Catholic to the Core - San Jose Catholic Schools Embrace New Standards

Catholic to the Core - San Jose Catholic Schools Embrace New Standards

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Above: Kathy Almazol, Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of San Jose

SAN JOSE, Calif. – With names such as Thomas Aquinas, John Baptist de la Salle, Francis Xavier Cabrini and John Bosco, Filipinos Americans have long turned to Catholic schools for the kind of quality education – one steeped in Catholic tradition – they want for their kids.

But in recent decades the reality of outsourcing, especially here in the hi-tech capitol of Silicon Valley, has cast a pall over that longstanding belief in the superiority of an American education. After all, why does America need professionals from outside the country when there are perfectly good schools here?

Thoughts on Common Core

Kathy Almazol, Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of San Jose

The Common Core is really about setting standards for what every child needs to know for life-long learning. It’s not a curriculum. It is a set of standards that, for instance, says what children at a certain level need to know in a particular area of knowledge to be successful. How you choose to teach the Standards, what books to use and how rigorous your course work is are totally up to the school.

We’re not throwing away the flash cards and students still need to read books. It doesn’t say anywhere in Common Core that you can’t teach Mark Twain or Baroque music or hand writing. It doesn’t say any of that. It says rigorous and relevant. Meaning if you are teaching classical works, you’re probably going to lose the interest of some of the children. So you want to teach all (genre in) music.

[In math], Common Core does not spend a lot of time on raw computation. But that doesn’t mean we’re not having the children practice just math facts. We do understand now that if the children know only math facts and don’t understand the process, higher math is not for them. Those children can’t do higher math.

Increasingly, more and more Filipino American parents have begun to wonder: isn’t there a sort of ninja school of learning where my kids can get the killer instinct to succeed in college and a career?

In 2010 California responded to the growing malaise around public education – fueled by a steady trickle of reports that showed U.S. students well behind their international peers in key subject areas – when it adopted the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math. Since then public school districts across the state have been working toward implementation, developing new curriculums, training and re-training teachers and enhancing their tech capacity ahead of the new standardized tests in the spring.

And after some debate, Catholic schools followed suit.

The standards, which stress critical thinking and analysis over rote memorization, were “written to ensure that American students have the opportunity to reach the same high levels of academic performance as those in the highest performing countries in the world,” explained Nancy Doyle, assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of San Jose.

Filipinos account for about 11 percent of all Catholic school students in the San Jose.

Doyle said that since 2010 more than 100 of the 195 diocese across the country have adopted the Common Core. In San Jose, schools began aligning with the standards two years ago. They are now fully in place in all grades from kindergarten through eighth, Doyle noted.

That decision was not without controversy, however.

In 2013 two Catholic parents led a campaign to suspend the standards in Indiana. And earlier this year, a Catholic parent in Milwaukee moved her daughter from Catholic school to home schooling. Meanwhile, the prominent Cardinal Newman Society – which holds as its mission defense of Catholic education – issued comments that were critical of the standards on-line.

Some claimed the Common Core was designed for trade skills, or to churn out workers for the growing hi-tech industry. They pointed to terms like “core competency” and “skill sets,” or the need for a “robust interface” (rigor), typical high-tech buzz words that are also found in the Standards.

Still others saw in the standards a push by private interests to hijack U.S. education in the guise of reform. They pointed to Achieve Inc., the organization that began work on the Common Core Standards in 1996. Among Achieve’s many contributors are AT&T, Bayer, Boeing, Chevron, Cisco, Dupont, ExxonMobil, GE, IBM, Intel, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But San Jose Superintendent of Catholic Schools Kathy Almazol says these and other suspicions are misplaced. “We don’t find that there’s anything substandard about the Standards. And we want the children in Catholic schools to be able to matriculate into the UC systems and others that would benefit them as learners.”

Both she and Doyle also insist that there is room for Catholic education in the standards, which do not prescribe a specified curriculum but rather lay out skills students need to know at each grade level.

“We use the resources of the Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative,” said Doyle, “which is developing curricular materials to help schools explicitly integrate Catholic identity into their Standards-based instruction.”

A collaboration between the National Catholic Education Association, Catholic universities and others, the initiative is “now building a collection of lesson plans which incorporate both the new Common Core and Catholic identity – Scripture, values, beliefs, practices and teachings of the Church,” added Doyle.

As an example, she highlighted work done the previous summer between teachers from Oakland and San Jose, who got together to create instructional units for English class at all grade levels that are “infused with Catholic values, virtues and practice.” One eighth grade unit, for example, looks at confronting stereotypes and prejudice and includes fiction, biography, Scripture and Vatican documents. Other assignments require students to make connections between literature, history and the teachings of the Church.

This story was produced as part of the Informed Communities Education Reporting Fellowship, a partnership between New America Media and the Silicon Valley Foundation.