Superior Catholic Schools Already Exceed Common Core Standards

One of the biggest marketing disasters in modern times was the roll-out of “New Coke” back in 1985. Based on its fears of being overtaken by Pepsi and the misleading research of “the Pepsi challenge” (wherein consumers seemed to prefer the sweeter taste of Pepsi to Coke), Coke changed its classic formula to be more like Pepsi. Coke sales plummeted, and its loyal customers in a raucous revolt demanded a return to the Coke they loved. It turned out that the initial sweet taste of Pepsi that attracted customers on the first sip failed to satisfy over the course of the whole can. Coke, in humility (and some pride), returned to its Classic formula, and its sales experienced significant gains: income and customer loyalty skyrocketed. The 100 some Catholic dioceses around the country who became early adapters of the Common Core might want to emulate Coke’s humility (and pride) and begin to back away from the new and increasingly troubled Common Core Standards that are beginning to be implemented in 45 states.  Like Coke’s fear of losing ground to Pepsi when it seemed everyone was moving in the same direction, many Catholic school leaders may have attempted to get ahead of the Common Core in an effort to stay relevant and increase enrollment. Like Coke fearing the “Pepsi generation,” some Catholic leaders believe that, since “all” the textbooks, teacher training, and standardized testing is going Common Core,  Catholic schools must be ahead of the wave and proactively go Common Core as well.

These are not unreasonable steps, but they may have been premature. Now that the details and suffocating, standardizing and expensive bureaucracy of the Common Core are being unveiled in the government schools, citizens are asking, “What just happened?” States are beginning to take a second look at what they signed on to, in many cases without appropriate stakeholder input from legislatures and citizens. It may be prudent for Catholic school leaders to do the same. While it is encouraging that Catholic school leaders are not afraid to innovate and that they are responsive to the latest trends in education, it may be wise for Catholic schools to hit the pause button on the Common Core and consider what is becoming more evident regarding its potential weaknesses.

After all, as private schools we are not required to follow the government school standards; we can take our time and demand results from the never-tested, never-assessed Common Core. We know that what we are currently doing is successful. We know that our test scores significantly outperform government schools, even those government schools in states with the highest curriculum standards. Catholic school 8th graders have led public school 8th graders by double digit margins for the last 20 years on federal  NAEP reading and math tests. Our college preparation is outstanding with over 99% of our students graduating from high school and 84% going on to four year colleges (almost double the public school rate). So why are we changing? Why are we seeking to follow those whom we lead? Is our track record so bad that we need to seek the “new ways” of teaching math and English that the Standard writers insist upon? The Standards certainly present themselves as the greatest thing to hit education: “These Standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step. It is time for states to work together to build on lessons learned from two decades of standards based reforms. It is time to recognize that standards are not just promises to our children, but promises we intend to keep.” Very nice, but quoting that other successful marketing campaign from the 1980’s, we have the right (and the duty) to ask “Where’s the beef?”

At first glance, like that first taste of sweeter Pepsi, the Common Core with its claims to be “real world” oriented and “research based” seems compelling. But do we just take the Standards at their word because they said so? Or do we challenge the assumptions of what is untested and demand results before changing our own proven educational strategies and priorities? Case in point: one of the signature pieces of the Common Core is its insistence that all schools significantly increase informational texts (as opposed to literature) across the curriculum. Rather than basing their position on research and best practice, the Standards writers base their required percentages of each type of text on federal test description. Citing the fact that the main federal reading test (NAEP) on its 8th grade test has 45% of its questions based on literature and 55% of its questions based on informational texts, the Standards demand that all 8th grade classes should reflect the same percentages of those text types across the curriculum.

There are two problems here. First of all, the test results (not the question percentage structure they cite) reveal that students already do better reading informational texts than literary texts. As there is no NAEP test data to suggest the need for more focus on informational texts, this part of their argument fizzles. Second, research shows that even by 6th grade, school curricula is already 75% informational text based. This means that to follow the standards schools would actually need to decrease informational texts by 20%. So a marquee element of the Common Core English foams away into confusing contradiction. This is “the real” world of schools which the Standards writers missed but which they are now seeking to change based on bogus “research.” Critics of the Common Core note that neither of the two main Standards writers for English ever taught English in K-12 or in college, nor has either published significant research on curriculum or instruction.

