Catholic Education, the Common Core and the New Evangelization

As Catholic Schools Week begins, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education discusses some key issues.

Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming is the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education, following her appointment in June 2012. A member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, she previously served as the principal of St. Dominic School in Bolingbrook, Ill., one of the order’s 34 schools in 18 dioceses.

During a Jan. 8 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Sister John Mary explained the U.S. bishops’ efforts to make Catholic education a vehicle for advancing the New Evangelization, the need to bring more Hispanic students into parochial schools, and she addressed concerns about the Common Core, the controversial new federal standards for elementary and secondary education.


Gravissimum Educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on Christian Education, states, “Holy Mother Church must be concerned with the whole of man's life. ... Therefore she has a role in the progress and development of education.” What are the U.S. bishops’ educational priorities right now, and how do they seek to respond to developments at the local level?

In the Catholic community, there is growing concern that our schools need to articulate a correct understanding of the philosophy of Catholic education. Our teachers do an excellent job but we need to support them in this area by providing them with the tools to articulate this philosophy.


A Catholic philosophy of education deals with the essence of the human person as a child of God who is made in the image of God. One of the ends or goals of Catholic education is to teach children to live well here and now so that they can live with God in eternity. That means engaging culture and society in a specifically Christian way that contributes to the general welfare of society.

At this point, 97% of the teachers in Catholic schools are lay, and we are grateful to our lay teachers for the commitment they have to our schools and families, and for their witness and active presence in our schools.

In years past, teaching positions in Catholic schools were held by priests and religious sisters. They came with a Catholic philosophy of education; it was part of their training.

Now, many teachers come straight out of state schools. We have an obligation to provide them with professional training in the philosophy of Catholic education. We need to nurture the faith life of our faculty.

Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, the new chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education, wants to help bishops provide professional development for teachers. There are institutes like the School of Faith in Kansas, which has offered teacher training in Kansas City [Kan.] and Omaha. They spend time with faculty to catechize and present a correct philosophy of Catholic education. They also teach about discipleship, not only to know Christ but to love Christ.

Other institutes across the country focus on graduate work in Catholic education. Dioceses also are developing professional training for Catholic educators at the local level. We are encouraging all of these approaches.


The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states that the mission of Catholic education is to provide a particular environment for the New Evangelization by presenting the Gospel anew within the school and parish communities. Would you point to concrete activities/curriculum that should be present to fulfill that mission?

The reality is that many of our parents don’t have the background in catechesis that their parents or grandparents may have had. We envision Catholic schools as communities of the New Evangelization. The schools can be vehicles for reinculturating Catholic homes by encouraging parents to pray daily with their children, providing solid catechesis such as the Ten Commandments, reintroducing Catholic culture into the home through pious devotions.

Schools can reach out by offering family holy hours and events in which aspects of Catholic teaching are addressed. The school could offer retreats for parents that make them more conscious of discipleship, and offer a more effective approach to catechesis that introduces the person of Jesus as Savior and Redeemer. We need to emphasize the concept of mercy, and invite families to participate in the devotional life of the Church through seasonal paraliturgical prayers such as the Stations of the Cross and the family Rosary.

We can reach into the home through Web-based programs that help reintroduce the faith to parents, while also providing them faith information to help them work with their children.


What are the most frequent concerns brought to you by schools, parents and teachers?

Sometimes bishops and school superintendents are concerned about getting a true philosophy of Catholic education across to faculties and staff. We try to introduce them to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Parents call about school closures. They are concerned that they have no educational option available, and that everything has changed. Listening to their concerns is important and the Church is deeply saddened when that happens.

There are topical issues, related to concerns about the implementation of polices at the local level, and we generally turn those back to the superintendents.


An urgent educational issue is expanding Hispanic students’ access to Catholic education. The Chicago Tribune, for example, reported in 2010, “Latinos make up 40% of the Archdiocese of Chicago membership, but just 1% of its students.” What do you hope to accomplish to address this matter?

We are very interested in organizing a national campaign to promote awareness of Catholic education in the Hispanic community and underserved populations. Some Hispanic [families] are not aware that the schools are there, or they may come from places where Catholic schools are only for the elite. Very often they don’t know that our school communities would love to see them at our doors.

It is also a time to educate our schools to be more welcoming, and look into what kind of financial and community support they can offer Hispanic and underserved students and families.

