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.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.

  • ken tremendous

    Sorry but I’m not buying it. Common Core is a program to raise America’s middling education standards. If the Bush administration had proposed it, you’d be fine with it. Actually come to think of it the Bush administration did push in this direction with No Child Left Behind over very few muted conservative complaints.

    And the Trivium?!?!? David, what planet are you living on? If you lined up 1000 US Catholic school teachers I’d be shocked if more than 5 of them even knew that the Trivium was, let alone saw it as a model for education.

    I do agree with you on one thing and that is the decline in traditional grammar education everywhere and at all levels and that this is a bad thing, and probably is a major culprit in the decline in writing ability. But this has has been in the works for decades and has nothing to do with Common Core. I think it started with the decline in Latin education actually.

    The Common Core program only sets minimal standards of what students should know according to grade. Nothing in Common Core prevents the reintroduction of traditional sentence diagramming. Indeed it does place an emphasis on arithmetic algorithms which makes your example above very misleading.

    Come on David, America’s basic math and reading standards are terrible. We need to do something to prevent our kids from getting their butts kicked in math by the Chinese!

  • HarrisonWhite

    I would suggest any of the readers to investigate the works of John Taylor Gatto- NYC Teacher of the Year, and State Educator of the Year in 1990. He candidly admits the reason for his success as a teacher was due to his attempts to sabotage the methods and procedures of governmental forced schooling. He traces the origins of American public education back to Prussia, which instituted it’s schooling to indoctrinate the masses in nationalistic/socialistic ideas. America adopted this insane method of ‘educating’ the young because it dovetailed perfectly with the bourgeoning industrial economy. The system and it’s pedagogy doesn’t need reform. It needs to be thrown out. The Catholic schools are similar in structure. The only difference is it’s freedom to catechize it’s young, but the structure of the school system is just the same. It doesn’t teach the way children learn. Common core is the same devil with a new face. It’s indoctrinating the young with an ideology that is anti-human and anti-God.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The only hope for Catholic schools follows the principal of subsidiarity. This only hope lies in converting all Catholic schools to INDEPENDENT Catholic schools no longer under the operational jurisdiction of ecclesiastical bureaucrats but now guided by those who are most interested in their child’s education – their parents. If I were raising my sons today, you could be certain that this (along with home schooling) would be the only option.

  • Chris in Maryland

    Ken T – you ruin your argument with a disdainful comment as opener. I’m not buying your claim.

    Your argument is not an appeal to something intelligent, it is a smear of the writer asserting falsely that any writer who opposes common core does so for only for the sake of political contest.

    America’s basic Math and reading stink because of two things – the failing family and the failing education establishment.

    David, Harrison and Ed are right – The Gates/Gaia Core is another experiment in junk – by an establishment that clings to “innovation” – no matter what.

  • Robert

    I do not understand by what leap of logic you were able to infer that the author is somehow “pro-Republican” or that orthodox Catholics would be ok with the common core if it came out of a Republican administration. Apparently there is no room in your mental universe for an orthodox Catholic who is critical of both our political “left” and “right” and particularly of the conventional wisdom that views every idea and every person through a very narrow and indeed “parochial” political prism.
    As for reinforcing or reintroducing the trivium into our Catholic schools: why is the idea inherently absurd? Just because today’s teachers couldn’t put a name to such a course of studies doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. After all, if a dead language like biblical Hebrew could become a living language again, why not the trivium? (After all, I got something like the trivium in my Catholic elementary school back in the 70’s.)
    In any case, while I know nothing about the Chinese educational system, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese remained resolutely “old school” in both the content and method of instruction.

  • Deacon James Stagg

    Perhaps it would be wise to study up on CCCII, then write this article again.

    My great grandson is in second grade in a small Catholic school in central Illinois…..yep, the same state where ALL the dioceses have embraced CCCII. He is doing very well….but, of course, he has had two exceptional teachers.

    Maybe the argument should not be about “standards”, which are so needed to improve public education in the US (tried to get correct change at your local McDonald’s recently?), but the administration and testing of those standards… the needed education to prepare teachers to teach well.

