Catholic Schools and the Common Core

One of the strengths of Catholic schools has been that they don't give in easily to educational fads. But that may no longer be the case, since more than 100 dioceses have endorsed the hotly debated Common Core standards, leading to a substantial internal debate. The Washington Post reports:

Catholic educators, scholars and bishops are engaging in an increasingly vocal debate about the Common Core State Standards, with a major split developing between those who support the Core and those who don’t. More than 100 dioceses have already approved the standards for their Catholic schools, but others are rejecting them, including the Diocese of Madison in Wisconsin.

The opposition is being led by Gerard Bradley, a conservative legal scholar at the University of Notre Dame (and schoolmate of mine during Catholic grammar school days in Brooklyn - there were no fads at Mary Queen of Heaven, that's for sure). It's hard to sort out the fear and the hype from the reality of Common Core, which is untested. But if Diane Ravitch is opposed to it, that's good reason to be wary.

The Common Core is another effort on the part of the increasingly dubious, foundation-stimulated, by-the-numbers school "reform" movement to remake American education in a corporate mold. Carried along by bi-partisan political support, federal incentive money, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and media allies, it's a powerful force.

The great strength of Catholic schools is their faith-based belief in human dignity. Studies have quantified how this philsophy of Christian personalism leads to higher levels of faculty engagement and a concern not only for what students learn, but the kind of people they become.  This is what makes Catholic schools special, and it seems inconsistent with a "reform" that treats students like widgets.

The National Catholic Educational Association, which accepted a $100,007 grant from the Gates Foundation for Common Core training, says otherwise. It maintains that its new Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative  will make sure that "Catholic schools can infuse the standards with the faith, principles, values and social justice themes inherent in the mission of a Catholic school."

Catholic schools do need to come to terms in some way with the Common Core, since textbooks will be geared to these standards. As the NCEA explains, it wants to show teachers how to insert Catholic teachings into the lesson plans to strengthen the schools' Catholic identity.

The problem is that if the  Gates Foundation and its allies take Catholic schools along the same path where they have led public education -- to excessive reliance on high-pressure, high-stakes standardized testing -- that will fundamentally change Catholic schools and their Catholic identity, no matter how many cues about church teachings are inserted into lesson plans.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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