In October 2013, 132 Catholic professors signed a letter addressed to America’s Catholic bishops objecting to the adoption of Common Core standards by Catholic schools. The letter stated that the standards lower expectations for high school graduates to a basic-skills, workforce-preparation focus, neglecting “Catholic schools’ rich tradition of helping to form children’s hearts and minds.” Furthermore, Common Core aims to make students “college-ready,” but the standards are “geared to prepare children only for community-college-level studies.”

What the letter didn’t acknowledge was that while the standards themselves target basic skills and downplay historical knowledge and literary classics (not to mention religious understanding, of course), they do not prevent schools and teachers from filling the curriculum with those precious materials. Appendix B of the standards, for instance, includes among its “text exemplars” for Grade 11 Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, The Canterbury Tales, and Billy Budd.

It also didn’t acknowledge that we already have a problem with low expectations. Indeed, for a sizable population of high school graduates, the diploma has not even prepared them for community-college work. Once enrolled in a school, they take a diagnostic test and find that they can’t earn a C grade in a first-year math or composition course. So, they get plunked into remedial classes where they study high-school content and earn no credits. Many of them drop out forever. Indeed, the rate of students who have enrolled in a four-year post-secondary institution and graduated six years later is only 59 percent. For African-American students, it is 40 percent.

This was the topic of a talk last night at the Century Club by Michael Lomax, President of the United Negro College Fund, the keynote speech for a conference sponsored by CUNY’s Institute for Education Policy headed by Hunter College Dean of Education David Steiner. The premise was that the bar of student preparation has risen. We used to aim for access alone, getting students into college and hoping they would flourish. But low retention rates prove that admission is not enough. Students need to be “college-ready.” Without it, Lomax regretted, “entrance alone is a hollow victory.”

This was the motivation behind Common Core. The architects crafted standards for K–12, but the real aim was college completion. Lomax noted, “A college diploma is what a high-school diploma used to be,” which means that college must be a universal aspiration. Young people need a college degree in order to get ahead in today’s competitive economy. “The American Dream can only be achieved,” he said, “ if every student has access to the college that is right for them.” While he served as President at Dillard University, Lomax saw all too many students from good high schools enter college unable to write a coherent paragraph. (Lomax has a doctorate in the area of American studies from Emory University.) If the high school curriculum doesn’t impart basic skills in math and English, those youths are doomed.

Lomax offered specific recommendations, mainly doubling Pell grant amounts, focusing philanthropy on “marginally-selected” and open-enrollment institutions (not Ivies and flagship publics), and tying student-loan payments to earnings, not market rates.

If we apply the situation to Catholic schools, the wisdom of adopting Common Core begins with one finding: How many graduates of Catholic high schools take the ACT test and score “college-ready” in all four subjects of English, reading, math, and science? 

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