Catholic Schools deserve an authentically Catholic debate about Common Core

Two months ago, a group of Catholic university professors signed a letter urging Catholic bishops and diocesan school leaders to reject the Common Core. “We believe that implementing Common Core would be a grave disservice to Catholic education in America,” they argued.

…we are convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it, and that those schools which have already endorsed it should seek an orderly withdrawal now.

The content of the letter itself is not surprising to anyone following the debate over the CCSS. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is how closely it sticks to the typical anti–Common Core talking points we’ve heard over and over again in the past year. The authors repeat the often-cited complaint that algebra is taught too late, point to the (misguided, in my opinion) concern that adopting the CCSS will sideline great literature in English classrooms, and argue that Common Core is aimed not at college readiness but, rather, at “standardized workforce preparation.” In short, the bulk of it looked less like a thoughtful and uniquely Catholic critique of the Core than a hastily composed form letter.

The problem is not that Catholics shouldn’t weigh in on the Common Core debate. Rather, the problem is that authentic Catholic concerns get sidelined when we take our cues from actors who don’t share our interests. And by bringing these political talking points uncritically into a discussion about Catholic education, these professors lost an opportunity to force a uniquely Catholic perspective to the center of our national discussion about the Common Core.

That is what is so refreshing about Catholic is Our Core, a recent project launched by the Cardinal Newman Society. The purpose of the project is aimed at ensuring that Catholic identity is at the heart of the discussion about Common Core—as it should be in any conversation about curriculum, instruction, and school change. This is the point that Jamie Arthur, a senior fellow at the project, makes explicitly in a recent essay:

…efforts surrounding the nuances of the Common Core need to be directed to ensuring that Catholic school leadership understands and supports the mission of Catholic education, that parents are considered partners in the education of their children, and ecclesiastical authorities (or their delegates) ensure that the standards and curriculum used in every school support and strengthen Catholic identity.

And it is a central concern raised by Andrew Seeley, another author, in his article, Common Core versus the Classical Roots of Catholic Education In that piece (discussed in greater detail below), Seeley worries that as Catholic schools have adopted promising practices from public schools, they have inadvertently strayed from the roots of Catholic education.

These concerns are real and deserve a thoughtful debate. While Catholics no longer face the overt suppression (and school-driven Protestant indoctrination) that originally gave rise to parochial schools, Catholic leaders are right to be wary of adopting policies just because they are popular among our brothers and sisters in the public sector.

Increasingly, curriculum and instruction in Catholic classrooms has looked strikingly similar to what’s being taught and learned—and the way it’s being taught and learned—in traditional public schools. And as Catholics, that should be cause for concern. Our schools, after all, are not meant to be public schools that offer a little bit of religious instruction on the side. They are meant to stand apart—to be steeped in Catholic tradition and to be infused with Catholic identity in every aspect of school culture.

At the same time, though, we should not aim to be different for difference’s sake. Our decisions should arise from neither conformity nor fear of conformity, but rather from a rigorous engagement in the real issues at hand. They should be guided by our Catholic values and our Catholic identity—and by what is best for Catholic school students.

To that end, Seeley’s essay argues, “Catholic schools’ success historically has been based in a classical approach to education.” And he notes that even before the CCSS, Catholic schools had begun to stray from this core, despite the fact that

today’s best [Catholic] schools retain at least some key elements of classical education, especially with regard to the study of religion, history, and literature.

And he worries that the Common Core is just another reform that will take Catholic schools further away from their classical roots. However, Seeley’s focus on a stark choice between adopting and not adopting the Common Core is too limiting. It leads him to miss a third option, in which these new expectations can be adapted in a way that enhances, rather than undermines, classical education in our schools. To understand the opportunity that Common Core presents, its important to dig a little deeper.

Seeley’s critique of the CCSS stems primarily from two things: First, he takes forceful issue with the goal of the CCSS to produce students who are “college and career ready.” Second, he criticizes the way these standards have begun to be implemented in public school classrooms across the country.

On the first point, Seeley notes that schools that embrace classical education—Catholic schools chief among them—should not focus on college and career readiness, but rather they should

provide for each human being to flourish as individuals who can contribute to the common life but who are not in service to it.

Here, Seeley has it exactly right. Catholic schools are not in the business of education for economic gain and should be wary of the business rhetoric and bottom-line thinking that thrives in some corners of the education-reform movement. Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

Catholic education at its core must always stand apart from those who believe our lives begin and end with the pursuit of our own material wellbeing. We know the gift of life is much more valuable than that.

Thus Catholic educators hoping to adapt the CCSS must focus their adapted standards on the goals and purposes of Catholic education. But the reality is that while the goal of the CCSS may be different, the content of the standards themselves are very much aligned with the principles of classical education that Seeley hopes to reinvigorate in Catholic schools.

Seeley rightly notes, for instance, that schools should focus, particularly in the early years, on building knowledge. He goes as far as saying that “critical thinking” is impossible in the elementary years. “Younger children (up to around age 11),” Seeley explains, “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.”

Whether or not that is the case, what is clear is that the content of the CCSS is in no way hostile to such an approach. Indeed, the standards explicitly call for a content-rich curriculum, particularly in grades K–5 when students need to be building the knowledge they will later call upon as they engage in deeper analysis and critical thinking. More that that, though, the standards emphasize close reading of the text, they prioritize using evidence to support answers and analysis, and they deliberately eschew the idea that a personal opinion is more important than the author’s words. And the standards emphasize the importance of reading increasingly complex texts—the kinds that are worth reading, that build vocabulary, and that enhance content knowledge.

Seeley even tacitly acknowledges the alignment between the CCSS and the core principles of classical education. He approvingly cites the CCSS emphasis on developing students who

reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.

And he celebrates that the CCSS seeks to develop students who “are engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners” and those who “work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, [but] also question an author’s or speaker’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning.”

In fact, with the exception of the statements about college and career readiness found in the introduction of the standards, there is very little about the content of the Common Core that Seeley criticizes. Instead, his main concern is his second: that on the “assessment-driven, industrial way the CCSSI has begun to be implemented” Threatens the classical roots of Catholic education. He lambastes schools that prioritize critical thinking over knowledge. And he believes that schools should deemphasize assessments and leave more room for deliberation and rhetoric, particularly in the upper grades when the students are poised for such engagement.

These are legitimate concerns—concerns that all schools would do well to consider as they work to implement the Common Core. But none suggests that the content of the Common Core would threaten the rigor or Catholic identity parochial schools that choose to adapt and use them.

That is why the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative is such a promising development. Led by a group of Catholic leaders, including a number of Catholic university professors, its purpose is to look critically at the CCSS and work to adapt them for the unique needs of Catholic schools. This work—the adaptation of the CCSS by Catholics for Catholics—is exactly the kind of approach that can help refocus teaching and learning in Catholic schools on the core that made our schools different and made them great.

While the more oppositional voices may get the headlines, in the end it is those Catholics who are actively engaging with the standards who are likely to have the most significant impact. They have rejected the hand-me-down rhetoric of both the pro- and anti-Common Core camps in favor of an authentically Catholic approach to rigorous standards, one that is grounded ultimately in Catholic values. Through their work they are living proof of C.S. Lewis’ observation that “the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” We could all learn from their example.

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