Is understanding poetry a valuable skill? Is reading Les Miserables important? The new Common Core State Standards, adopted by 47 states and DC, say yes . . . but not really. Everyone agrees that learning to read is essential. The authors of the Common Core Standards argue that learning to extract facts and make inferences with nonfiction is a skill needed in college and career. Presently, the children in the U.S. are not prepared for the reading required to be successful postsecondary students, employees, or citizens. There are numerous sources of quantitative data that support this assertion and I do believe a problem exists (1). The CCSS’s solution is that by the time students are in 12th grade, the literacy curriculum should be 70 percent nonfiction and 30 percent fiction. Focusing on nonfiction will prepare children for the reality of college or career. This means that nonfiction will play a major role not only in social studies and science, but also in English.
As a public high school English teacher for 6 years, I know what is expected of these teachers. We are expected to teach in the same amount of time as all of the other subjects and with a high stakes test at the end of the course:
1. reading skills (rereading, summarizing, critiquing)
2. literature (metaphor, stanzas, characterization, irony)
3. cultural literacy (incorporation in the shared experience of their culture through reading the classics and talking about cultural periods like Romanticism and Modernism)
4. digital literacy (evaluating sources, navigating websites, using search engines)
5. language (grammar, connotation, root words)
6. creative/reflective writing (personal narratives, journaling, poetry)
7. informational/persuasive writing (aka pulling teeth)
8. research skills (because it is reading and writing after all)
9. study skills (because English is the only class students take every year)
10. administrative tasks (see #9)
The CCSS is not saying that English teachers should stop teaching literature; they are saying to shift the focus to nonfiction reading skills. With reform, there is always a loser. Reforming the English curriculum means something has to give and it seems to be literature. Now before you all shout “Hooray! No more iambic pentameter quizzes!” think of this. Teachers since the 1700’s have observed that children are more engaged in reading when they connect personally with the text. Because literature reflects the human experience, it is often more accessible for young readers. Engaged readers actually score higher on reading comprehension, more so than grouping by socioeconomic class, race, or gender (2). More importantly, English class is one of the few mandatory classes where students are challenged to not look for the right way, but to look in a different way, to be creative, and to use their imagination.
The unfortunate consequence lies in losing this creativity. When we focus on standardization and fact extraction, we miss what makes America great: innovation, ingenuity, imagination, thinking outside the box. We develop a generation who can read a manual, but nobody can invent something worth reading a manual about.
There is no easy solution in preparing our children for their future, but let us not overlook the consequences of our actions. Would it not be possible to add a mandatory class to the high school curriculum called Research, where students can practice reading nonfiction, digital literacy, and informational writing? This could help reach the goal of 70 percent nonfiction during the school day, while still giving students an opportunity to read The Scarlet Letter cover to cover. Many students have more than enough credits to graduate before the end of their senior year. Adding one compulsory class would not be a problem. During my high school experience, we had to pass Public Speaking in order to graduate. In looking at the other side of the coin, students who have failures or would possible fail the research course would not graduate and therefore lower graduation rates. This could be resolved by putting the Research course on the college-prep course of study and not a requirement for a career prep high school diploma. Meaning, universities expect students to take this class but it is not necessary to get a diploma.
I applaud the CCSS for not being afraid to tackle a problem. I applaud the CCSS for their commitment to utilize quantitative data, teacher focus groups, and international comparative research. All I am asking is for support to teach what cannot be measured. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
(1) National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social STudies, Science, and Technical Subjects: Appendix A. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf
(2) Ed. Tracey, D. H. and Morrow, L. M. (2012). Lenses on reading. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=jclKqpry_54C&pg=PA75&lpg=PA75&dq=guthrie+2004+engagement+theory&source=bl&ots=sWIjMPVmmx&sig=4z5Uu7hZRcfykeZ3XJlhdaItvhc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TywEUZzdJZSE8QSU4oCwBA&ved=0CDoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=guthrie%202004%20engagement%20theory&f=false