Significant concerns also exist in the Common Core math curriculum. According to research, younger students (and novices in any subject) learn best by direct instruction, however the Common Core  moves toward constructivism (e.g., exploration based learning, group work, “fuzzy math” etc.) This is not only inefficient in younger grades but can lead to undue stress as little children are asked to accomplish tasks which are not suited for their level of development and limited expertise. Some scholars suggest that by late middle school, Common Core math skills are two years behind their top scoring international peers. Also, according to some experts, since the Common Core Standards do not specifically address upper level high school math, the program does not include specific guidance for classes necessary to get into selective colleges or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. For Catholic schools, a significant part of our appeal is the excellent college preparation that we offer for four-year colleges. The Common Core’s high school standards are too vague and weak to be of significant use to our high-octane efforts.

Until the Common Core Standards prove themselves and overcome the doubt and suspicion that currently surround them—even in the government school sector—we should stay the course, hold steady, and keep our focus as tried, tested, and true Catholic schools.  Let the Common Core, if it wants, reduce education to only college and career readiness. Catholic schools have always been about more. We have our proprietary formula in our pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness; in our focus on human flourishing,  human excellence and on our eternal destinies as loved children of God. This is the equivalent to the beloved “Classic Coke” formula.  We have a loyal fan base and decades of real world data and test scores to back up our efforts. This is the product that our loyal constituents want. This is the product that Catholic schools were built to produce. No bishop or pastor opened a school solely for “college and career readiness,” but that is the sole guide for the Common Core.

Our students were made for so much more than this … and they know it. Orienting intellectual efforts toward a pursuit of the truth and providing young people with the skills to properly interrogate reality, exercising their full human freedom and potentiality, is what parents and students really seek. The careers and intellectual pursuits they also naturally want come predictably and successfully in tow of these other more lofty efforts. In our Catholic schools we have a unique opportunity to address those deeper realities and profound motivations head on—with passion, conviction, and joy. Coke may “add life,” but Catholic schools can add eternal life and pursue those timeless and eternal truths for which the human heart yearns and which our government schools are not equipped or charged to fully pursue. We can and must explore math, science, reading, and all subjects in ways the Common Core Standards could never even dream of. This is our competitive advantage, and it is not restricted to religion class or some scattered prayers. It is who we are. We need to focus on being intellectually alive—being “Catholic to the core.”

Catholic education is more powerful than any of us can realize! We have all heaven, all reality and the Creator of all reality behind us and pulling for us. Ironically, the Common Core may be the best thing that has happened to our school in decades.  It may encourage a new wave of enrollment as students flee its negative effects. Already in their early responses to the presence of the Common Core, diocesan school leaders are doing a better job than ever at articulating our Catholic identity and are seeking new and effective ways to increase that identity in our schools’ curriculums. Now that new and more concerning information regarding the Common Core is coming our way, there is no harm or foul in hitting the pause button or changing course. Early adoption of the Common Core was made in good faith, that same good faith justifies a pause now that we know more than in those early days. This change dynamic need not be a negative and could assist us to be  better Catholic schools: said Coke executives in reversing the adaptation of the New Coke attempt, “We love any retreat which has us running toward our customers with the product they love most” and “It revitalized the brand—and reattached customers to Coke.”  Let’s lean from Coke, and, while we are at it, let’s borrow something else:

“Catholic education, it’s the real thing.”

(Photo credit: Salvatore Laporta / AP)

Daniel Guernsey


Daniel Guernsey, Ed.D. has worked for over 20 years in Catholic education as a teacher, principal, consultant and professor of education. He is the Director of K-12 Programs at the Cardinal Newman Society.

  • thomistica

    I think it is very important for critics of Common Core to engage whatever arguments are being offered by its diocesan supporters for its adoption. For example, I talked to one Catholic high school principal who was convinced that control over the curriculum is still maintained by his school.

    My own view is that a sufficient argument against Common Core is that it involves federal government intervention in education, a Very Bad Idea. A similar issue is now arising with respect to the federal government’s efforts to create assessment standards in higher education. Catholics these days have to be extremely wary of the intents and designs of the federal government, as the HHS mandate already indicates, with its violation of religious liberty. Just look at the pressures on the Church exercised right across the border in Canada.

    However, Common Core critics are going to make no inroads until they engage actual arguments for adoption that have been adduced by dioceses, and then respond to those arguments one by one. One way to go about this is to survey these arguments by examining diocesan newspapers, or better yet through systematic interviewing of administrators. A lot of work, but worth it

  • Steven Jonathan

    To compare the real Catholic schools to the thousands of Catholic schools who began imitating the public schools decades ago is like what Aristotle said of true education: “The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.” There are very few Catholic schools that are truly superior anymore, I am aware of only a handful beyond the linked list of 27.

    Any Catholic school that has adopted state standards and practices of outcomes based education and uses modern pedagogy is not superior to public schools, the families that take the extra time and money and invest in their children are superior families raising their children in the best culture, degraded though it may be becoming. We ought not to confuse the two.

