There has been a lot of talk in secular and nonsecular schools, both public and private, about the Common Core learning standards set in public schools. Private schools are not obligated to use the Common Core standards, while public schools do not have the option. Initially, about half of the 195 diocese in the United States adopted Common Core at the initial roll-out, but we are seeing more and more Catholic Schools opt-out of Common Core practices as time goes on. Why?
There are letters upon letters online and in publications about Common Core and how it relates to the Catholic faith, but education centers around so much more than English and math. It is up to the families, the parents, and the communities as well as the schools in the church to raise children in the faith. Faith based curriculum can live alongside many methods of teaching math and English in schools. While there are many positive things to be said about Common Core Curriculum, there are also many detractors. Can Catholic schools work standardized curriculum into a well rounded Catholic identity?
It is no secret here that Catholic schools have performed exceptionally in academic success, with statistically astounding rates of graduation (students from Catholic schools are twice as likely to graduate college with a Bachelor’s degree when compared to children who graduate public high school) and that, comparatively, virtually no students drop out of Catholic School compare with the rates of public and non-Catholic private schools. Does Common Core improve or detract from these impressive stats?
Common Core often uses more creative, artistic/hands-on, and spatial parts of the brain to teach concepts that standard math textbooks often did not. It is immersive and rigorous, enforcing more critical thinking and allowing for less “guessing” work. It is more collaborative and encourages discussing problems to solutions to work them out. It is also specially designed for advancing equity amongst children from all backgrounds, being held to the same methods, taught the same way, regardless of city, state, affluence, or previous knowledge, and allows teachers to serve students more equally, with less room for favoritism or inequality in teacher. The consistency allows for flexibility in moving schools, and later entering college with the security of having the same baseline information wealth as your peers. It can also be a feather in the cap of an already well-performing school who can now perform just as well, but now has hard, statistical data of success.
Detractors for Common Core (particularly in Catholic education) are concerned that focus on keeping up pressure on math and English scores in Common Core will push faith to the wayside in classes. There is concern that a constant focus on taking tests and “test prep” throughout the year does not educate children, merely sends them through an endless cycle of “absorb and regurgitate” and does not leave lasting educational foundations. There has also been a lot of discussion in secular and nonsecular schools alike, that the age at which Common Core starts for children is too young when compared with the complexity of the problem-solving, leading more children to feel overwhelmed and under-equipped for the work and phobic about those subjects later on in life.
There is also the factor of losing students to public, private, and charter schools, which has been a concern in Catholic education for quite some time. Do you avoid Common Core curriculum in order to potentially attract the parents and students who are unhappy with Common Core Standards in public schools, or do you use Common Core for the exact opposite reason, proving the tuition bills are worth it, and that your school is competitive with any other school academically?
Many Catholic schools are opting in for partial Common Core participation, with a focus on end of the year tests to make sure that children are meeting the standards, with few to no tests in between and much less focus in the classroom curriculum on the standards themselves. Because private schools are not beholden to the Common Core standards, they are able to pick and choose more freely in the amount of Common Core being taught, in order to not leave any stone unturned.
In this 2013 letter printed in the Washington Post, 132 Catholic professors wrote a letter which was sent individually to each bishop in the United States, beseeching them to help course-correct education in Catholic schools and universities across the country. From the letter: “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.” “We find persuasive the critiques of educational experts (such as James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, and Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas) who have studied Common Core, and who judge it to be a step backwards. We endorse their judgment that this “reform” is really a radical shift in emphasis, goals, and expectations for K-12 education, with the result that Common Core-educated children will not be prepared to do authentic college work. Even supporters of Common Core admit that it is geared to prepare children only for community-college-level studies.”
In March 2014 Bishop David Zubek sent a letter assuring parents and educators that the Diocese of Pittsburg is not using the Common Core State Standards in any of it’s schools. “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,” wrote Bishop Zubik. “Schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh have always set higher standards, and we continue to challenge students to exceed those standards.”
Kathleen Porter-Magee, Superintendent of Partnership Schools, a group of six urban Catholic Schools residing in Harlem and the South Bronx in NY has decided that the dangers of opting out as a school greatly outweigh the arguments against Common Core. Her schools choose to utilize the curriculum to it’s fullest, ensuring that they standards they hold for the students are kept high and regularly achieved. She speaks about the John Hopkins study on race biasing the expectations teachers have of student’s academic achievement. She believes that the benefit of bias-free benchmark testing, and that many of complaints against frequent testing are really masking the root of the issue: the problem lies in poor implementation decisions from school faculty.
In the end, it is up to the schools, the faculty and leaders, and the Diocese to determine the best fit for their schools. Catholic schools have the privilege to make that choice rather than by mandate. I believe that a school soundly based in faith, with a focus on academic achievement alongside spiritual growth will raise children to be devout and whole in mind, body, and spirit, regardless of the implementation of Common Core State Standards.