Catholic Common Core – Bishop Gainer Responds

Several of us with Harrisburg Catholics Against Common Core requested a meeting with Bishop Gainer to discuss our concerns regarding Common Core. In lieu of a meeting, Bishop Gainer sent the following letter regarding his position on the adoption/adaptation of  Common Core in the Diocese of Harrisburg:

Bishop Gainer Response Regarding Common Core in Hbg Diocese Schools

I  mean no disrespect and I wish to express myself in a spirit of charity and deference to the authority of the Diocese to make these decisions on behalf of Catholic education, but I am disappointed to hear our Bishop tout the same ceremonial CCSS talking points we have heard ad hominem. It brings me great sadness and regret. I take no joy in disagreeing and do not wish to be disagreeable.  I realize I will have to make my own decisions in the best interest of my daughter at the appropriate time, and I am not sure if that includes continuing her education in the Diocese school system that is going along with education trends that are not founded on truth.

The entire Common Core premise is based on half-truths and semantic deception to create exaggerated claims about “evidence” and “international benchmarking” that has been shown to be simply non-existent. Much of this so-called “evidence” is based on policy papers written by those who were directly involved in the development of Common Core, or were paid in some way for their supportive opinions. It’s like the manufacturers of a new car telling us their car is great because those who designed and built it say so. It’s never been test driven and the driver’s manual hasn’t been fully developed, but no worries, just buy it and drive it home today. In the mad rush to push Common Core out the door, it has left our teachers to sort through new teaching strategies as students become little guinea pigs for a pedagogy that is wholly unproven and untested.

Sadly, in the debate over Common Core there is no debate.

Bishop Gainer states that the hallmarks of Catholic education are “creativity, critical and analytical thinking, real-world application, and academic rigor.” These are certainly laudable goals for education, but Gravissimum Educationis published 50 years ago states:

“Since all Christians have become by rebirth of water and the Holy Spirit a new creature so that they should be called and should be children of God, they have a right to a Christian education. A Christian education … has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society. Wherefore this sacred synod recalls to pastors of souls their most serious obligation to see to it that all the faithful, but especially the youth who are the hope of the Church, enjoy this Christian education.”

“The mission of the Catholic school is to prepare students for eternal life with God while its secondary goal is to prepare them for temporal work.  They accomplish this by pursuing Truth and by seeking to acquire Knowledge for its own sake.  In contrast, the goal of Common Core is the narrow training of students to become mere functionaries educated solely for earthly success.  Catholic educators should be leery of any standards that create automatons rather than humane individuals.”

We are educating our children to navigate through this world, but they’re ultimate destination is  wholly another. Catholic children today are facing a country and a culture that is at odds with the values, attitudes, and beliefs Catholics/Christians hold to be self-evident and based on natural law — and those who hold on to the time honored Truths and Traditions of the faith will find themselves swimming against the tide, as Pope Francis recently told a gathering of youth in one of his homilies. Cardinal George of the Archdiocese of Chicago recently wrote:

“The inevitable result is a crisis of belief for many Catholics. Throughout history, when Catholics and other believers in revealed religion have been forced to choose between being taught by God or instructed by politicians, professors, editors of major newspapers and entertainers, many have opted to go along with the powers that be. This reduces a great tension in their lives, although it also brings with it the worship of a false god. It takes no moral courage to conform to government and social pressure.”

These are troubled waters and difficult to navigate, but as Catholics we must make our way without losing sight of our destination.

The term “academic rigor” is now infamous in Common Core doublespeak, as if we all have the same understanding of what it means. In Common Core/education “reformer” world, rigor does not mean difficult, challenging, or intellectually stimulating, instead it means, as Peg Luksik noted when she attended a teacher’s seminar on Common Core, that “Rigor meant… that lots of effort would be required.” Making something more rigorous, in this sense, does not necessarily make it a better way for our kids to learn. In fact, it might make many children more frustrated with learning these fundamental concepts and ideas.

