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By Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D.

1/30/2014 (2 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

There are some myths about the CC and Catholic schools that need to be dispelled.

What is my advice to Catholic parents, teachers, administrators and clergy?  Press the "pause" button.  There is no need for us to jump on-board an untested program.  Catholic educators have never been given to fads (which is, again, a reason for our on-going success).  Let's see where and how the dust settles.  My educated hunch is that we shall see that the project will die aborning; we shall be spared the expenditure of time and treasure, while we forged ahead with what we have known to be a winning product all along.  "Faith, Knowledge, Service."

Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D. is the Executive Director of the Catholic Education Foundation.

Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D. is the Executive Director of the Catholic Education Foundation.

Article Highlights

By Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

1/30/2014 (2 months ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: Common Core, Catholic Schools Week, Catholic Educators, parochial school, Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D.


  
PINE BEACH, N.J. (Catholic Online) - I pen these thoughts in the lead-up to Catholic Schools Week 2014, whose theme this year is: "Catholic Schools: Faith, Knowledge, Service."
   
As you might suspect, the Catholic Education Foundation has been very involved in the national conversation on the Common Core Initiative.  Kindly allow this editorial to bring you up to speed on the topic from both the purely secular point of view, as well as from the specifically Catholic angle.
   
I want to begin by making what should be a self-evident assertion: Catholic educators are not adverse to high standards and academic accountability.  Indeed, we have been the perennial bearers of both throughout this very dark period of American education, now spanning more than fifty years.  As a Mormon teacher in Idaho said to me more than three decades ago: "The story of Catholic schools in America can be summed up as, 'Never has so much been done with so little.'"

That assessment came back to me recently as I learned of a large city in New Jersey which expends nearly $43,000 per child in the government schools, while the Catholic schools in that district spend less than $10,000.  Will anyone be surprised when I go on to say that the students in the so-called public schools of that city emerge with negligible skills in math and language arts, even as the Catholic school students perform at and even beyond national levels.  Nor is such out-stripping limited to the inner-city phenomenon; evidence is continually mounting that shows similar results in suburbia as well.  "More bang for the buck," as some would crudely put it.
   
That said, let's situate the current Common Core debate in history.  Already in the early days of the Reagan presidency, concerns were raised about the embarrassing data surfacing which showed American youth lagging woefully behind young people in dozens of countries, including many "third-world" nations.   The "Back to Basics" movement, which began in the 1970s, picked up steam in the Reagan years.  "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" were other national efforts to improve student achievement.  Everyone, it would seem, for a long time has realized that there is a problem; remedies have varied, often according to political stances.  In that sense, the Common Core is no different from earlier attempts to fix the mess.  If that is so, why the outcry now, when such a response did not occur with past initiatives?
   
Anthony Cody offers a valuable "back story" with his "Common Core Standards: Ten Colossal Errors" from an objective pedagogical position.  Permit me to highlight a few of them.
   
Cody's first objection is that "the process by which the CC standards were developed and adopted was undemocratic."  Unlike its predecessors in educational reform, this project had no input from the very people most affected: parents (on behalf of their children) and teachers (key to its implementation).  Conversations on the process were labeled "confidential," ostensibly to keep dissenting voices at bay.
   
A few months ago, the Archbishop of a major diocese told me that until I had discussed the CC with him, he had never even heard of it.  I told him not to feel bad because, although 47 states had adopted it, 78% of the public had never heard of it, either!  In point of fact, state legislators were voting for a program about which they knew very little, often because the final product did not even exist at that point. 

In other words, they were being asked to take a "pig in a poke," reminiscent of the process leading to the adoption of Obamacare, as legislators who raised questions were told to accept it and then let it get worked out in time.  Of course, we have seen in all too many ways how that has worked out.  Interestingly, as of last count, at least seventeen states have backed out of the CC, or are in the process of doing so.
   
Cody and other critics maintain that the CC "violates what we know about how children grow and develop."  Amazingly, no experts on early childhood education were involved in the drafting or review of the CC. 
   
