attracted notice: a publication by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on “Recommended Levels of Insulation.”

“If we’re calling that literature, we’re in serious trouble,” quipped Father Stravinskas, who emphasized that schools are not required to use these suggested texts.

RaeNell Houston and Rebecca Maloney, associate superintendents of the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, concurred: While Common Core provides a framework, they said, it does not dictate what texts must be used.

“We’re not top down in our archdiocese,” Houston explained. That means that not only will the archdiocese not ask schools to use Common Core’s suggested texts, but that there is great leeway among individual teachers as to how to teach their classes. She added that the archdiocese has always taught to state standards and that she finds Common Core more rigorous.

“We are still a Christ-centered Catholic school [system], and that will not change,” said Maloney. The texts for religion classes are all ones approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, she added. The religion classes are the one centralized portion of the archdiocesan school system.

The New Orleans Archdiocese will join neither the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) nor the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), two state-led organizations developing testing for Common Core. Thus, the archdiocesan schools will not have to submit to Common Core national testing.

“We are a classical education program, and we’re not going to change that,” said Schmidt of Wheeling-Charleston. Schmidt said that Common Core had led to “repositioning” of some material to different grade levels. “For Wheeling, there is no chance that I would mandate a textbook,” he said. “There is no mandate regarding textbooks from our office that would ever happen.”

The Denver Archdiocese’s Thompson, however, sees no need to implement the Common Core.

“We see it as something to look at, something perhaps to borrow from, but not something to jump into,” he said. “We looked at it and said, ‘There are a couple of good things.’ But we have rigorous academic standards infused with Catholic identity. There are parts of the Common Core we might harvest, but I can say it’s very minimal. Our agenda is the formation of the whole child, and there’s nothing in Common Core that is going to get you to heaven.”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.