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Bishop's Monthly message

Why Catholic schools use Common Core Standards


Last month, we observed our annual Catholic Schools Week celebration, which began with a Mass at our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, honoring people who have made outstanding contributions to our schools, and was followed by an art show and musical performance by our students at the Empire State Plaza. Throughout the week, there were events in our Catholic grammar and high schools.

This annual celebration took place amid a fierce debate which has arisen about the benefit or peril of the Common Core Standards adopted by many public and private schools throughout the country. Two questions have arisen: one, regarding all schools; the other, around Catholic schools specifically.

The first is, "What are the Common Core Standards and what do they seek to accomplish?" According to the National Catholic Educational Association:

•  "The Common Core State Standards are a set of high-quality academic expectations that all students should master by the end of each grade level.

•  "The standards establish consistent learning goals for all students that focus on preparing them to succeed in college and careers in a globally-competitive workplace.

•  "The standards define and clearly communicate grade-specific goals and inform parents about learning outcomes, making it easier for parents to collaborate with teachers in helping their children achieve success.

•  "Catholic schools can infuse the standards with the faith, principles, values and social justice themes inherent in the mission of a Catholic school."

In other words, the intention is to provide uniform curriculum standards across the nation that are more focused in terms of content, require more depth in subject matter and foster critical thinking.

Besides hoping to assure a high-quality education for students, regardless of geographic or economic situation, the Common Core goal is to have all students college- or workplace-ready.

The goals of the Common Core Standards are certainly laudable. Most of the confusion and criticism here in New York State, however, has focused on their implementation.

For example, according to hearings conducted by the New York State Department of Education and the committees of our State Senate and Assembly, school administrators, teachers, parents and students believe that the rollout of the Common Core Standards has been rushed, without proper materials being available to teachers - and, hence, inadequate instruction provided to students before they were tested on the standards last spring.

Further, the testing to measure students' knowledge and integration of the standards, for which they did not seem to be prepared appropriately, was done in addition to other mandatory testing already in place.

Bumps in road
Thus, students were overwhelmed by testing in general, and the low scores compiled through the Common Core Standards left many students feeling like failures and many parents alarmed and frustrated - either by the preemptive testing or by the quality of the instruction being offered.

Hopefully, these difficulties associated with the implementation of the Common Core Standards will be addressed constructively and implemented in a gradual fashion to ensure that the well-intentioned and indeed necessary outcomes are achieved in a cohesive and balanced fashion.

The second question generating confusion and misunderstanding has come from some within the Catholic community who have urged bishops, school superintendents and principals not to adopt the Common Core Standards in our Catholic schools, because - as three experts from Loyola University Chicago explained - some people believe that to do so could lead to a "lessening of the academic excellence we've come to expect" of our Catholic schools and, even more alarming, to a "diminishment of their very Catholic identity."

This question has been analyzed carefully by the leadership of Catholic education in our nation and studied in depth by the experts cited above: Rev. Michael Garanzini, president of Loyola; the dean of its school of education, Michael Dantley; and the director of its Center for Catholic Effectiveness, Dr. Lorraine Ozar.

Experts' analysis
The claim of opponents that the Common Core Standards are less rigorous, they conclude, is simply mistaken. Their study finds that, "compared to most previous state standards, the Common Core Standards require more higher-level thinking, both analysis and synthesis; more problem-solving, more careful argument tied closely to textual evidence; more reading, writing, speaking, and listening; and deeper understanding of mathematical concepts to support problem-solving in new situations. These are skills all children need not only to succeed in college and life, but also to transform the world on Gospel terms."

With regard to opponents' claim that the Common Core Standards "will dictate what Catholic school teachers must teach and how they must teach, and that Common Core Standards will require texts that undermine Church teachings and/or prohibit important classics that nurture students' inner lives," the Loyola team asserts that "this claim is also mistaken, resting on a misunderstanding of the difference between standards and curriculum."

They point out that "standards and curriculum are two very different components of excellent education. They are intertwined, but they do not serve the same purpose and cannot be substituted, one for the other.

"Standards describe the broad endpoints of a projected learning sequence (in this case, K-12 schooling). They typically describe what students should know and be able to do at the end point and also at benchmarks along the way (often grade levels).

"As they are stated, standards are typically too big and too vague to define what teachers will do to teach their students today, and tomorrow, and the next day. The latter is the curriculum - what to teach specifically, how to teach it and how to ask students to demonstrate that they have learned what was intended.

"Catholic schools are not required to utilize curriculum modules the state has offered, or to adopt the performance-based teacher assessment. Further, our schools may reevaluate participation in state tests or add tests that compare test-takers to one another."

Catholic choice
That is why the superintendents of the Catholic schools in New York State have voluntarily agreed to participate in adopting the Common Core Standards and assessing our students, while incorporating our faith and values to make our schools strong, vibrant and faith-filled in an emerging global community.

This latter point is most significant, for, while our Catholic schools have a proud, track-proven record of academic achievement in bringing students to college or workplace readiness, as Karen Ristau, former president of the National Catholic Education Association, rightly observes, "If this were the only goal for a Catholic school education, it would be a purely utilitarian philosophy of education and a very limiting one."

Rather, Dr. Ristau rightly underscores that Catholic education, based in the message of Jesus that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, seeks to address the whole person, presenting an education for life: "how to live one's life, and especially how to understand the transcendent purpose of this life, which brings us home" to the God who loves us.

Hence, Catholic education is much bigger than the Common Core goals, important as they may be.

When we state that Catholic schools teach the whole child, we mean it. By nature and mission, our schools operate in such a way that moral choices and character values are just as strongly emphasized as educational performance.

Assessing students
Unfortunately, in far too many schools, where success has come to be almost totally defined by numbers, the notion of educating the whole child sometimes gets forgotten. Many school systems have to grapple with such a heavy emphasis on standardized-test scores that they don't have time for much else.

Philip Robbi, executive director of the Department of Secondary Schools at the National Catholic Education Association, notes: "By their very nature, student assessment is not limited by test scores alone, but by the wide variety and unique skills that were given to each of us. Complementing a Catholic school's goal of educating the whole child is the emphasis that is placed on providing students with values and ethics. Regardless of what type of school they attend, students want and need good role models.

"They need to hear about right and wrong and, while in a Catholic school rights and wrongs are more defined by doctrine, there are values and standards that continue to be accepted in society as a whole. These include the wrongness of stealing, cheating, taking illegal drugs and alcohol abuse; but they also include positives, such as upping one's sense of self-worth by mastering and achieving valuable goals and by making good decisions that will further one's options in life."

Catholic Schools Week
I seize upon this year's Catholic Schools Week observance to assure you that, while our Catholic schools will adopt and meet the Common Core Standards, they will not lose either their Catholic identity or become so driven by standardized assessments that they leave out the uniqueness that is a part of every child and an integrally important dimension of a well-rounded education.

I also take this annual observance to express my profound gratitude and appreciation to all of the pastors, Catholic Schools Office staff, principals, teachers, school board members, volunteers, students and parents who sacrifice so much to make our Catholic schools different where it really counts - namely, in offering "higher-powered learning."

(For more information, see http://www.cccii-online.org.)

(February 06, 2014)