05 December 2012

"Common Core" state education standards creating turmoil

I've already seen several articles this week on a new set of curriculum standards.  These excerpts from a column at Salon:
The Common Core State Standards, which will be implemented by more than 40 states by 2014, require that 50 percent of elementary school reading be nonfiction, climbing to 70 percent by 12th grade. Supporters, the Post says, believe American students have suffered from “a diet of easy reading and lack the ability to digest complex nonfiction, including studies, reports and primary documents,” leaving them unprepared for higher education and the working world.

Schools face problems ranging from overcrowded classrooms to crumbling buildings to malnourished students. But the idea of rigorous common standards in general, if not these specific guidelines, has support from powerful interests including the Department of Education, the U.S. Army and numerous reformists. Some of the suggested ideas would be a notable change from what almost all Americans remember of high school.
Salon cites an article in The Washington Post, which notes that -
Among the suggested non­fiction pieces for high school juniors and seniors are Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration.

English teachers across the country are trying to figure out which poetry, short stories and novels might have to be sacrificed to make room for nonfiction... Jamie Highfill is mourning the six weeks’ worth of poetry she removed from her eighth-grade English class at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Ark. She also dropped some short stories and a favorite unit on the legends of King Arthur to make room for essays by Malcolm Gladwell and a chapter from “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell’s book about social behavior...

Yes, the standards do require increasing amounts of nonfiction from kindergarten through grade 12, Coleman said. But that refers to reading across all subjects, not just in English class, he said. Teachers in social studies, science and math should require more reading, which would allow English teachers to continue to assign literature, he said...

In practice, the burden of teaching the nonfiction texts is falling to English teachers, said Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University: “You have chemistry teachers, history teachers saying, ‘We’re not going to teach reading and writing, we have to teach our subject matter. That’s what you English teachers do.’ ”

Sheridan Blau, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, said teachers across the country have told him their principals are insisting that English teachers make 70 percent of their readings nonfiction. “The effect of the new standards is to drive literature out of the English classroom,” he said.
I can see where this will create some major arguments in faculty meetings.  I was an English major in college, so I'm sorry to hear about these changes, though I do understand the impetus driving the reform.  My high school had a rigorous reading program, but if I were to go back to it and remove some assigned reading, I know what my first choice would be - The Forsythe Saga.  I can't believe I slogged my way through that...


  1. Oh, the horror of having to teach students how to read documents that they will have to read and write later in their live instead of fluffy art.

    Sounds like a very worthwhile effort.

    NB: I understand the regret of loosing art in school. Art is important. However, it is also important that students can read a textbook or a manual when they come out of school.

  2. I'm a teacher. I scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT verbal section; 96th percentile on the GRE verbal section. I read a MASSIVE amount of fiction. Hardy Boys, comic books, etc. While I don't consider the Bible to be fiction, I read a lot of it also. To be fair, I didn't have a television in my home until I was married and 34-years-old. But that wasn't an issue, and today I feel it was a crucial environmental element in my education. The subtraction of a distraction had to be a net positive.

    The truth, it seems to me, is that we are training our children to be functionaries. They will be able to do something for someone else very effectively. I'm not some left-wing zealot (quite the opposite, I imagine), but I found that IF YOU CAN READ WELL, you can read anything. It doesn't matter if it's a non-fiction primary source document or an Avengers comic book.

    I consider my reading of King James Version English to have been instrumental in helping me taking on Shakespeare, as well as be able to easily handle all less-demanding reading.

    My theory is based on what worked for me. I didn't have to be "taught" to think critically. I was just given "the facts" mainly, and I eventually began to draw comparisons, note differences, make connections, etc. It seems that today's schools--at least some of them--are trying to get kids to think...without worrying about giving them plenty to think ABOUT.

    I have no problem with the core curriculum. The problem is that when teachers are trying to "make the grade" with their own supervisors, we often focus more on the latest teaching fads than on truly teaching our students. What ails American schools has little to do with the material being taught. It has to do with creating learning environments where students are attentive and orderly, where troubled students, instead of being thrown into the deep end of the pool to drown, are placed in small groups with focused help. It has to do with disorderly students being permitted to disrupt the learning environment over and over.

