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Catholics split over Common Core standards

Catholic educators, scholars and bishops are engaging in an increasingly vocal debate about the Common Core State Standards, with a major split developing between those who support the Core and those who don’t. More than 100 dioceses have already approved the standards for their Catholic schools, but others are rejecting them, including the Diocese of Madison in Wisconsin, which last week sent out a letter (see below) explaining why.

The division is underscored by a $100,007 (yes, $100,007) grant that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — which has heavily funded the Common Core initiative — awarded to the National Catholic Educational Association in September “to support trainings and provision of follow-up materials for teachers on implementing the Common Core State Standards.” The association has come under some criticism this year for its efforts to help Catholic schools implement the standards through an initiative that it established with Catholic educators called the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative, which, an association statement released last May says,

…  provides resources to design and direct the implementation of Common Core within the culture and context of a Catholic school curriculum. Thus Catholic schools can infuse the standards with the faith, principles, values and social justice themes inherent in the mission of a Catholic school.

A month before that statement (see text below) was released, a Facebook page titled “Catholic School Parents Against CommonCore” was created last April.

In a letter to U.S. Catholic bishops last month, about 130 Catholic scholars denounced the Core initiative as doing “a grave disservice to Catholic education” and urging bishops  to ignore the standards or, in the more than 100 dioceses that have already adopted them, to give them up. The letter was organized and sent to the bishops by Gerard V. Bradley, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, to every Catholic bishop in the country, with 132 scholars from various disciplines and institutions signing on. It said in part:

We believe that, notwithstanding the good intentions of those who made these decisions, Common Core was approved too hastily and with inadequate consideration of how it would change the character and curriculum of our nation’s Catholic schools. We believe that implementing Common Core would be a grave disservice to Catholic education in America.

Last week, Madison Bishop Robert Morlino and Catholic schools superintendent Michael Lancaster of the Diocese of Madison released a letter saying:

…The Diocese of Madison stands firm, both behind our standards, and behind the mission and philosophy of Catholic education which far exceeds any other common standards.

Shortly before the Madison letter went out, Bishop David Ricken, head of the Green Bay diocese, told diocesan education staff, principals and administrators  that they could not implement the Common Core standards. In the diocesan newspaper, The Compass, he wrote:

Is it necessary for us to “adopt or adapt” the “common core standards?” No, it is not necessary. Some Catholic schools across the country are “adopting” these standards, while others are “adapting” them, in the hopes that the standards will improve their academic performance. Private schools are not required to adopt or adapt the “common core standards.” Several years ago, in the Diocese of Green Bay, we developed comprehensive standards of our own and these have served us very well.
I have instructed our diocesan Department of Education staff, school principals and school system administrators that they not “adopt or adapt” the “common core standards,” but may use them only as a reference to improve the curriculum we already have. It is my directive that the schools of the diocese utilize the diocesan standards previously in place and not substitute for them with “common core standards.”
The verdict is still very much out on the “common core standards.” All of the subject area standards have not yet been developed, let alone proved to be successful over time. There is no track record or existing data to help us determine if these standards will actually improve our students’ performance. My position and my direction for the diocese is to first see how the standards actually work in public schools and, if their performance exceeds ours, we will then take another look.

Here’s the text of the association’s statement on the standards, dated May 2013,

Common Core State Standards
A Statement by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA)
NCEA Position Statement on the Common Core State Standards
Catholic schools have a long-standing commitment to academic excellence that is rooted in the faith-based mission of Catholic education. The Common Core State Standards in no way compromise the Catholic identity or educational program of a  Catholic school.
The Common Core State Standards initiative, begun in 2007, is a state-led, bipartisan effort that is not a requirement for participation in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) or any other federally-funded program, and there are no mandates for any Catholic school to follow any federal rules if they adopt the Common Core. Adoption of the Common Core is voluntary; individual states, Catholic dioceses and other private schools make their own decisions about whether to adopt the standards.
The Common Core State Standards are a set of high-quality academic expectations that all students should master by the end of each grade level. The standards establish consistent learning goals for all students that focus on preparing them to succeed in college and careers in a globally competitive workplace. The standards define and clearly communicate grade-specific goals and inform parents about learning outcomes, making it easier for parents to collaborate with teachers in helping their children achieve success.
The Common Core State Standards are not a curriculum. A curriculum includes what is taught, when it is taught, how it is taught and what materials to use. None of these items are included in the Common Core State Standards. For Catholic schools, all of these elements will continue to be determined by diocesan superintendents, principals and teachers working to meet the needs of their students.
The Common Core represents a fundamental shift in the teaching and learning process. The Common Core establishes clear, measurable goals for students that assist teachers in making instructional decisions. The standards place emphasis on creativity, critical and analytical thinking and application to curriculum content. The Common Core is not a national curriculum. It guides the way that instruction takes place in each classroom, allowing the Catholic school to develop its own curriculum content.
An excellent Catholic school provides a rigorous academic curriculum that integrates faith and knowledge. As trained professionals, Catholic school administrators and teachers continually seek the best instructional methods for educating students. In the past, dioceses and schools have developed their own standards or adapted state standards for use with their own curriculum. Some will continue to do this.
To assist those incorporating the new standards, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and partners in Catholic education established the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative (CCCII). CCCII provides resources to design and direct the implementation of Common Core within the culture and context of a Catholic school curriculum. Thus Catholic schools can infuse the standards with the faith, principles, values and social justice themes inherent in the mission of a Catholic school.
NCEA, the largest private professional education organization in the world, provides leadership, direction and service to its members through a variety of professional development activities that support whatever teaching and learning activities the individual school chooses implement.

