Common Core Debate Intensifies

Catholic Scholars Sign Warning Letter

WASHINGTON — Debate among Catholic educators over the merits of the Common Core has intensified since mid-October, with a public letter from more than 130 scholars asking the U.S. Catholic bishops to abandon any implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

The Oct. 16 letter, spearheaded by University of Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley, argued the Common Core represents a major departure from the main objective of Catholic education: to form a person to seek the good, the true and the beautiful.

The Common Core is a set of federal education standards embraced so far by 45 states and more than 100 out of 195 Catholic dioceses. The Common Core has generated a national controversy over the suggested curriculum and new teaching methods, but especially in Catholic schools.

The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) also has come under fire recently for taking money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds contraceptive programs in the developing world, to defray the costs of its workshops on Common Core. But Barbara Keebler, the NCEA’s communications director, told the Register that NCEA has been holding workshops on Common Core since 2011 and only accepted a grant from the Gates Foundation in summer 2013 with the understanding that the NCEA would have no interference in how it conducted its Common Core educational efforts.

The Bradley letter to the U.S. bishops said that, notwithstanding the good intentions of Catholic educators, implementing the Common Core in Catholic schools in any fashion "would be a grave disservice to Catholic education in America" and "change the character and curriculum of our nation’s Catholic schools."

"In fact, we are convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it and that those schools which have already endorsed it should seek an orderly withdrawal now," Bradley and the 132 co-signers stated. The letter outlined their concerns that the Common Core is geared toward "standardized workforce preparation" at the expense of preparing a student "for a life of the imagination, of the spirit and of a deep appreciation for beauty, goodness, truth and faith."

Bradley cited the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction "informational texts" over "classic, narrative fiction" at the heart of a student’s moral education and its vulnerability to the dangers posed by "prevailing philosophical orthodoxies" in academia at odds with Catholic teaching, such as materialism and moral relativism.

"It is a recipe, at best, for drudgery — and, at worst, plain incompetence," Anthony Esolen, an English professor at Providence College in Rhode Island and a co-signor of the Bradley letter, told the Register. Esolen, a vigorous opponent of Common Core, argued the new standards are teaching students methods of analyzing texts that prevent them from fully engaging with classic literature, giving them "the humanities without the humanity."

"I don’t want my students who read Don Quixote or Paradise Lost to treat it as this neutral ‘thing’ out there, like a dead cat on a table for dissecting," Esolen said.

The Bradley letter has inspired both passionate reactions and thoughtful engagement from Common Core proponents since its publication. Kevin Donohue, an eighth-grade teacher in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, argued in a letter to Notre Dame’s Irish Rover newspaper that real classroom experience shows the Common Core is "truly what is best for educational institutions, both public and private, secular and Catholic."

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W. Va., however, had a more constructive response. An Oct. 24 letter to Bradley from Vincent de Paul Schmidt, superintendent of schools, and obtained by the Register, explained how the "Catholic Common Core Initiative" was being implemented in the diocese’s Catholic schools in a way "reflective of our Catholic values and traditions." Schmidt said the diocese intends to meet the standards of excellence set by the bishop, not the state, and respect local school control of the pacing and book selections. He added that diocesan schools would not follow the state’s assessment protocols and had forbidden the state’s data-mining of students.

Father Ronald Nuzzi, director of Catholic leadership programs at the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame, told the Register that the Common Core standards "are benchmark indicators and are best understood as ways to evaluate curriculum."

"They are not the curriculum, and no Catholic school would ever surrender curricular authority to an external entity, nor could they canonically, even if they wanted to," he said. "The adoption and implementation of any and all curriculum is always a decision subject to local control."

Bradley’s letter has not gone unnoticed at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB’s National Advisory Council recommended at the bishops’ November general assembly in Baltimore that the bishops re-evaluate the Common Core standards.

Sister John Mary Fleming, head of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Catholic Education, told the Register that Bradley’s letter raised an important question of whether Catholic education should pursue a more liberal arts direction rather than current alternatives.

However, Sister John Mary pointed out that Catholic dioceses have been responding to Common Core in a manner similar to how they have responded historically to changes in state standards. Her own survey of 195 dioceses, she said, found that 100 dioceses had made adaptations in response to Common Core, but they were not adopting the Common Core wholesale or imposing a "one-size-fits-all approach" in their schools.

"Really, over 100 dioceses have been managing, editing, picking and choosing what is best at the local level and what is best in the context of their Catholic school community within that mission, that philosophy of Catholic education," she said.

Sister John Mary said that the "the examination of conscience" about Common Core has to take place at the local level and is a conversation that should involve parents, educators, superintendents and the bishop. "Let’s be sure that any standards that we adopt have those ends [of a Catholic education] in mind," she said.

Changing Catholic education in response to meeting state expectations for public schools, Esolen argued, has not yielded positive results. He said it has put Catholic schools at the mercy of changing fads in education since the 1950s, the latest being Common Core. "They should just get rid of it," he said.

Esolen pointed to his own experience as a professor: He frequently has to re-teach students how to write papers, and these are students who have told him that they spent an entire year in class preparing for AP (Advanced Placement) tests. The type of student who is generally set apart in his class is not the Catholic school student, but a home-schooler.

"Home-schoolers clean everybody else’s clock, but they are not being taught with the AP test in mind," he said. Instead, Esolen said, Catholic educators "need to go back to the roots: What is a human education, and what is a Catholic education? We have plenty of Catholic writers on that subject, going back for centuries."