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School Choice & Charters

Common Core Catches On With Private Schools

October 08, 2012 9 min read
Alan Portillo, front left, teams with Melanie Zarco to evaluate each other's writing work in a 5th grade classroom at the Mother of Sorrows School in Los Angeles, which is implementing the common standards. Many Roman Catholic dioceses across the country have embraced the common core.

The common standards aren’t just for public schools, it seems.

With all but four states having adopted them since 2010, districts have little choice but to implement the Common Core State Standards. But many private schools are also making the transition.

More than 100 Roman Catholic dioceses spanning the nation from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, have decided to adopt the standards, according to a recent survey from the National Catholic Educational Association. Even the El Paso Diocese in Texas, a state that wanted no part of the common standards, signaled last spring that it was signing on.

Experts say practical considerations are likely an important motivator, as many private schools feel the pressure from the tidal wave of states beginning to implement the new standards, which cover K-12 mathematics and English/language arts. That’s having profound effects on textbook and test publishers, for instance, which are revising their wares to better reflect the standards. Observers also suggest the common core will even reshape college-entrance exams.

It’s not just Catholic schools making the move. Some Lutheran and other denominations of Christian schools are shifting to the common core, including Grand Rapids Christian in Michigan and the Christian Academy School System in Louisville, Ky.

The Aspen Country Day School in Aspen, Colo., meanwhile, isn’t adopting the common core wholesale, but has used portions of the standards to help revamp its curriculum.

A number of leaders in private education emphasized that they adopted the common standards only after careful study and see them as worthy guideposts.

“What we came to decide was that if the public schools were going to implement them, it was something that we should take a good, hard look at,” said Kevin C. Baxter, the superintendent of elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees 270 Catholic schools. “We looked at them with an honest eye ... and realized they were something we wanted to pursue.”

First graders work together to answer a question before other teams in a class a Mother of Sorrows School in Los Angeles. Like many Roman Catholic and other private schools, Mother of Sorrows is shifting to the Common Core State Standards.

“It fits with what we’re trying to do, going for depth, understanding, higher-level thinking skills,” said Lisa H. Meyers, the academic dean at Valley Lutheran High School in Saginaw, Mich., which has long followed the state’s standards. “We can buy into that.”

Another issue for some leaders in private education is staying competitive with public schools.

“We feel there is a credibility factor for us,” said Thomas J. DeJonge, the superintendent of Grand Rapids Christian Schools, a set of four private schools in and around that Michigan city. By using the same state standards and tests as public schools, as his schools long have done, parents can better gauge how their schools compare, he said.

The common core is by no means universally embraced, however.

Patrick F. Bassett, the executive director of the National Association of Independent Schools, in Washington, said that while he sees much to admire in the standards, he doesn’t expect many NAIS member schools will adopt them.

“This notion of independence is central to [us]: local control, school by school, of what to teach and how to teach,” he said. “So, decisionmaking through a national effort runs counter to our very being.”

‘Every Hand Went Up’

The earliest and most widespread adoption of the standards beyond public education appears to be among Catholic schools. Mr. Baxter from the Los Angeles Archdiocese recalled attending a recent regional conference for Catholic educators where the common core came up.

“We were asked how many were going forward with it, and every hand went up,” he said.

The archdiocesan schools in Los Angeles, which Mr. Baxter said have until now been guided by California’s prior state standards for English/language arts and math, are focusing first on the ELA section before tackling the math common core.

“I don’t know of other sectors that have embraced it as fully as Catholic schools,” said Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, in Germantown, Md. “They’ve in many instances never been reluctant to embrace public school programs.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is in the second year of implementation for its 144 schools, which serve some 64,000 students.

“What appealed was that they’re aligned with college and career expectations and include the rigorous content we’ve been known for, plus application of knowledge and higher-order skills,” said Jacqueline P. Coccia, the superintendent of elementary schools there. “We felt this was a change that would really help us grow.”

The Archdiocese of Louisville, which oversees 47 schools, is implementing the math standards now and will review and likely adopt the English/language arts standards soon, said schools Superintendent Leisa M. Schulz.

Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and research at the Arlington, Va.-based National Catholic Educational Association, said she sees the overwhelming state backing for the common core driving broader changes in the education sector and creating pressure on Catholic schools.

“A very big consideration is all the textbook publishers, the testing manufacturers, are [adapting] their products” to the common core, she said, as well as teacher-preparation programs. “So if you’re looking to hire new teachers coming out of a teacher education background, you’re disadvantaged.”

