‘After the Fall’ Study Highlights Catholic Concerns With Common Core

Authored by prominent Catholic scholars, the paper argues that the federal standards are ‘incompatible’ with Catholic education.

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WASHINGTON — “After the Fall: Catholic Schools Beyond the Common Core,” a white paper written by Catholic scholars who have opposed the Common Core federal standards in the past, argues that the standards are “incompatible” with Catholic education and that, furthermore, they cannot be adapted for use in Catholic schools.

“After the Fall” was released earlier this month by two nonprofits, Boston’s Pioneer Institute, a research organization that supports free-market economics and is active in the school-choice movement, and the American Principles Project, a Washington, D.C., think tank founded by Catholic scholar Robert George.

The authors of the paper are Anthony Esolen, Dante scholar and professor of English at Providence College; Dan Guernsey, the principal writer, associate professor of education at Ave Maria College and director of K-12 programs at the Cardinal Newman Society (one of the most consistent critics of Common Core); Jane Robbins, an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project; and Kevin Ryan, an emeritus education professor at Boston University and founder and director of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility who was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Two former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican, Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon and former mayor of Boston Raymond Flynn, wrote the preface to the 49-page paper.

While the study doesn’t break new ground with regard to data or other original research, it is likely to win favor with opponents of Common Core who want a literate — and often eloquent — statement of the purpose of Catholic education, along with a history of how, in the authors’ view, Common Core has let down Catholic students after being embraced by many Catholic educators.

Studded with literary references and quotes from papal documents, this highly readable paper provides a chronology of Common Core in Catholic schools and the authors’ debunking of the arguments put forward in support of Common Core. It also sets forth the transcendent goal of Catholic education and even stresses the need for beauty.

“This paper thoroughly and systematically explains why Common Core and Catholic education are in no way, shape or form compatible,” said Heather Crossin, co-founder of Hoosiers Against Common Core. She described Common Core as an educational “fad.”


Three Primary Objections

“After the Fall” puts forth three primary objections to Common Core: Common Core focuses only on workforce-oriented goals, ignoring character and the purpose of life; its academic content is woefully inadequate, especially in the field of literature; and has a stunted utilitarian approach to education.

“The Common Core is clear that it seeks to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to prepare students for college and career,” the paper states. “If there is any other purpose to education, the Common Core does not recognize it. The mission of a Catholic school, though, is much broader.”

“The Common Core seeks to train technically proficient readers and writers to serve industry,” Guernsey said in an interview, noting that some of the suggested reading material is technical (even including a document from a government agency). “Catholic schools seek proficient and engaged readers to promote higher order thinking, creativity, delight and insight into the human condition in the pursuit of truth.”

He added, “Catholic education serves two goods: first, the personal good of student flourishing in this life and eternal life with Christ in the next; and, second, the common good of the ecclesial and earthly societies. The mission should define the standards, and the standards should drive the curriculum. This is a different mission than public schools.

“Different missions require different standards — the end and the means should match. The Common Core is a particular set of standards to meet the good of college and career ends. Our ends are much more broad and transcendent: We must make sure that Catholic education keeps its eyes on the prize.”

In the preface, Flynn and Glendon say something similar. “The basic goal of Common Core is not genuine education,” they write, “but rather the training and production of workers for an economic machine. We see this in the reduced focus on classic literature and in the woeful mathematics standards that stop short of even a full Algebra II course — giving students just enough math for their entry-level jobs. The goal is ‘good enough,’ not academically ‘excellent.’”


History of Controversy

The introduction of Common Core standards, which had been developed starting in 2008, ignited a firestorm of controversy both in public schools and in Catholic schools. Common Core became a hot political issue, especially in the Republican primary, with many parents vociferously criticizing both the content and the methods of Common Core. Supporters claimed it was merely a way to nationalize educational standards, heretofore a hodgepodge of state-level standards.

The National Catholic Educational Association has never endorsed Common Core, but has sponsored workshops for Catholic educators who wanted to introduce Common Core into their dioceses. When the Register asked NCEA President and CEO Tom Burnford to comment on the new study, he sidestepped the question and emphasized the fact that Catholic education is under local control.

“When it comes to Common Core standards,” said Burnford, a “Catholic school has to evaluate its own goals and needs. The aim for Catholic schools is to teach the fullness of the Catholic faith and to be places where students encounter the Risen Lord [in their studies].”

One Catholic educator, Vincent de Paul Schmidt, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, said that the study is “correct,” in that Catholicism can’t be superficially inserted into the Common Core standards. Schmidt said that his diocese reviewed the Common Core State Standards but did not adopt them. Instead, the diocese modified its own standards to incorporate some recommendations of Common Core.

“I have no problem with juggling some subjects to make our schedule for teaching them more in line with brain research,” he said, referring to scientific studies cited in Common Core material about when it is best to teach certain subjects and skills.


Defending Common Core

The study is not without its critics, however.

“The reality is that, while the goal of the Common Core State Standards may be focused on ‘college and career readiness,’ the content of the standards themselves is very much aligned with the principles of Catholic education,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has supported Common Core.

One of the key arguments for why Catholic schools should adopt or adapt Common Core standards was that, with most public schools embracing Common Core, standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT will in the future be geared to the Common Core curriculum. If Catholic students are to excel on these tests, it has been widely argued, Catholic schools must use Common Core.

However, “After the Fall” argues that standardized tests are used to predict a student’s potential for success in college, not to measure what they did in high school. Moreover, the study notes that David Coleman, an architect of Common Core and now president of The College Board, which prepares the SAT, said that it is his “conviction that a child excellently trained in traditional liberal arts will do superbly on relevant sections of the SAT and other aspects of Advanced Placement work. Rest assured.”

The paper is also skeptical that Common Core-based curricula can be adjusted in a way that makes them appropriate for Catholic schools. The paper states, “The attempt to ‘work within’ the Common Core by infusing Catholic content (or, as the superintendent of schools in one archdiocese said, to use the Common Core but ‘sprinkle Catholicism on top’) is inadequate — ultimately much more is needed to retain a genuine Catholic education.”

The study found that these efforts can be stilted and not as effective as adapters may hope. It cited one adaptation that required a second-grade teacher, during reading class, to at some point show the children a picture of Christ and have them explain what the picture says about Christ’s love and forgiveness. This adaptation occurred, according to the paper, in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

“That is rather specific and might be better done in theology, where more pictures are available,” the study points out.

“By combining fiction and non-fiction standards, the second-grade students must now also explain how a picture of an icon, statue or relic contributes to and clarifies a text. The Common Core standard assumes that a student in a work of non-fiction will be able to look at a picture of a machine and explain how it clarifies and fits with the text. It is not clear how the same activity might be accomplished by looking at an icon or relic.”

One attempt to “sprinkle” Catholicism on top of a math class that was cited in the study was particularly memorable — the student was asked to derive the standard for the equation of an ellipse by studying the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica “and using that as an opportunity to discuss the Vatican.”


Beneficial Reassessment

One of the authors of the “After the Fall” study, Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project, said that the controversy over Common Core has prompted a highly beneficial reassessment of the traditional mission of Catholic education and to take stock of the state of Catholic education.

“Common Core may have done us a good turn,” Robbins said, “in showing us what we don’t want to do. When you compare Catholic education to Common Core, the differences shine through.”


Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.