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Common Core: A Divisive Issue For Catholic School Parents Too

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This article comes to us courtesy of U.S. News & World Report, where it was originally published.

Across the nation, parents, teachers and school leaders are engaged in a debate about the rigor, quality and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

But the squabble isn't limited to the highly-publicized controversy throughout the public school system – it's also taking place in the thousands of American Catholic schools trying to grapple with the same issue.

Although the most-often debated math and English benchmarks are secular, approximately 100 of the nation's 195 Catholic dioceses have taken them on in some form.

"If our academic North Star for our students is college readiness, what we have to do is align ourselves with certain standards that are going to predict our ability for our kids to meet that North Star," says Rick Maya, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, which is using the standards.

"We look at the standards as what they are – it's the blueprint and tells us what kids should know and by when, and what to do if they don't," he added.

[READ: Parents Remove Children From School to Protest Common Core]

Catholic dioceses that are implementing the standards say they have done so for a variety of reasons. In addition to preparing students for college, they've said aligning with the standards is important because many Catholic school students go on to attend public high schools. In other cases, they've said it is a proactive approach because many textbooks will be aligned to the Common Core.

But the opponents of the new standards have some of the same concerns as those in public schools. They worry that the standards aren't academically rigorous enough, that they standardize education too much and that they appear to be a federal takeover of local education.

Maya, along with the superintendents of California's 11 other dioceses, convened to decide as a state whether or not to bring the Common Core standards into Catholic schools.

Together, they decided to support the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative, or CCCII – an effort put forth by the National Catholic Educational Association – which seeks to "infuse the standards with the faith, principles, values and social justice themes inherent in the mission of a Catholic school," according to an NCEA statement.

That's why Catholic school leaders say they're "adapting" the standards, rather than "adopting" them.

Adapting Standards Is Nothing New

According to Kevin Baxter, superintendent of elementary schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, building off of secular academic standards is nothing new, at least in California, where Catholic schools have used state standards since the late 1990s.

"We've always used a secular standard as our academic benchmark," Baxter says. "Then our job as Catholic educators is to make sure the faith is infused and the Catholic identity of our schools is strong. That's always been something that we've had to do."

And that's the case even for some states in which Catholic schools have chosen not to adapt the Common Core standards, such as Indiana.

According to Mark Myers, superintendent of the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, although the standards are generated from within, they are closely aligned with the Indiana state standards.

"That model has served our children and our Catholic communities very well in regards to academic achievement and Catholic identity," Myers says.

[ALSO: Majority of Teachers Support Common Core, Poll Finds]

Before making the decision to adapt Common Core, Baxter says the California superintendents looked to the example of other states, including those that followed the CCCII, such as Illinois.

Jean Johnson, superintendent of the Diocese of Springfield, says schools in the diocese are studying the Common Core "through a Catholic lens."

"Our schools have the academic freedom to select what they will adapt from the Common Core State Standards, according to what is supportive to the Catholic mission of the school," Johnson says. Much like California, the superintendents of different dioceses in Illinois banded together in support of the CCCII.

"With the infusion of our Catholic identity, we are in control of the learning process within our schools; it is the academic freedom that we enjoy as nonpublic schools," says a statement from the Illinois superintendents. "We will determine what to adapt from the Common Core standard according to what best fits our unique mission."

Maintaining the Catholic Identity

Still, opponents of bringing Common Core into Catholic schools say they have many of the same concerns as those in the American public school system.

In a December statement, the Cardinal Newman Society – a Catholic education advocacy group – said it has "grave concerns" about the academic rigor of the standards.

"This school reform effort is nothing short of a revolution in how education is provided, relying on a technocratic, top-down approach to setting national standards that, despite claims to the contrary, will drive curricula, teaching texts, and the content of standardized tests," the statement says. "At its heart, the Common Core is a woefully inadequate set of standards in that it limits the understanding of education to a utilitarian 'readiness for work' mentality."

In public schools, Common Core opponents have made the same arguments. They claim the standards do not adequately prepare children for college and careers, that they were created behind closed doors and forced on schools. Common Core standards, they argue, are a federal overreach into local education which will ultimately diminish creativity and innovation.

[MORE: States Cannot Choose Cost Over Quality in Common Core Assessments, Report Says]

But unlike parents and educators in public schools, those in Catholic schools have one additional concern: that adopting the Common Core standards through the "well-intentioned" CCCII will diminish the emphasis on developing students' Catholic identities.

Rather than "infusing" elements of the Catholic faith into the standards, schools should do the opposite, by making the Catholic identity the foundation on which to build, the Cardinal Newman Society argues.

