Pyrotechnics about unsecured e-mails, groping, pay-to-play, and multiple personality disorders suffocated what was—early in the 2016 election cycle—an essential discussion about the most far-reaching reform of K-12 schooling in our country’s history. “Common Core” is the latest, and by far the most comprehensive, plan for national educational standards. Developed by a select group of consultants and bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, Common Core was aggressively promoted by the Obama administration beginning in 2010. Within eighteen months, forty-six states adopted it, 90 percent of them egged on by a chance to snag federal dollars in the form of “Race to the Top” funds.
President-elect Donald Trump regularly denounced Common Core on the primary campaign trail, beginning with his speech to CPAC in 2015. This also gave him an opportunity to browbeat Jeb Bush, a fervent early supporter of this educational overhaul. Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Common Core was limited to lamenting its “poor implementation”; about the revision’s basic soundness and desirability, she expressed no doubt. Had she prevailed last Tuesday, Common Core would have been safe in the hands of Clinton constituencies who brought it to life, especially the public education establishment and the business oligarchs who want shovel-ready workers. The grassroots rebellion against Common Core (which “paused” its implementation in 2013 or triggered reassessment of it in a few states) would have been squeezed from the top down. Those rebels must refocus President Trump’s attention upon Common Core and persuade him to ignite a national movement to roll it back.
The stated objective of Common Core is to produce “college- and career-ready” high school graduates. Yet even its proponents concede that it only prepares students for community-college level work. In truth, Common Core is a dramatic reduction of the nature and purpose of education to mere workforce preparation.
In 2013, a group of 132 scholars, myself among them, spoke out against Common Core. Our criticism was and is sound:
Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to “over-educate” people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses. …
Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work. But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidian geometry, and everyone is capable of it. Everyone bears the responsibility of growing in wisdom and grace and in deliberating with fellow-citizens about how we should all live together. A sound education helps each of us to do so.
One silver lining that could be expected in this gray cloud is a renaissance for Catholic schools. The overwhelming majority of Catholic children attend public schools, there being “educated” according to Common Core’s secularized workforce prescription. Catholic parents who are informed about Common Core could be expected to seize the moment and switch their kids to one of the Church’s thousands of elementary or high schools.
For the contrast between a sound Catholic education and Common Core could scarcely be sharper. That difference was illumined by us, the 132 scholars—Catholics all—who addressed our letter (which was subsequently made public) to each of America’s bishops:
Common Core is innocent of America’s Catholic schools’ rich tradition of helping to form children’s hearts and minds. In that tradition, education brings children to the Word of God. It provides students with a sound foundation of knowledge and sharpens their faculties of reason. It nurtures the child’s natural openness to truth and beauty, his moral goodness, and his longing for the infinite and happiness. It equips students to understand the laws of nature and to recognize the face of God in their fellow man. Education in this tradition forms men and women capable of discerning and pursuing their path in life and who stand ready to defend truth, their church, their families, and their country.
The case for the incompatibility of Common Core with a Catholic education has now been extended, and completed, with the release of “After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core.” A joint publication of the Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project, this white paper is authored by Anthony Esolen, Dan Guernsey, Jane Robbins, and Kevin Ryan. They observe that at
the heart of Common Core agenda is a century-old dream of Progressive educators to redirect education’s mission away from engaging the young in the best of human thought and focusing instead on preparation for “real life.” While a reasonable but quite secondary goal, workforce-development is dwarfed by Catholic schools’ transcendent goals of human excellence, spiritual transformation, and preparation for the “next life” as well.
In a compact but rich Preface to “After the Fall,” former ambassadors to the Holy See Raymond Flynn and Mary Ann Glendon write that the “basic goal of Common Core is not genuine education, but rather the training and production of workers for an economic machine.” By contrast, Catholic schools have traditionally provided “a classical liberal-arts education” that seeks to “impart moral lessons and deep truths about the human condition.” Glendon and Flynn observe that religion and the integrated humanist education that Catholic educators have long offered have “never been more needed than they are in this era of popular entertainment culture, opioid epidemics, street-gang violence, wide achievement gaps, and explosive racial tensions.” Just so.
It is no wonder, then, that John Doerfler, Catholic Bishop of Marquette, Michigan, recently announced his rejection of Common Core, saying that adopting it would not “benefit the mission, Catholic identity or academic excellence of our schools.” Just so.
Bishop Doerfler is, however, in the minority. His rejection of Common Core is the exception, not the rule. In fact, most Catholic dioceses and archdioceses—approximately 100 (including New York and Los Angeles)—have adopted Common Core. This means that the vast majority of our nation’s Catholic schoolchildren will be taught from Common Core, whether they are enrolled in public or private Catholic schools.