Many prominent education advocates have spoken out about the developmentally inappropriate nature of the standards, especially at the elementary, that is grammar, school level. At a time when children are supposed to be developing a lifelong love of learning and getting the fundamentals of arithmetic, reading and writing, parts of speech, sentence structure and spelling we are asking them to have meaningful conversations or write essays about what they are reading and collaborate on projects. It is just too much, too soon.

There are early childhood education experts, including Louise Moats, who was originally part of the development of Common Core, but now say it is a disaster, especially for K-3 education and students with learning difficulties. The Alliance for Childhood issued a Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals  on the Common Core Standards Initiative in 2010. Why do our Catholic leaders not find their concerns legitimate and worthy of consideration?

It is truly unfortunate that Catholic education, which is founded on truth, goodness, and beauty has capitulated to the economic and secular forces in today’s education market, instead of forging its own way and presenting an actual choice for parents who want to escape state-run education and education marketeers who do not promote or acknowledge (and in some cases actually oppose) Christian beliefs.  There is simply no good reason for our Catholic schools to even consider Common Core. Sister Dale McDonald of the NCEA has said, we must “get on board” the Common Core train or our kids will get left behind at the station, but do we even know where it’s taking us?

Much of the texts and workbooks purchased from Big Education publishers for Catholic schools seem superfluous. There is not much in the early elementary grades that cannot be done with paper, pencil, a chalkboard, and some props. Kindergarten has been transformed from the original conception of  a children’s garden where learning is through play and exploration into a rigorous learning environment with homework and a myriad of worksheet assignments. Instead of lessons, including handwriting and vocabulary, that use beautiful Psalms and scripture passages, we get random poems and rhymes from the workbooks developed by education gurus at Houghton Mifflin Harcout, McGraw Hill, or printed off the internet.

The book StoryKillers by Terrence Moore discusses in detail how the “Common Core” way is destroying the art of teaching classical literature and how classical literature, although still given honorable mention, is being used as a springboard to modern authors whose works are often controversial and quite radical.  Furthermore, Common Core and it’s “close reading,” reduces the joy and beauty of reading classical literature into assignments about plot summary, literary devices, and compare and contrast that completely miss the point of reading such works —  that is, for the story and character development that often lead us to, as Moore says, “an endless probing of the complex human psyche and of the English language.”

In Chapter 5, Mr. Moore states:

“…Either the authors of the Common Core are hopelessly naïve or they think that we are hopelessly naïve. It must be one or the other. The Common Core, as it is written, encourages superficiality in reading and bias in thought. Either there exists no coherent philosophy of education governing the arrangement of texts within the document, or there does exist a coherent philosophy: that of obscuring the high, powerful truths about virtue, freedom, suffering, and happiness found in great works of Western literature…”

As Daniel Katz, PhD recently wrote about implementing the standards as an English teacher:

“When you add together the structure of the standards with the heavy testing regimen that have been tied to them and actual career consequences for teachers tied to those exams that were simultaneously put in place with the adoption of the CCSS, I find it hard to believe that very many teachers, on their own, are going to be able to use these standards to promote children’s love of literature from any social or experiential angle.

If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.”

And although great works of literature are often included on reading lists, they are taught in such a superficial manner, that they end up killing great stories.

Common Core seeks to complicate the simple — all in the name of ‘rigor.” As any parent who has been inundated with worksheets of math homework can attest to – the concrete thinking of basic math has been turned into abstract arts and crafts project where our children make and color-in boxes, dots and other shapes and write “number sentences.” I’m surprised they’re not writing poems, such a Ode to the Number Six, as an assignment.

There is so much that could be, that is not. And not all of it is because of Common Core, but a much deeper, much more serious problem of Catholic identity.

The national debate over Common Core has brought out into the open those forces working behind the scenes to transform education in our country. If enough parents wake up because of Common Core, maybe it will end up being a blessing in disguise.

