TAMPA — School districts across the country are getting closer to fully ushering in a tougher set of academic standards that are designed to challenge students to think deeper and more critically.
But public school teachers and students are not the only ones making the transition to the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
So are some Tampa Bay area private schools, including the nearly 50 schools and centers that fall under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Petersburg.
Public schools are required to adhere to the standards, a set of English and math benchmarks that came onto the scene in 2010 and outline what students should know by the end of each grade. Private schools are choosing to put them in place.
Diocese Schools Superintendent Alberto Vázquez-Matos said diocesan schools are adapting the Common Core by infusing it into the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools.
Diocese schools began phasing in the standards two years ago, the beginning of a six-year process. They will be fully in place within four years, Vazquez-Matos said.
“Here in the diocese, we’ve always looked at what the state of Florida was doing with their standards,” he said. “We’ve always used them as a basis to align to what we have without compromising our Catholic identity and removing anything that’s contrary to church teachings. As Florida is adopting the Common Core, we, too, look at it and see what fits us. Our main goal is to prepare them for heaven and for college and career.”
Students at diocesan schools like Tampa Catholic High School do not take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test as their public school peers do, and they will not take whichever Common Core-aligned assessment test the state chooses to use. Vázquez-Matos said the diocese will stick with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
The Florida Department of Education is on track to choose a new assessment test in the spring, and students are slated to take it for the first time next school year, when the standards should be fully in place. Meanwhile, schools superintendents and school board members across the state are calling for the state to give school districts a three-year extension.
Not all Catholic educators support the Common Core standards, which some opponents say jeopardize local control over schools, dictate the way teachers teach and are easier rather than tougher than current standards.
Among the critics is a group of Catholic scholars from universities across the country who signed a letter to bishops in October denouncing the standards and calling them a “grave disservice to Catholic education.” They argued the standards are less rigorous and will “dumb down” education.
William Kirk, vice president for student affairs at Ave Maria University in Collier County, is one of the 130 scholars who signed the letter.
“The richness of a Catholic education can be stifled by rigid standards that affect curriculum,” said Kirk, who said he was speaking as an individual and not for the university. “I understand the desire to have standards, but I think we have enough accreditation standards out there. I don’t think the Common Core is helpful in that regard and I don’t think it’s appropriate for a Catholic diocese.”
But Vázquez-Matos said the Common Core encourages teachers to work with students on deepening their critical thinking skills.
“Our Catholic school culture always embraced the critical thinking skills of our students,” he said.
The diocese is a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, a lobbying group for Catholic education based in Washington, D.C. that recently received more than $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to put toward training for teachers on the standards.
Vázquez-Matos said diocese teachers have attended association workshops and received online training.
Some local Catholic schools that are separate from the diocese, like the Academy of the Holy Names, have been using the standards for years.
Teachers at the school have been using the language arts standards since 2010 and introduced the math standards last year.
“As a Catholic independent school, we’re in a perfect situation,” said Brigid Fishman, the school’s elementary principal. “We don’t have a tie to high-stakes testing. We already have internal pieces where we measure how we’re doing. There’s some really good things with Common Core. We feel like it makes kids think and we want that. We are getting kids ready for a different world.”
Fishman said the standards set challenging goals for the students, and she has already seen results, even in her own son, a first-grader.
“The math talk that’s coming out of my son, it’s amazing,” she said.
An Academy of Holy Names first-grader, for instance, can tell you not only which numbers are even, but can explain why. Before Common Core, the standars were more about finding the correct answer. Common Core stresses how how to get the correct answer.
Last school year, first-grade teacher Heather Graham set up math work stations in her classroom. Students shift around the room in small groups to the various stations, learning about addition, subtraction, counting and units of measure with hands-on activities while Graham works with a group in the back of the room.
“Our belief in Common Core is based on applying concepts used in class to real-world situations,” Graham said. “They need to understand what the numbers mean. In the past, when we’ve introduced math measurement, we would solely take a ruler out and measure. Now we work on (answering) why we are using an inch versus a foot, what is the reasoning and why we have two different measurements.”
Tampa’s Jesuit High School is also adapting the Common Core to some degree.
There, the math department has aligned to Common Core, and teachers are using the language arts standards.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen nationally an initiative to define what knowledge, skills and abilities to bring to our kids,” Jesuit Headmaster Barry Neuburger said. “The initiative has caught fire.”
Still, the school picks and chooses what fits best for its students within the standards.
“It’s part of our world here, but we are not going to aggressively infuse it into our world,” Neuburger said. “We work on physical and emotional development all wrapped into a spiritual formation. Common Core can’t drive every aspect of what you’re doing in a school.”