“After the Fall” tells some of this sad tale. The de facto voice of Catholic education in America is the National Catholic Education Association, to which about 85 percent of America’s 6500 Catholic schools belong. By May 2012, the NCEA was encouraging Catholic schools to embrace Common Core, gushing a bit later that it contained “high quality academic standards,” which would “in no way compromise the Catholic identity or educational program of a Catholic school.” Catholic school systems rushed to buy in. More recently and after much negative feedback, the NCEA has backed off its embrace of Common Core and has begun to provide some helpful resources and tools for teachers who have no choice but to teach within its strictures. But the damage of hasty adoption was done.
What could explain the mad rush? Anecdotal feedback to the Catholic scholars’ letter (which I not only signed but organized) strongly suggests that, in spite of so many enthusiastic public statements, Catholic educators recognized effortlessly that Common Core was deeply flawed. It is doubtful that any serious Catholic educator would have recommended adopting it, or anything like it, were it not for real or perceived pressure from public authorities and teachers’ organizations to do so. Their view seems to have been: Common Core is not good for a Catholic school, but it is not so bad that it needs to be rejected, at least where the local political and economic powers-that-be want us to go along with it. These Catholic educators thought that they could “work with” Common Core.
“After the Fall” carefully states and cogently refutes the pragmatic reasons offered by these Catholic educators for adopting Common Core. The study also shows—conclusively, in my judgment—that these educators’ pragmatic approach is ill-conceived in a deeper, more important, way: Common Core is so philosophically at odds with a sound Catholic education that an acceptable modus vivendi is unavailable. Trying to pour Common Core into such venerable wineskins will burst them.
I would add the further criticism that these educators’ accommodationism is shortsighted. It is ultimately a recipe for the demise of Catholic schools. Already a great many dedicated Catholic parents have withdrawn their children from Catholic schools due to low academic standards and substandard Catholic character. These parents homeschool or send their children to a burgeoning number of new “classical Christian” schools, which are almost always outside the control of the local Catholic educational establishment. Other dedicated parents send their children to decent public schools where they are available, reckoning that the avowedly secular atmosphere there at least portends no confusion about the content of the Catholic faith. Adopting Common Core will surely accelerate this exodus, a hemorrhage of precisely those students who should form a Catholic school’s backbone.
Left behind in many Catholic schools, especially but not only in Rust Belt cities, are non-Catholic students happy to escape under-performing public schools, as well as Catholics who are in it for sports, college prep, or an ambiance of social justice service projects. These are all good things, and a good Catholic school should have them if it can. But they are secondary features of a sound Catholic education, not essential ones. A perfectly good Catholic grade school might have no sports and no service projects, and a solid Catholic high school might enroll only a few students with serious college aspirations.
The important point is that the appetite (if you will) for an integral Catholic education is already perilously suppressed in a vast swath of this country’s Catholic schools. Students in them tolerate the distinctly Catholic quality of the education they are getting. But it is not a big reason for their attendance, and for some it is not a reason at all. Its decline would not deprive them of anything they came to a Catholic school to get. The decision of so many Catholic administrators and teachers to embrace Common Core probably reflects their recognition of exactly this unfortunate situation. They would give the students pretty much the education they want.
These schools are already far down the path of transition from providing a truly Catholic education (as it is so aptly described in “After the Fall”) to being more like a religiously inspired, affordable private alternative to dysfunctional public schools. The appeal of this denouement is undeniable: urban “Catholic” schools might be the best route up and out of the ghetto for thousands of non-Catholic children who deserve that opportunity. But this encouraging effect is and must be just that: a welcome side-benefit of providing a genuine Catholic education.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence is now in charge of the Trump transition. That is a good omen; as Indiana governor Pence heeded the grassroots rebellion against Common Core—led, as a matter of fact, by two very able moms (Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin)—and orchestrated a significant modification of the curriculum. He should now be encouraged to recommend to Donald Trump the appointment of an Education Secretary who will release the pressure from Washington, and instead encourage the states to explore alternatives to Common Core.
For those interested in genuine Catholic education, the politics is local. School parents and others with the best interests of students at heart will have to seek, and insist politely, on receiving straight answers from principals and administrators about whether, and to what extent, Common Core is in their schools. In places such as Marquette, Michigan, officials from the bishop on down should be thanked for their stand against it. In the hundred or so jurisdictions where Common Core (or something practically indistinguishable from it) is in place, respectful but firm corrective action is needed, including the organization of parents who want more than workforce prep for their Catholic school children. The sponsors of “After the Fall”—American Principles Project and Pioneer Institute—have the resources and the experts to help.
Gerard V. Bradley is Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Law School and a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, where he is Chair of the Academic Committee of the Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution.