Mich. Diocese Shifts to Classical Curriculum, Avoids Common Core
By Kimberly Scharfenberger –
Educators and parents are increasingly dissatisfied with secular standards that neglect to emphasize virtuous development in K-12 academics, but one diocese in Michigan has responded by making the bold decision to implement a classical, liberal arts curriculum for all diocesan schools. And the diocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools, Mark Salisbury, told The Cardinal Newman Society that the program has been widely well-received by teachers and students and is improving education for the entire diocese.
“We are enthusiastic about our early successes,” Salisbury shared. “Teachers are happy with the results as well. We have improved our ability to teach students how to write well, students are learning and memorizing more poetry” and the curriculum’s integration of Latin studies “has helped students with English grammar, vocabulary and critical thinking skills.” A recent satisfaction survey of more than 440 parents for the 2015-16 school year revealed that 76 percent of parents were highly satisfied with the academic programs.
Prior to the classical education shift, the Diocese of Marquette had no set curriculum. “Our schools had been teaching from a mixture of state standards and their own local efforts to integrate the faith into daily lesson plans,” said Salisbury. But an opportunity to change that system came about during 2013, when the diocese was temporarily without a bishop.
“It seemed like the right time to begin afresh and work to build a more comprehensively Catholic curriculum for approval,” Salisbury shared, so he joined with a team of diocesan school principals “to build a curriculum model for our schools from the ground up toward a Catholic vision of education.”
The team focused extensively on the goals for Catholic education articulated in Archbishop John Michael Miller’s The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools. According to Archbishop Miller, Catholic schools should be recognized by five essential principles. Catholic schools are: “inspired by a supernatural vision,” “founded on Christian anthropology,” “animated by communion and community,” “imbued with the Catholic worldview throughout the curriculum,” and “sustained by the Gospel witness of the teachers and staff.”
Keeping these principles in mind, it quickly became clear that a Catholic liberal arts curriculum was the best way forward in Marquette, especially since such a curriculum has been “the perennial and consistent curriculum framework applied throughout history in Catholic schools,” said Salisbury.
Moreover, the liberal arts are “founded on a Christian anthropology and imbued with a Catholic worldview because we are constantly looking for the good, true and beautiful in each subject we teach.” From there, students are prepared “to ‘see’ God, who is the Good, the True and the Beautiful — and the source of all goodness, truth and beauty.” This preparation facilitates students’ understanding of scripture and participation in the liturgy.
Diocesan educators then set about crafting a foundations document for the new curriculum, which Salisbury shared with the Newman Society.
“We began our curriculum foundations document with the supernatural vision — that is, with the end in mind — namely, that our students will develop friendships with Christ because this is the foundation of true happiness in this life and the next,” said Salisbury. From that vision, the foundations document integrated opportunities for students to learn how to live virtuously and work towards the perfection of character.
“The greatest happiness a person can attain is communion with Jesus Christ,” the document begins. “Therefore, the core of our curriculum is the person of Jesus Christ. We hope to graduate students who have ‘encountered the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth’ (cf. Spe Salvi, 4).” The curriculum also “seeks to form our graduate’s character, aiming as high as its perfection.”
The document outlines four essential elements of the diocese’s academic curriculum, these being: “ordered basic knowledge, basic skills or tools of learning, development of the moral imagination and the principle of correlation between subjects.” With these four parts, the ultimate goal is “to assist students in the formation of their character based in their relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Bishop John Doerfler was installed as the new bishop of Marquette in February 2014, and after being presented with the foundations document, “he enthusiastically approved and supported the direction towards a Catholic liberal arts curriculum and directed that this be implemented in the Diocese of Marquette,” said Salisbury.
The diocese decided to avoid using Common Core State Standards for its schools because, as explained by Bishop Doerfler, those standards would not “benefit the mission, Catholic identity or academic excellence of our schools”:
[T]he Catholic schools in the Diocese of Marquette will not adapt or adopt the Common Core State Standards which were developed for the public school system. That said, we acknowledge that there is a base of adequate secular material in the Common Core State Standards that faith-based schools could reference as part of their educational programming. While we respectfully understand that other private and Catholic schools may discern to adapt or adopt the standards for these and other reasons, we do not believe that such actions would benefit the mission, Catholic identity or academic excellence of our schools.
Dr. Jamie Arthur, senior fellow and manager of the Newman Society’s Catholic Education Honor Roll, praised the curriculum for being “fundamentally different, in that students are provided an opportunity and the tools to develop an interconnectedness of knowledge centered on our faith and God.”
Arthur noted that more educators and parents have been increasingly interested in classical education since the introduction of Common Core over five years. They are looking for “alternatives” to “secular standards,” shared Arthur, and a classical education is often the answer to their concerns.
But Arthur added that these changes are not possible without “a faculty who understands that their role is to provide instruction that develops curiosity, a passion for learning and the desire for wisdom and virtuous living.”
Marquette understands this important role firsthand, as evidenced in their foundations document, which places a vital responsibility on teachers. “This program is possible only when it is sustained by our teachers’ experience and witness of a personal relationship with Christ,” according to the document.
“As Catholic educators, we understand the great value of collaboration and team effort between all educational leaders who have the first and best interest of the child in mind — helping him or her to know, love and serve the Lord,” Salisbury said.
The Marquette diocese also started an annual training conference for Catholic educators last year, and is hosting the 2016 Midwest Conference on Catholic Liberal Arts Education in Escanaba, Mich., this June. The conference gives participants the opportunity to discuss integrating beauty and truth into every subject.
Participants will benefit from training in Latin instruction and discussion of implementing the liberal arts at early childhood levels, among other topics. Notable speakers include Michael Van Hecke, headmaster of Saint Augustine Academy — a 2014 School of Excellence on the Newman Society’s Catholic Education Honor Roll — and Jose Gonzalez, director of professional development at the Sophia Institute for Teachers.