catholic education

Catholic Curriculum Standards: Faithful to the Core

When Jill Annable began her role as assistant superintendent in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, the staff was working on rewriting its curriculum standards for all subject areas and all grades, to try to integrate Catholic identity across all content areas.

Educators who have worked on school standards know that it’s no small task. Fortunately for Annable and the Diocese of Grand Rapids, timely help provided just what they needed.

“We were drafting and drafting,” Annable recalled in a recent podcast produced by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), where she now serves as the executive director of academic excellence. She remembers when her superintendent walked into her office and excitedly shared, “It was published, you can use it!” She meant the Catholic Curriculum Standards, which had just been released by The Cardinal Newman Society.

“When I opened it up, I realized that it was the missing piece,” Annable told Dr. Denise Donohue, the Newman Society’s deputy director of K-12 programs, who was also a guest on the podcast. “It was the language I needed to use without trying to invent it ourselves.”

The Diocese of Grand Rapids isn’t the only diocese to find our Catholic Curriculum Standards helpful.

“Since, in every school, the curriculum carries the mission, these Catholic Curriculum Standards are an invaluable contribution to Catholic schools everywhere,” says Father John Belmonte, S.J., superintendent of the Diocese of Venice.

“Catholic schools have benefited from the standards-based reform movement in education with one notable exception: the absence of rigorous standards rooted and grounded in our Catholic tradition,” Fr. Belmonte continues. “Implementation of the Catholic Curriculum Standards will provide a renewed sense of mission for our Catholic schools operating within the increasingly secularized world of education today.”

Today, at least 28 diocesan school systems and many other Catholic schools across the United States—serving more than 270,000 students—use the Catholic Curriculum Standards to replace or supplement their existing diocesan standards.

Common Core concerns 

Over the last decade, many public and Catholic schools across the country have adopted the Common Core State Standards. But the Common Core is a secular program designed with utilitarian goals—to lift up under-achieving public school students for success in college and careers. Aside from disagreements about its embrace of controversial methods and educational theories, the Common Core was never intended for the fullness of human flourishing that the Church demands of Catholic education.

Giving voice to the concerns of many Catholic families, the Newman Society’s “Catholic Is Our Core” program has informed Catholic educators about shortcomings of the Common Core. It began with a campaign by mail, email, social media and web outreach to educate Catholic families, leaders and educators and to urge Catholic schools to reject or at least radically adapt the Common Core standards to the mission of Catholic education. Our analyses have been featured in national Catholic publications and on Catholic radio and television.

In 2013, consistent with many of the Newman Society’s concerns, a cadre of Catholic college professors (132 altogether) signed a joint letter stating they were “convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools” and that those who had adopted it “should seek an orderly withdrawal.” The following year, the education office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement warning that the Common Core standards alone are insufficient for Catholic schools.

Today it is clear that the Common Core has failed to produce the promised improvements in both public and Catholic schools, and states and dioceses are pulling back from the misguided standards. What now should replace them? The Common Core experience, though messy, helped spark widespread interest among Catholic bishops, educators and families for something better. It is toward that goal that the Newman Society’s staff turned, striving for a uniquely Catholic set of standards.

Providing a solution 

In 2015, the Newman Society resolved to answer a question posed by several bishops and diocesan superintendents: “If Catholic education is distinct from secular education, then where are the standards for Catholic educators?”

Our response is the Catholic Curriculum Standards, rooted firmly in the Church’s teaching on Catholic education and her long tradition of liberal arts formation in truth, goodness and beauty.

“The first time I read them, I thought this isn’t the ‘Catholic Common Core.’ This is the why and the how, and gives the beauty to why we teach math, why we inquire in science. You wouldn’t just slap these standards on top of Common Core,” said Annable.

The standards specifically cover the core subjects of English, history, scientific topics and mathematics, but Annable says her diocese was able to apply the standards to elective courses as well, which she says was a “true gift.”

Developing the Catholic Curriculum Standards was a labor of love. The Newman Society staff spent two years analyzing Church documents to identify key elements the Church expects to find in all Catholic schools. Those were distilled into the Newman Society’s Principles of Catholic Identity in Education, which are similar to Archbishop Michael Miller’s “essential marks of Catholic schools,” but capturing more of the language and balance of Vatican documents.

For the standards project, the Newman Society’s Dr. Dan Guernsey and Dr. Denise Donohue studied these Principles, Church documents, scholarly works related to Catholic education and the Catholic intellectual tradition, and books articulating the nature of liberal arts and classical education. They also met with more than a dozen professors from faithful Catholic colleges to consider what knowledge and formation one should expect from a Catholic school graduate.

A Catholic foundation 

The Catholic Curriculum Standards include “dispositional” standards for each academic discipline, along with expected “content” or “intellectual” standards.

As Guernsey and Donohue were reviewing Church documents for curricular application, they noticed much discussion about the formation of dispositions within students. That topic was much more prominent than concerns about course content. For example:

The Catholic school aims at forming in the Christian those particular virtues which will enable him to live a new life in Christ and help him to play faithfully his part in building up the Kingdom of God. (The Catholic School, 1977, 36)

Creating the dispositional standards has proven beneficial for Catholic schools needing to address the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (NSBECS) for accreditation purposes. Schools using the Catholic Curriculum Standards, along with a solid virtue program, are able to address numerous benchmarks required for accreditation.

For the mathematics standards, the Catholic perspective is primarily dispositional. The Catholic Curriculum Standards expect students to identify truth and falsehood in relationships and to acquire the mental habits of “precise, determined, careful and accurate questioning, inquiry and reasoning.”

Examples of English literature standards include, “Explain how Christian and Western symbols and symbolism communicate the battle between good and evil and make reality visible” and “Demonstrate how literature is used to develop a religious, moral and social sense.” The English standards especially earned high praise from Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D., who is a national consultant in standards development and author of the highly regarded Massachusetts Academic Standards. She proved very helpful to the Newman Society’s work as well.

“The K-12 standards and suggested readings in Appendix C for the reading/literature curriculum in Catholic schools reflect more than the uniqueness of their intellectual tradition,” Stotsky said. “They also provide the academic rigor missing in most public-school English language arts curricula.”

Inspiring and crucial 

The impact of the Catholic Curriculum Standards over the past five years has been exciting.

“The Catholic Curriculum Standards are EXACTLY what I have been wanting—specific in the areas of faith formation and the pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty, but broad enough to give the teachers latitude in their instructional methods,” said Lynette Schmitz, the principal of St. John Paul II Preparatory School, a Catholic classical hybrid school in St. Louis, Mo.