"This approach misses the point that authentic Catholic identity is not something that can be added to education built around thoroughly secular standards, but that our faith must be the center of –and fundamental to – everything that a Catholic school does," the statement says.

Coleen Carignan, one of the founders of the group Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core, says she also shares that concern. The group has gathered nearly 550 signatures on a petition to stop the implementation of Common Core in Pittsburgh Catholic schools.

But just as important as the classroom teacher, Carignan argues, is the role of the parent in a child's education. She says the implementation of Common Core diminishes that role.

The Parent as a Primary Educator

Myers, from the Ft. Wayne-South Bend Diocese, says parents traditionally have "a strong voice" in Catholic schools to help educate children. Additionally, he says a policy in the diocese allows parents to review all curricular and resource materials, and participate in academic standard development.

"I found that policymakers, textbook authors, professors, some professors of education, supported the Common Core, but our parents overwhelmingly did not," Myers says.

After more than 100 emails, phone calls and letters of concern from parents, Myers says the diocese chose neither to adopt nor adapt the standards.

"We don't defend it," he says. "We defend the gospels, we defend the holy scriptures, but we don't readily or easily defend something from the secular press. We defend what the church teaches, but we don't adopt or defend Common Core."

Specifically, parents in Myers' diocese were concerned with the academic rigor of the standards and the materials published in alignment with the standards. And their voices were heard.

"The question was asked, why would we deviate from the work that has been fruitful?" Myers says. "Why would we stop generating our own standards when they have served children and families very well for 180 years?"

In Pittsburgh, Carignan said she believes the standards were implemented without sufficient parental input.

[RELATED: What High School Parents Should Know About Common Core]

"The church acknowledges parents are the primary educators of their children, yet we have been left out of the debate over Common Core," Carignan says.

But more than a lack of parental involvement, Carignan says she believes the standards are inadequate and are less challenging than previous standards. "Common Core severely curtails parental influence over their children's education and reduces education to a mediocre one size fits all set of skills, with the goal of producing a standardized workforce," Carignan says. "This approach is antithetical to Catholic education, which values and embraces the individuality of each child."

And she's not alone.

Andrea Schermerhorn, whose fifth grade son attends St. Joseph School in Baltimore, says her son is doing the same work in his math class this year that he did in third and fourth grade.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, according to documents on its website, adapted some elements of the Common Core math standards. Proponents of the Common Core have said that unlike previous standards emphasis on "inch-deep, mile-wide" learning, the Common Core focus on less content, but more in depth.

Still, Schermerhorn says she's concerned that too much of a review period will hold children back.

"I don't see how kids will be prepared to enter high school with the knowledge that they are getting now because the curriculum is lacking behind the previous curriculum," Schermerhorn says.

Stephanie Quaerna, a mother of two children at the same school, says she's also concerned that aspects of the Common Core have backtracked from the school's previous academic expectations.

But whether that's a problem stemming from the standards themselves, or the ways in which they're being implemented, she says she's unsure.

Educating the Entire Child

While some Catholic school leaders, such as those in California, say they believe the standards are more clear cut, and flexible enough to allow for the incorporation of Catholic teachings, others maintain the mission of the Common Core standards goes against that.

Dan Guernsey, who serves on the Board of Trustees for the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS), says an organization's mission should drive its standards – and the Common Core doesn't match the Catholic church's mission of "educating the entire child."

While the Common Core standards focus on college and career readiness, Guernsey says the Catholic school mission is much broader, and much more robust, validating the need for more robust standards.

"As Catholic schools, our mission involves transcendental –which is truth, beauty and goodness – and you won't find those words highlighted in the Common Core," he added. "The human heart and the human person is made for much more than college and career."

[OPINION: What's the Problem With Common Core?]

A more harsh criticism, penned by more than 130 Catholic scholars, said the Common Core is "so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it."

The October letter, which was sent to every Catholic bishop in the nation, also said any schools that have endorsed the Common Core should "seek an orderly withdrawal."

They claim that implementing the Common Core would be "a grave disservice" to Catholic education in the United States.

But supporters of adapting the Common Core say ignoring an academic change taking place in most of the country would also be a disservice to students and to teachers.

"With these standards, there's so much freedom underneath them to get to the destination," says Erik Swanson deputy superintendent of the Diocese of Sacramento. "That's one of the things the church can really take advantage of because within that freedom, we can then make sure we're raising our kids not only to go to college, but to go to heaven."

Earlier on HuffPost:

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