Catholic schools in the Milwaukee Archdiocese will continue to focus on, and even strengthen, the infusion of Catholic teachings in all courses despite signing on to a controversial set of national learning standards some fear could spell the demise of Catholic education.
Kathleen Cepelka, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, said the archdiocese is working to align courses in math and language arts with educational goals contained in the Common Core State Standards.
Common Core, a state-led initiative being promoted by the Obama administration through federal grants to states, is a nationwide set of student learning expectations aimed at developing creative and analytical approaches to problem solving and education.
“What Common Core involves is developing thinking skills in students. There is no dictation at all of content or curriculum. Common Core is a set of benchmarks or goals we would want any student who graduates from our schools to develop,” Cepelka said.
Some parents question program
But some parents in the archdiocese question the wisdom or need to open what they consider an exemplary Catholic education system to government or private control under Common Core.
“Our priority is that our children receive a Catholic education and practice their faith in their daily school lives. Common Core was not designed as a means to help enrich our children’s faith,” said Abby Figi of Franklin, who has three children enrolled at St. Alphonsus School in Greendale.
Figi is co-founder of the Facebook page “Catholic Parents Against Common Core - In the Milwaukee Archdiocese,” one of a growing number of social media sites across the country where parents can learn details about and view concerns regarding Common Core.
“When you spend extra money to send your child to a Catholic school you don’t want a government education or a nationalized education system,” Figi said. “There is a reason we chose to send them to a private school. The standards at our school have been wonderful and the test scores high.”
Common Core standards, adopted by 43 states and more than 100 dioceses, have raised concerns among parents of public, private and home-schooled children of government control of schools, sexually and socially inappropriate content in textbooks and a one-size-fits-all mentality toward education.
“I want my children to grow up and be educated the way they should be in a Catholic school, not turned into little cogs in a bigger, nationalized system, which I believe Common Core will eventually become,” said Erin Decker of Silver Lake, who has two children in first and fourth grade at St. Alphonsus School, a K-8 school in New Munster in rural Kenosha County.
Concerns unfounded, says superintendent
The concerns are unfounded among schools of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Cepelka said.
“We have always focused on the development of analytical and critical thinking skills, preparing our students to be really sharp and analytical readers and problem solvers,” Cepelka said. “Those are the kinds of skills Common Core focuses on and we’ve always tried to do that. We just didn’t have a name for it.”
The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, has not taken a public position on Common Core.
“We have no formal position on Common Core at this time. I don’t know in the future if we will. I know there are increasing dialogues about Common Core at this time,” said Kim Wadas, associate director of education and health care for the WCC.
Al Szews, president of the Milwaukee chapter Catholic United for Faith, an international lay organization dedicated to support, defend and advance church teachings in accord with the Second Vatican Council, said the group has not taken an official stand on Common Core.
“But our position is it is always dangerous for any activity to be taken over by the federal government and that is really what is happening,” Szews said.
In the group’s September 2013 newsletter, Szews warns if the archdiocese continues aligning with Common Core and discouraging parents, “many parents will opt for the free public school and more Catholic schools will close.”
College entrance exams tailored to Common Core
Cepelka said the archdiocese is not participating in any federal funding or programs tied to Common Core.
“The only federal funds we receive are for our school lunch program,” Cepelka said.
Cepelka said archdiocesan schools introduced Common Core into its math curriculum in 2013 and plans to introduce the English-language arts component of Common Core in 2014.
“Frankly, I cannot think of a single Common Core standard we are not already incorporating into our instruction,” Cepelka said, adding that adopting Common Core is formalizing the standards “from my perspective in a way to make sure we are addressing them.”
Cepelka said it’s important to address Common Core standards because future ACT and other college entrance exams will be based on Common Core skills.
“One major concern from the educator’s standpoint is college entrance exams that are being tailored based on Common Core standards,” Cepelka said. “We don’t want to leave anything to chance. We want to make sure our students are prepared for the type of accountability placed on them.”
Figi said she and other parents feel Common Core “was thrust at us without any consultation or input from us.”
“Many of us were surprised to hear Common Core was being implemented,” Figi said. “We feel betrayed, like our children were handed over for 30 pieces of silver.”
Decker, a member of the St. Alphonsus Advisory Committee in New Munster, said she feels the archdiocese should have preceded implementation of Common Core with a pilot program “to see if it even works.”
“Common Core is being brought into schools across the country without once being tested,” Decker said.
Implementing standards at St. Anthony ‘easy’
Ramon Cruz, principal administrator at St. Anthony School, Milwaukee, with 1,189 students in grades K-12 and the largest Catholic school in the country, said the school has implemented the Common Core math standards.
“So far it is going good. We haven’t received any negative or positive feedback from parents. The teachers are talking about it going well,” Cruz said. “For us, implementing the standards was easy because we’ve always taken that approach to education.”
