Common Core’s Conundrum Continues

Editor's Note: This story was updated after it went to press.

WASHINGTON — After five tension-filled years, as Catholic schools and dioceses across the country faced the decision of whether to adopt Common Core State Standards, the controversial federal education guidelines, the news on Common Core in Catholic schools is mixed.

While some Common Core opponents believe they have made headway, Common Core supporters believe exactly the same thing. Meanwhile, other battle-weary parents who oppose Common Core see a stalemate.

Supporters argue that national standards will be better than relying on separate standards from 50 states, opponents question the academic rigor of the standards and, moreover, argue that Common Core is hard — if not impossible — to adopt in a way that upholds the core values of a Catholic education. A classical education, they maintain, cannot be delivered through a Common Core curriculum.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) has never endorsed Common Core but has held workshops and provided other material for Catholic educators who want to implement Common Core.

“We don’t track the numbers of schools accepting or adapting Common Core State Standards,” said Thomas Burnford, interim president of the NCEA. “But, based on surveys conducted by NCEA and USCCB [the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops], about 100 out of 195 dioceses and archdioceses have chosen to adapt these standards, including the largest archdioceses in the country that represent the majority of Catholic schools. To date, 44 states have adopted these standards.”

“The relationship with God and with others is the heart of Catholic-school education and the source of our success,” Burnford continued. “NCEA is committed to ensuring that neither the Common Core State Standards nor any future educational developments will ever change that.”


Assessing Implementation

“Standards do not determine the authenticity of the education — the choice of curriculum and the lived faith experience shapes the Catholic identity of the school. Since standards are not curriculum, a genuine Catholic education can be achieved using any standards, including Common Core,” Burnford added.

Jim Rigg, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Catholic schools, sees the standards as a positive implementation.

“Overall, basing our curriculum on Common Core has enhanced our academic rigor. We occasionally hear concerns, but they are not as strong and pronounced as they used to be,” said Rigg, who became the Archdiocese of Chicago’s schools superintendent in October of last year. Before that, he was superintendent for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s schools. Both archdioceses have educational curricula based on Common Core.

Rigg admitted that some aspects of the rollout had been difficult, but regards Common Core as beneficial: “Much of the evidence is based on teachers, who tell me it is providing more rigorous instruction, higher achievement and better engagement.”

The Cardinal Newman Society, however, a vocal critic of Common Core that has released two reports highlighting the harm it can do to Catholic education, put Common Core on its priority list of issues to follow in 2016. Common Core is No. 2 on a list of 10 concerns. But even here there is cause for guarded optimism.

“When Common Core was unveiled in 2010, there was at first great pressure for Catholic schools to adopt Common Core because it appeared that all textbooks, teacher training and testing, including college testing, would be aligned to it; and it was apparently supported by teachers and politicians alike,” said Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 education at the Cardinal Newman Society. “The pressure was to jump on board, ride the wave and stay ahead of the curve — to outdo the public schools in Common Core.”

“Now that we are starting to get some significant data on the previously untested Common Core, the data is mixed, and some is problematic,” he said.

To illustrate, Guernsey pointed to a report from last August that shows that students’ scores on the national tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), are below expectations, and public-school teacher support for the Common Core has dropped from 76% to 40%.

Guernsey said that, in an interview with the Cardinal Newman Society, the president of the College Board and one of the developers of the Common Core State Standards stated that “a child excellently trained in the traditional liberal arts will do superbly on relevant sections of the SAT and other aspects of Advanced Placement work.”

The 40% figure cited by Guernsey comes from an “Education Next” poll. When NAEP scores were released last November, there was an overall decline in all states, but Common Core states had a slightly more marked decline.


Criticism and Dislike

But Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow with the American Principles Project, an organization chaired by Catholic scholar and religious-freedom advocate Robert George and which opposes Common Core, sees a long battle ahead.

She says that, while “there is a lot of evidence that Common Core is not working,” nevertheless, “the education establishment is monolithic, and they are behind Common Core.”

She explained that this affects Catholic schools because “a lot of the people who run the Catholic schools come out of public education, and Common Core represents what they studied in graduate schools.” She said that Catholic schools should have confidence that their students can do well on national testing even without Common Core curricula. She agrees with Coleman that students who have received classical educations will by and large do well on national tests, even if the tests are geared to Common Core.

Sandra Stotsky, an outspoken critic of Common Core who helped develop the much-lauded standards for Massachusetts schools that were superseded by Common Core, believes that many Catholic educators yearn to drop Common Core. “It’s not doing well,” she said. “Teachers don’t like it. If administrators could talk, they’d tell you they want to get out of it.” Stotsky said that implementation of Common Core may have slowed down. “It seems, from what I’m getting, even from personal emails, that it is not moving ahead anymore. It has reached a plateau or a stasis. That is my impression, though I don’t have the statistics.”

Catholic mother Heather Crossin, however, who with Erin Tuttle founded Hoosiers Against Common Core, thinks that the battle will be a long one.

“In the short run,” she said, “it is hard to be optimistic about the Common Core battle, because it has become all too apparent that there is an incredible amount of political power and money behind those pushing and profiting off Common Core.”

What is the next line of battle? Several people interviewed believe it will be over the interpretation of the Every Child Succeeds Act of 2015, which replaced “No Child Left Behind.” The act says that the secretary of education can’t penalize a school for not adopting Common Core, but some Common Core opponents insist that Common Core methods and values are embedded in the 1,000-page-plus piece of legislation.  

Charlotte Hays

writes from Washington.