  • Tony

    Gracious, that was horrible … horrible in so many ways!

    The “lattice method” is not going to make any sense to anybody. The “traditional” method works in part because it makes sense. You can explain to a kid why it works. You have recognizable partial products. That is, you first are multiplying 56 x 4, which makes sense; and then you need to continue and multiply 56 x 10, which makes sense; and then you add the two to get 56 X 14.

    You’ll notice that not once does the gal in the video explain why her method works. You’ll notice also that the numbers as they are written outside of and within the lattice do not make sense to the eyes; the tens digit in one number is next to the ones digit in the other number. You’ll notice also that she said that the “traditional” way of calculating the product was to place the 56 under the 14. That is stupid. Any good teacher would advise the student to put the 14 under the 56. You should always choose the smaller multipliers. Here, when the kid hits the 1, he knows he can simply write “56” underneath, in the right place.

    It’s a great illustration of what is wrong with so much of our instruction in the schools: mechanical application of algorithms without understanding. The algorithm above can’t be understood unless you already understand what you are doing with multiplication. That is, it is an overcomplicated bit of nonsense that obscures the actual task. Presumably it has been worked up so that kids don’t need to “carry” digits. Bad idea.

  • Chris in Maryland


    I have started seeing this arithmetic “snake oil” sold in my son’s school and it is an indirect, inefficient and disorderly approach. Take adding a few large numbers as an example. The method teaches the student to find the digits that sum to “10” and add those first, instead of just adding in the sequence the digits appear. What is then required is that the poor student needs to draw lines like “strings” connecting the digits that “happen” to sum to 10, and then add the final “odd-ball” digit to fill the “units” column.

    So what in my reliable 1963 grammar school method was a fast linear sequence is kicked out and replaced by a slow hunting-gathering method that introduces the risk of missing a digit in the adding sequence. What used to take 30 seconds takes 60 seconds for the same result, if the child is careful enough to escape the pitfall of “forgetting” to retrieve the left-over digit that doesn’t fit the “sum-to-ten” narrative.

    Notice what the education establishment is doing here. They are custodians of timed standard math tests, and they are teaching our kids to double the time it takes to add numbers.

    When a laptop or desktop computer runs slow – it is considered a piece of junk.

    So what are people going to think of our children if they take twice as long to compute?

  • ken tremendous

    I’m not sure about this lattice. But gang, as someone who has taught math at many levels, I think you should know that the traditional computational algorithms that are commonly taught in the US stink.

    Consider addition for instance, Chris. It does not make sense to add from right to left adding units quantities first the way kids are taught in the US. If you compute in your head, you do the precisely the opposite of this, adding the larger quantities first.

    This is one example of how they use very different ones in most Asian and many European countries and consistently out-perform US students. But the problem here is that the algorithms are what all the teachers in the US themselves learned and so they are hopelessly entrenched in our system.

    But this doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do things. Often, it’s not!!! Just saying.

    And Robert and Chris, about 60 seconds googling will reveal that 99% of the hysteria about Common Core comes from the fever swamps of the anti-Obama right. Obama is wrong on abortion, gay marriage and much else but that does not mean we should mindlessly oppose everything he supports. Catholics above all should be leery of looking at things though such a partisan lens. This is by no stretch of the imagination a plot to wreck Catholic education. I stand by my claim that there would be no such hysteria if this had been proposed by a Romney administration and that, therefore, this article would not have been written.

    You guys need to chill out a little bit.

  • David Bonagura

    Ken Tremendous: With due respect, I think you missed the heart of my criticism of Catholic schools adopting the Common Core. There is nothing wrong with standards, nor in raising the bar of American education. The problem with Common Core is the pedagogy that comes with it. Common Core elevates the “why” over the “how,” which guarantees that children, especially young children, will absorb neither one. CC espouses the same constructivist philosophy that doomed Whole Language, New Math, and other progressive educational approaches. Common Core is inherently flawed because of this, and therefore it will fail like its predecessors. Harrison, Ed, and Chris all expressed this fact in their comments. And No Child Left Behind, by the way, for all its flaws, did not offer learning standards or pedagogy, so yours is not a fair comparison.

