Superior Catholic Schools Already Exceed Common Core Standards

One of the biggest marketing disasters in modern times was the roll-out of “New Coke” back in 1985. Based on its fears of being overtaken by Pepsi and the misleading research of “the Pepsi challenge” (wherein consumers seemed to prefer the sweeter taste of Pepsi to Coke), Coke changed its classic formula to be more like Pepsi. Coke sales plummeted, and its loyal customers in a raucous revolt demanded a return to the Coke they loved. It turned out that the initial sweet taste of Pepsi that attracted customers on the first sip failed to satisfy over the course of the whole can. Coke, in humility (and some pride), returned to its Classic formula, and its sales experienced significant gains: income and customer loyalty skyrocketed. The 100 some Catholic dioceses around the country who became early adapters of the Common Core might want to emulate Coke’s humility (and pride) and begin to back away from the new and increasingly troubled Common Core Standards that are beginning to be implemented in 45 states.  Like Coke’s fear of losing ground to Pepsi when it seemed everyone was moving in the same direction, many Catholic school leaders may have attempted to get ahead of the Common Core in an effort to stay relevant and increase enrollment. Like Coke fearing the “Pepsi generation,” some Catholic leaders believe that, since “all” the textbooks, teacher training, and standardized testing is going Common Core,  Catholic schools must be ahead of the wave and proactively go Common Core as well.

These are not unreasonable steps, but they may have been premature. Now that the details and suffocating, standardizing and expensive bureaucracy of the Common Core are being unveiled in the government schools, citizens are asking, “What just happened?” States are beginning to take a second look at what they signed on to, in many cases without appropriate stakeholder input from legislatures and citizens. It may be prudent for Catholic school leaders to do the same. While it is encouraging that Catholic school leaders are not afraid to innovate and that they are responsive to the latest trends in education, it may be wise for Catholic schools to hit the pause button on the Common Core and consider what is becoming more evident regarding its potential weaknesses.

After all, as private schools we are not required to follow the government school standards; we can take our time and demand results from the never-tested, never-assessed Common Core. We know that what we are currently doing is successful. We know that our test scores significantly outperform government schools, even those government schools in states with the highest curriculum standards. Catholic school 8th graders have led public school 8th graders by double digit margins for the last 20 years on federal  NAEP reading and math tests. Our college preparation is outstanding with over 99% of our students graduating from high school and 84% going on to four year colleges (almost double the public school rate). So why are we changing? Why are we seeking to follow those whom we lead? Is our track record so bad that we need to seek the “new ways” of teaching math and English that the Standard writers insist upon? The Standards certainly present themselves as the greatest thing to hit education: “These Standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step. It is time for states to work together to build on lessons learned from two decades of standards based reforms. It is time to recognize that standards are not just promises to our children, but promises we intend to keep.” Very nice, but quoting that other successful marketing campaign from the 1980’s, we have the right (and the duty) to ask “Where’s the beef?”

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At first glance, like that first taste of sweeter Pepsi, the Common Core with its claims to be “real world” oriented and “research based” seems compelling. But do we just take the Standards at their word because they said so? Or do we challenge the assumptions of what is untested and demand results before changing our own proven educational strategies and priorities? Case in point: one of the signature pieces of the Common Core is its insistence that all schools significantly increase informational texts (as opposed to literature) across the curriculum. Rather than basing their position on research and best practice, the Standards writers base their required percentages of each type of text on federal test description. Citing the fact that the main federal reading test (NAEP) on its 8th grade test has 45% of its questions based on literature and 55% of its questions based on informational texts, the Standards demand that all 8th grade classes should reflect the same percentages of those text types across the curriculum.