Derek Tremblay, headmaster of Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, N.H, agrees. “I thoroughly love the Standards that The Cardinal Newman Society has put out and have yet to find anything comparable.”

Another Catholic school principal, Janice Martinez, principal of Holy Child Catholic School in Tijeras, N.M., said: “I find the standards of education you have recently publicized to be inspiring. I believe the work you do is crucial and support your mission.”

Despite the great success of the Catholic Curriculum Standards, there’s much more work to be done. Standards help establish a school’s priorities and promote the right outcomes of truly faithful Catholic education. But curriculum standards alone can never determine what happens in the classroom.

We hope that the Catholic Curriculum Standards will promote greater integration of the faith in every academic discipline, leading eventually to new and improved textbooks, lesson plans, teacher training and school evaluation.

The complete Catholic Curriculum Standards are available to educators at no cost on the Newman Society’s website, together with helpful appendices and resources to support implementing the standards. Feel free to reach out to The Cardinal Newman Society if you are interested in knowing more about the standards and how they might be used in your diocese, school or homeschool program.

apple on desks

3 Eye-Opening Lessons for Catholics under Common Core

It’s been five years since controversy peaked over the Common Core State Standards and their use in Catholic schools. What have we learned?

By 2013 the Common Core was being adopted rapidly by Catholic schools and dioceses across the country, prompting deep concern among Catholic families. The Cardinal Newman Society launched its Catholic Is Our Core initiative to press for authentically Catholic standards. Urgent meetings with Catholic education leaders and bishops were convened to explain why the Common Core was the wrong approach for Catholic schools.

Thanks be to God, shortly thereafter the U.S. bishops’ conference advised dioceses to “review, study, consultation, discussion and caution,” noting that the Common Core was “incomplete” and not designed for Catholic schools.

Today, many dioceses have moved toward genuinely Catholic standards for their schools, but the Common Core has never been fully rooted out of Catholic education. It continues to impact testing, curriculum, and textbooks in many dioceses—although the impact varies and is never quite clear.

While the experience has been messy, hopefully it has given new insight to Catholics and Church leaders and reminded educators of the primary mission of Catholic education. Here are three key lessons that have emerged:

1. The Common Core seems unable to live up to its promises.

National test data suggest that the Common Core has failed thus far to live up to its promise of strengthening student achievement in math and language arts, even in public schools.

In an analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) published this week by Denise Donohue, deputy director of K-12 education programs for the Cardinal Newman Society, she finds, “Neither public nor Catholic schools experienced the upswing that was promised by the authors of the Common Core Standards.”

Public school scores from 2009 (pre-CCSS) to 2017 (post-CCSS) are relatively the same and are categorized in the “basic” range on the academic standards scale for the NAEP, whereas Catholic school 8th grade math scores have slid three points in the pre-test/post-test scenario (297 in 2009 to 294 in 2017). Interestingly, the cut-off for “proficient” according to the NAEP literature is a score of 299, leaving Catholic schools that much more to attain before reaching the mark. Meanwhile, the opportunity costs are unknown. Perhaps Catholic schools’ 8th grade math and reading scores might have continued their positive upward trend before the onset of the CCSS.

The U.S. Education Department’s NAEP, Donohue observes, has never been re-aligned to the Common Core like many state tests, so it is a good measure of pre- and post-Common Core achievement. International benchmarking tests also indicate that American students have not made any substantial progress relative to other nations, Donohue finds.

2. Catholic education needs Catholic standards.

Aside from the impact of the Common Core on secular education, the standards are simply wrong for Catholic schools. As the U.S. bishops conference declared in 2014:

Catholic schools must consider standards that support the mission and purpose of the school as a Catholic institution. Attempts to compartmentalize the religious and the secular in Catholic schools reflect a relativistic perspective by suggesting that faith is merely a private matter and does not have a significant bearing on how reality as a whole should be understood. Such attempts are at odds with the integral approach to education that is a hallmark of Catholic schools. Standards that support an appropriate integration should be encouraged.

The Common Core controversy helped many Catholics become aware that dioceses around the country had been relying heavily on secular state standards for many years. That is how the Common Core was initially adopted by Catholic schools without due caution and analysis. When the standards were adopted by states, dioceses quickly and voluntarily followed suit.

Now there is a greater realization that authentically Catholic standards are needed. Many dioceses have made great progress in this direction, such as the Diocese of Grand Rapids and the Diocese of Venice, which both work from the faithful Catholic Curriculum Standards published in 2016 to provide Catholic schools with an alternative.

3. Parents are the primary educators.

Many national, state and local organizations produced important analyses of the Common Core that ultimately halted its spread in Catholic schools. But it was parents who had the most important and influential voice—some voting with their feet and turning to independent Catholic schools and homeschooling.

The Common Core experience has helped remind Catholic bishops, educators and even families that parents are the first educators of their children. Catholic education serves the needs of families in educating and forming children, or it is not Catholic education at all.

Canon law states, “Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances.” If local Catholic schools aren’t enthusiastically and fully providing a truly Catholic education, parents are fully within their rights, and may have a duty, to find better, more faithful options for their children.

As Catholic school enrollment continues to decline, the Church urgently needs to renew the Catholic identity of Catholic schools to support only those that serve parents and the mission of the Church well.

For their part, parents should continue to find their voice and explain to their pastors what genuinely helps them form children for sainthood. This does not include secular fads such as the Common Core.

T This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

America’s Common Core: Standardization by a Low Standard

Many years ago, the English writer G. K. Chesterton claimed that the “coming peril” facing civilization was “standardization by a low standard.” Today, almost a century later, Chesterton’s words have something of the mark of prophecy about them. Standards of literacy and numeracy, to say nothing of standards of morality, are not so much declining as plummeting.

The calamitous “dumbing down” of America’s already beleaguered education system is encapsulated and epitomized by the monstrous Common Core. At the risk of seeming a trifle sensationalist, this affront to educational standards is nothing short of being a crime against humanity. Let’s not forget that the humanities are thus called because they teach us about our own humanity. A failure to appreciate the humanities must inevitably lead to the dehumanizing of culture and a disastrous loss of the ability to see ourselves truthfully and objectively.

