A Plea for Catholic Schools to Ignore New Guidelines

A group of Roman Catholic scholars has called on Catholic schools to ignore the new educational standards known as the Common Core, a set of guidelines on what students should know and be able to do from kindergarten through 12th grade, opening a front with parallels to the fight over using the guidelines in public schools.

In a letter to the nation’s bishops last month, the group, including more than 100 professors and university administrators, argued that the Common Core would actually lower standards, that it would move parochial schools away from their grounding in the church, and that its emphasis on increased nonfiction reading across many subjects would translate into less focus on literary and philosophical classics, and moral teaching.

With more than half of the nation’s dioceses saying that their schools will adopt curriculum informed by the Common Core, the critics asked bishops to repudiate the guidelines.

The letter, written by Gerard V. Bradley, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said that in the Common Core, reading would be strictly utilitarian, “rather than explore the creativity of man, the great lessons of life, tragedy, love, good and evil, the rich textures of history that underlie great works of fiction, and the tales of self-sacrifice and mercy in the works of the great writers that have shaped our cultural literacy over the centuries.”

But some leaders in Catholic elementary and secondary education say the criticism reflects basic misconceptions: that the Catholic schools are bound by the Common Core rather than merely guided by it, and that it sets a ceiling on standards as well as a floor.

“We see the Common Core as a minimum, just as we’ve seen other state standards in the past as a minimum, and we intend to go way beyond that,” said Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director for Catholic Education at United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The letter arrived as the bishops’ conference prepared for its annual assembly, to be held next week in Baltimore

The letter’s signatories include several prominent conservatives; Mr. Bradley is affiliated with conservative policy groups, including the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution, and he has written extensively on politically charged issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

Sister M. Paul McCaughey, the superintendent of schools for the Chicago archdiocese, said she did not believe the Common Core would lower standards, but understood the concern about the classics getting less attention, especially in schools with few resources.

“I think we have to be very careful about that,” she said. But in the Catholic system, “we will never lose Shakespeare or Huck Finn or Thomas Aquinas. It’s not an either-or.”

The Common Core standards were written by a panel of experts convened by a bipartisan group of governors and superintendents to emphasize critical thinking over memorization, to better prepare students for college and jobs, and to ensure that students in all states meet similar standards. It lays out broad standards for achievement — and testing to measure it — but gives each state leeway in deciding how to meet those. The standards were first introduced in 2010.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards in math and English for use in public schools, though most have not yet fully implemented them. Minnesota has endorsed only the English standards, and Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have accepted none.

But the standards have come under attack, primarily from conservatives who call them a nationalization of what had been state-level decision making. Indiana has suspended implementation; conservatives have introduced repeal legislation in other states, and Georgia and Oklahoma have withdrawn from a consortium developing tests based on the standards. Last spring, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution criticizing the Common Core.

Some on the left have also raised objections, arguing against increased emphasis on standardized testing and questioning whether students or teachers were adequately prepared for the changes. Those critics gained new ammunition this year, when New York first gave standardized tests based on the Common Core, and students fared much worse than on the previous tests.

Motoko Rich contributed reporting.