    Catholic schools already had high standards before jumping on the Common Core bandwagon. It is impossible to claim, as some Catholic defenders of Common Core have done, that Catholic schools will exceed the new standards if the new standards–and the state tests to which parochial schools will be forced to teach–have an attendant pedagogy with them.

    Finally, as I mentioned in the article, the Trivium is a model for the stages of learning that continues to this day even if people cannot name it. It does not mean “three subjects,” as if children would only study grammar and nothing else until seventh grade. Rather, it means young children study their traditional subjects, including science and math, at the “grammar”–meaning fundamental—stage that is appropriate for their intellectual abilities. As I wrote, as children age these same subjects expand to include “logic,” meaning conceptual thought, and then rhetoric, meaning synthesis. The Trivium model of learning is not a “turning back the clock.” We never left it behind–until this year when the dioceses adopted Common Core.

  • Mark

    Nothing like starting a comment with a claim that can’t be proven, such as ken’s “If the Bush administration had proposed it, you’d be fine with it. Actually come to think of it the Bush administration did push in this direction with No Child Left Behind over very few muted conservative complaints.”

    I complain about NCLB every time it comes up. Pres. Bush was completely wrong to support that travesty, and I read and hear numerous loud complaints from people all over the political spectrum about the law.

    What’s more, HarrisonWhite is dead on target. The goal of progressive public education has never been an actual education. Instead, the goal has always been to produce compliant, productive taxpayers.

    The fact that the classical education model worked for centuries, producing the finest minds the world has ever seen, and yet today (in another claim that can be demonstrated) out of “1000 US Catholic school teachers [no] more than 5 of them even knew that the Trivium was” only demonstrates how corrosive progressive public education has been over the past century.

    No to Common Core. No to NCLB. Abolish the federal Department of Education. Return education to its real roots in the classical liberal arts.

  • Mack Hall, HSG

    Sure, and it’s always someone else’s fault, but none of you has ever run for school board or even voted in a school board election. Democracy is not a computer game.

  • tamsin325

    @Chris and @Tony, you are correct about the problems in the lattice method. Thank you for writing it all down.

    The lattice method is a hardy perennial of curriculums that, for philosophical reasons more so than pedagogical reasons, prioritize catechizing children that there is more than one way to get the right answer above teaching children one reliable way to get the right answer.

    Children in that 5- to 10-year-old age group prefer to find out one, powerful, reliable way to get the right answer.

    They’re not so enthusiastic about constructing their own algorithms.

    It’s enough for them to participate in the power of one reliable algorithm. Trust me, it doesn’t hold them back in future mathematical endeavors.

    @Stagg, in schools that implement a new curriculum, wise teachers rely on proven methods. Your great-grandchild’s teachers may be teaching old-fashioned arithmetic in parallel, or foundationally to, CC arithmetic. There are many school districts which formally adopt a constructivist curriculum, but then all the teachers in a given school will agree to informally supplement it with an articulated program of direct instruction.

    Also, I would warn you that bad things with constructivist math start to happen in the 3rd and 4th grades when children need to have mastery of addition in order to learn multiplication, and then to have mastery of multiplication in order to learn fractions. And fractions in any denomination, not just “friendly” fractions.

  • Sherry McMahon

    Anyone who takes the time to thoroughly investigate “Common Core” will come to recognize that the “devil is in the details”. Common Core is not what many think it is.

    It is probably too late to stop its implementation – but many who thought they were signing up for something good will be very surprised to discover that parents will be “out of the loop” in terms of having anything to say about how their children are educated.

    Indoctrination is the word that comes to mind when I think about this new system of inculcating the values deemed essential by “the state”. Children will now, more than ever, be “educating” their parents – based on what they have learned in school.

    There is an excellent website that helps to shed light on Common Core. I think the site is called “Truth in American Education”. It is well worth the effort to review various textbooks and standards to get a closer look at what Common Core is really about.

  • Mr. Levy

    Mark – Amen, and well said.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Can anyone state in one sentence what specifically should be the mission of any Catholic school?

