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Common Core ‘Never Needed’ in Catholic Schools, Says Study’s Lead Author

Is the great debate over the use of Common Core State Standards in Catholic schools finally resolved? It should be, especially with this week’s publication of After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core, the first thorough academic critique of the standards and their impact on Catholic education.

Dr. Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 programs for The Cardinal Newman Society, was the lead author of the report, joined by education experts Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College, Jane Robbins of American Principles Project and Dr. Kevin Ryan of Boston University. The study was jointly sponsored by the Boston-based research group Pioneer Institute and the public policy organization American Principles Project.

Since the release of the Common Core in 2010, Catholic families, educators and even some bishops have expressed concern about use of the standards in Catholic schools. The Cardinal Newman Society strongly cautioned school leaders against rushing to adopt the Common Core and launched the Catholic Is Our Core initiative to inform families and educators about the standards’ failings. The essential concern is that the Common Core’s one-size-fits-all secular approach to education and its emphasis on preparing students for college and workforce training are incompatible with the much higher goals and mission of Catholic schools.

In After the Fall, Dr. Guernsey and his fellow scholars confirm the warnings of the Newman Society and many other critics of the Common Core.

In about 50 pages of analysis, the authors debunk key arguments that Catholic school leaders have made when adopting the Common Core in Catholic schools. The report explains how the philosophy behind Common Core simply cannot be reconciled with the mission of Catholic education.

I spoke recently with Dr. Guernsey about the findings in After the Fall and his thoughts about the Common Core’s impact on Catholic education:

What was the conventional wisdom at the time the Common Core was first adopted in Catholic schools, in terms of it being a good idea?

Dr. Guernsey: Conventional wisdom at first seemed to be: Common Core was just business as usual for Catholic schools, seeking to adapt to the latest state standards that had come their way — only this time the scale was national.

Previously, some dioceses had followed their individual state standards closely, in some cases not so closely, and many Catholic educators and parents did not overly concern themselves with their state’s standards. It seemed prudent to some professional educators to get out ahead of the new standards and do them better than the public schools, and thus ensure our competitive advantage.

The problem was that the standards obfuscated our real competitive advantage as Catholic schools: we educate the whole person and have access to full and transcendent views of man, his purpose and his ultimate good.

Also, the early conventional wisdom of some professional educators failed to predict the tremendous negative backlash that accompanied the Common Core and the concerns of parents who were seeking an elite education — that their expensive private school was now just “common” like the public schools they fled.

Overall, and compared to public schools, in what position were Catholic schools academically before Common Core?

Dr. Guernsey: The Common Core was purportedly designed to meet the perceived academic crisis in public schools. But no such crisis existed in Catholic schools.

Catholic schools have been outperforming public schools by double-digit margins for the last 20 years on federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and math tests (often referred to as “the nation’s report card”). Catholic-school college preparation is outstanding, with over 99 percent of students graduating from high school and 84 percent going on to four-year colleges (almost double the public-school rate). Once they get to college, Catholic-school graduates are twice as likely as those from public schools to graduate from college within eight years of high-school graduation (62 percent vs. 31 percent).

These statistics suggest that in adopting the Common Core, Catholic schools were attempting to fix what was not broken. Why Catholic schools should plunge into an untested “solution” for a nonexistent problem has never been satisfactorily explained.

And what effect has Common Core had on Catholic school academics where it’s been implemented?

Dr. Guernsey: There is no specific published data on how Catholic schools’ standardized test scores per se have done post-Common Core. We do know that for all schools, five years into the Common Core experiment, the data is at best mixed. NAEP scores are dropping and below expectations, although causation is not yet clear.

But what we are not hearing is wide-scale applause and admiration for the Common Core. It has not delivered. Public school teacher support for the Common Core has dropped from 76 percent to 40 percent. So the bloom is off the rose.

So Common Core hasn’t led to test scores going through the roof and kids being more prepared for college?

Dr. Guernsey: There is no evidence that the Common Core has led to increased test scores. There is data to suggest that five years into the Common Core, professors report that students are less prepared for college.

Again, it is hard to prove strict causation, but according to the 2016 ACT National Curriculum Survey, while in 2009 and 2012, 26 percent of college instructors reported that their incoming students were well prepared for college-level work, by 2016 that the percentage had dropped to 16 percent. ACT also found that of those college instructors who reported a degree of familiarity with the Common Core, a full 60 percent reported that the Common Core expectations were not “completely” or “a great deal” aligned to what the professors expect of their college student.

What about Catholic educators? How has the adoption of Common Core in Catholic schools impacted their ability to teach and form students?

Dr. Guernsey: Those in the know have always been free to work around the standards as they see fit. Since the standards set minimums, Catholic educators can and should do more. A danger is that those not fully aware of the weaknesses in the standards or those not fully immersed in the Catholic intellectual tradition, might not know what they do not know.

In an effort to help address this potential need, The Cardinal Newman Society has been publishing several helpful resources available on our website. The most recent, being released this month, is a set of Catholic Curriculum Standards which seek to outline specific elements of the Catholic intellectual tradition which schools should include in their efforts to teach math, history, science and literature.

In terms of the mission of Catholic schools and overall student formation, what effect has Common Core had on Catholic schools?

Dr. Guernsey: It’s hard to say what has happened, but my sense is that Catholic educators as a whole are more attuned to figuring out what the specific mission of Catholic education is. The grief many Catholic schools who implemented the Common Core experienced caused them to dig deeper to justify to their customer base why they are different from public schools. This is a great development.

Here, again, The Cardinal Newman Society has developed crucial resources including our forthcoming Principles of Catholic Identity in Education which outlines the Church’s expectations for her schools.

Is it safe to say Common Core was never needed in Catholic schools and should have never been implemented?

Dr. Guernsey: It is safe to say they were never needed. If mission drives standards, then to the degree the Catholic schools’ educational mission is similar to public schools’ (e.g., in teaching basic math skills to second-graders), there can be some sharing of standards, if there is proof of their effectiveness. However, there is no proof the Common Core standards are an improvement over other standards.

Surprisingly, there is little data to suggest that better standards even result in higher test scores. Education is much more complex than that. But even if some still want to try to maintain that the Common Core standards are effective, they are just one set of possible standards among hundreds that are out there, many of which have stronger track records.

That being said, we also have to remember that to the degree that elements of the Catholic mission are broader than the public schools’, different or additional standards are required.

So what should Catholic schools do now?

Dr. Guernsey: As we wrote in the conclusiong of After the Fall:

To the degree that Catholic schools learn to articulate and embrace the Catholic intellectual tradition and their unique salvific mission, they have a pearl of great price. They have the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

A quality religious education is the number one reason Catholic school parents (the customer base) decide to enroll in Catholic schools; a safe environment and quality academics are close behind. Catholic schools have a competitive advantage in that they are free to offer all of these elements in an uncommon way — according to their standards of excellence. They can cater to parents’ natural desire for their child to experience excellence rather than basic common educational norms.

The Common Core helps throw this reality into stark relief. The distinct mission of Catholic schools is clearer and can stand out now more than ever. Now is the time for Catholic schools to press their advantage.