The problem is that the architects of the Common Core do not believe that it is possible to see ourselves truthfully and objectively. They have a chilling indifference to truthfulness and objectivity in human affairs, rejecting all discussion of truth and objectivity except in terms of that which can be measured empirically by science. With regard to the truth that we can know about ourselves as human beings, and which is expressed in the great works that have graced our civilization through the centuries, they never get beyond Pontius Pilate’s famous question, quid est veritas?, which is asked not in the spirit of philosophy as a question to be answered, but in the ennui of intellectual philandery as merely a rhetorical question that is intrinsically unanswerable. This intellectual philandery spawns numerous illegitimate children, each of which has its day as the dominant fad of educationists, at least until a new intellectual fad replaces it. It is in the nature of fads to fade but in the brief period in which they find themselves in the fashionable limelight they can cause a great deal of damage, a fact that Chesterton addressed with customary adroitness in 1910, over a century ago:

Obviously it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience and has weathered the world longer than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the latest ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience.

Implicit in Chesterton’s critique of the nature of modern education is a condemnation of the intellectual elitism that fuels the transient fads and fashions of the zeitgeist, the antidote to which is the timeless touchtone of Tradition.

It should, of course, be obvious that the disenfranchisement of the past inherent in the Common Core’s manic pursuit of novelty is not only an abandonment of the wisdom of the dead but also a disenfranchisement of the unborn. In denigrating and deriding the Great Books of Western Civilization, and the great ideas that informed them, the doyens of the modern academy have broken the continuum by which the wisdom of the ages is transmitted to each new generation. In refusing any authority beyond the individualism of the self, egocentric Man (homo superbus) has disinherited himself from his own priceless inheritance; in imposing his egocentric ethos on the Common Core, he is also disinheriting future generations. He is a contemptuous and therefore contemptible cad who not only kicks down the ladder by which he’s climbed but tries to destroy the ladder so that no-one coming after him can climb it either.

The Common Core is nothing less than the dogmatic imposition of radical relativism, the only philosophy compatible with homo superbus, a philosophy which goes hand in glove with the implementation of secular fundamentalism, the political ideology of homo superbus. Such a philosophy and its accompanying ideology refuses to tolerate anything but the things it tolerates itself, doing so in the name of “tolerance”, an egregious and outrageous example of the sheer chutzpah of Orwellian double-think! In short, homo superbus has recreated education in his own image, sacrificing all rival dogmas on the altar of self-worship he has erected to himself, on which the tabernacle of any god other than himself has been replaced by the mirror of self-referential subjectivism. There is no place in such self-referential education for religion or for any metaphysical philosophy, nor for the great writers and thinkers who espouse religion or a metaphysical understanding of the cosmos. Homer and Plato and Aristotle are vanquished, vanishing from school curricula. There’s no room for Dante or Chaucer or Shakespeare; or Austen or Dickens or Dostoyevsky. Instead today’s already malnourished high school students will be fed trivia and trash, selected on the basis of its perceived “relevance”. Instead of a good, solid education offering real meat and gravitas, American kids, thanks to the Common Core, are being fed a thin gruel of nutrient-free nonsense. A good education is health-food for the mind and soul, full of nourishing traditions; the Common Core offers only fast food and junk food for the soulless and the mindless.

The reductio ad absurdum at the heart of such a system of education was certainly not lost on Chesterton, who perceived it as the very antithesis of the object of a true education: “The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards by which he can judge material and fugitive standards.” The problem is that the radical relativism of the Common Core presumes that there are no abstract and eternal standards but that, on the contrary, all standards are merely fugitive, here today and gone tomorrow. Education does not serve truth because there is no truth to serve. Chesterton’s bon mot will not serve as a motto for the modern academy because the modern academy does not serve anything but itself. Its motto is non serviam. In such circumstances, education ceases to be the means to an end because there is no end, in the objective sense of a purpose or meaning to life. Such an education, incarnate in the Common Core, is nothing less than the end of education in that other doom-laden sense of the word. It has put an end to it.

The tragedy of the Common Core is that it has left us perilously ignorant of who we are, where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. We are lost and blissfully unaware that we are heading for the abyss. Such is the price we are doomed to pay for our blind faith in nothing in particular.

This article was first published in the International Business Times.

Gerard V. Bradley: Common Core Catastrophe

Editor’s Note: This guest commentary by University of Notre Dame Law Professor Gerard V. Bradley was originally published on November 15, 2016, at Public Discourse, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute, and is reprinted here with permission.

Pyrotechnics about unsecured e-mails, groping, pay-to-play, and multiple personality disorders suffocated what was—early in the 2016 election cycle—an essential discussion about the most far-reaching reform of K-12 schooling in our country’s history. “Common Core” is the latest, and by far the most comprehensive, plan for national educational standards. Developed by a select group of consultants and bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, Common Core was aggressively promoted by the Obama administration beginning in 2010. Within eighteen months, forty-six states adopted it, 90 percent of them egged on by a chance to snag federal dollars in the form of “Race to the Top” funds.

Gerard V. Bradley
Gerard V. Bradley

President-elect Donald Trump regularly denounced Common Core on the primary campaign trail, beginning with his speech to CPAC in 2015. This also gave him an opportunity to browbeat Jeb Bush, a fervent early supporter of this educational overhaul. Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Common Core was limited to lamenting its “poor implementation”; about the revision’s basic soundness and desirability, she expressed no doubt. Had she prevailed last Tuesday, Common Core would have been safe in the hands of Clinton constituencies who brought it to life, especially the public education establishment and the business oligarchs who want shovel-ready workers. The grassroots rebellion against Common Core (which “paused” its implementation in 2013 or triggered reassessment of it in a few states) would have been squeezed from the top down. Those rebels must refocus President Trump’s attention upon Common Core and persuade him to ignite a national movement to roll it back.

The stated objective of Common Core is to produce “college- and career-ready” high school graduates. Yet even its proponents concede that it only prepares students for community-college level work. In truth, Common Core is a dramatic reduction of the nature and purpose of education to mere workforce preparation.

In 2013, a group of 132 scholars, myself among them, spoke out against Common Core. Our criticism was and is sound:

Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to “over-educate” people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses. …

Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lostto do his or her day’s work. But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidian geometry, and everyone is capable of it. Everyone bears the responsibility of growing in wisdom and grace and in deliberating with fellow-citizens about how we should all live together. A sound education helps each of us to do so.

One silver lining that could be expected in this gray cloud is a renaissance for Catholic schools. The overwhelming majority of Catholic children attend public schools, there being “educated” according to Common Core’s secularized workforce prescription. Catholic parents who are informed about Common Core could be expected to seize the moment and switch their kids to one of the Church’s thousands of elementary or high schools.

