‘Devastating Critique’ of Common Core in Catholic Education

The Cardinal Newman Society’s Dr. Dan Guernsey and a team of education experts have just published an extremely valuable report that should convince every Catholic leader, teacher and parent of “the academic and moral insufficiency” of the Common Core State Standards in Catholic schools.

After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core, published by the Pioneer Institute with the American Principles Project, debunks arguments for adopting the Common Core in Catholic schools and explains why the Common Core philosophy can’t be reconciled with the mission of Catholic education.

The Newman Society’s Dr. Guernsey was the lead author of the report, and co-authors include Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College, Jane Robbins of American Principles Project and Dr. Kevin Ryan of Boston University. Like Guernsey, all three are insightful critics of the Common Core and experts in elementary and secondary education.

The authors “have done Catholic educators and families a tremendous service” in explaining why the Common Core is “incompatible with and unsuited for a traditional Catholic education,” write former U.S. Ambassadors to the Holy See Raymond Flynn and Mary Ann Glendon in their preface to the report.

In a media statement about the report, Newman Society President Patrick Reilly also applauded the authors’ important work.

“These scholars have constructed a devastating critique of the Common Core, reinforcing the need for new standards to ensure faithful Catholic education,” Reilly said.

The authors are scheduled to present their paper at the 2016 Baylor University Symposium on Faith and Culture on October 27-29.

Critics making headway

Since 2012, when Common Core advocates pressed Catholic school leaders to adopt the flawed standards, parents around the country have raised serious concerns. After the Fall documents the backlash and the efforts of groups including The Cardinal Newman Society to bring concerns to the bishops, diocesan superintendents and school principals.

It notes that in the fall of 2013, “leaders of the Catholic Education Foundation, the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools, and The Cardinal Newman Society planned a conference to articulate growing Catholic concerns about the Common Core.” After that meeting with superintendents, the same groups met with 19 bishops in Washington, D.C.

One attendee was Bishop George Murry, S.J., who is now chairman-elect of the U.S. bishops’ education committee and chairman of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). After the Newman Society exposed a grant from Microsoft founder Bill Gates to support NCEA training in the Common Core, the association seems to have scaled back its promotion of the standards.

Just a few months after the meetings, the education department of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued an advisory that the Common Core “should be neither adopted nor rejected without review, study, consultation, discussion and caution.” It noted that the standards were intended for secular public schools.

Since then, several dioceses have backed away from full adoption of the standards, and some have entirely rejected them. Support among even public school teachers has dropped from 73 percent to less than 23 percent. Early test results indicate that the Common Core is ineffectual and possibly harmful to public schools.

Nevertheless, the After the Fall report and the Newman Society’s Catholic Is Our Core initiative are among the few Catholic efforts to review and study the Common Core, as the USCCB recommended.

Debunking myths

One of the key contributions of After the Fall is that it debunks “pragmatic concerns” that led many dioceses to adopt the Common Core.

For instance, dioceses have felt compelled to ensure that students perform well on standardized tests that will be aligned to the Common Core. But the authors identify tests that are available to schools in 44 states and are not Common Core-aligned.

With regard to college entrance exams, After the Fall reminds educators that “the value of the SAT and ACT is their ability to predict college success.” The SAT is certainly conforming to the Common Core, but the report’s authors see a shift of market share to the ACT, declining prospects for the SAT as it becomes less reliable, and increasing numbers of colleges foregoing admissions tests altogether.

What about textbooks that are aligned to the Common Core? The authors are confident that “Catholic educators can still follow their own standards and not be lost in interacting with any textbooks, Common Core-based or not.” Some textbooks suffer “from the worst elements of our fallen culture,” but that’s not usually because of the Common Core. Common Core math textbooks are certainly a concern.

Advocates say the Common Core is not a curriculum; it won’t impact what, when and how Catholic schools teach their students. But the report’s authors state plainly, “standards are supposed to drive the curriculum. That is their very purpose.” They warn that public school standards can be “influenced by philosophies or emphases that may run counter to the Church’s mission.”

Advocates also suggest “infusing” Catholicism into the Common Core. After the Fall argues that “the more expansive mission of Catholic education” instead requires different standards. Although “one might ‘sprinkle’ Catholicism topics on top of the Common Core standards,” the approach would “still fail to address the critical point that the Common Core is insufficient in and of itself to guide Catholic instruction.”

Secular mindset

Such philosophies that underlie the Common Core are addressed in the largest section of After the Fall. Here the authors argue that the Common Core suffers from misunderstandings about three key aspects of Catholic education: the nature of character formation, the nature of literature and the liberal arts.

The Common Core’s emphasis on workforce preparation is part of the shift in public schools away from true character development to “enlightened self-interest,” as well as a shift from teaching to “training.” A school curriculum, the report argues, “should be what the adults in a school community think and believe are the knowledge and abilities students will need to live good lives, to participate well in society, and to appreciate the heart of our civilization.” It should answer, “What is most worth knowing?”

The Common Core is built on “a truncated view of human nature” as made in the image and likeness of God, explains After the Fall. By favoring literature that is useful and focused on workplace skills, the Common Core philosophy would “sever mankind from any profound attention to, or attraction toward, the transcendentals — the true, the good, and the beautiful.”

And this goes beyond literature “to the entire academic enterprise.” The report raises concerns about students’ learning about God’s relationship to history and the consistency between science and faith.

With regard to the much maligned Common Core math standards, the authors cite “warnings that the entire Common Core math schema is flawed, that it will restrict STEM access for many students, and that the math standards are not aligned with expectations at the college level.” They insist, “Catholic schools must be seen to offer the best math education, not the most common.”

A hopeful conclusion

After the Fall concludes that the Common Core has been beneficial for Catholic schools in one respect: it has drawn attention to the need for Catholic educators to better articulate exactly what the unique standards and elements of Catholic education might be. The Cardinal Newman Society is planning to release such standards this month.

The authors assert that Catholic education already has “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Now is the time to press our “competitive advantage,” instead of adopting public school standards.

Catholic schools “are free to offer all of these elements in an uncommon way — according to their standards of excellence,” concludes the report. “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.”

 

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