    • Q

      Exactly correct. There “superior” Catholic schools must be top secret. Take the average catholic school pupil and ask them the same questions you ask a public school pupil about the faith and see if any difference is there. I highly doubt it.

      • WRBaker

        I agree with your response except for my 7th and 8th grade religion classes where we went in-depth
        into the Deadly Sins, the Theological Virtues, Transubstantiation, etc;
        projects such as newspaper articles on past Church councils; and basic
        discussions on St. Thomas Aquinas (Quinque Viae) and St. Augustine (Confessions). I have also required my 8th grade
        students to read a piece of literature that deals with our Faith (The Keys
        of the Kingdom). All of these tasks
        have conveyed to students and parents, alike, that Religion is the prime
        subject in a Catholic school and the reason for their presence. What I desired for all my students is for
        them to be able to defend their Faith and inculcate what they have learned into
        their daily lives.
        The problem is not all administrators in a diocese feel the same way. My classes always scored above the national average in the ACRE religion tests (and in 10/11 grade math and science) but this was not what they wanted. Going beyond the touchy-feely and upholding the Magisterium are just too much for some (all?) (arch-)dioceses.

    • Aimee Maddonna

      Catholic schools consistently outscore their public school counterparts, even now (at present).

      • Q

        Ok, but that is mere technocracy. All one has to do is look around at society and you immediately see the so called Catholic education has done nothing for us. Catholics vote as the pagans vote. Catholics reason as the pagans reason. Catholics live as the pagans live.

        What is the point?

        • Bentley

          Can’t blame a Catholic school if kids aren’t Catholic. That is solely the parents fault.

  • Aimee Maddonna

    We are so disheartened and disgusted that our local Catholic schools have decided to adopt CCS. Along with MANY Catholic families in the area, we are home-educating our children as an alternative. This decision, on the part of the diocese, will not have a good outcome – who would pay tuition for their children to receive the same education they would receive at a local public school?! The once a week Mass? That can be met on Sunday’s obligation. The once a week religion class? CCD solves that. And what about the non-religious, non-Catholics who recognize the academic superiority of Catholic schools, and pay a hefty non-Catholic tuition rate? They are going to flee the Catholic schools – and I don’t blame them; they don’t care for the religious instruction and now there is nothing to gain, academically.

    We had always taken comfort in knowing that should we feel it necessary to utilize brick and mortar school, there were several great Catholic schools to send our children to, locally – we no longer feel the same… and we aren’t alone in that.

  • George Albinson

    The Archdiocese of New York has embraced Common Core in its schools. At the same time, its schools continue a downward spiral, with many closing and poor enrollments, along with declining Mass attendance and a shockingly low number of priestly vocations. Over a generation ago, it was said that in New York, graduates of non-Catholic schools were more likely to be practicing Catholics than those who had gone to Catholic schools. The ill-advised enthusiasm for Common Core can only hasten the general decline in that once vibrant archdiocese.

  • MotherknowsBest

    I have been in Catholic schools for many years and can attest to the fact that Catholic schools have taken a turn for the worse- Common Core will be the death knell of many a Catholic school. Where can thriving Catholic schools be found? They are found where Catholicism is joyfully part of the air that students breathe. These are the schools that are unabashedly Catholic where there are living rosaries, processions, May crownings, First Friday Devotions, Benediction, frequent confessions, Sacramental preparation,where a Sadlier religion text is complemented by the Baltimore Catechism. Academically, they blend phonics with reading for meaning, multiplication table memorization with drills, spelling and vocabulary are taught along with penmanship because, ladies and gentlemen, you cannot be attached to an IPad with spell check and auto correct your entire life. These sort of Catholic schools understand that you must be able to read, spell , and do math mentally – isn’t this true critical thinking? Will the student be able so sit down and write a timed, spontaneous essay that is well developed, interesting, and grammatically correct for an SAT exam? Not if real Catholic education is replaced with experimental pablum. Moreover, will the schools have fostered intellectual curiosity and a love of learning? They will fail miserably if short stories like The Scarlet Ibis are replaced with an air-conditioning manual.Great Catholic schools still have declamation presentations; they blend history with current events; they do not rely on worksheets because their teachers understand that students learn better as they write the answers out in complete sentences with proper punctuation. Great Catholic schools do not take short cuts and they complement their religious and intellectual pursuits with fine arts, sports, robotics, and social opportunities for their students. Here in the archdiocese of San Antonio the Catholic schools do not even prepare the students for Confirmation. Parents are expected to take their children to CCD to receive this sacrament even though they are paying tuition specifically for religious education. Parents with critical thinking skills know that something is wrong in the State of Denmark. Dont give parents a pale imitation of a Catholic education – give us the original recipe!

