Is Common Core compatible with Catholic education? Are the concerns being expressed by parents across America just the unfounded worries of the uninformed, or are there real problems with the implementation of Common Core in our Catholic schools?
To answer that question, it is necessary to look beyond the particulars of the Common Core and examine its basic mission.
According to government documents and all marketing materials, the foundational mission of Common Core is to produce students who are college and career ready. The most complete definition of that term can be found in the May 2013 publication of the National Center for Education and the Economy(NCEE), called What Does it Really Mean to be College and Work Ready? (http://www.ncee.org/college-and-work-ready/)
According to NCEE, college and work ready means having the knowledge base that is necessary to enter a community college and take the general education courses without needing remediation. The level of math that is recommended is middle school material, with the recommendation that students should aim to complete Algebra I by the end of their sophomore year. The rationale is that since the highest level of math required by most community colleges is Algebra I, there is no need for any student to master Algebra II in high school in order to learn Algebra I in college.
The document includes a discussion of the "fact" the only 5% of careers require any mathematical knowledge beyond this, so teaching it to high school students is an expensive waste of financial and time resources. If the knowledge is not needed for a career, it is unnecessary.
A similar discussion is conducted in the area of language arts, with the conclusion being that most students do not need to learn literature in order to maintain employment. So our high schools should focus more on informational reading and writing so students will enter community college ready for career education.
This philosophy is echoed by representatives of State Departments of Education who have testified before House and Senate education committees about the need to standardize the products of our public education system. Indeed, in August 2013, at a hearing conducted by the PA House Education Committee, Pennsylvania Department of Education representatives explained the need and purpose of Common Core by telling the Committee members that just as McDonald’s hamburgers are the same whether they are purchased in Erie or Philadelphia, the products of our schools should be the same no matter where the school actually is located.
The products being spoken about were the children of Pennsylvania.
So in Common Core, the children are the products, not the clients, of the educational system, and the purpose of education is to produce children who have the skills they need to do a job. If the skill does not directly relate to a job, it is unnecessary, and does not need to be taught. Schools are to produce workers.
Is that compatible with Catholic education?
Is the mission of Catholic education to produce workers?
The Catholic catechism speaks about educating children in Section 2221 through 2229. The language begins by stressing that parents have both a right and a duty to direct the education of their children, and states that the foundational purpose of education is to enable our children to discover their vocations as children of God.
Achieving that purpose requires a Catholic educational program to offer our children every opportunity to learn about their Creator so that they can best decide how to respond to His loving call for their lives.
Common Core does not offer those opportunities. For example, a high school math program that does not reach past Algebra I is not just limiting mathematics. It is removing sciences like Chemistry and Physics from our children’s curriculum because both require students to have at least the skills of Algebra II. For some children, this elimination will directly affect their ability to discover their vocation since it is impossible to decide to become a physicist or a chemist if one has never encountered Physics or Chemistry. But the loss will affect all children, because every one of them benefits from learning that God’s universe is a place of order and structure permeated by His presence and His love.
The same situation exists in the area of Language Arts.
The proponents of Common Core want to severely limit the use of literature, or stories, in the education of our children, replacing them with "informational text". But informational text does not reach beyond our minds to touch our hearts or inspire our souls. Literature does.
Again, let’s use an example. Many of our children have been exposed to the Lifeboat Exercise, in which they are given the demographic information for 10 people and then told that those people are in a lifeboat that only can hold 9 of them. The children are instructed to use the demographic information to decide who is tossed out of the boat. The process is clinical and analytic – informational.
Now let’s look at the movie, A Night to Remember, which tells the story of the sinking of the Titanic. The characters in the movie are the actual passengers on the ocean liner. It IS the life boat exercise, but it is anything but clinical. When we see a man disguising himself as a woman to sneak onto a life boat, we don’t think about his demographic profile – we recognize his cowardice. When we see the elderly English lady give up her seat to stay with her husband of half a century, and offer that seat to a young mother with a little one, we don’t evaluate her decision on a cost/benefit basis – we respond to her courage and her compassion.
Our children may learn to follow instructions and interpret a graph from informational texts, but to truly realize their vocations as children of God, they need an education that dares them to hope and inspires them to love. They need to meet fictional heroes like Atticus Finch and actual heroes like St. Maximilian Kolbe. It is not an accident that the Greatest Story ever told is, in fact, a story; or that Christ Himself used stories to teach some of the deepest truths of our faith.
The proponents of Common Core speak about the fact that they are aiming at the floor – making sure that the minimum standards are met. But Catholic education has worked to aim our children at the ceiling, challenging them to reach beyond that minimum to find the fullness of their potential. For many of our children, that challenge changed their lives forever.
The Catholic educational system has been anything but common because it was based on the understanding that there is no such thing as a common child. It would be beyond tragic to see that system now embrace the very philosophy that it was designed to oppose.
This column first appeared in Crisis magazine.