Cruz said St. Anthony is receiving implementation help from coaches of “Schools That Can,” an ecumenical, non-profit organization in Milwaukee working to develop high-performing schools in the city.
Principal sees no negatives to Common Core
Richard Goeden, principal at Port Catholic School in Port Washington, said the school has been teaching skills identical to Common Core long before the standards were developed as a nationwide program.
“Right now we are using a different terminology, just new words for reading and math instruction,” Goeden said. “Students need to learn to read, write and do math.”
Goeden said Common Core outlines minimum requirements Port Catholic strives to surpass.
“Any time there are changes in education people can see negatives and positives. We really don’t see negatives to Common Core,” said Goeden.
Although it took some adjusting, the transition to Common Core is going smoothly at St. Peter School, a pre-K -8 school in East Troy, said co-principal Ashley Schmidt.
“Most people like and support Common Core because it involves real world activities students encounter in real life, like counting back change in stores instead of rote learning,” said Schmidt. “It is an adjustment for some because it is something new, but our staff has seen how smoothly it is going and once they see how well it works, students and staff are more likely to use it.”
The ease of transition to Common Core standards and teaching materials might not be the same for parents, said Figi, who has children in grades three and four and one in 4-year-old kindergarten.
“Students who have been good in math in the past are now frustrated with what they are calling the New Math,” said Figi.
“The point with the new math seems to be to get the kids to develop several ways to do math. My daughter was trying to check her math the old way, but the frustration is she doesn’t even know how to do regular math, yet they are showing her two or three other strategies to get the same result,” Figi said, noting lessons were recently sent home to explain the New Math to parents.
Decker said her fourth grader’s homework recently included questions about the commutative and associative properties of math, referring to the order and grouping of numbers not affecting the outcome of addition or subtraction.
“The questions didn’t fully explain the concepts. It frustrates the kids,” Decker said. “A child’s brain is not wired to think how Common Core wants them to think in first, second, third and fourth grade.”
Decker and Figi say they dread the implementation of the English-language arts component of Common Core, based on the Internet postings of textbooks from other areas of the country.
“The textbooks have a definite big government slant to them,” Decker said. “I saw a page in one book that says our rights under the Constitution come from government and not God.”
Figi said she has seen excerpts from Common Core high school level textbooks she called “pornographic in nature.”
“It made me feel uncomfortable to read them,” she said.
Inappropriate literature ‘not going to happen’
Cepelka said the introduction of inappropriate literature at archdiocese schools “is not going to happen to us.”
“We have freedom of choice under Common Core,” Cepelka said. “No one can dictate what we are going to teach in our schools.
There have been controversial books in schools since schools began and we have, as Catholic educators, exercised our right to excise the books from our schools forever.
“We should be held accountable for what we are teaching. That will not change,” Cepelka said.
Noting there is a movement in education, “as there should be,” against simply memorizing facts and toward thinking through the reasons a student is learning, Cepelka said “we’ve always done that and Common Core wants to make sure that rigor and probing are there in students.”
For example, Cepelka said, students might not simply memorize the state capitals, but also learn about why there are state capitals, the meaning of government and voting rights and responsibilities.
Regarding concerns about Common Core and the Catholic faith and teachings, Cepelka said parents need not worry.
“Our curriculum content right now is infused with the church’s perspective and the ideals of Catholicism. That not only will not change, but we are constantly looking for new ways to strengthen (Catholic infusion),” Cepelka. “I’ve been going over this with every principal in the archdiocese in a very focused manner – that we are going to continue to be true to our primary identity as Catholic school educators.”
Standards are not curriculum
In a May 31, 2013 position paper on Common Core, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) notes the standards are not a curriculum.
“A curriculum includes what is taught, when it is taught, how it is taught and what materials to use. None of these items are included in the Common Core State Standards. For Catholic schools all of these items will continue to be determined by diocesan superintendents, principals and teachers working to meet the needs of their students,” according to the NCEA report.
To help Catholic schools adapt and implement the new standards, the NCEA established the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiatives.
Still, Figi, Decker and other parents have deep concerns with Common Core.
“We are asking people to contact Archbishop Jerome Listecki and tell him we are unhappy about this new government education being introduced to our children without our consent,” Figi said.
“Some people have already gotten responses from Archbishop Listecki saying he has faith in Kathleen Cepelka. At some point I’m hoping he will see the parents who are doing the homework with the children are the ones he should have faith in. We know something is wrong.”
If Common Core remains in archdiocesan schools, Figi said she will move her children to a local Lutheran school not involved with Common Core or home school them.
“Home schooling was never on my bucket list of things to do, but I refuse to have my kids go through Common Core,” Figi said.
Decker said she will continue to talk about problems with Common Core.
“You can’t stick your head in the sand. We are talking about a generation of children. They only go to school once. You gotta get it right,” Decker said.