    At least that's how I see it. I have a feeling that what worked for America 50-100 years ago, and which brought us to world leadership, will work today in our classrooms...if we don't legislate it out.

  3. While I see Anonymous' and Stan's point, I also remember being forced to read classics in high school that neither I nor most of my peers had the life experience to make any sense of. I was the only one in the class to pick up on the impotent protagonist of "The Sun Also Rises," and that's only thanks to Google. Repeatedly we found that if you want a good grade, look up the right answer: you will not be able to come up with it on your own. Published writer here, no linguistic slouch, but I view the classics I read in high school as a waste of time. I even went back and re-read some of them recently and was astounded at how much I had missed. Time would be much better spent:

    *teaching basic literacy to those who missed out in earlier grades
    *cultivating a love of reading among those who can read, such as by suggesting experience-appropriate books.
    *fostering insightful classroom discussion of literary topics (foreshadowing, archetypes) even if some kids did just read the Sparknotes
    *heck, helping the STEM teachers do their jobs.

  4. Anonymous's point about training functionaries is spot-on. I would add that if the kids aren't (forcibly?) exposed to a literary canon (any canon) at an early age, there won't be much hope for any interest in such things once they're sucked into the technocracy. Not to mention time. And if critical reasoning skills should suffer as a result, I won't lose all that much sleep. One man's reasoning is another man's sophistry, after all, and it's a pretty short walk from the mythologizing of de Tocqueville to pure propaganda. Say what you will about the utility of state-sanctioned literature, but at least it still provides some connection to our common humanity. We ain't machines yet, boys and girls.

  5. Forcing students to read Malcolm Gladwell will, I suspect, fail to produce the results that people who think reading Malcolm Gladwell is essential in producing. And yes, this just seems like another way to make secondary education a precursor to a life of obedient servitude. Nobody has to be able to read a textbook once they leave school, pretty much by definition.

  6. Alex, thanks for reminding us all that irony isn't something that can be learned in textbooks.

  7. I would remove Great Expectations and Catcher in the Rye so fast it would make your head spin. Pip and Holden have to be two of the least sympathetic and most passively useless characters in all of literature. Say what you will about Hamlet being indecisive, at least he got shit done in the end.

  8. I too can see no problem in removing plenty of useless literature which has been foisted upon students. But there are some true gems to inspire deaper thought than any textbook could do. We don't want to lose that.

    Still, it seems to me most of the non-fiction truly belongs in science or History/Social Studies. For example, doesn't "Democracy In America" seem like an ideal text for discussion in a great Social Studies class?

  9. This is Anonymous again (the teacher).

    I imagine that we all have a "canon" of books or other literature that we think it would behoove others to read. I know I have dealt with that intellectual snobbery that acts as if you are a philistine if you haven't immersed yourself in Proust (whom I have never read, to my knowledge). The truth, I think, is that if you have read broadly, you likely have encountered a good representation of what is needed to have a decent understanding and appreciation of the world.

    If we can just get kids interested in reading ANYTHING--even comic books--we are the better for it. Because IF they can read well, as I have said, they can read pretty much anything. I didn't have any training in reading legalese, but at some point, I realized I could read it fairly well (though the authors should certainly be executed for trying to pass that off as something worthwhile).

    Graphic novels can likely go a LONG WAY in interesting a large segment of those who don't like to read. By the time a person has read a million words, they have a basic understanding of English that will give them access to greater literature. When you love to read good things, you will eventually be willing to cast your net on the other side of the boat every now and then.

    Sometime back, upon hearing that "Anna Karenina" (by Tolstoy) was considered the greatest novel of all time, I took it upon myself to read it. I loved it! Yes, it was long. It didn't thrill me like a Cussler or a Ludlum, but it was SO RICH that I didn't want it to end. Now, I don't go looking for another Karenina, but I did feel some satisfaction for having done that.

    Give kids a long list and let THEM decide what it is they would like to read. Or, if that's unsuitable, give them a short list. But by all means, get them reading. Once you can read, you can be exposed to thought that makes you more than a mindless cog in the wheel.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...