For the contrast between a sound Catholic education and Common Core could scarcely be sharper. That difference was illumined by us, the 132 scholars—Catholics all—who addressed our letter (which was subsequently made public) to each of America’s bishops:

Common Core is innocent of America’s Catholic schools’ rich tradition of helping to form children’s hearts and minds. In that tradition, education brings children to the Word of God. It provides students with a sound foundation of knowledge and sharpens their faculties of reason. It nurtures the child’s natural openness to truth and beauty, his moral goodness, and his longing for the infinite and happiness. It equips students to understand the laws of nature and to recognize the face of God in their fellow man. Education in this tradition forms men and women capable of discerning and pursuing their path in life and who stand ready to defend truth, their church, their families, and their country.

The case for the incompatibility of Common Core with a Catholic education has now been extended, and completed, with the release of “After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core.” A joint publication of the Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project, this white paper is authored by Anthony Esolen, Dan Guernsey, Jane Robbins, and Kevin Ryan. They observe that at

the heart of Common Core agenda is a century-old dream of Progressive educators to redirect education’s mission away from engaging the young in the best of human thought and focusing instead on preparation for “real life.” While a reasonable but quite secondary goal, workforce-development is dwarfed by Catholic schools’ transcendent goals of human excellence, spiritual transformation, and preparation for the “next life” as well.

In a compact but rich Preface to “After the Fall,” former ambassadors to the Holy See Raymond Flynn and Mary Ann Glendon write that the “basic goal of Common Core is not genuine education, but rather the training and production of workers for an economic machine.” By contrast, Catholic schools have traditionally provided “a classical liberal-arts education” that seeks to “impart moral lessons and deep truths about the human condition.” Glendon and Flynn observe that religion and the integrated humanist education that Catholic educators have long offered have “never been more needed than they are in this era of popular entertainment culture, opioid epidemics, street-gang violence, wide achievement gaps, and explosive racial tensions.” Just so.

It is no wonder, then, that John Doerfler, Catholic Bishop of Marquette, Michigan, recently announced his rejection of Common Core, saying that adopting it would not “benefit the mission, Catholic identity or academic excellence of our schools.” Just so.

Bishop Doerfler is, however, in the minorityHis rejection of Common Core is the exception, not the rule. In fact, most Catholic dioceses and archdioceses—approximately 100 (including New York and Los Angeles)—have adopted Common Core. This means that the vast majority of our nation’s Catholic schoolchildren will be taught from Common Core, whether they are enrolled in public or private Catholic schools.

“After the Fall” tells some of this sad tale. The de facto voice of Catholic education in America is the National Catholic Educational Association, to which about 85 percent of America’s 6500 Catholic schools belong. By May 2012, the NCEA was encouraging Catholic schools to embrace Common Core, gushing a bit later that it contained “high quality academic standards,” which would “in no way compromise the Catholic identity or educational program of a Catholic school.” Catholic school systems rushed to buy in. More recently and after much negative feedback, the NCEA has backed off its embrace of Common Core and has begun to provide some helpful resources and tools for teachers who have no choice but to teach within its strictures. But the damage of hasty adoption was done.

What could explain the mad rush? Anecdotal feedback to the Catholic scholars’ letter (which I not only signed but organized) strongly suggests that, in spite of so many enthusiastic public statements, Catholic educators recognized effortlessly that Common Core was deeply flawed. It is doubtful that any serious Catholic educator would have recommended adopting it, or anything like it, were it not for real or perceived pressure from public authorities and teachers’ organizations to do so. Their view seems to have been: Common Core is not good for a Catholic school, but it is not so bad that it needs to be rejected, at least where the local political and economic powers-that-be want us to go along with it. These Catholic educators thought that they could “work with” Common Core.

“After the Fall” carefully states and cogently refutes the pragmatic reasons offered by these Catholic educators for adopting Common Core. The study also shows—conclusively, in my judgment—that these educators’ pragmatic approach is ill-conceived in a deeper, more important, way: Common Core is so philosophically at odds with a sound Catholic education that an acceptable modus vivendi is unavailable. Trying to pour Common Core into such venerable wineskins will burst them.

I would add the further criticism that these educators’ accommodationism is shortsighted. It is ultimately a recipe for the demise of Catholic schools. Already a great many dedicated Catholic parents have withdrawn their children from Catholic schools due to low academic standards and substandard Catholic character. These parents homeschool or send their children to a burgeoning number of new “classical Christian” schools, which are almost always outside the control of the local Catholic educational establishment. Other dedicated parents send their children to decent public schools where they are available, reckoning that the avowedly secular atmosphere there at least portends no confusion about the content of the Catholic faith. Adopting Common Core will surely accelerate this exodus, a hemorrhage of precisely those students who should form a Catholic school’s backbone.

Left behind in many Catholic schools, especially but not only in Rust Belt cities, are non-Catholic students happy to escape under-performing public schools, as well as Catholics who are in it for sports, college prep, or an ambiance of social justice service projects. These are all good things, and a good Catholic school should have them if it can. But they are secondary features of a sound Catholic education, not essential ones. A perfectly good Catholic grade school might have no sports and no service projects, and a solid Catholic high school might enroll only a few students with serious college aspirations.

The important point is that the appetite (if you will) for an integral Catholic education is already perilously suppressed in a vast swath of this country’s Catholic schools. Students in them tolerate the distinctly Catholic quality of the education they are getting. But it is not a big reason for their attendance, and for some it is not a reason at all. Its decline would not deprive them of anything they came to a Catholic school to get. The decision of so many Catholic administrators and teachers to embrace Common Core probably reflects their recognition of exactly this unfortunate situation. They would give the students pretty much the education they want.

These schools are already far down the path of transition from providing a truly Catholic education (as it is so aptly described in “After the Fall”) to being more like a religiously inspired, affordable private alternative to dysfunctional public schools. The appeal of this denouement is undeniable: urban “Catholic” schools might be the best route up and out of the ghetto for thousands of non-Catholic children who deserve that opportunity. But this encouraging effect is and must be just that: a welcome side-benefit of providing a genuine Catholic education.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence is now in charge of the Trump transition. That is a good omen; as Indiana governor Pence heeded the grassroots rebellion against Common Core—led, as a matter of fact, by two very able moms (Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin)—and orchestrated a significant modification of the curriculum. He should now be encouraged to recommend to Donald Trump the appointment of an Education Secretary who will release the pressure from Washington, and instead encourage the states to explore alternatives to Common Core.

