PITTSBURGH — With a growing number of Catholic-school educators and parents raising concerns about the Common Core education curriculum, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik penned a March 18 letter that assures Catholics the schools in his diocese are not using it.
Common Core critics hope it’s a sign their campaign against the curriculum may be gaining ground.
"Be assured that our Catholic identity is the core of our curriculum," Bishop Zubik wrote. "Our Catholic faith guides the selection of all curricula, goals, textbooks and other resources."
Bishop Zubik began his statement by explaining that parents have been asking whether diocesan schools had adopted Common Core, a non-mandatory curriculum released in 2010 for use in public and private schools.
Some parents expressed concern that the curriculum, given its secular origins, might conflict with Catholic teaching. Others feared the government might use it to collect and report student data in a way that might violate the privacy of students. And others worried about a dumbing down of academic standards.
Along with highlighting the primacy of Catholic identity in his diocese’s schools, Bishop Zubik also addressed the other two concerns expressed by many parents.
"The Common Core is a set of minimum standards, intended to help public schools with their effort to prepare students for higher education and the workforce," he wrote. "Schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh have always set higher standards, and we continue to challenge students to exceed those standards."
And, he stressed, "schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh do not share data on individual students with any state or federal databases."
Though Pittsburgh’s Catholic schools never adopted Common Core, Bishop Zubik’s formal rejection of the curriculum was issued out of respect for the concerns raised by parents.
"A hallmark of Catholic education is our conviction as the Church of Pittsburgh that parents are the first and most important educators of their children," his letter concluded. "We seek to support each and every parent in doing so, and we thank you for the loving concern that you have shown about the education of your children."
Among concerned Pittsburgh parents is Dr. Coleen Carignan, a physician and co-founder of Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core. She and other members of her organization have written to bishops for the past year, pleading with them to eradicate Common Core from any schools in their prelacies that may have adopted all or part of the new standards.
Bishop Zubik’s letter was a welcome development for Carignan, who hopes other bishops will follow his lead and remove Common Core from classrooms or vow to avoid it. She said bishops have been receptive to concerns expressed by the group but has no idea how many may be preparing to extract the curriculum from diocesan schools.
"Catholic education values the individual child, whereas Common Core treats everyone the same," said Carignan, whose eighth-grade son attends a Catholic school that does not use Common Core. "We hear from Catholic parents all over the country who are concerned about this curriculum. And we try to help them out by communicating with their schools and sharing our concerns about it. We tell them to turn against this and to embrace classical Catholic education."
Common Core is not a government mandate, but it has been embraced by 45 states and to some degree by schools in 100 of 195 U.S. dioceses. It is promoted by the National Governors Association, the Council for Chief State School Officers, Achieve Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
However, even one of the curriculum’s early founders thinks it’s a bad idea for Catholic, public or any other schools.
A retired professor of education reform with a doctorate from Harvard, Sandra Stotsky devised widely acclaimed education standards for Massachusetts. She joined the prestigious Common Core Validation Committee in 2009 and hoped new education standards would make America’s children brighter and more competitive by world standards.
"What we ended up with is an inferior set of standards that dumbs down education in public, private and Catholic schools," Stotsky told the Register.
"My advice for any Catholic educators who are using Common Core is this: Return to your classical curriculum. It was much stronger, and parents who are paying tuition will be much happier."
Other Catholic Critics
The Cardinal Newman Society has also advocated against Common Core in K-12 Catholic schools.
"The primary aim of Common Core is to direct students toward college or business careers, and that simply doesn’t reflect the entirety of what Catholic education is about," explained Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. "When a Catholic school conforms and uses this standard, it tends to reduce the attention to Catholic identity, which has already been watered down over the past several decades."
Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, believes Common Core is designed more for the benefit of government and large corporations, not individuals trying to strengthen their relationships with God.
Though he believes Common Core lowers standards in all major disciplines, he’s particularly concerned about its approach to literary education.
"It is removing vast amounts of classical literature and replacing it with an emphasis on how to read government documents," Father Stravinskas said.
Dan Guernsey, an associate professor of education at Ave Maria University and headmaster of Donahue Academy of Ave Maria, Fla., said Common Core aims to prepare children for college and careers but will fail on both counts.
Guernsey said this narrow focus inadvertently crowds out robust educational content that actually contributes to worldly success.
"There’s a belief that, by emphasizing informational texts over literary texts, students will become better workers and make more money," Guernsey said. "There’s an apparent logic to that, but it doesn’t work. Reading great literature and poetry better hones one’s skills to read closely, accurately and affectively. And when you’re trying to negotiate the world, you are dealing with human beings. If you can read the people around you, because you have immersed yourself in literature and poetry, you have a much better chance of affecting the world positively."
The critics point to an apparent loss of momentum for Common Core.
The Register was unable to obtain reliable data on which schools and prelacies are using Common Core, but Reilly and Father Stravinskas say it appears educators at Catholic schools, as well as at public and private ones, have started questioning and abandoning Common Core in the past three months.
Father Stravinskas hosted a workshop at the 2013 general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to warn against Common Core, and he said he received a positive reception from most of the 30 bishops who attended.
"The trend is against this," Reilly said. "There is a new dialogue that wasn’t happening six months ago. We are hearing that a number of bishops have privately told individuals they are moving in the direction of entirely rejecting it."
Father Stravinskas said he’s concerned the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) advocates Common Core. The association received a grant of more than $100,000 from the Gates’ foundation in 2013 for the purpose of helping Catholic schools implement the curriculum.
The NCEA rejects the claim that it is promoting Common Core. Presentation Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and education research for the NCEA, said "we do not" advocate for Common Core. "We provide services to our members as they request them. For those who want to implement Common Core, we do provide information, workshops and professional development."
McDonald said the NCEA has no data on which schools or dioceses are using Common Core, avoiding it or giving up on it.
Among Catholic educators who embrace Common Core is Jim Rigg, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s 114 Catholic schools. In an article for the archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Telegraph, Rigg explained that much of the opposition he has heard sounds politically motivated. He believes Common Core helps resolve concerns about shallow curricula that leave students ill prepared for college and work.
Rigg told Telegraph readers that Common Core focuses intensely on a smaller number of standards that have been directly linked to success in college and careers. "I feel that the Common Core, adapted to fit our needs, provides an opportune complement to our mission," Rigg wrote.
For its part, the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., tells parents that diocesan schools will utilize a selective approach to Common Core. "We will determine what to adapt and only utilize that which best fits our unique mission," says a statement on the diocesan website. "Our focus is to be vigilant as we adhere to the Truth that the Catholic Church teaches and to ensure that the faith and education of our children is not compromised."
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.