Common Core Turns Five
G.K. Chesterton once wisely suggested that a child should not be subjected to an educational philosophy younger than he is. Such wisdom would relegate the Common Core to preschool—and a public preschool at that, but certainly not America’s Catholic schools.
In a saner world the Common Core State Standards, which were first unveiled in June 2010, would just be coming out of beta testing in a small-scale study to determine their efficacy. If data proved they were significantly successful, then various states would begin to consider adapting the proven elements into their own standards.
Of course, this is not what actually happened. When the Common Core was first unveiled during the height of the “great recession,” states in pursuit of federal funding quickly signed onto the untested Common Core—for some of them, sight unseen. Forty-six states signed on to the Common Core, with only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia refusing to jump on the band wagon. Many Catholic dioceses in the Common Core states followed suit, wanting to ensure consistency with state standards and national tests.
It was only in 2012, as the Standards started to impact textbooks and classrooms, that students, teachers and parents began to understand the extent of the changes ushered in by the first national standards in America’s history. The discussions, debates and data gathering that should have happened among the citizenry before adopting national standards, but were originally thwarted, nevertheless soon bubbled up as concerned citizens asked for explanations, data and reasons for the changes that their children were now experiencing first-hand.
The concerns became so great in some states that six of them have since dropped the Common Core: Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Concerned about citizen backlash and the apparent loss of state sovereignty in adopting national standards, about half of the 40 remaining states using the Common Core now identify it by another name, in the hopes of distancing themselves at least cosmetically from the controversial Standards.
Five years old, the Common Core is still standing—but it is bruised and unhealthy. It may soon face even bigger challenges, now that Common Core-based tests have been administered for the first time.
So how did Catholic schools get entangled with this experiment intended for public schools? Many Catholic schools and dioceses around the country, spurred on in 2012 with the encouragement of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), quickly adopted the Common Core lest they be left behind from the great promise and sweeping wave that was overtaking the country. The NCEA took a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to train Catholic school teachers to implement the Common Core. It also allied with book publishers and some academics in the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative (CCCII), now called the Catholic Identity Curriculum Integration (CICI), to argue that Common Core could be “infused” with Catholicity.
Like states that have renamed the Common Core standards for fear of backlash, so too many Catholic schools have sought to minimize attention to their use of the Common Core. Originally the Florida Catholic Conference, representing seven dioceses, had announced on its website in August 2012:
The Catholic school superintendents and Florida Catholic Conference education staff have deliberated carefully upon the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For many years, Catholic schools in Florida have adopted with some modifications the Florida Sunshine State Standards and Next Generation Sunshine State Standards to help establish academic benchmarks for elementary and secondary education. In a similar way, our schools are adopting a blended version of the CCSS to allow for the infusion of Catholic identity throughout the basic academic framework used.
By October 2012, the Conference had revised the statement to read:
Catholic schools develop their own rigorous academic benchmarks or diocesan standards. This is done for tasks such as when children should be able to read or add two numbers together and so forth. In doing so, our school leaders review best practices in education, collaborate with peers and technical experts, and continuously gather feedback from stakeholders such as parents, pastors, teachers, etc. In this way fostering our faith continues to be our mission as we look out for the best interests of all schoolchildren served.
By November 2013, a year later, this statement was also taken down and replaced by a new vision statement which removes all reference to the Common Core and details about specific curricular standards. The new statement emphasizes the foundational purpose of Catholic schools” as “to prepare our students to develop strong Catholic character.” The site also adds a link to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ helpful FAQ document on the Common Core, which recommended approaching the Standards with caution.
So while the Common Core is still widespread in Catholic schools, there seems to be less championing of it by the NCEA and some dioceses of late. Like many of the states, some Catholic dioceses seem content to tone things down for a bit and ride out the Common Core storm, but that fails to address serious concerns with the Common Core and gives parents even less information and input into the direction of Catholic schools.
Perhaps sensing that Catholic schools were shying away from public support of the Common Core, the Gates Foundation launched a failed attempt in 2014 to get Catholic leaders to speak out in favor of the Common Core. Their agents specifically mentioned that they were trying to counter the warnings of groups including The Cardinal Newman Society. How do we know this? They accidentally called our leaders to enlist our help!
So while the Common Core is still with us and in many of our schools, it seems as if the initial honeymoon of unconditional acceptance is over. The next shift is likely when the first test results roll out for the public schools. The Common Core’s oppressive and cynical testing is not being used just to test students, it is also being used to evaluate teachers, schools and even teacher preparation programs. As the students catch on that the tests are not just about them and their learning, and that they are being subjected to months of preparation and days of testing for bureaucratic purposes, families will resist. And as teacher evaluations suffer from tuned-out and burned-out students, the teachers, too, will protest the untested and misappropriated assessments and the injustice of using an inappropriate measure to evaluate them.
So what’s to come? Stay tuned! The Common Core will have its own drama and half-life in the public schools.
Our concern is primarily with Catholic schools, both those that may have jumped on board too quickly and those that, following the advice of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have proceeded cautiously in response to the Common Core. On this fifth anniversary of the Common Core, we are offering two important reports: one focused on how the English Language Arts standards are insufficient to guide an authentic exploration of literature and another about what has been happening in Catholic dioceses and schools that have stayed independent of the Common Core.
Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is Director of the Cardinal Newman Society’s K-12 Education Programs.
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