For those interested in genuine Catholic education, the politics is local. School parents and others with the best interests of students at heart will have to seek, and insist politely, on receiving straight answers from principals and administrators about whether, and to what extent, Common Core is in their schools. In places such as Marquette, Michigan, officials from the bishop on down should be thanked for their stand against it. In the hundred or so jurisdictions where Common Core (or something practically indistinguishable from it) is in place, respectful but firm corrective action is needed, including the organization of parents who want more than workforce prep for their Catholic school children. The sponsors of “After the Fall”—American Principles Project and Pioneer Institute—have the resources and the experts to help.

Eight Bad Reasons for Adopting Common Core in Catholic Schools

There are many expertly crafted reasons presented in After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core for why Common Core State Standards are insufficient for Catholic education. Among them are refutations of eight popular arguments used by proponents of the controversial standards to justify Common Core in Catholic schools.


After the Fall was published by the Pioneer Institute in collaboration with American Principles Project in October 2016. The Cardinal Newman Society praised the report for its “devastating critique” of Common Core’s use in Catholic schools.

The Cardinal Newman Society’s Dr. Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 education programs, and his co-authors of After the Fall, Dr. Anthony Esolen, Jane Robbins and Dr. Kevin Ryan, show why Catholic school leaders should move above and beyond the flawed Common Core standards by embracing truly Catholic standards of excellence in education, such as the Newman Society’s new Catholic Curriculum Standards.

Below are eight bad reasons for adopting Common Core in Catholic schools that are debunked in After the Fall:

Bad Reason #1: “Catholic schools need to adopt the Common Core standards because they are high-quality standards that will keep test scores high and enable Catholic schools to compete with public schools.”

Debunked: “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). … These statistics establish that in adopting the Common Core, Catholic schools were attempting to fix what was not broken. …

“Five years into the Common Core experiment, the [test score] data is at best mixed, and in fact NAEP scores are dropping, although causation is not yet clear.”

Bad Reason #2: “Catholic schools need to adopt the Common Core standards because some states require Catholic-school students to take state tests aligned to them.”

Debunked: Only six states “require that Catholic-school students at some point take state-administered tests … but wholescale adoption of the Common Core standards is not necessary or advisable, especially as the state tests themselves are in flux.

“Roughly 90 percent of states either leave Catholic schools entirely alone on testing issues or only require them to take a nationally normed test … of their own choice. There are a number of non-Common Core options for schools to choose from … Catholic schools should be wary of simply choosing Common Core-based tests because they are perceived as being more current or valid. State testing related to the Common Core is still uncertain and controversial.”

Bad Reason #3: “Catholic schools need to adopt the Common Core standards because they will influence college-entrance exams.”

Debunked: Commenting on the two major college entrance exams, the ACT and the SAT, “ACT is not beholden to the Common Core,” and “If the SAT were to swerve too deeply into the Common Core, hampering its perceived ability to evaluate all students across the nation, ACT will gain millions of more customers from non-Common Core schools.”

Further, “About a thousand colleges and universities, including more than 125 featured in U.S. News and World Report rankings, no longer require SAT or ACT scores at all.”

Bad Reason #4: “Catholic schools need to adopt the Common Core standards because most teachers will be trained under the new standards, and most teacher in-services for ongoing development will occur in a Common Core world.”

Debunked: “While this argument seems plausible on the surface, it is also true that for years, when states had different standards, it was never thought that a teacher trained in Michigan under its specific curricular standards would therefore be unqualified to teach in Florida under its different particular curricular standards. A professional educator with strong core teaching skills can easily adapt to a set of curriculum standards. It simply was never an issue before. …

“Competent educators can move skillfully through any set of standards. To a professional educator, there is nothing sacrosanct, magical, or deeply mysterious about a particular set of standards.”

Bad Reason #5: “Catholic schools need to adopt the Common Core standards because most textbooks and materials will reference them.”

Debunked: “Most textbooks have always covered a broad set of standards. Teachers in individual states would adapt the use of those texts to ensure that they meet their own state standards. In fact, even though there is a related effort to nationalize science standards, there technically are no Common Core science standards today. Each state has its own history standards, yet that does not prevent states from using the same textbooks to teach to their individual standards. This dynamic has not changed. Catholic educators can still follow their own standards and not be lost in interacting with any textbooks, Common Core-based or not.”

Bad Reason #6: “Catholic schools can adopt the Common Core standards because criticism of them is just ‘political,’ not educational.”

Debunked: “To say that [critics’] legitimate concerns about academic rigor and Catholic identity are ‘political as opposed to educational’ is dismissive and ignores their legitimate educational concerns. Even the many concerns of a political nature that plague the Common Core, specifically about the proper role of government in citizens’ lives, are legitimate and should not be simply dismissed. Catholics are citizens and have the responsibility to ensure the political order operates for the common good. …

“Few activities are more ‘political’ than forming other people’s children. It is the responsibility and duty of politics to inform this process. Political concerns, even though they are not the focus of this report, cannot simply be brushed away.”

Bad Reason #7: “Catholic schools can adopt the Common Core standards since schools can simply ‘infuse’ Catholicism into the existing standards.”

Debunked: “Most Catholics would agree it is a good and important thing for Catholic schools to infuse their curriculum with Catholic subject matter as appropriate. … However, a fundamental concern remains: The Common Core standards are not enough to guide the complete intellectual formation in a Catholic school. The attempt to ‘work within’ the Common Core by infusing Catholic content (or, as the superintendent of schools in one archdiocese said, to use the Common Core but ‘sprinkle Catholicism on top’) is inadequate — ultimately much more is needed to retain a genuine Catholic education.”

Bad Reason #8: “Catholic schools can adopt the Common Core standards since standards are not a curriculum and therefore do not really affect what, when, and how Catholic schools teach.”

Debunked: “Especially in Catholic education, mission should drive standards; standards should drive curriculum. Both standards and curriculum serve the mission. 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, to the degree that elements of the Catholic mission are broader than the public schools’, different or additional standards are required. …

“The Common Core is clear that it seeks to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to prepare students for college and career. If there is any other purpose to education, the Common Core does not recognize it. The mission of a Catholic school, though, is much broader.”

Let’s Move Beyond the Common Core in Catholic Schools

By now, it should be apparent that the Common Core State Standards for schools won’t come close to fulfilling the grand promises of its proponents.

