Kevin Donohue, Publisher Emeritus
The Common Core State Standards are truly best for educational institutions, both public and private, secular and Catholic. They raise standards, encourage complex thinking and analysis and increase what is expected of students. As an educator who uses these standards, I overwhelmingly disagree with the charges that the Common Core lowers expectations for students and is contrary to the Catholic intellectual tradition or dogma. They are a pathway to a brighter future for our nation.
Five years ago, I entered the teaching profession as a member of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Service through Teaching Program. While earning a Master’s Degree here at Notre Dame, I learned the basis of good classroom management, the proper use of assessment and sound teaching techniques. I have since served in Southern California, teaching fifth through eighth grade students. During this time the educational establishment’s measuring stick has shifted dramatically. Following diocesan adoption and nationwide focus, my schools have moved from the California State Standards to the Common Core State Standards.
This has been a contentious issue in particular for Catholic schools, which are not required to adopt state standards. Opponents of these standards have sprung up across the country and numerous editorials have been published, including one by Professor Gerard V. Bradley in the Irish Rover’s last issue. Especially on the right, these voices protest that the standards are a federal encroachment, a lowering of expectations and a denial of the grand Catholic educational tradition.
The best way to evaluate these standards is to look at their real impact in the classroom. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the nation in terms of both Catholics and Catholic schools, adopted these standards several years ago, committing money, organizational support and professional development to making a “Commitment to Excellence.” Coupled with these changes, we have also moved to a 200-day school year (versus a standard American year of 180 days) in many of our schools.
Many of those who attack the standards would do well to learn exactly what the standards call for and how they are put into practice. The standards themselves are not a recipe that teachers should follow. They are expectations for what students should be able to do. For example, according to the old California standards, students in the eighth grade (whom I teach) should be able to “find similarities and differences between texts in the treatment, scope, or organization of ideas.” (Reading 2.3) The new standards codified and enhanced this skill into: “Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.” (RL 8.5)
These standards have similar goals: the identification of structure and organization and the differences between texts. However, the Core standards push students not to just identify (a lower level ability), but instead to contrast and analyze how that structure influences the meaning of the text. These are skills that are firmly rooted in the highest tradition of reading and writing. Analysis is essential in the Information Age for both those who seek college degrees and those who do not.
These skills, which are mirrored on the Informational (i.e. non-fiction) Text side of the reading standards, have the flexibility to be used with a range of texts. In these first three months of school, our students have looked at structure and theme in Steinbeck’s The Pearl, ten articles concerning the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War, and Poe’s “The Raven.” Would any of this be considered a result of lowered expectations?
The exemplar texts, which have drawn criticism for being “controversial,” are just that, examples. At the middle school level, they include such dangerous and modern texts as Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Black Ships Before Troy, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “O Captain! My Captain,” “The Preamble and First Amendment to the United States Constitution” and Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction. These are all the first texts listed as exemplars in the areas of literary texts, poetry and informational texts. Most are at a high school reading and comprehension level under the previous standards. How are we lowering expectations? How are we teaching outside the literary canon?
Likewise, the mathematical standards focus on inclusive groupings and understanding of number theory and strategy, rather than detailing an extensive list of particular skills. In our modern educational and informational environment, it is this flexibility and ability to use and access information properly that will best prepare our youth for the future.
To those who claim that these standards are a “one-size fits all approach,” I would tend to agree. I challenge all my students to be able to analyze and contrast at a high level. It is not wrong to expect the best from all students. It would be wrong not to support students or expect such high levels from students.
I have largely been discussing the reading standards, which I use to evaluate students at the eighth grade level. I am, however, primarily a social studies teacher. I have not perused the new social studies standards, which are being finalized and reviewed before their official release. Like any standard, dioceses, schools and teachers will be able to decide how and whether they should be taught. Fear about their content or whether these standards contradict Catholic teaching is not an excuse to ignore the entire set of standards. Like everything we encounter, our faith should enable us to think clearly and approach new things in a way that examines such things fully, before throwing them out.
Most Catholic dioceses build their own standards from or simply follow their state’s standards. Are Common Core Standards in social studies and science prone to be more offensive to our faith than those passed at the state level? Is there any justification to believe in such a threat? Or is it merely an excuse not to change?
Teachers who expect more, who encourage analysis, critical thinking and the use of textual evidence are the best teachers. They are the ones we remember in high school, college and beyond. They are the ones who challenge us and make us rise to the occasion.
The Common Core Standards take these memorable teachers, analyze what they expect, link it with collegiate expectations and set them up for all of students to reach. These standards do not handcuff low expectations to a workforce of semi-literate drones, but instead encourage the skills that are universally desired in our workforce, in our academia and in our citizens. To resist common sense, to resist the best, is to condemn Catholic schools as also-rans, incubators of faith, but not of the best minds. Our schools are a gift to the nation and should not be handicapped by fear of change.
Kevin Donohue is an eighth grade and possibly insane teacher in Los Angeles and Double Domer of 2010 and 2012. He has been in a Catholic educational environment for 20 years. He is a former Publisher of the Irish Rover and can be emailed at email@example.com.