Catholic Social Teaching and the Common Core State Standards


Test grade  educationThe Common Core State Standards are raising tremendous controversy as politicians, educators, and parents analyze their accuracy and effectiveness; however, any analysis of the content of the Common Core State Standards necessarily ignores the main objection to these, or any federal standards, imposed on American schools.  The fact is that any federally imposed standard violates the principle of subsidiarity, which is the heart of the Catholic Church’s social teaching.

The concept of subsidiarity has been taught by the Catholic Church at least since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, but Pope Pius XI actually coined and defined the term in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno in 1931 when he wrote, “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.  So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies.”

In 1991, Pope John Paul II explained subsidiarity in similar terms in his encyclical Centesimus annus: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes the insights of both popes: “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative.”

These are strong words.  Mr. President, take heed: it is an “injustice” and “grave evil” for larger bodies to take over functions that can be achieved by lesser bodies.  Should our President follow this piece of infallible wisdom, of course, he would have to undo almost everything he has accomplished since his first election.  Surely, his administration’s latest attempt to assert more control over American education is a prime example of the federal government’s interference in something that should easily fall under the jurisdiction of lesser and subordinate bodies.

After all, since when has the federal government suddenly become an expert on the subject of children’s development?  Moreover, has the federal government, under any administration, exhibited such exemplary knowledge and efficiency that we want to surrender more aspects of our lives to its grasping control?  Does the federal government have a greater understanding of the development of our children than the parents and teachers who care for them every day?  Has this latest administration inspired the sort of trust regarding its virtue, integrity, morality, religion, and culture that we want to allow it to participate in our children’s formation?  True, the quality of American education has fared poorly in recent years, but can anyone seriously entertain the idea that placing it more under the control of federal bureaucracy will effect any improvement?

Most importantly, according to the principle of subsidiarity, cannot the education of our children be accomplished without the intervention of our federal government?

Pope John Paul II said, “The parents have been appointed by God Himself as the first and principal educators of their children . . . their right is completely inalienable.”  The parents, then, should ultimately control their children’s education.  If they seek assistance in this lofty challenge, they can choose to send their children to public or Catholic schools.  They can vote to elect members of the school board, and if they are displeased with their children’s education, they can communicate their dissatisfaction to the teachers, the principal, and even the school board itself.  If enough parents share their concerns, they can organize parent protests.  If they are still dissatisfied, they can remove their children from the school and either transfer them to another school or teach their children at home.  Thus the school’s standards and policies are answerable to the parents of the children involved.  (If public schools received no tax money at all, and parents had to pay for their children to attend, then the quality of education would almost certainly increase as each school strove to outshine its competitors and win student attendance, and each school’s accountability to the parents would be maximized.  But that is another topic for another time.)

On the other hand, if a school is using federal standards, how can the school consider the particular needs of the children under its care?  How can it accommodate the concerns of parents that the standards are too low or too high or in some other way inappropriate?  To change standards mandated by the government would be to lose federal funding.  Thus, the effect of federal standards is that the school is accountable, not to the parents whose children they are teaching, but to the federal government.  And to whom is the federal government accountable?  How can any one parent complain to the federal government that their policy does not address the needs of his or her child?

As American citizens who just celebrated the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we need to be wary of surrendering any more of our personal independence to a very powerful but remote federal government.  In this, as in all matters, we would do well to consider the timeless wisdom of the Church.  Otherwise, Pope Pius XI warns us, “injustice” and “grave evil” will result.


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  • kenneth alonso, md

    TIMMS and PIRLS are two programs that test students from a variety of nations. These examinations cover mathematical thinking as well as language use and comprehension. The US generally falls in the middle of the pack. Florida introduced standards in mathematics and reading under the Republican Jeb Bush. In the TIMMS and PIRLS 2011 examinations, Florida was compared to other nations as if it were a nation. Florida scored well (up there with Singapore and the other Asian nations whose results have influenced the Common Core movement). Also scoring well were Massachusetts and North Carolina, two states with standards. If one were to back these results out of the US result, the US would fall in the lower half of the nations tested.
    US public and private school education has deteriorated dramatically over the past 35 years. The students we receive in medical school, for example, are not nearly as well prepared for the university as were those who graduated through the 1970’s. Bravo to Common Core.

    • Jennifer

      There is a very great difference between state standards and federal standards. Florida (or Massachusetts or N. Carolina) knows best what works for Florida (or Massachusetts or N. Carolina) …. and local schools can choose to implement those standards in a way which works best for their students. Common Core places a one-size-fits-all constraint on schools, then doubles down by copyrighting the material, so that schools cannot change it in any way (although they can add 15% of their own additional material). This is not good education….and it is not Constitutional.

      • Debbie

        Bravo to you Jennifer for pointing that out!!!! States rights!

  • Jason Hall

    Just as a matter of clarification, Common Core standards are not federal standards. They were developed by state governments over many years through a process facilitated by the National Governors Association. The only federal involvement is a decision to tie some Race to the Top funding to adoption of Common Core standards. Some Common Core advocates were frustrated by that, since it has created the widespread impression that it is a federal initiative.

    • Adrienne from OH

      Read up. Not actually true.

      • Jason Hall

        Just last month, I attended a conference on education issues, including Common Core. Following that, I did a great deal more reading on the history of it. Following your comment, I looked up even more mainstream sources, like Wikipedia, and they give the same history. Where can I find this secret true history of Common Core?

        • Debbie

          You need to look at the DOE giving money to the two consortiums to create a national test. YES! The federal Government is involved in this. Lets talk about all the data collection linked through the Race to The Top agreement. When states signed on to it they agreed to adopt a “Common Core” set of standards and align their states database with a state longitudinal database (SLDS) which third party stakeholders will have access to. Including the DOE. Look up National Education Model. This goes against the 10th amendment and three laws that are written. The General Education Provisions Act, No Child Left Behind, and the Act that Created the DOE. The Common Core is a licensed and copyrighted document. States can not change them! There was no field testing on these standards. So many educational experts are coming out against these standards who were on the validation panel. Lets talk about the monopoly being created by Pearson, the leading company who is driving the test questions and has signed on with the Consortiums. So if a county/community wants their students to do well on the test they are going to go with the curriculum company who helped create the test questions from their set of books. Where is the freedom in that. Do you realize the new testing consortiums will have our children testing for 20 days?! That is not including the individual testing and assessments the teachers will be doing on the students throughout the year. Teachers walk around with clip-boards all day marking off skills that have been mastered. Where is the knowledge the kids need to know? Mr. Hall, I suggest you look into the history of our nation and look at what our founding fathers intended for our children, This isn’t it! Education is left up to the states not the federal gov and non-governmental special interest groups who have no accountability to the voters.

          • Jason Hall

            You have assumed a great deal about my own position on education. I simply wanted to clarify that Common Core came from a process led by state governments through the National Governors Association. Following its development, the federal DOE has indeed tied some federal funding to the adoption of Common Core, as I said in my original comment. I can’t find where I said anything about the founding fathers wanting an educational system dominated by Washington or that I thought it would be awesome for kids to take standardized tests for weeks on end. I never even said whether I thought Common Core was a good thing or a bad thing, and I don’t believe I have the expertise or knowledge to make such a judgment at this time. Whatever you think I believe about broader educational issues is your projection, and certainly not based on my simple comment above.

  • Lisa Ann Homic

    We haven’t even mentioned sex ed and other secular dangers CC imposes.

    • LLC

      Even the Catholic schools are not immune from this. The CC for Catholic Schools recommends books for 1st graders that normalize same-sex marriage. For 4th grade, a book on social activism references NOW and Planned Parenthood. What is going on?!?