Parents, scholars, unions and the media all seem to be painfully aware of the fact — but after the mad rush to implement the standards, create new tests and market new textbooks, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of momentum to change course.

At least, that’s true of the nation’s public schools. But our Catholic schools can and should do much better, with standards that truly reflect their Catholic mission. I get the sense that most Catholics are eager to move above and beyond, and many dioceses are already working on it.

Last December, the Associated Press reported a “backlash” against Common Core in Catholic schools. Families want what’s best for their kids, and so do Catholic school leaders. Now’s the time to unite behind something better.

major new report on the Common Core might be just the catalyst that we need to finally break away. After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core is published by the reputable Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project, whose founder Robert George of Princeton University joined more than 130 Catholic scholars in a letter criticizing the Common Core in 2013.

The new report presents a rather dismal picture of Catholic education under the Common Core, but its conclusion is hopeful, suggesting that Catholic schools may have a special opportunity amid the chaos to reassert their superiority. Urging the Church to embrace and celebrate faithful Catholic education, the authors claim, “Now is the time for Catholic schools to press their advantage.”

Nothing could be more welcome to beleaguered Catholics today, after the long slide in Catholic school enrollment and Catholic identity over recent decades. In today’s society, we greatly need strong Catholic schools.

Incompatible and unsuited

The authors of After the Fall know this well. Anthony Esolen is the insightful author and critic from Providence College whose expertise is literature — perhaps the worst casualty of the Common Core. Dan Guernsey is the visionary expert in Catholic education who is launching an outstanding teacher program at Ave Maria University and leads The Cardinal Newman Society’s K-12 education programs. Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project and Kevin Ryan of Boston University have made great contributions to education policy, especially in their criticism of the Common Core.

Together they have provided Catholics “a tremendous service,” according to two of America’s former ambassadors to the Vatican: Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon and former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn. In their preface to the report, Flynn and Glendon declare the Common Core standards “incompatible with and unsuited for a traditional Catholic education.”

The specific arguments are provided by the authors of After the Fall. They delve into three “insufficiencies” of the Common Core: its “misunderstanding of the nature of character formation due to a corrupting workforce-development view,” its “misunderstanding of the nature of literature due to a lack of understanding about man, creativity, and God,” and its “misunderstanding of the liberal arts due to a lack of understanding about the relationship of man and God to each other and to everything else.”

They could have simply written that the Common Core ignores what is most important to Catholics about God and man. But that’s the point that critics have been saying all along. What makes After the Fall such an important document is that it carefully examines and debunks arguments for the Common Core and then explains the case for faithfully Catholic standards of education, all in great detail. It should convince the most devoted fan of the Common Core.

The intended audience is clearly Catholic school leaders and scholars, but any Catholic will benefit from its outstanding defense of authentic Catholic education.

Toward better standards

After the Fall validates many of the concerns of Common Core critics, but it shouldn’t be used simply for an “I told you so” moment. Instead, as the authors strongly encourage, now is the time to more deeply examine the purpose of Catholic education and embrace educational standards that appropriately drive the curriculum and fulfill the mission of Catholic schools. The prospect is very exciting.

“A benefit of the Common Core to Catholic schools,” according to authors of After the Fall, “is that 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.”

Next week, The Cardinal Newman Society will be releasing Catholic curriculum standards to help move this process forward. Dioceses and other organizations have made important contributions as well.

After the Fall is what the Education Department of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommended three years ago, when it warned, “The CCSS [Common Core] should be neither adopted nor rejected without review, study, consultation, discussion and caution.” The office also advised:

Catholic schools must consider standards that support the mission and purpose of the school as a Catholic institution. Attempts to compartmentalize the religious and the secular in Catholic schools reflect a relativistic perspective by suggesting that faith is merely a private matter and does not have a significant bearing on how reality as a whole should be understood. Such attempts are at odds with the integral approach to education that is a hallmark of Catholic schools. Standards that support an appropriate integration should be encouraged.

Well-intentioned Catholic educators have tried to contort Common Core to fit within Catholic schools. But as the After the Fall authors suggest, such efforts ultimately will not be successful, because the design and purpose of the standards makes them impossible.

Focusing standards on the mission of Catholic schools, however, is eminently possible — and necessary. It’s a great time to get it done.

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

high school class

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.

Catholic Schools Should Leave Common Core Behind

Nearly three years ago, The Cardinal Newman Society urged Catholic school leaders to exercise caution and refrain from rushing into adoption of the Common Core State Standards. In meetings with bishops and diocesan superintendents, we and other education advocates raised important concerns:

  • We said the Common Core was developed for secular public schools and fails to address key priorities in Catholic education.
  • We warned that its utilitarian objectives are contrary to the mission of Catholic education.
  • We noted that the untested Common Core has nothing to offer Catholic schools that already excel and score high on national tests.

Today our concerns are validated and confirmed by a new, thorough and scholarly critique of the Common Core’s use in Catholic schools. After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core is published by the Pioneer Institute in collaboration with American Principles Project and authored by Dr. Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 education programs for The Cardinal Newman Society, along with the impressive Dr. Anthony Esolen, Jane Robbins and Dr. Kevin Ryan.

After the Fall should finally and forever convince Catholic school leaders to move above and beyond the flawed Common Core standards by embracing truly Catholic standards of excellence in education.

For Catholic schools to thrive and fulfill their mission of forming the whole person — mind, body and soul — they must make the Catholic faith the core of all that they do. Sprinkling Catholicism on top of secular Common Core standards, as After the Fall describes the approach recommended by some Catholic educators, in fact weakens Catholic identity and denies students the formation that is essential to a truly Catholic education.

The fact of the matter is faithful Catholic schools already outperform secular schools and help prepare students not only for college and career, but more importantly for this life and the next. They do well because of their emphasis on Christian formation, which is absent from the Common Core and other government standards.

Because Common Core gets man wrong, it gets education wrong. Catholic insight into human nature and into man’s relationships with his fellow man, nature, and God allows for a more complete exploration of the world and not just all that is in it, but also that which transcends it as well. We are about a more substantial project and need more substantial standards. The Cardinal Newman society will soon be releasing resources to aid the discussion of what those standards might include.

Before the publication of this new scholarly analysis, there was already considerable momentum in Catholic education away from dependence on the Common Core and toward a more faith-centered approach to Catholic education. With After the Fall’s devastating critique proving accurate Catholic concerns about the Common Core, we hope this trend will continue.

