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Common Core: A mistake for Catholic schools

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The late Pope St. John Paul the Great, stated that the goal of Catholic education is "transmitting the full truth concerning the human person, created in God's image and called to life in Christ through the Holy Spirit." This is hardly the driving force behind the Common Core Standards.

Kevin and Marilyn
Ryan

Americans are deeply frustrated with our schools. And we should be. We financially support schools like no other country. Based on international assessment tests, critics, nevertheless, report that we are simply not "getting our money's worth." For instance, in recent tests of mathematics, our students ranked 27th out of 34 nations. Further, a powerful case can be made that our schools are fostering the development of mind sets and habits that inhibit the development of our children into serious, competent adults.

This national frustration and disappointment is the ground out of which the Common Core has emerged. The Common Core is a set of national standards to guide the education in kindergarten through grade 12 in mathematics and English. Currently, 43 states and over 100 dioceses and archdioceses have signed aboard. After all, who can be against what certified, university-based educators with the best of intentions have come up with to reform our schools? Who, indeed.

While there has been much phony subterfuge claiming that the Common Core Standards grew organically out of the natural desire of educational specialists and professional organizations to do something bold and important to jump-start American education, that is simply not the case. In fact, the federal government created something called "The Race to the Top," which challenged the governors and state school superintendents to compete for 4.35 billion of our tax dollars. The condition for entry into the big money-grab race was to cooperate with the federal government's scheme to develop something that has been anathema to Americans since our founding: a national educational system. Few politicians, particularly during times when state budgets were depleted, were able to resist free money, and they caved in order to get those federal dollars. But why the dioceses?

As with most social issues and initiatives, there are positive aspects of the Common Core. It provides guidance to educators in states that have low or unclear standards to improve their schools. If and when the standards are fully implemented, students moving from one state to another will no longer encounter vastly different curricula. And, colleges will be able to have a clearer idea of what students from Mississippi and Massachusetts bring to their classrooms.

This last point, what knowledge college students should have in their heads, is key. First, though, why should elementary and secondary education, which is supposed to be for all our children, be held hostage to the college curriculum? Only half of the student population go off to two and four year colleges. And are they well served by these college-centric standards?

Second, and more fundamental to the issues of Catholic schools signing on to the Common Core, what about the actual knowledge the Common Core is, in fact, dedicating to be taught? There is an old U.S. Navy instructional principle that is appropriate here: "What is inspected is respected." What the testers say is going to be on the Common Core exams is what is taught. It is what our teachers teach and what our students are expected to learn. What is not tested is rarely taught in the real world of the classroom. Evaluation rules. Teachers, for their own in-house evaluations, "teach to the test." Everything else is a frill, luxuries few teachers can afford.

Again, while there is much propaganda that the standards are not about content, but process, this is false. Take the reading and writing curriculum, for instance. There is a near infinity of stories, poems, novels and essays to include in a school's curriculum. However, the standards test a narrow and specific set of works. And here's the rub.

The philosophy behind the Common Core is antithetical to our Catholic Church's understanding of education and humanity. It squeezes out of the curriculum the great classical and Christian writings that children must encounter if they are to understand who they are, where they are going and how they must conduct their lives. The late Pope St. John Paul the Great, stated that the goal of Catholic education is "transmitting the full truth concerning the human person, created in God's image and called to life in Christ through the Holy Spirit." This is hardly the driving force behind the Common Core Standards.

Recently 132 leading Catholic scholars wrote a letter in strong opposition to the Common Core Standards to each of the country's bishops. In it they stated, "Common Core shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government.

Providence College literature professor, Anthony Esolen, has spoken of the standards' "cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form." Esolen went on to say, "We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women."

Clearly our schools, Catholic and secular, are in great need of reform. The Common Core is not reform. It is a step backward.

KEVIN AND MARILYN RYAN, EDITORS OF "WHY I'M STILL A CATHOLIC," WORSHIP AT ST. LAWRENCE CHURCH IN BROOKLINE.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.

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