Here’s the text of the letter:

November 2013
Dear Friends in Christ,
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:5)
Our Catholic schools are great treasures, both of the Church, and of our society. Many of our Catholic schools have been assisting parents in the education and formation of their children for well over 100 years, allowing generations of children to receive the extraordinary benefit of a Catholic education. During this time, our schools have operated from the foundation of Gospel values and the proposition that every person is a unique individual, created and loved by God who calls us to fulfill our humanity by perfecting our God given talents and skills that we may come to know and love God, transform our world through lives of heroic virtue, and merit life in Heaven with Christ for all eternity.
This has always been the goal of Catholic education, to lead our students to the Truth that is Christ. As all creation comes from Christ, this Truth encompasses all facets of the natural world and the human condition – art, history, science, mathematics, music, theology, philosophy – all academic disciplines, as well as values, morality, right, wrong, good, evil, justice, peace, wisdom etc. Catholic schools are unique because they aim to educate the whole person, mind, body, and soul that students may come to know God, know themselves, and know Christ, that they may discern His will for their lives.
Through this unique philosophy of education, Catholic schools have been educating and forming students who not only succeed scholastically, but have the knowledge, skills, moral character, confidence and the capacity to love one another. This not only furthers their success in life, but propels them to serve Christ through serving others, thus enriching our communities and transforming our world.
Today, with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in the public schools, many parents have wondered whether or not Catholic schools can remain competitive and continue their legacy of student success if they do not follow suit and adopt the Common Core. Others have wondered whether or not Catholic schools can remain true to their mission if they adopt the Common Core.
After much research, discussion and conversation with other Catholic educators, superintendents, and bishops, we have reached several conclusions.
First, students in our Catholic schools currently receive an incomparable education, posting impressive records of academic success both at non-Catholic middle and high schools, as well as at public, private and Catholic colleges and universities. At the elementary level our schools consistently score in the top 20% of schools nationwide in every major subject area on the Iowa Assessment. At the high school level, our students’ average scores on the ACT college admission test are routinely 3.5 – 4 points above the national average and 3 points above the state average. Simply put, students in our Catholic schools have been and continue to achieve at high levels, well above national averages.
Secondly, the current high levels of achievement that our students enjoy were attained using current academic standards and curriculum combined with the expertise and commitment of knowledgeable and dedicated teachers. We are committed to continuing to provide rigorous curricula rooted in a Catholic worldview, that prepares students for success in all facets of life, that they may live so as to make positive contributions to this world and merit Heaven in the next world. This has been our work for generations past, and it will continue to be our work for generations to come.
Thirdly, our record of success demonstrates that the current diocesan academic standards for K-8, coupled with the knowledge of our dedicated teachers who model their work on Christ, is a potent formula for the education and formation of our children. Our diocesan standards were created, in affirmation of the principle of subsidiarity, by those who best know our students and our mission – our teachers and administrators. They engaged in two years of work, provided their expertise of Catholic education, intellectual development and knowledge of our students and combined it with a careful examination of multiple sets of standards in each subject area, including the Common Core, and created our diocesan standards in religion, history, math, science, social studies and technology. Our teachers best know our students and how they learn. They know our Catholic tradition and the high expectations we hold. They produced rigorous standards that push students to excel to their full potential and are rooted in Catholic values. As a whole, our standards exceed any other set of national or state standards, and correspond to the high expectations of the Office of Catholic Schools and our principals.
Lastly, and most importantly, it is undeniably clear that the success our schools have had and continue to enjoy stems directly from the Catholic approach to education which seeks to model all things on Christ. This recognizes and affirms the dignity of each student as unique daughters and sons of Christ, and in so doing challenges students not only to acquire a “standard” level of knowledge and skills, but to realize their full, God given potential, to develop and refine these gifts and skills and then use them to better society and the lives of others through service to God and neighbor. It is precisely this focus on the development of the whole person that results not only in exemplary academic performance, but truly places our students on the path to holiness and sainthood. Our students are encouraged not only to succeed academically, but to live lives of heroic virtue. It is not the fundamental aim of Catholic education to develop the intellect for academic success alone, but to develop all the skills and faculties of the human person, oriented toward Christ and His service. It is precisely this moral orientation that guides our students in the use of their gifts and allows them to achieve great things, to transform our world and to achieve the ultimate standards – holiness in this world and Heaven in the next.
Catholic schools in the Diocese of Madison will not adopt the Common Core State Standards. Rather, our parish elementary schools will continue to use our own, diocesan academic standards. Further reasons for this may be found on the accompanying document, “Frequently Asked Questions.” The Diocese of Madison stands firm, both behind our standards, and behind the mission and philosophy of Catholic education which far exceeds any other common standards.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Michael J. Lancaster, Superintendent
Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, Bishop of Madison