When elementary and secondary students return to archdiocesan schools next month they will have a new learning program, one which is touted as better at preparing them for 21st-century careers.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is being implemented in archdiocesan elementary and secondary schools in the areas of English language arts and mathematics. Science and social studies are planned for inclusion in the 2012-2013 school year.

“For the past five years we had been looking at our own curriculum,” said Mary Rochford, archdiocesan superintendent of schools. “There was so much to teach at each grade level. It was difficult to give depth at every area of the curriculum. When we looked at Common Core, we saw that that work had been done. We studied it, and it was a great time for us to adopt it.”

“The most significant thing is that the curriculum is no longer a mile wide with so many topics,” said Sister Edward William Quinn, I.H.M., archdiocesan director of elementary curriculum and instruction. “In the past there may have been 300 topics to teach during the course of a year. Now we will teach priority topics in depth. We want to make the students career-ready. The curriculum is designed with that intention in mind. It is a very interdisciplinary approach in which literacy permeates the curriculum. You are using thinking skills to solve the problem.”

The “priority topics” can be found on the web site www.catholicschools-phl.org under parent resources.

Rochford has done much of the background work for the CCSS and has informed teachers and administrators about the new program through newsletters, in-service days, DVDs and presentations.

Rochford explained the CCSS this way in one of the newsletters: “The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (Common Core State Standards). The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce The NGA Center and Common Core State Standards received initial feedback on the draft standards from national organizations representing, but not limited to, teachers, post secondary educators (including community colleges), civil rights groups, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Following the initial round of feedback, the draft standards were opened for public comment, receiving nearly 10,000 responses.”

Rochford also explained the thinking behind the integration of elementary and secondary teachers: “The idea of integrating elementary and secondary teachers supports our belief that curriculum should be seamless across our schools in grades K to 12. Since this was a basic introduction to the Common Core State Standards and not a grade-specific topic, it is hoped that everyone could learn from the presentation…. Currently and in the past, we have allowed schools to teach literacy in the manner in which the publisher of that school’s reading series delineated. Moving forward, all schools will approach literacy in the same manner, leading children to attain the specific standards for the grade. This is a new idea for our schools.”

The state of Pennsylvania adopted the core standards in 2010, and 48 states have currently done so. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is the first diocese in the state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, Rochford said, noting that the School District of Philadelphia will adopt the standards in 2012-2013.

“Since we were already working on our curriculum before Common Core came out, it gave us a jump start,” she said. “It dovetailed at the right time. We were prepared and ready for September 2011.”

The complaint the superintendent kept hearing from the Archdiocese’s teachers is that the curriculum was too large. The teachers felt they couldn’t give enough time to any one topic, which is why priority topics will be introduced. “We listen to our teachers,” Rochford said.

Despite the many successes of Catholic education as illustrated by the large amount of scholarship money awarded each year (4,229 students received $270,211,116 in 2011), there are parents who still think public schools have a better curriculum, Rochford said. Using the Core Standards will level the playing field, she added.

“In our curriculum we integrate the Catholic faith throughout,” Rochford said. “What does the Church tell us? How to be fair. How to be honest. We will be teaching the students the right way. We’re not adopting a secular curriculum. We’re not trying to be like a public school. We’re very Catholic, and very competitive.”

One of the most important advantages of the Core Curriculum is its universality.

“If a student moves to another state, the student won’t be lost since both states are using the Common Core Standards,” Sister Edward William said. “That came out of the research of why students were falling behind. They didn’t have a common curriculum.”

Sister Edward William said learning algebra skills will take place “from kindergarten through 11th grade. We will build through the curriculum.”

Dr. Carol Cary, director of secondary education, said strong reading skills will be emphasized. “The Common Core Standards have been generated on the depth of knowledge rather than the breath of knowledge,” she explained.

Although there will be fewer topics, those that are covered will be covered more in depth, Cary said. “In writing over four years the students will study three types — narrative, argumentative and expository,” she said. “There will be a little less focus on creative writing. Those three types will get students career-ready. They will be able to write for college or for business.”

Critical reading will also be emphasized. “We expect the students to get close to the text, analyze, evaluate the reading, literary and informational reading,” Cary said. “The other big change in grades 9 through 12 is to expose the students to nonfiction — historical documents, texts of speeches, (and) science reading. We want to integrate across other disciplines.”

The trendsetting aspect of the Common Core Standards will help archdiocesan schools in the areas of marketing and competing with public schools. “We are ahead in the adoption and the implementation stages,” Cary said. “We are ahead of the curve, and we are doing it in a timely fashion.”

The tools the schools will be using to help students adjust to the challenge of working in a global economy were outlined in another newsletter from Superintendent Rochford: “College- and career-readiness standards have been incorporated into the K-12 standards, as was promised in the March 10, 2010 draft. The criteria that we used to develop the college- and career-readiness standards, as well as these K-12 standards are:

• Aligned with college and work expectations;

• Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;

• Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;

• Informed by top-performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and,

• Evidence and/or research-based.”

In an earlier story in The Catholic Standard & Times, the curriculum was described this way: “In English language arts, the standards require certain critical content for all students, including America’s founding documents, foundational American literature and Shakespeare.

“In addition to content coverage, the standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking and listening.

“The remaining decisions about what content should be taught are determined at the state and local levels.

“In mathematics, the standards build a base from whole numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. Such a blueprint is designed to support a student’s ability to learn and to apply more demanding math concepts and procedures.”

This year, for the first time, all 10th grade students in the 17 archdiocesan high schools will use the same English Language Arts textbook. In June 2012, students in ninth and tenth grades will take an online assessment of the Common Core Standards.

“The Common Core Standards are rigorous,” Dr. Cary said. “We need to increase rigor if we want to compete globally. This is the right movement for education at this time. We’re in the forefront of this change.”

Jim Gauger is a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside, and a freelance writer.