The fact that these standardized tests will be based on CCSS is no excuse for adapting any of it into our schools. Post-secondary institutions know full well that private education as well as homeschooling produces more well-rounded, well-educated children and are often more than happy to consider these children for their schools. And actually, I believe the adaptation to CCSS will put our students at a disadvantage, not at an advantage. And as Terrence Moore said in his book Story-Killers:

“The man or woman who understands human nature and history, and who has a tolerable work ethic and a sound character, will never have trouble getting into college, nor landing a job, nor gaining a public voice, nor knowing what counts for truth, beauty, and goodness in the world. As such, that man or women will have a much greater chance of obtaining the great end of human life: happiness — the happiness that comes from pursuing truth and living virtuously.”

One one hand, the Bishop, guided by the USCCB, says we need to adapt to CCSS because of the standardized tests, then he claims that Catholic schools are in complete control of the curriculum. One of the major concerns with Common Core is that these tests ultimately drive curriculum. I have been told that my daughter’s school uses and older, paper version of the IOWA test, but for how long? New versions of the IOWA test are aligned with Common Core and will be computer based. Once these tests are computer based and mandated (in a the most non-mandatory seeming way, of course) because of CCSS, they can be changed on the fly and adapted to each student. Will we know the content of the questions they get? The Common Core’s focus on informational texts makes it easy to emphasize particular schools of thought. Students taking the redesigned SAT, ACT, or the Iowa Tests could soon encounter progressive ideologies including social engineering and alternative lifestyles. Those who control the standards and control the assessments—the assessments are the key— control education.

The word problems and reading samples used in the tests provide the opportunity for ushering in controversial content, and the correct answer according to the test makers, may not necessarily be the “right” answer. It is all very concerning. As parents, under state law, we have the opportunity to review these tests and opt our child out if we feel the test violates our religious beliefs. But with computerized testing, we are potentially facing a moving target.

The SAT/ACT are slowly losing their luster as the gold standard of entrance into a college. As a February, 2014 article from USA Today reveals, “A recent Bates College study found that high school GPA is the best indicator of success in college — not standardized test scores.” Additionally, many colleges are jumping on the “SAT not required” bandwagon as they are realizing that these standardized tests are not accurate predictors of academic success nor do they provide any meaningful “picture” of the actual individual behind the test score.

Catholicism has stood as a stalwart against the forces of modern culture and the trends and fads of the day. It has stood for what is right, good, and true instead of what is popular.

If the leaders in Catholic education think that by giving-in to these modern forces of education “reform”, that they will become more marketable, especially in the era of the “school choice” movement, I would caution that although enrollment may increase, school choice is ultimately a false choice for Catholic parents. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

For more information on how Catholic schools,under the guidance of the NCEA, have “infused”and consulted with the Common Core to adapt it into our schools please see the excellent research and resource documents Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core has compiled.

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Corbett’s Common Core Conundrum

After being told to “move along, there’s nothing to see here” by the PA Department of Education (PDE), many representatives in our state legislature, and the “business community” heralding the Common Core and negating concerns regarding the “common” data collection system that has been created in tandem with these “common” standards, Governor Corbett now decides to toss the anti-Common Core crowd a bone. We’ve had over two years of discussions, hearings, meetings, and resolutions about Common Core. Where were Governor Corbett’s strong words of concern and opposition before now? The silence from his office regarding Common Core has been deafening.

Pardon my confusion, but I thought PA had already wiped its hands clean of the Common Core and created its own very rigorous, very “college and career ready,” and very “21st Century” PA standards that were definitely NOT Common Core, even though we were originally told Common Core was the greatest thing to come along in education since the mimeograph machine. All these lofty, loosely defined terms about “rigor” and “21st century economic skills” are tossed around as if those of us in the cheap seats understand education ‘reformer’ doublespeak and use of semantic deception to garner support for ideas that if explained truthfully most people would outright reject.

The Corbett administration’s “No Child Left Behind” (ESEA) Waiver request stated that:

 “Pennsylvania educators from across the state convened in 2012 to meld the PA Academic Standards with CCSS standards. … Overall, the PA Common Core Standards reflect a rigorous set of standards that embraces the CCSS Anchor Standards in English Language Arts as well as the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice…”)

Sadly, I fear we’re stuck on “repeat play” with the same old Common Core song – the Name Game — and dance — the Hustle. For the most part, these supposedly unique PA Academic Core Standards were merely an exercise in the use of synonyms and superfluous words and phrases, as well as some clever re-ordering, that do not in any meaningful way alter the original Common Core. So, if I seem cautiously optimistic, if not downright skeptical, about yet another round of the Common Core kerfuffle, I apologize, but it’s been quite a journey on a road paved with duplicitous intentions.