This is all part of a big conversation we hope to have with Latino bishops. We now have a greater presence of the Latino community on the Committee for Catholic Education. We are working with the Latino initiative out of Notre Dame, which seeks to encourage Hispanic parents to enroll their children in Catholic schools.


The Common Core, the federal government’s new curriculum guidelines that will set the bar for standardized testing, has provoked opposition among some Catholic leaders, educators and parents. What is your view of the Common Core?

Standards have been a part of the educational landscape for quite some time. The Church recognizes the right of civic government to be concerned about the academic success of its citizens. The Common Core State Standards were written with the concerns of public education in mind and therefore, from a Catholic school vantage point, are incomplete. But our schools are not opposed to high academic standards and academic rigor, and so will be interested and aware of any standards that challenge and engage our students in excellence.  

In the past, each diocese responded to diverse state standards. Those state standards were also influenced by policies set by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who tied standards to assessment and incentivized reforms through No Child Left Behind.

Our schools have always kept our eye on these state standards. Parents compare our students’ academic performance to that of students in public schools on a regular basis. Knowing the wider academic environment helps our teachers and administrators to offer an excellent education within the Catholic environment.

It would be irresponsible for us to ignore the Common Core and not evaluate what our children will be up against in terms of content and testing.


Where does that leave individual dioceses and schools?

In the midst of all of this is the principle of subsidiarity: Each diocese has the freedom to make curriculum decisions and interpret the guidelines as they see necessary. That is how Catholic schools have responded to state standards in the past. It is also a great strength of our schools that they exercise decision-making of this kind at the local level. It allows for the important adjustments and review of content and implementation at the local level which is necessary for excellent schools.

Some dioceses have reviewed the Common Core and said, ‘Yes, we already do this and far more.’ Some dioceses looked at this and said, ‘This is more rigorous than our state standards, and this is where education is moving.’ So they have provided professional training to help their schools adapt. What is most important in the discussion is that schools never lose sight of our Catholic mission and identity when choosing what to keep and what to exclude in guidelines and standards. The Common Core State Standards have certainly intensified that conversation. And they have brought the importance of what is different about Catholic education to the minds of Catholic educators at the local, diocesan and national level. That is a good thing.


How should educators evaluate the Common Core?

They should approach the standards in their written form, and base their judgment on that. They should also keep in mind their experience with previous diocesan standards and curriculum.

The prudent decision is to accept what is rigorous and helpful and to reject what is not. The notion that our schools would adopt wholesale any new standards that have not been studied or evaluated is frightening people. Articulating the process and the rationale for the decisions is important to parents. It is also important for educators to remember that people choose Catholic schools because they are different and unique. This difference includes academic rigor in the Catholic tradition. How we articulate that to parents and students is important.


Critics of the Common Core argue that its guidelines for language arts give priority to “informational texts” over literature.

The Common Core appears designed to teach reading and writing in a more integrated way.

The informational texts come with a history. No Child Left Behind put the focus on teaching and testing math and reading. Many public schools stopped formally teaching science and social studies and focused on math and reading. Catholic schools did not tend to do that. So sometimes the question of informational texts is linked to reintroducing the vocabulary proper to these subjects.


As you noted, many teachers in Catholic schools earned their credentials at a state university and may have limited exposure to the classics of children’s literature, especially books that affirm the good, the true and the beautiful. Do we need better classroom resources for literature, such as recommended reading lists — whether or not schools adopt the Common Core?

The reality is that many Catholic schools have excellent reading lists which will not change with the implementation of Common Core State Standards. Many schools will use this opportunity to shore up their lists and move toward a more rigorous literature program. Sharing excellent and time-tested literature and literary texts is a positive way to ensure academic rigor and to teach virtue to young people. The Common Core State Standards have certainly brought this conversation to the forefront. We are engaged in a healthy conversation about academic rigor and what will benefit our students overall.


Some Catholic families, especially those who opt to home school, ask why the classic principles of Catholic education (logic, grammar, rhetoric) aren’t used in most schools now.

Catholic education in this country is open to that plurality of presentation — classic education and modified classic education, just as we have been open to Montessori education.

The reality is that children do not learn in just one way. That is why the standards conversation is important and emotionally heated. There is room for diversity in how children learn and ways in which they are taught. This all needs to be evaluated in light of a correct philosophy of education and awareness of concerns about relativistic approaches to education. This is an important concern and one that will need to be reviewed now and in the future.

Teaching children the importance of living a good life now so as to live with God for all eternity is the most important element of Catholic education, and its authenticity and excellence is something for which we should all be concerned.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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