132 Catholic scholars sign letter opposing Common Core

My View: The Common Core standards should not be thought of like The Bible. We have to understand that schools and teachers can go beyond them as they see fit with their students. Other flaws, however, need to be addressed, and there’s no current plan to do so. For this reason, we join with more than a hundred Catholic scholars in calling on Catholic schools to withdraw their support for the standards. Either that, or make it clear they were not intended to impose any limits whatsoever on what we teach our children.

St Margaret of Scotland School, Chicago

Twelve years ago, when I was a reporter and photographer for a daily newspaper in west central Ohio, I wrote an article about a Catholic K-8 school. There was no Catholic high school in the town, so most of the eighth graders from the school I wrote about ended up going to a public high school.

At the time, all of Ohio’s ninth graders had to take statewide exams in five subjects, known as the “Proficiencies.” This one year—I think it was 2001—scores on the ninth-grade proficiency, which measured eighth-grade standards, were higher for the 50 or so students from the school than they were for the ninth-grade class as a whole at the two high schools those students attended. A lot higher.

I only remember the story because I made a little graph to accompany it and the priest at the church held up my story during his homily at all the masses that Sunday. I wonder if he knew I was in the pews for one of those masses. He expressed great pride in his teachers and praised the hard work the students had put in. Students from Catholic schools, though, usually had higher proficiency scores than those from the public schools, at least a dozen years ago in west central Ohio. So in a sense, it wasn’t any groundbreaking news, but when you cover the schools in a small rural place in middle America, you publish pretty much everything you get.

That story was published even before No Child Left Behind became law and changed the work of our schools forever. The latest push in education reform is, of course, the Common Core. Even if states adopt it, Catholic schools don’t receive money from the state for educational purposes, so they aren’t required to follow it. Yet many do. Education Week reported about a year ago that a hundred or so dioceses had adopted the Common Core.

But in a letter sent to every bishop in the US, several Catholic professors and scholars say the standards should be abandoned for Catholic schoolchildren.

[W]e 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 deep flaws to which they refer are many, though most aren’t explicitly included in the letter. They were made known at a conference held on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in September, a conference that included James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, who was part of the design team for the Common Core but ultimately refused to sign off on the standards produced; Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas and chief architect of the English language arts standards in Massachusetts; and Gerard Bradley, the Notre Dame law professor who wrote the letter.

Flaws explicitly given in the letter include:

  • The rush to adopt the standards has led many states to pause or withdraw from testing consortia
  • Parents, including Catholic parents, are leading a movement against the standards
  • The untested standards are a step backwards for Catholics in both academic rigor and challenge
  • The writing and reading standards are misaligned, and cursive writing is not taught
  • The standards don’t prepare students for college but for a standardized workforce

And the opinions summarized in the letter include:

  • Algebra is taught at the wrong grade level, and advanced math is not taught in high school
  • Students of the Common Core will not be trained to grow in virtues (love and serve the Lord)
  • They will be discouraged from maturing into responsible, flourishing adults
  • They won’t be able to contribute to responsible democratic self-government
  • The standards suggest it’s a waste of time to “over-educate” our children

By “over-educating,” the scholars mean the Common Core says we don’t need to have students read great works of literature, like Huck Finn, if they’re not planning to major in literature in college. In fact, these scholars seem to believe, as I do, that students need to read Huck Finn especially if they’re not planning to major in literature in college, which stands in opposition to the apparent intent of the Common Core. I myself wrote more than 20 years ago that students planning to major in music should take all the math, science, and literature they can get in high school, because they won’t have any time for those horizon-expanding subjects in college. Same type of thing, and if the Common Core were being interpreted to keep music majors away from math, science, and literature, it would go against my core beliefs about high school.

However, the Common Core doesn’t actually preclude the study of literature, as it doesn’t preclude advanced math coursework or participation in the fine arts. Those things just aren’t in the Common Core, or they’re not emphasized as strongly as some would like. The Common Core was designed to be a minimum set of standards for public schools. But the scholars seem to be objecting, in part, to that very mission of the Common Core, as they would prefer standards that move kids to the next phase in their lives rather than work with them where they are.

In many ways, this misses the point. The standards are the “floor” for our classrooms and the “ceiling” for any tests that will be given to assess students’ progress against the standards. If teachers want to go beyond the standards, they are more than welcome to do so. Their kids just won’t be tested on that material by the state, but believe me, the state doesn’t have to know every single thing teachers are teaching kids. We do still live in a democracy, and pushing to include higher learning objectives in the standards will invite testing on those standards. See, in addition to living in a democracy, we also live in a world where US public schools are still very much controlled by the remnants of NCLB.

The gist of the letter is that the standards represent less of an education than we should aspire to. Sure, not all students will attend college, but we shouldn’t give up on trying to maximize each child’s potential, the scholars write. For example, the standards give up on a student who will only ever be a truck driver by suggesting he has no need to study Huck Finn. But he needs Euclidian geometry, right? This paradox is at the center of any reasonable objection to the Common Core, and these scholars are right to point out the fact that “college ready” depends on which college we’re talking about and “career ready” depends on which career we’re talking about. Reducing the vast array of human endeavor to a minimum set of standards and then dismissing out of hand any request to revise that set of standards, as Common Core proponents proudly do, is not only presumptuous but arbitrary and flawed.

Education in the US has a rich tradition, especially in the Catholic schools, of forming “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 scholars write near the conclusion of the letter. Although our lowest-performing public schools don’t actually get that accomplished, shouldn’t we maintain a set of “standards” that at least have something else as the goal besides a workforce in which people can get a job following the company line at huge corporations? There is a multinational flavor to the Common Core and even secularism, but the fact is, most people in America work for small businesses.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.