Why would PA need to “meld” and “embrace” something we supposedly moved away from? Why must our standards be anchored to Common Core at all? Furthermore, if the Corbett administration is concerned about a “top down takeover of the education system” then why did it apply for and receive $51 million from the federal department of education for PA’s early learning education program?

It is through this federal grant aid system that the federal government bypasses our state legislature and Constitutional rule of law and pushes policies and programs like CCSS and the State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) into our state. Granted, Congress appropriates the money that funds these federal bureaucracies, but beyond that it exercises little, if any, control over how these funds are used. These grants went not only to the PDE, but also to the PA Information Management Systems (PIMS) and the Department of Labor and Industry. And, as we can see, once implemented, these programs and policies are difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate, no matter who gets elected to office.

Common Core is a lesson in the importance of Constitutionally limited government, the rule of law, and states’ rights via the Tenth Amendment as well as the principle of subsidiarity, which focuses on protecting the proper and natural functions of local communities from oppressive control and manipulation by more comprehensive power. It directs the functions of government to the most local level possible.

The crux of the matter is this federal grant aid system, in addition to the collusion of crony capitalists and big government, that ignores the authority of our elected representation and creates a massive bureaucratic administrative state. It is a system that more resembles Fascism than a Constitutional Republic. In order for this “top down takeover” to end, we must stop making deals that further erode our ability to function as a sovereign state and violate the principle of subsidiarity, especially when it comes to education. We can’t have it both ways. We end up groveling for our own taxpayer dollars back from the federal government, and yet only receive cents on the dollar in return. Furthermore, we are abdicating the authority and responsibility of our locally elected school boards to a federal leviathan with an insatiable appetite for centralized power.

The Student Aligned Systems portal (SAS), which includes a “Voluntary Model Curriculum” with lesson plans that align perfectly to the “Core” and to the Keystone Exams, runs contradictory to the claim that the PDE does not meddle into curriculum at the local district level. In fact, this “voluntary” curriculum, available on the SAS portal, was a big selling point for the federal government panel that evaluated PA’s grant application in which representatives from the PDE made it clear that “when we have made mandatory things available, pretty much everybody is using them.”

Act 82 of 2012 put a temporary moratorium on “certain Data Collection Systems and Data Sets” for both the early childhood learning database (called PELICAN) and the PIMS, which manages the “womb to workforce” data system. PA received $24+ million in grant money from the federal government specifically for the creation of this SLDS a/k/a “womb to workforce” data system. Act 82 includes a long list of exceptions to this moratorium including the catch-all phrase: “any data pursuant to other Federal requirements to meet eligibility requirements for Federal Funds” and it lists all the federal laws that apply.

I realize that any mention of data collection and privacy concerns brings on snickers and mockery of the “tin foil hat” brigade, but do any of us really know what data is/was the state required to collect and share to meet eligibility for federal funds? How can the state possibly guarantee privacy of our children’s data, especially when this data is stored in the “cloud” environment – such as with the MMS Student Information System. And even if the Corbett Administration put the brakes on Common Core and “common” data collection, can another administration come along and reinstate it? Would all this work now being done now to eradicate Common Core and fortify data privacy be wiped away in one election and a changing of the guard in our state bureaucracies?

If Governor Corbett has indeed has seen the light, I thank him and welcome his voice in the fight against Common Core, and all it entails. I sincerely hope this bone we’re being tossed has real substance, instead of just being more of the same hollow rhetoric. And I hope Governor Corbett will begin to realize that our rights as citizens of a sovereign state are not up for sale to the highest bidder, nor is the privacy and safety of our children in state-controlled schools. And although this may seem like an election “Hail Mary” pass for Corbett, given the alternatives, I am hoping for a completion.