Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education. He also teaches at Aquinas Learning, a classical Catholic homeschool program led by his wife Rosario. They have five children.
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 cutoff 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.