    If so, then the next question to answer is whether and how CC is likely to support that mission.

  • Achilles

    Ken T- Your assertions are false- 99% anti-Obama? that is ridiculous-

    You simply repeat a canard spouted by MSM- hysterical leftist rant holding no truth at all- CCSS is bankrupt- for Catholics it is antithetical to an authentic Catholic Identity- and to secular humanists it is just a few more nails in the coffin the culture of death insists on hammering.

  • Chris in Maryland


    Your comments repel others, because you dilute your point with political disdain.

    It is no use making your indirect appeals for the current POTUS – he is a man who richly deserves the distrust he now enjoys.

    Argue instead for why one thing is superior to another on its merits – which I have given evidence for, and you have not.

  • Sherry

    Deacon Peitler’s question is key. I went to see what the USCCB had to say about the mission of Catholic education. In terms of a one-sentence response, the Catholic Education section said: “Catholic education addresses the development of the whole person through spiritual and academic formation based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ”. Common Core values are not always in sync with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I also looked at the section regarding the mission of Catholic Education on the Cardinal Newman Society website. In speaking of Ex corde Ecclesiae, it says “Although it governs Catholic higher education, the constitution’s core principles are relevant to any Catholic school, which: …as Catholic, informs and carries out its research, teaching and all other activities with Catholic ideals, principles and attitudes…”. Gloria Steinem and Harvey Milk may be “heroes” in the much of the secular world, and may be included in Common Core testing, but they are not the kinds of role models that lead to the “true, the good, and the beautiful” to which Catholic school students should be aspiring.

  • Tony

    Gloria Steinem, a pioneer in the movement that has resulted in over a million abortions a year in the US, and the disintegrating family; Harvey Milk, a political hack and pederast. Some heroes.

    On mathematical algorithms: OF COURSE our math instruction is poor, and the CC makes it worse. Everybody knows that mental math goes from “left” to “right,” from greater numbers to lesser numbers. But you have to have a strong sense of number to do that, and you have to have mastered the elementary facts. If CC was emphasizing mental math, I would cheer. It does no such thing — quite the reverse. It sludges up the mental works with verbiage and with more tedious algorithms. It is the worst of both worlds.

    Here, for instance, is how I would teach a smart kid to multiply 67 x 34 in his head.

    First: say the problem over twice, so you remember the numbers.

    Second: Notice that the answer is going to have four digits, with the first being 2 and the last being 8.

    Third: 60 x 30 = 1800.

    Fourth: 7 x 30 = 210. Answer now 2010.

    Fifth: 4 x 60 = 240. Answer now 2250.

    Sixth: 4 x 7 = 28. Answer is 2278.

    Other possibility:

    First: say the numbers over twice.

    Second: Notice that 67 is close to 70.

    Third: Multiply 34 x 7 and append a zero: 2380.

    Fourth: Multiply 34 x 3 = 102.

    Fifth: Subtract: 2278.

    It’s crucial that we give students a sense of number. If you are multiplying a three digit number by a two digit number, you should know that your answer will have four digits or five digits. You should also be able, most of the time, to tell which it will have. You should also be able to tell at a glance what the final digit will be. In other words, you should have a sense of what the answer is going to look like before you begin calculations.

    It would also be useful if children committed to memory the multiplication facts up to 20 x 10; and committed to memory all the squares, cubes, and so forth up to 1024: they should know, when they see 216, that that is 6 x 6 x 6, and when they see 512, that that is 2 raised to the 9th power. They should know the decimal values of common fractions, including those with denominators of 10 or fewer.