With so many Catholic schools turning to the common core, a national effort is under way to help make sure the imprint of their faith is on the standards. The Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative, which involves the NCEA, Catholic universities, and others, is developing and sharing resources and guidelines for schools to integrate Catholic identity—including values, beliefs, and social teachings—into curriculum and instruction based on the standards.

“We’re showing people how you might develop this in a systematic way,” said Sister McDonald from the NCEA. She explained, for instance, that teachers might introduce social-justice principles or a commandment during a lesson focused on the ELA standards.

Ms. Schulz from the Louisville Archdiocese welcomes the project.

“That’s just the type of work we want our schools to have,” she said. “We sometimes talk about ‘baptizing’ the state standards, so that we’re really able to integrate our Catholic identity.”

Lutheran Schools

The common core also is taking hold among Lutheran schools in at least a few states, including Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio.

“We are strongly encouraging and recommending that Lutheran schools go with this,” said Bruce N. Braun, the superintendent of schools for the Michigan district of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His organization has more than 80 member schools in Michigan, and he says about 60 already have adopted the common core.

“We think it’s good for kids,” he said. “And there is some room for creativity, room for you to be a professional in how you reach the standards.”

He’s hearing positive feedback from Lutheran schools about the standards, but also said it may be risky for them to take a pass.

“Many of us are thinking, if this is going to show up in assessments, if this is going to be the direction publishers are going to go, for us to ignore it, that’s not healthy for kids, not healthy for the system,” he said.

Jeff Blamer, the membership director for Christian Schools International, based in Grand Rapids, said he expects to see widespread adoption among his roughly 400 U.S. member schools.

“The only place where I would qualify that is if any standard interfered with the mission or biblical worldview of a school,” he said.

Adopting the standards especially comes to a head when it’s time for a school to go through a periodic reaccreditation process, he said, as schools typically need to identify the standards underlying their academic programs.

Jeffrey T. Walton, the executive director of the East Ridge, Tenn.-based American Association of Christian Schools, said his roughly 800 member schools are leery of embracing what they see as national standards that the federal government placed pressure on states to adopt, but he expects many will ultimately feel compelled to reflect them in instruction, at least to some extent.

He’s aware of a handful that already are citing the standards as their guide in going through reaccreditation.

“It’s like they’re warily circling them,” he said. “There’s no great track record for national reform efforts that would make independent schools want to jump on the next bus that rolls by.”

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But Mr. Walton cites several reasons schools will seriously consider them, such as interest in “seeing how their curriculum and instruction stacks up against the standards,” concern for students who may transfer back to public schools, and the expected impact on K-12 standardized tests, textbooks, and college-entrance exams.

“So our schools are looking at them,” he said, “realizing it’s probably something we’re going to live with.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said that if the common standards take firm hold in public education over time, they will increasingly touch private schools.

“They’ll be affected in a more gradual and spotty way, but of course they’ll be affected,” he said, including by “practical things, like college-entrance expectations and college-entrance tests, things that they are part of even if they’re not part of their state standards and testing systems.”

And parents may come to expect some alignment.

“There may be over time a gradual cultural expectation that 6th graders learn such and such in the United States,” he said.

But Mr. Finn, a vocal proponent of the standards, said their reach has limits.

“Keep in mind that, so far, common core is just two subjects,” he said. “And you can teach them in a variety of ways. It does tell you what the kids are supposed to have learned, but does not tell you what sequences, what kind of textbook to use, whether to have the desks in circles or rows, to be didactic or constructivist in your pedagogy.”

‘Not on the Bandwagon’

Some private school educators, impressed by the common core, say their schools are drawing on the standards but stopping short of full adoption. Aspen Country Day School studied the common core as part of its reaccreditation effort, when it was revamping the curriculum.

“We used it as sort of a jumping-off point, depending on the program area,” said Andy Davies, the school’s curriculum director.

The standards have been especially influential in math.

“Our lower school math is grounded in the common core, and I would say our language arts is influenced,” she said. “As an independent-school person, I can use it as a stake in the ground and massage it so that it meets our needs.”

Trinity Episcopal School in Charlotte, N.C., a K-8 independent school, also is taking common-core elements to inform its curriculum.

“We began with the English/language arts, and we were in the process at that time of trying to make some changes around writing and grammar, and as we looked at the document, we liked it,” said Christine H. Weiss, the head of Trinity Episcopal’s lower school.

“We’re not wholesale adopting,” she said. “We have embraced them, and we are using them as good guidelines and references and resources. ... But we’re not on the bandwagon, jumping and buying everything that says common core on the cover.”

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Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as Private Schools Opt for Common Core

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