  • Molly

    Great analogy with New Coke – as if marketing that adoption of CCSS will increase Catholic schools’ enrollment – what a joke! Families around the nation are actually LEAVING diocesan schools BECAUSE of Common Core. Mears and the Loyola bunch seriously underestimated that the consequences of convincing NCEA and CACE members to bite the CCSS hook.
    But CCSS is both a curse and a blessing. A curse, obviously, because of all that is so very wrong with it, as described by Dr. Guernsey and commenters here. A blessing, because it has opened so many eyes to how truly mediocre Catholic school education has become, obsessed with technology, 21st century skills, outcome-based education, project-based learning….all buzzwords for the same old you-know-what – lowered standards and inferior curriculum. Parents here in San Antonio are exploring charter, Lutheran, Episcopalian, private non-religious schools that provide a superior education to that offered by the local diocesan schools (excepting Atonement Academy, of course, which is a classical Catholic school rivaled by none in the area and hmm…with the fastest rate of enrollment….surely not just a correlation).

    Wall of silence going up regarding why/who/what. Why did our superintendent approve Common Core for our schools? Why is the Archbishop ignoring all our letters? Why does my pastor let my principal run his school as the latter wishes, even when parents approach with problems? Who exactly convinced my superintendent that CCSS was good? Was it Mears Ozar Daggett? Why should these people be trusted over the primary stakeholders, the parents (who by the way, were NOT consulted in drafting CCCII resources)? How does implementing CCSS in Catholic schools AGAINST parents’ wishes not conflict with the principle of subsidiarity? Why does the TX Catholic Conference Ed Director refuse to answer my question if AdvancEd accreditation requires CCSS adoption? Where are the Bishops!?!?

  • Lowen_Lowen

    Outstanding article – articulates exactly why I enrolled my daughters and then withdrew them when the local catholic school changed over to common core without any announcement that I can remember. We’re out permanently now. I do not trust them but I wish you God Speed and hope you re-establish the outstanding Catholic Curriculum.
    Don’t forget to turn off the insidious government information collection going on all your children – with no ability on parent’s part to prevent it.

  • hombre111

    In my area, Catholic schools are superior because they cherry pick their students, finding ways to weed out the kids public schools have to deal with. My sisters, who both taught in parochial schools, confirm this. They also say that the public schools where they taught were much more professional…that their real skill as teachers did not emerge until they began to teach in a public school format.

    • Awkpearl

      That’s hilarious! I needed a good laugh. Thanks!

  • Mark Skorcz

    Does anyone know where I can find a list of the 100 dioceses who have embraced Common Core? They seem to be keeping a low profile . . .

    • Izzie

      One is Diocese of Kalamazoo, MI (and, not happy about it). The 6 surrounding Dioceses in Chicago, including D of Joliet and i believe Springfield, IL.

  • Melanie Kurdys

    Your article is so important in many ways. It is well written and truly exposes the issues with the common core content itself. Don’t get me wrong, I abhor the Federal intrusion, the data collection, the progressive undertones in the lessons. But I worry most about the educational experiment being conducted on the vast majority of American children without their parens knowledge or consent. These children will grow up woefully ill-equipped to succeed as American citizens in a representative republic. An uneducated citizenry is destined to despotism.

  • Name

    I agree whole heartedly with what was presented here, but what happens when the SAT’s are revamped to reflect the Common Core curriculum? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is my understanding that one of the primary architects of Common Core is now president of the College Board.

  • Denise Donohue

    Yes. David Coleman, a primary writer for Common Core SS has moved over to head the College Board and is revamping the SAT to CCSS.

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  • Teresa DeBerardinis Huggins

    There is a reason these are called private schools”… keep the government out so the parents spending all that extra money continue to get what they are there to get… a superior education!

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  • Scott

    Playing the devil’s advocate …… What’s missing from this article and the discussion below is, if not the common core, then what will we align our curriculum to, how will we know if we’ve taught it, and if our students have learned it? There is no “Catholic” curriculum AND there is a HUGE difference between “curriculum” and “Catholic education”. We all love Catholic education, but there is very little difference between public and Catholic curriculum in the core areas. There are no “Catholic” algebra books. The success of Catholic schools that we all recognize and tout is more a result of high expectations from parents, teacher, and schools, rather than what we teach. If not the common core, then something else, and not something else by default. We need to be proactive.

  • David Sharples

    “Catholic education, it’s the real thing.”

    It was once been the real thing, but now it’s the domain of the upper middle class who contracept.