A year ago, Catholic schools in Florida were headed toward adopting a version of Common Core State Standards that would let them keep their autonomy and cultural identity. Many liked what they saw as increased rigor. And many hoped to gain access to state assessments that could make it easier when Catholic school students transition to public schools.
The bipartisan effort to create a single set of benchmarks for college and career readiness is now going head to head with political posturing and fear of federal overreach. Many Catholic schools are still planning to move forward with new language arts standards, but they’re doing so with growing caution. Meanwhile, a few that previously embraced the standards are backing off.
“Many of our schools are starting to refrain from using the words ‘Common Core,’ ’’ said James Herzog, associate director of education for the Florida Catholic Conference, which represents 237 schools. Instead, they’re using the new standards as a platform to build upon, calling them ‘rigorous standards’ or ‘Diocesan standards.’
For Dan Guernsey of the Rhodora J. Donahue Academy of Ave Maria, a K-12 school in Naples, Fla., just changing the name isn’t enough.
“As a private school in Florida, we already have very high standards, so why change?’’ said the headmaster, who also serves on the board of the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools, and as a consultant for more than 150 Catholic schools nationwide. “The only reason is because of political or testing pressure. And that’s the problem. We shouldn’t be adopting statewide standards based on politics or standardized tests.’’
The debate over Common Core has been focused mostly on implications, real and perceived, for public schools. But Catholic schools are wrestling with similar concerns and pressures. About 100 Catholic dioceses have indicated they are adopting the standards, with Florida and 45 other states already committed. Many schools across the country, public and private, are using them already.
The voluntary benchmarks were created by the National Association of Governors, the National Business Roundtable and the Council of Chief State School Officers. President Obama and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are among the most prominent supporters. There’s no mandate on how teachers teach or what they teach. Suggested texts are included, but schools aren’t required to use them.
Opposition is strongest among tea party groups, which liken the Common Core to federal intrusion in classrooms. That’s the same criticism Florida Gov. Rick Scott pointed to when he issued an executive order last week for the state to pull out of PARCC – the assessments being crafted to meet the new standards. Some parents, including those who are Catholic, also have voiced objections, but supporters contend they’re being swayed by waves of misinformation.
One Catholic dad made recent headlines when he took his daughters out of a Catholic elementary school in Roseto, Pa., after discovering the Diocese of Allentown had adopted Common Core. “As long as there is any Common Core in the diocese, we will not be going back there,’’ Dave Herman told the Morning Call newspaper.
Lisa Ann Homic of Rochester, N.Y., hopes it doesn’t come to that at her son’s Catholic school, where the chiropractor is a member of the board. She founded the Facebook page Catholic School Parents Against Common Core in April. It has since garnered 636 likes.
“I stood up at one meeting and told them I’m against Common Core and I’m going to do anything I can to get rid of it,’’ she told redefinED. “We are concerned that the Catholic schools are taking on Common Core without parent input. This is the first problem.’’
But the bigger worry: a fear the traditional Catholic school education will be watered down and replaced by a secular curriculum similar to what is used in public schools. If we all have the same education, Homic said, Catholic schools will lose their uniqueness and competitiveness.
Those issues will be discussed in November at a Common Core conference co-hosted by the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools, the Catholic Education Foundation and others. The event is open to only 40 of the nation’s top Catholic education leaders, who will focus on what Catholic schools can embrace in the Common Core, how to respond to concerns from parents and teachers, and what happens if Common Core falters or gets rejected by states. A larger conference in the spring will be open to parents and others.
In theory, Catholic schools don’t have to participate in Common Core, said Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation. But in reality, that decision may not serve their students well. In addition to state assessments, college entrance exams like the SAT also are expected to align with the Common Core.
“That’s obviously going to have an impact on our students,’’ Stravinskas said. “Therefore, we have to be vigilant on what we modify, adopt and reject.’’
That’s not to say Catholic schools need to change their curriculum, he said. But it might be in the best interest of students for schools to look at the standards and “take what’s good, leave what’s bad.”