There are two problems here. First of all, the test results (not the question percentage structure they cite) reveal that students already do better reading informational texts than literary texts. As there is no NAEP test data to suggest the need for more focus on informational texts, this part of their argument fizzles. Second, research shows that even by 6th grade, school curricula is already 75% informational text based. This means that to follow the standards schools would actually need to decrease informational texts by 20%. So a marquee element of the Common Core English foams away into confusing contradiction. This is “the real” world of schools which the Standards writers missed but which they are now seeking to change based on bogus “research.” Critics of the Common Core note that neither of the two main Standards writers for English ever taught English in K-12 or in college, nor has either published significant research on curriculum or instruction.

Significant concerns also exist in the Common Core math curriculum. According to research, younger students (and novices in any subject) learn best by direct instruction, however the Common Core  moves toward constructivism (e.g., exploration based learning, group work, “fuzzy math” etc.) This is not only inefficient in younger grades but can lead to undue stress as little children are asked to accomplish tasks which are not suited for their level of development and limited expertise. Some scholars suggest that by late middle school, Common Core math skills are two years behind their top scoring international peers. Also, according to some experts, since the Common Core Standards do not specifically address upper level high school math, the program does not include specific guidance for classes necessary to get into selective colleges or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. For Catholic schools, a significant part of our appeal is the excellent college preparation that we offer for four-year colleges. The Common Core’s high school standards are too vague and weak to be of significant use to our high-octane efforts.

Until the Common Core Standards prove themselves and overcome the doubt and suspicion that currently surround them—even in the government school sector—we should stay the course, hold steady, and keep our focus as tried, tested, and true Catholic schools.  Let the Common Core, if it wants, reduce education to only college and career readiness. Catholic schools have always been about more. We have our proprietary formula in our pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness; in our focus on human flourishing,  human excellence and on our eternal destinies as loved children of God. This is the equivalent to the beloved “Classic Coke” formula.  We have a loyal fan base and decades of real world data and test scores to back up our efforts. This is the product that our loyal constituents want. This is the product that Catholic schools were built to produce. No bishop or pastor opened a school solely for “college and career readiness,” but that is the sole guide for the Common Core.

Our students were made for so much more than this … and they know it. Orienting intellectual efforts toward a pursuit of the truth and providing young people with the skills to properly interrogate reality, exercising their full human freedom and potentiality, is what parents and students really seek. The careers and intellectual pursuits they also naturally want come predictably and successfully in tow of these other more lofty efforts. In our Catholic schools we have a unique opportunity to address those deeper realities and profound motivations head on—with passion, conviction, and joy. Coke may “add life,” but Catholic schools can add eternal life and pursue those timeless and eternal truths for which the human heart yearns and which our government schools are not equipped or charged to fully pursue. We can and must explore math, science, reading, and all subjects in ways the Common Core Standards could never even dream of. This is our competitive advantage, and it is not restricted to religion class or some scattered prayers. It is who we are. We need to focus on being intellectually alive—being “Catholic to the core.”

Catholic education is more powerful than any of us can realize! We have all heaven, all reality and the Creator of all reality behind us and pulling for us. Ironically, the Common Core may be the best thing that has happened to our school in decades.  It may encourage a new wave of enrollment as students flee its negative effects. Already in their early responses to the presence of the Common Core, diocesan school leaders are doing a better job than ever at articulating our Catholic identity and are seeking new and effective ways to increase that identity in our schools’ curriculums. Now that new and more concerning information regarding the Common Core is coming our way, there is no harm or foul in hitting the pause button or changing course. Early adoption of the Common Core was made in good faith, that same good faith justifies a pause now that we know more than in those early days. This change dynamic need not be a negative and could assist us to be  better Catholic schools: said Coke executives in reversing the adaptation of the New Coke attempt, “We love any retreat which has us running toward our customers with the product they love most” and “It revitalized the brand—and reattached customers to Coke.”  Let’s lean from Coke, and, while we are at it, let’s borrow something else:

“Catholic education, it’s the real thing.”

(Photo credit: Salvatore Laporta / AP)


  • Daniel Guernsey

    Dr. Daniel Guernsey is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society.

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