Changes to American school literature spark war over words

 

Washington, USA

As states across the country implement broad changes in curriculum from kindergarten through high school, English teachers worry that they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts.

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.

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.

"I'm struggling with this, and my students are struggling," said Highfill, who was named 2011 middle school teacher of the year in her state. "With informational text, there isn't that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They're getting bored. I'm seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than I've ever seen."

But the chief architect of the Common Core Standards said educators are overreacting as the standards move from concept to classroom.

"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.

Social studies teachers, for example, could have students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham Jail letter, while math students could read Euclid's "Elements" from 300 B.C.

The standards explicitly say that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught, said Coleman, who became president of the College Board in November. "It does really concern me that these facts are not as clear as they should be."

The specifics are spelled out in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards.

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 that 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.

"Schools are doing some goofy things — principals or superintendents are not reading," Shanahan, who was among the experts who advised Coleman on the standards, said.

Sandra Stotsky, who wrote the outgoing Massachusetts's pre-K-to-12 standards, which are regarded as among the best in the nation, said the Common Core's emphasis on nonfiction is misguided.

Tackling rich literature is the best way to prepare students for careers and college, said Stotsky, who blames mediocre national reading scores on weak young adult literature popular since the 1960s.

"There is no research base for the claim that informational reading will lead to college preparedness better than complex literary study," said Stotsky, a professor at the University of Arkansas.

At a convention of English teachers in November, Stotsky got an earful. "They hate the Common Core; they hate the idea they have to teach nonfiction," she said.

Stotsky and others have accused Coleman, who studied English literature at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, of trying to elevate fact-based reading and writing at the expense of literature and creative writing.

In a speech last year at the New York State Education Building, Coleman derided the personal essays that characterize most writing in primary and secondary schools.

"Forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with . . . [that] writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think," Coleman said, according to a recording. "What they instead care about is, can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you're saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me? It is rare in a working environment that someone says, 'Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.' "

In an interview, Coleman said U.S. students must learn to read complicated text of all sorts.

"One of the striking things in American education is that reading scores at the fourth-grade level have been frozen for 40 years," he said. "We've hit a wall in reader literacy that these standards respond to."

Nonfiction reading can excite some students, said Nell Duke, who teaches language, literacy and culture at the University of Michigan. "Some students really prefer factual kinds of texts," she said, noting that some studies have suggested boys especially prefer nonfiction. "Historically, elementary schools haven't given kids much opportunity to read that kind of text. For those kids, reading storybook after storybook about talking animals could be a bit of a turnoff."

Curriculum and academic standards have traditionally been determined by states and local communities. That has resulted in uneven results, with some states using lax standards while others are more rigorous. Sporadic efforts to create consistent, national standards have come and gone.

Several years ago, the National Governors Association began pushing the idea of common standards in English and math. The Gates Foundation invested tens of millions of dollars in the effort to write them. The Obama administration kicked the notion into high gear when it required states to adopt the common standards — or an equivalent — in order to compete for Race to the Top grant funds.

By this year, 45 states and the District of Columbia had signed onto the math and English standards. Minnesota has adopted only the English standards; Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted either.

The standards are designed to ensure that, for the first time, third-graders in Maine will acquire the same knowledge and skills as their peers in Hawaii. States will begin testing students against the new standards in 2014, making it possible for the first time to compare test scores across communities and states.

English teacher J.D. Wilson agrees with much of what the standards aim to accomplish. But he is disturbed by the subtle shift the new standards are already causing in his classroom at Wareham High School in Wareham, Mass.

"Reading for information makes you knowledgeable — you learn stuff," Wilson said. "But reading literature makes you wise."

Wilson has wrestled with which poems to cut from his lesson plans and which nonfiction to teach instead. And then he hit upon an idea.

This fall, he has taught "Literature Is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities," "Shakespeare, a Poet Who Is Still Making Our History" and "Who Killed the Liberal Arts?" They are all essays that emphasize the value of literature.

------

Here are some of the works recommended under the Common Core State Standards in English:

  • "The Canterbury Tales," by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • "The Great Gatsby," by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • "As I Lay Dying," by William Faulkner
  • "Common Sense," by Thomas Paine
  • The Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Jefferson
  • "Declaration of Sentiments," by the Seneca Falls Conference
  • "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" by Frederick Douglass
  • "Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences," by John Allen Paulos
  • "Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control," by Mark Fischetti
  • "Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell
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