Educational reform efforts in the public schools are generally well-intentioned, but once they are taken over by the educational bureaucrats they often achieve the opposite of what was intended. A commendable concern to ensure that students have learned something from the classes they take, that they achieve certain “learning outcomes,” gave us the dumbing down of “Outcome based education.” The “No Child Left Behind” program left behind whole schools.
The latest reform program being foisted on all public schools is “The Common Core.” That derives from a great idea, having students learn a basic foundation of material, including reading key books. In practice, though, the Common Core is resulting in literature being gutted from the English curriculum.
The Common Core State Standards in English, which have been adopted in 46 states and the District, call for public schools to ramp up nonfiction so that by 12th grade students will be reading mostly “informational text” instead of fictional literature. But as teachers excise poetry and classic works of fiction from their classrooms, those who designed the guidelines say it appears that educators have misunderstood them
Proponents of the new standards, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, say U.S. students have suffered from a diet of easy reading and lack the ability to digest complex nonfiction, including studies, reports and primary documents. That has left too many students unprepared for the rigors of college and demands of the workplace, experts say.
The new standards, which are slowly rolling out now and will be in place by 2014, require that nonfiction texts represent 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, and the requirement grows to 70 percent by grade 12.
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. . . .
“There’s a disproportionate amount of anxiety,” said David Coleman, who led the effort to write the standards with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Coleman said educators are misinterpreting the directives.
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.
Timothy Shanahan, who chairs the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said school administrators apparently have flunked reading comprehension when it comes to the standards.
So the idea is that science and other subjects would include reading in those areas. Great idea. But because the administrators also are not very good readers and because no one but English teachers want to require reading, the burden of requiring 70% “informational” reading is falling on English teachers,who must make room for it by cutting out literature. So instead of reading Old Man and the Sea, students have to read “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.”