Common Core Is Not Catholic Education

When Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York, he came to my high school for an assembly. One of my classmates rose to ask him a question. After naming his public grammar school, he explained that he had not been taught any formal English grammar in his years there, and as a result, he found himself woefully unprepared for our high school English program. “What,” my classmate asked the mayor, “will you do about this?”

Mr. Giuliani became visibly flustered. He apologized and said he was not aware that this was happening. He expressed his disproval over the school’s dereliction, and he promised to investigate in short order.

Years later, I discovered that my classmate’s ignorance did not stem from sloth or incompetence within his particular school. Rather, he – along with thousands of other children across America – was a victim of a faulty educational initiative in English and language arts programs called Whole Language. Wildly popular in the 1980s and 1990s, Whole Language rejected phonics and traditional grammar instruction on the assumption that grammar is simply absorbed, and therefore it did not need to be taught formally.

After years of sustained ignorance of English fundamentals and shockingly low test scores, the much-ballyhooed Whole Language program was quietly abandoned.

While my classmate was suffering as a laboratory rat for the latest educational fad, I was instructed in traditional phonics and English grammar at my local parochial school. In seventh grade, we learned to diagram sentences. With this solid background, I made a seamless transition to our reading and writing intensive high-school English program.

In other words, I was well prepared because my Catholic grammar school taught me the basics using its tried and true approach. It did not shortchange me with ineffective educational fads or theories that perpetuate ignorance rather than knowledge.

But after centuries of success with a proven Catholic pedagogy, Catholic education has suddenly and inexplicably yielded to the latest encroaching and ephemeral fad. This year over 100 dioceses hastily adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative that seeks to direct education for children across the country. Despite the promise that the standards “do not dictate how teachers should teach,” Catholic school teachers in Common Core schools are forced to teach in an entirely new manner according to “the standards” – and not according to Catholic pedagogy.

I have seen this pedagogical transformation personally this year in my children’s parochial school. Their teachers told us in September that Common Core was about “going deeper” into the concepts and theories underlying the material they were to learn. After three months, it seems that “going deeper” means writing out mathematical processes in words as an exercise in “critical thinking.”


My sons still do traditional computation, but it has taken a back seat to their learning how to explain their math verbally – a tedious and unnecessary chore inspired by the still unseen Common Core directed state assessments in mathematics.

Their school is not the only casualty. At a near-by parochial school, my colleague’s fourth-grade son is struggling with Common Core’s version of two-digit multiplication (as may be seen in the video above). His teacher is teaching computation in this verbose way, and her son is required to solve it in this way.

Math is not the only subject under siege. From the primary grades through high school, new textbooks have been printed in English and social studies to correspond to the new standards. What will Catholic schools do when their Common Core social studies textbooks present Gloria Steinem and Harvey Milk as heroes of the civil rights movement?

By adopting Common Core pedagogy, Catholic schools have surrendered both their unique pedagogical method and their very identity. Catholic education begins on the premise that a loving, rational God created an ordered and purposed universe that points human beings back to Him. In studying creation and all its features, including human beings and their works, we discover truths that shed further light on the mystery of God, the ultimate Truth.

To do this the Church has adopted the pedagogical approach of the ancient Greeks and Romans known as the liberal arts, which progress in three stages – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – according to the age and abilities of students. The grammar stage, which lasts through about sixth grade, lays the foundations that are needed for what educators today call “higher order thinking skills” of logic (conceptual thought and analysis) and rhetoric (abstract thought and synthesis). This Trivium model is timeless because it corresponds to the natural intellectual development of the human person.

Common Core forces Catholic educators to skip the grammar stage and jump right to logic and rhetoric, beginning even in the primary grades. Under Common Core, children will not absorb and memorize the basic components of learning – which is why in a few short years Common Core will fail and go the way of Whole Language and the dozens of other similar educational fads proffered over the last several decades.

With Common Core, Catholic education ceases to exist. Instead, parents will be left to choose between public schools and schools with uniforms and religion classes, which charge tuition.

If these are the choices, then our already struggling parochial and high schools will fold in very short order.

Catholic schools must reclaim their pedagogy and identity by rejecting Common Core immediately. Our proven educational success – and our formation of young Catholics – is worth far more than the latest inherently flawed educational fad.


David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.