It’s time for all Catholic schools to turn the page. Catholic is the core of Catholic education.

For more information about the Common Core click here

Statement Regarding Common Core

December 20, 2013 – In recent decades, Church leaders, together with Catholic families, have come to better appreciate that Catholic identity is essential to Catholic schools’ mission, teaching methods, curriculum, and appeal.  It is because of their Catholic identity that schools are most attentive to the needs of students and their families.  “These Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the fourfold purpose of Christian education, namely to provide an atmosphere in which the Gospel message is proclaimed, community in Christ is experienced, service to our sisters and brothers is the norm, and thanksgiving and worship of our God is cultivated” (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium, 2005).

Although Catholic schools in the United States—which have served students and the Church in an exemplary way for more than a century—have avoided many of the pedagogical and curricular trends in public schools, some Catholic educators have recently advocated for Catholic schools to adopt or adapt the untested and increasingly controversial Common Core State Standards Initiative.

We have grave concerns.  This school reform effort is nothing short of a revolution in how education is provided, relying on a technocratic, top-down approach to setting national standards that, despite claims to the contrary, will drive curricula, teaching texts, and the content of standardized tests.  At its heart, the Common Core is a woefully inadequate set of standards in that it limits the understanding of education to a utilitarian “readiness for work” mentality.

Well-intentioned proponents of adopting the Common Core in Catholic schools have argued that Catholic identity can be “infused” into the Core.  This approach misses the point that authentic Catholic identity is not something that can be added to education built around thoroughly secular standards, but that our faith must be the center of—and fundamental to—everything that a Catholic school does.

The Common Core revolution in American education was launched behind closed doors and rushed to implementation in public schools with the promise of tax dollars as an inducement—even though all the Standards have not yet been completed, and those that have been released are controversial among many expert educators and parents.  Catholic educators need not rush to follow this potentially dangerous path.

There is an ongoing, healthy debate about whether the Common Core is appropriate in public schools, and even more so in Catholic schools.  Let it run its course.  The Cardinal Newman Society—together with the countless Catholic parents, principals and pastors we have heard from—is concerned that we will be locked into the Common Core before it has been thoroughly and rigorously evaluated.

Most troubling in the public debate about whether Catholic schools should adopt the Common Core is that parents, whom the Church recognizes are the primary educators of their children, have been largely absent from it.  They lack sufficient information to make judgments about the Common Core.  And yet, as the Church has clearly taught, parents deserve a strong voice in deciding whether to embrace this “fundamental shift” in Catholic education, as the Common Core has been described by one leading Catholic advocate.

The Cardinal Newman Society is concerned that adoption of the Common Core at this time is premature.  Worse, it may be a mistake that will be difficult or impossible to undo for years to come.  We do not doubt the good intentions of those who advocate the Common Core in Catholic schools, and we acknowledge their confidence that Catholic schools can maintain a strong Catholic identity even while measuring their quality according to secular standards.  But we do not share this confidence, in light of the sad experience in recent decades of many Catholic colleges, hospitals, and charities that believed they could infuse Catholic identity into the secular standards that they embraced.

We seek to help inform the dialogue about the Common Core with our new project and website, Catholic Is Our Core (, while expanding the conversation to include parents, educators and principals who have largely been absent from the debate.  The Cardinal Newman Society’s mission is to promote and defend faithful Catholic education.  We are working closely with key Catholic education experts and others to provide analysis of the Core and its potential impact on Catholic schools.  We seek to provide those concerned about faithful Catholic education with solid information, analysis and arguments to more fully understand the potential impact of the Common Core on Catholic education and to advise caution about the Common Core until it can be further studied and evaluated.

The Common Core vs. the Classical Roots of Catholic Education

In 1977, National Review reprinted a 30-year-old speech given by English mystery author, Dorothy Sayers, on the topic of education. In it, she pointed out evident deficiencies in public discourse that revealed fundamental flaws in British education at the time.  She whimsically proposed as a remedy a return to the Trivium-based education that formed some of the greatest minds in history, little dreaming that her proposals would be taken seriously.  Forty years later, American parents frustrated with an even worse educational situation took her proposal as the basis for a grassroots renewal of a classical approach to education.  Beginning with Douglas Wilson’s Logos school in Idaho and the homeschooling efforts of people like Laura Berquist (Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum) and Susan Wise Bauer (The Well- Trained Mind), classical education has become the way for hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of homeschooling families.

At the heart of Sayers’ proposal was the idea that primary and secondary education should be less focused on passing on the information needed to master prescribed subjects and more focused on making students capable and desirous of life-long learning. The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) for English Language Arts and Literacy, at first glance, might appear to share her goal.  The standards seem less concerned with passing on particular in- formation than with forming a certain kind of person, the “critical thinker.” Looking to make students ready for “college and career,” the CCSSI begins with the view that success in our information age demands the ability to sort through, make sense of, and judge the “staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally.” This raises the question for classical educators and any Catholic schools that value their naturally classical roots: Should they embrace the Common Core?  Is the secular world finally waking up to the needs that motivated parents have been trying to address for the last 35 years?

Catholic schools’ success historically has been based in a classical approach to education, even where substantially compromised by state standards and new theories of education.  Today’s best schools retain at least some key elements of classical education, especially with regard to the study of religion, history, and literature.  A closer look at the goals and methods of the Common Core reveals that they are fundamentally at odds with the discovery of Truth at the heart of an authentically Catholic education.

Ironically, it seems that the developers of the CCSSI would be sympathetic to Sayers’ criticism of the failures of modern education:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass pro- paganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined?

Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?

The Common Core aims to address these issues by habituating students to “reflexively dem- onstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.”  The CCSSI states that “(s)tudents are engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners. They work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but they also question an author ’s or speaker ’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning.”