    It would be a fine thing, too, to teach children what ratios mean, so that they know immediately that a batter whose average is .314 will see his average rise (slightly) if he goes 1 for 3. They should be able to answer, immediately, questions that involve percentages and integer multiples: that is, if somebody says, “6 is 18 percent of what?”, they should be able to answer right away …

    But that would mean a return to the kinds of arithmetical instruction I find in very old textbooks …

  • Ken Is A Troll

    It’s an admitted fact that governments around the world hire armies of shills to troll comment sections of news websites and social media with pro-establishment propaganda in an attempt to sway public opinion. Ken T comes across as a paid internet troll for the anti-Catholic, fascist Obama administration and globalist, corporate sickos. Smug, arrogant shills like Ken believe that our children must be indoctrinated accordingly and that we must be forced (with the ultimate threat of government violence) to accept this new sick and twisted standardization without question. Anyone who questions is to labeled “racist”, “republican”, “right wing crazy” and the conversation is directed back to the left vs. right paradigm. This is how we are manipulated by the powerful each day. This is not a matter of left vs. right or red vs. blue. This is about corrupt Government control & indoctrination though schooling. This is about authoritarian fascists vs. free people. We must wake up and fight before its too late.

  • Brad Miner

    @KIAT (most previous commenter): Your impressions of Ken Tremendous notwithstanding (which impressions are purely speculative and likely untrue), Mr. Tremendous will always be welcome as a commenter at The Catholic Thing. As to the necessity of awakening: I’d like to think you read TCT because there’s no somnolence here. -ABM

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    I thank Sherry for her response. It is critical for us to define what the mission of Catholic “anything” is since, if we cannot state what it is we will always be at risk of finding ourselves in collusion with Satan.

    Here’s a stab at answering my own question: “The mission of Catholic schools – elementary, middle, high and university alike – is to prepare Catholics to take their place in society so that they can be effective evangelizers of the Gospel.” So, will CC likely effect that end?

  • David

    Sorry but, the once catholic schools are pretty much gone, they’re no longer universal and truly open to life…. they’ve become elite prep schools, no substantiate difference from public..
    There needs to be a paradigm shift. How about 1/2 home school and 1/2 formal in-classroom, that would bring the cost down for families that don’t use contraception and have more than 2 children, it would cause the school to focus on catholicity and make it much more universal?

  • Micha Elyi

    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?
    –David G. Bonagura, Jr.

    The same thing Catholic schools would do today if a such a social studies text appeared, trash it. Duh.

    Common Core standards do not impose any textbook. Mr. Bonagura’s rhetorical question is boob bait.

  • David Bonagura

    Micha Elyi: You are right: Common Core does not impose any textbook per se. But this is a half truth. All new textbooks have appeared in the 45 states that have adopted Common Core, and on every page these books state which Common Core standards, be they math or language arts (which includes social studies/history books for grades 6-12). In these states it is now impossible to find new books that are not geared for Common Core. (Textbook companies have hit pay dirt since all the pre-Common Core books have suddenly become “obsolete.”) So in cunning fashion Common Core has imposed itself on all textbooks without mandating one in particular. Catholic schools will be forced to use the Common Core based books–with everything that is in them–or make their own book. The latter is far more difficult than it sounds. And Catholic schools that will be taking the state tests under Common Core will have no choice but to use these books, as they are forced to teach to the test.

  • Jeff

    Common Core is a standardize test and only public schools can take it. This is basic information and scaremongers are lying to people for attention. It is only now being accepted by State Boards of Education and wont have any affect until 2015. There is no way for much of the claims to be true in the above article.

    This article should be retracted and the author reprimanded for such inappropriate behavior.

  • Beth

    My 8th grader (Alg I student) watched the lattice method video with me. I asked her what she thought the advantage to this method could be; her reply: “So the parents can’t help their kids with math. They can only learn from the teachers at school.”

    hmmmm…..makes you wonder doesn’t it?

  • Mary

    Totally agree with the pasted snippet below. I suppose I could have taught my daughter to walk while skipping the crawling stage but there is a reason one doesn’t and as a parent watching my previously straight A, high IQ daughter struggling with this nightmare called Common Core I am about to start voting with my dollar and homeschooling via classical Catholic curriculum rather than deal with this throughout the rest of her school years. I signed up for Catholic not a socialism or communism experiment funded by Bill Gates.

    The fact that the classical education model worked for centuries, producing the finest minds the world has ever seen, and yet today (in another claim that can be demonstrated) out of “1000 US Catholic school teachers [no] more than 5 of them even knew that the Trivium was” only demonstrates how corrosive progressive public education has been over the past century.