Superintendent addresses Catholic school curriculum, common core standards

By Bob Voboril

A Catholic school curriculum prepares students for the here and now – and for the hereafter. The aim of a Catholic school is to help students understand God’s purpose for them in this life (their vocation) on this earth and to prepare them for their destiny with God in eternity. The two go hand in hand. Schools prepare students for their vocation in life which typically means a family, continued education, and a career, but Catholic schools accomplish that goal mindful that students are destined to stand before God accountable for the gifts God has given them.

A Catholic school curriculum begins with its mission. In the Diocese of Wichita, the mission of Catholic education is to form disciples of Jesus Christ. Every course offered, indeed every action taken, must be consistent with that mission.

The mission is supported by a distinctively Catholic philosophy (beliefs) and core values. This philosophy, always consistent with the mission, explains the principles upon which the school is operated. The core values describe the primary outcomes of a Catholic education. In the Diocese of Wichita, those core values are unity, faithfulness, stewardship, and scholarship.

This foundation of mission, philosophy, and core values is operationalized by the pastor, the principal, and the teachers. The pastor and the superintendent collaborate on hiring the administrator, and the administrator hires teachers under the pastor’s supervision. In the Diocese of Wichita, we work very hard to find principals who will lead a faithful school community through example and action.  Likewise, teachers have an extensive and ongoing formation for the vocation of Catholic school teacher. Our principals and many of our teachers are inspiring in their spirituality and passion for Catholic education.

Once the foundation is set and principals and teachers hired and trained, then curriculum standards are next. Curriculum standards came into existence when textbooks could no longer keep up with all that was needed to be learned in a course. We have had curriculum standards since about 1990, and the common core standards are the fifth generation of state standards.

What has caused all the fuss is that the common core standards have been adopted in much the same form in more than 40 states. Some see a conspiracy at work here, but others see common sense. Why should third grade math standards be different in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas or even different parts of Kansas?

There are a lot of misconceptions about the common core standards. I will mention only three. First, it is said that the common core standards will make our schools less Catholic because they are “government” standards. Almost no one has questioned the Catholicity of our schools for the last 20 years that we have been using state-approved standards, and I see no reason to do so now. Our schools need to make sure our students master these new standards, true, but diocesan curriculum is built upon mission, values, faith-filled principals and well-formed teachers. The common core standards constitute the minimum level of instruction; not the final goal.

Secondly, the common core standards are not new. They were drafted in 2007. They were adopted in Kansas in 2010-11. Our Catholic schools are in their third year of implementing these standards. Almost all the textbooks have been revised. This is not a sudden leap off a cliff into the unknown.

A third concern is that common core standards represent a government takeover of our schools. It is important in today’s secular society to weigh carefully the impact of any government actions before agreeing to them or implementing them, and we do that. Nevertheless, it is equally important not to condemn every action by the government.

Our schools have been accredited by the State of Kansas since 1955; our teachers have been licensed by the state at least that long. We accept government-funded services for remedial reading and mathematics, staff development, English learners, drug and alcohol education, food services, and transportation of students. The critical factor that bishops and superintendents must weigh is whether or not government action violates our mission and gospel values. If it does, like the HHS mandate or the question of gay marriage, it must be resisted. If it serves the common good, we should welcome it.

Once standards have been determined, the principal and teachers must convert the standards into a curriculum that integrates faith and knowledge. Catholic educators undergo ongoing staff development to develop instructional methods that will serve all students. The most appropriate instructional resources are sought out. The common core standards place more emphasis on higher level thinking and application, and Catholic educators then infuse those standards with Gospel values.

The common core standards are not perfect. No set of standards is. They are written for a secular society, just as are textbooks, drivers’ manuals, and medical prescriptions. Although educationally strong and morally acceptable, no set of standards is sufficient by themselves. They are also proving to be very challenging at the upper grade levels because of their great emphasis on critical thinking and complex problem-solving. Based in part on ACT-quality testing standards, they challenge teachers and students alike.

However, the key driver for Catholic schools must be fidelity to our mission, trust in our beliefs and core values, and confidence in our dedicated Catholic school educators. In the hands of people who don’t care or who don’t know how to use them, common core standards would be a waste of time and energy. In the hands of faith-filled educators, common core standards can become tools for excellence and stepping stones to eternity.

Voboril is superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Wichita.