So far, so good. But a deeper look shows that Sayers was not on the minds of the authors (nor were Adler, Hirsch, Bauer, etc., who are conspicuously missing from the extensive bibliographies cited in the Appendices).   The thousands of contemporary classical educators inspired by Sayers should take a hard look at the approaches proposed to achieve these goals.  Some of these will be found in the standards themselves, even more in the assessment-driven, industrial way the CCSSI has begun to be implemented.  One important difference they will notice is that Sayers emphasized that a renewed Trivium-based education would approach language development in a way natural to the young. In the grammar stage younger children (up to around age 11) naturally learn by absorbing language and facts.  They are not ready for critical thinking; they are ready to trustingly accept whatever is presented to them in an orderly, engaging manner.  Learning by heart and careful observation are key powers to be developed, not just with facts and vocabulary, but with the beautiful rhythms and rich images of the best poetry and prose. By contrast, though the CCSSI proposes some excellent works be introduced to the young, learning by heart seems to play no role.  The Common Core intends to make critical thinking, embodied in literary analysis, the focus of every grade level. Sayers strongly warns against this approach:

The modern tendency is to try and force rational explanations on a child’s mind at too early an age. Intelligent questions, spontaneously asked, should, of course, receive an immediate and rational answer; but it is a great mistake to suppose that a child cannot readily enjoy and remember things that are beyond his power to analyze—particularly if those things have a strong imaginative appeal (as, for example, “Kubla Khan”), an attractive jingle (like some of the memory-rhymes for Latin genders), or an abundance of rich, resounding polysyllables (like the Quicunque vult).

In the CCSSI, every grade level is dominated by dialectical/logical/critical activities that are most appropriate for what Sayers described as the “Pert” age, those pre-adolescent and early adolescent years of questioning and challenging.  Common Core methods thus push young children into finding their own truths, and also neglect what is natural to older adolescents at the Rhetorical stage. The desire to investigate and formulate ideas about what matters to the student. The dialectical stage begins to close as students desire to really know what they have begun to care about.  “Towards the close of this stage, the pupils will probably be beginning to discover for themselves that their knowledge and experience are insufficient, and that their trained intelligences need a great deal more material to chew upon. The imagination—usually dormant during the Pert age—will reawaken, and prompt them to suspect the limitations of logic and reason.”  Sayers emphasizes that “the attitude of the teachers” will be crucial; they must see the goal of the education and be aware of how each student is progressing towards that goal.  This means that teachers must have much more freedom from bureaucratic assessment if they are going to succeed.  Implementation of the CCSSI in our assessment-obsessed educational culture is sure to mean much more harassment for teachers and much less time for them to actually work with students.

Sayers insists that the Rhetorical stage of development demands greater freedom on the part of the student to pursue subjects whose truth really matters to them.  This is because Sayers’ ultimate goal, (one which classical schools have embraced) is to provide for each human being to flourish as individuals who can contribute to the common life but who are not in service to it. This puts her, and all classical educators, fundamentally at odds with the CCSSI. Although the Common Core Standards seem to have similar aims for student formation, the overall goal limits and colors everything in them.  “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”  The overriding economic concerns permeate the standards. The critical thinking skills are finally about economic success, not just for the individual, but for the sake of national economic growth.

This latter consideration has raised a great wave of outcry and concern from the classical community, and with good reason.  In the 1950s, Bell Telephone instituted a 10-month intensive introduction to liberal arts education to its most promising, technically-trained employees. The program was judged a great success by participants and the professors who organized it. Bell, however, was not pleased with the outcome:

But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

“The end is the cause of causes,” and the temporal, economic goal of the Common Core will drive it to neglect—if not positively avoid—the means that would truly open minds and hearts to what is most humanly fulfilling.  St. Jerome Academy in the Archdiocese of Washington has gained national attention for its success after choosing a decidedly different path from the assessment-driven, fragmented education of government schools.  Faced with declining enrollment and on the verge of shutting its doors, St. Jerome converted from a traditional parochial school to a Catholic classical school.  Blessed with a number of CUA professors as parishioners, the school benefitted from a dedicated team of educators, theologians, and philosophers who developed a comprehensive new educational plan in less than one year.  St. Jerome’s curriculum goes beyond Sayers’ essay, incorporating her insights but setting them in a broader vision of the goals of a Catholic classical education:

St. Jerome School educates children in the truest and fullest sense by giving them the necessary tools of learning and by fostering wonder and love for all that is genuinely true, good, and beautiful.  …We seek to incorporate our students into the wisdom of two thousand years of Catholic thought, history, culture, and arts so that they might understand themselves and their world in the light of the truth and acquire the character to live happy and integrated lives in the service of God and others.

The Common Core also wants to educate for life, but it articulates life’s highest goals as career success and productive contribution to the global economy. Cultural tolerance is another crucial outcome of the Common Core. Content must be drawn from a wide-range of cultures, leading students to be able to work well with the variety of cultural and personal viewpoints of their future corporate fellow laborers.

Students appreciate that the twenty-first-century classroom and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together.  Students actively seek to understand other perspectives and cultures through reading and listening, and they are able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds.  They evaluate other points of view critically and constructively. Through reading great classic and contemporary works of literature representative of a variety of periods, cultures, and worldviews, students can vicariously inhabit worlds and have experiences much different than their own.

Of course, as in many areas, the CCSSI is here proposing some things that any teacher would want for her students. However, under the guise of mutual understanding, curricular materials are likely to usher in an aggressively secular orthodoxy.  Without a strong commitment to the existence of objective truth and an awareness of the contributions of Catholic civilization, CCSSI will lead us to the sort of openness that is the virtue of the “dictatorship of relativism,” as Alan Bloom warned us in The Closing of the American Mind:

Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings— is the great insight of our times.  The true believer is the real danger.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative intends to form literate, thoughtful, critical readers capable of understanding and judging the best literature and the richest informational literature.  But not only are its goals limited—even subversive with respect to a Catholic education—it represents a massive educational project that has not been tried.  Catholic classical educators have now more than three decades of experience and over two thousand years of expertise to draw on.  Now is not the time to submit children enrolled in any Catholic school to untested, yet no doubt very constraining, shackles.

To the extent that any Catholic school teaches the fullness of Truth in the faith, it offers a piece of the classical vision in its search for wisdom and virtue.  Over recent decades, however, many Catholic schools have adopted secular curricula as well as secular instruction and assessment techniques that undermine the unity of faith and reason.  In this trend they have followed the pattern about which Sayers warned, with the focus on conveying information needed to master prescribed subjects.  By contrast, the time-tested classical approach engages children to discover the truth of reality, both visible and invisible.  This is active learning, not passive learning.  It cultivates habits of mind that allow the human person to discern what is true, good and beautiful, to glimpse the transcendent.  It awakens the soul.

Ironically, it may be the Common Core State Standards Initiative that will awaken all Catholic educators to reject encroaching secular content and methods, and to rediscover the riches of their own tradition.  Given the unique, supernatural beauty of the Catholic faith, they should be decidedly skeptical of anything that bills itself as “common.”