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Catholic Schools Pitch New Standards as Alternative to Common Core

A Catholic education group has released a new set of academic standards that weave Roman Catholicism throughout the curriculum. The standards are being pitched as an alternative to the Common Core State Standards

The standards were created by the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit whose mission is "to promote and defend faithful Catholic education." It was founded in response to a concern among some Catholics that Catholic education was undergoing a "creeping secularism." The Cardinal Newman Society has been cautioning the nation's more than 6,500 Catholic schools against adopting the common core for almost three years.

Some of the group's arguments echo those of other common-core critics: One is the concern that there is less focus on literature in the standards, and another is that the math standards don't prepare students to take calculus in high school.

Other criticisms are particularly Catholic. The group argues that the common core's "utilitarian objectives" and lack of emphasis on the whole person represent an incomplete understanding of the purpose of education. "Because common core gets man wrong, it gets education wrong," the group writes. "Catholic insight into human nature and into man's relationships with his fellow man, nature, and God allows for a more complete exploration of the world and not just all that is in it, but also that which transcends it as well."

The new standards cover history, science, math, and English, and are broken into two sets: Grades K-6 and 7-12. The content is notably different from the common core's. An early literature standard, for example, asks students to be able to "demonstrate how literature is used to develop a religious, moral, and social sense." A math standard asks students to learn to "display a sense of wonder about mathematical relationships as well as confidence in mathematical certitude."

A set of appendices also highlight other aspects of Catholic education. Appendix A focuses on "Educating to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness." The standards also come with resources for teachers hoping to create learning progressions

Earlier this month, the Cardinal Newman Society published a blog post urging Catholic schools to "leave the common core behind," citing the findings of a report from the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research called "After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core." The report argues that the common core is focused on workforce development and not aligned with the broader project of Catholic education. 

The Cardinal Newman Society isn't the first Catholic group concerned about how the common core fits into Catholic schools. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released an FAQ about the common core in 2014. The conference took a softer line, pointing out that the dioceses have typically considered state standards and adapted them to their schools, and that students who attend Catholic schools will be assessed on tests such as the SAT that are influenced by the common core. "The CCSS should be neither adopted nor rejected without review, study, consultation, discussion, and caution," they wrote.

But the bishops also wrote that a critical part of Catholic schools' mission—to educate young people as Christians—is not covered in the standards.  

Thomas Burnford, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association, which represents Catholic schools and teachers, said in an interview with Education Week that Catholic schools will not be required to use the new standards. Individual dioceses (geographic districts that are overseen by bishops) select their curricula. 

Burnford said that in the last few years, more Catholic schools had "looked seriously" at the Common Core State Standards. But the vast majority use other curricula, often produced by Catholic publishers. 

"We respect the individual decision making of each diocesan system and schools," he said.

As for the new standards, he said, "I'm sure some dioceses will look at them as a new potential resource."

Burnford said that the NCEA is not for or against the common core. "What we are for is an authentic integration of faith into the curriculum," he said. 

Catholic schools have been undergoing a long-term demographic shift, as my colleague Arianna Prothero reported last year. Enrollment has dropped to 2 million students from a peak of 5.2 million in the 1970s. (Some 50 million students attend the nation's public schools.) The nation's Catholic population is also shifting westward and southward, while there have historically been more Catholic churches on the East Coast and in the Midwest. But the NCEA is still the largest association of private school educators. 

The overlap between Catholic schools and the public sector has also been evolving. Catholic schools make up the bulk of schools that receive school vouchers, and the NCEA argues for school choice, tax relief, and vouchers. Some Catholic schools have even converted into charter schools

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