Thursday, March 27, 2014

How To Save America (Or At Least Catholic Education)


It is, admittedly, a hyperbolic title.

If you are looking for answers to Iran’s nuclear development, the war in Afghanistan, or what exactly happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, you won’t find them here.

This post deals with the growing controversy over Common Core Standards, the voluminous and quite frankly confusing bureaucratic boondoggle supported by the Obama administration and Bill Gates, that allegedly will impose benchmarks equaling a national standard of achievement in American schools.  Republicans, especially the Tea Party nut jobs, hate Common Core because they fear the federal government is taking over classrooms and forcing teachers to teach—gulp!—liberal ideas.  However, there are Republicans, and Democrats who liked the standards and even voted for them initially.  Now that people realize Common Core will cost states billions to implement, everybody has become skittish.  Indiana this week became the first of 45 states to opt out of the program.

It comes down to this:  supporters say Common Core institutes consistency and academic rigor across the curriculum and across the United States to guarantee that every teacher and student works from the same educational playbook to meet the same standards.  This is problematic because every state is composed of its own constituency, a populace that has its own special needs and requirements in all facets of life, including education.  There are things best left up to the state to decide, and other things that the federal government can mandate, and like the education of the human mind, it is not always easy to form blanket statements about what constitutes an educated person across our multicultural land.  For instance, the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District have different needs from students in the Aleutians East Borough School District (approximately 700,000 students versus 275 students; southern California versus southwest Alaska).

More disturbing to me is the lemming-like behavior of Catholic school departments of education across the country who are rushing to embrace Common Core.  Catholic schools have prided themselves in offering a better education than their public counterparts.  The curriculum was known for its rigor, and the schools for graduating high-performing students who excel in college and in life.  You could argue that I am presenting a biased view of the success of Catholic education, and you’d be right, but I can back it up both from personal experience as a student and as a teacher.  There is also a wealth of statistics to support my assertion, but I digress.

My point is that Catholic schools should be running away from endorsing Common Core.  If anything, parish schools should return to the rigorous teaching and learning that has distinguished those institutions throughout their history.  I always thought that was the selling point for parents who must pay tuition on top of taxes that support public schools to get their kids into the local Catholic K-12.  Sure parish schools are suffering a decline in enrollment due to the poor economy and a financially stressed middle class, but the marketing key is the kind of education Catholic schools have always offered—superior, disciplined, successful, rigorous, and yes:  Catholic!  A Catholic school education will meet and exceed the Common Core standards if we remain true to our traditions.

So why are Catholic schools chasing the Common Core bandwagon?  Well, let’s be clear:  there is a battle going on for control of the Catholic school train.  The New York Times reported that 100 Catholic scholars besieged Catholic bishops to reject Common Core standards.  Meanwhile, the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization founded in 1993 to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” revealed that the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) accepted more than $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote Common Core in Catholic schools.  There is not enough evidence nor have any studies been done to indicate that these standards will insure a quality education and student success for those who have jumped whole hog into the big vat of Kool-Aid Gates and Obama are asking students, teachers, and parents to drink.  To blindly follow means allowing the federal government to dictate Catholic education.

Who stands to benefit from Catholic schools adopting Common Core?  Well, Bill Gates and his technology interests will definitely benefit, as textbook companies are now rushing to develop apps and programs that are compatible with Windows 8 touchscreen operating systems.  According to the Cardinal Newman Society, “The Common Core System of Courses is the first curriculum built for a digital personalized learning environment that is 100 percent aligned to the new standards for college and career readiness.”  There is no evidence yet that students graduating under these standards will be better prepared for college or a career, but this is evidence that these standards will be used to dictate school curriculum and of course, standardized testing.  Standards must be measured—assessment equals standardized tests.  Teaching material found on the tests means aligning curriculum with assessment.  So the standards will, in fact, influence what is being taught in the classroom, as well as how it is being taught, despite denials of such influence by the Obama administration.  Textbook publishers such as Pearson, Sadlier, Inc., and Riverside Publishing are all rushing to create texts, workbooks, apps, programs and other resources to meet the demand of schools clamoring for Common Core materials.  Unfunded mandates of over 10 billion dollars, as well as annual costs going forward will be foisted on the individual states, according to at least one news source.

The NCEA found out that their full-throated endorsement of Common Core also comes with a philosophical cost.  The Cardinal Newman Society reported in December that the NCEA had “to correct the first-grade unit plan by removing three resources which celebrated families headed by same-sex or divorced couples.”  That is a double revelation:  one, it is shortsighted in this day and age to remove such material from the classroom as many same-sex and divorced couples are a vital part of parish congregations and school families; and two, the NCEA now finds itself in bed with some questionable partners who may have hijacked Catholic education.

How to save the nation, or more specifically, Catholic education?  Catholic schools should stick to the kind of education offered for more than a hundred years in their American institutions, one that graduates successful men and women who have time and again demonstrated their ability to enrich the fabric of our society.  There is no substitute, no computer program, no benchmark standard, no newfangled fad that can replace such a tradition of teaching and learning excellence.  Catholic schools should not be running after public schools; they should continue to proudly lead the way in educating students to be well-rounded, thoughtful citizens.  Our children’s education is too important to surrender to those professing “new ideas” composed of unsubstantiated promises with a hefty financial, intellectual and moral price tag.  Catholic education has never tread on common ground and should not do so now.  For the good of our students, we must continue to aim higher.

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