A serious flaw in the program is its "market-driven" approach as it unabashedly places college- and career-readiness above all other educational goals.  Surely, anyone imbued with a classical instinct - let alone a Catholic one - will be repulsed by such a thrust.  True education is not about getting onto the next rung of the educational ladder, nor about making lots of money; it's concerned with bringing about human flourishing or fulfillment.  Thus, whether or not there is tangible "pay-back" to studying Vergil's Aeneid, it is still a very good and worthwhile thing to do.  Why?  Because to know is always better than not to have known.
   
Other critiques of the CC point to: its rigid expectations, failing to take into account local and personal differences; the fact that it will add to the current testing mania (and, therefore, teaching to the test); ironically, a lowering of standards in many instances (especially for the majority of Catholic schools); the collection of yet more data on students, thus heightening the potential for violations of privacy and confidentiality; the lack of evidence to support the need for the program and, most especially, for its effectiveness (which has never been seriously tested).
   
Now, there are some myths about the CC and Catholic schools that need to be dispelled.  Contrary to some over-reactions:  there is no mandate for Catholic participation; even if participating, there is no requirement to use the curriculum materials offered; college entrance exams (ACT or SAT) are not (yet) tied to the CC; for us, it is not a take-it-or-leave-it affair, which explains the divergent  policies of dioceses: adopt, adapt, ignore - although it should be noted that many dioceses have given a strong "no" to the project (e.g., five of the six dioceses of Wisconsin).  An issue to consider, however, is whether states with non-public school voucher programs can or will seek to mandate acceptance of the CC as a condition for voucher eligibility (if that happens, there would certainly be constitutional/religious freedom issues).
   
At a philosophical level, we should also reflect on the following: first, it is legitimate, from a political and social viewpoint, to question the involvement of the federal government in education; which leads to the second point, namely, that Catholic social teaching has always stressed the principle of subsidiarity, that is, engaging in activity at the lowest level possible (which helps explain why our schools have been successful); third, to ask why the Gates Foundation (no friend of Catholic values) so eagerly gave a $100,000 grant to the National Catholic Education Association to promote the CC - and why the NCEA so eagerly accepted it. 

One need not be a Catholic "Tea Partier" to call for discussion of such matters.  Indeed, in a unique coalescence of people, both liberals and conservatives have expressed grave reservations about the CC, while no less an educational leader than Diane Ravitch of NYU has done the same and as the two major figures in the drafting of the CC (Sandra Stotsky/language arts; James Milgram/math) both dropped off the project because of their intense disappointment with its direction and outcome.
   
The Catholic Education Foundation weighed in on all this very early in the game.  In my official capacity as CEF's executive director, I was proud to be among the 130 Catholic signatories to the October 16 letter that went to every Catholic bishop in the country, bringing the issue forward in a very public way for the first time.  In October, CEF co-sponsored (with the Catholic High School Honor Roll and the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools, among others) a workshop for Catholic school administrators on this topic.  In November, we likewise co-sponsored an informational breakfast for the bishops of our nation during their annual meeting in Baltimore (more than a quarter of the dioceses were represented).
   
What is my advice to Catholic parents, teachers, administrators and clergy?  Press the "pause" button.  There is no need for us to jump on-board an untested program.  Catholic educators have never been given to fads (which is, again, a reason for our on-going success).  Let's see where and how the dust settles.  My educated hunch is that we shall see that the project will die aborning; we shall be spared the expenditure of time and treasure, while we forged ahead with what we have known to be a winning product all along.  "Faith, Knowledge, Service."

-----

Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D. is the Executive Director of the Catholic Education Foundation. This article first appeared in the Catholic Educator and is republished with permission. The mission of  The Catholic Educator is to serve as a forum through which teachers, administrators and all others interested in Catholic education can share ideas and practices, as well as to highlight successful programs and initiatives to bring about a recovery of Catholic education in our times.The Catholic Education Foundation, Inc. is a 501(c)3 national non-profit organization formed to ensure a brighter future for Catholic education in the United States

---


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