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Fiction (and nonfiction) about the Common Core State Standards

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December 11, 2012 02:35 pm


Do the Common Core State Standards mean the end of literature in schools? To read some comments in the news media, one might get the impression that the standards will drive Mark Twain and Shakespeare out of classrooms, to make way for government manuals on insulation and invasive plants.

At issue is the Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts. According to the Standards, students should read more informational texts than they currently do in order to be prepared for the expectations of colleges and careers. The Standards note that the framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) calls for 50 percent of the reading passages in elementary school, and 70 percent of the reading passages in high school, to be informational (the remainder should be narrative), and the Standards document recommends that schools adhere to those percentages.

In response, advocates of fiction and literature are tearing out their hair. As a columnist for the Washington Post put it:

“Forget ‘Catcher in the Rye’ (seems to encourage assassins), ‘The Great Gatsby’ (too 1 percenty), ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (anything written before 1970 must be racist) and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (probably a Suzanne Collins rip-off). Bring out the woodchipping manuals!”

Is this true? In the spirit of the Standards, which also place a strong emphasis on arguing from evidence from texts, let’s look at the text.

It is true that the Standards call for matching the proportions of narrative and information texts used by NAEP:

“The Standards aim to align instruction with this framework so that many more students than at present can meet the requirements of college and career readiness. In K–5, the Standards follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts… In accord with NAEP’s growing emphasis on informational texts in the higher grades, the Standards demand that a significant amount of reading of informational texts take place…”

Yet the same paragraph that sets forth those requirements also notes that much of the nonfiction reading will be done outside of English language arts class. As the Standards state: “Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.”

A footnote further spells this out: “The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.”

To me, that means that Twain and Shakespeare can rest a little easier. They will still have a place in English classes.

Now about those insulation and invasive plant manuals. It is true that Appendix B of the Common Core ELA standards lists them as illustrative texts. The idea of the list is to show the level of material students should read at each grade level. But the document clearly states that these manuals are informational texts in science, mathematics, and technical subjects. The list of grade-level appropriate stories includes The Odyssey, Fahrenheit 451, and, yes, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Literature is important, but so are informational texts. When students go to college or start work, they will read historical documents, scientific journal articles, and technical manuals, as well as novels and plays. And the evidence is that students get little exposure to nonfiction.

The California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS), an organization supported by the California-based Institute for Evidence-Based Change, was created to turn around the high remediation rates students in San Diego faced when they went to college. The organization found that, although students earned grades of A or B in their high school classes, 95 of students who entered community college did not pass their placement exams, and were assigned to remedial courses. The remediation rates were high whether students stopped taking English classes after tenth grade or continued through twelfth grade.

Looking deeper, Cal-PASS found that the problem was what was taught: high school and college teachers were teaching different curricula. While the high school program reflected the national emphasis on literature, focusing on characters and storylines, the community college teachers focused on writing to inform, persuade, and describe. In response to this finding, high school teachers revamped their instruction; 86 percent of students then completed college-level English classes.

A study by Nell K. Duke found that the lack of emphasis on informational texts begins as early as first grade. Her study found that only 9.8 percent of books and other materials in classroom libraries, and 2.6 percent of materials on classroom walls, were informational text.

In addition, she found, only 3.6 minutes of the classroom day were devoted to informational text—only 1.9 minutes in classrooms with students from low socio-economic classes. Not surprisingly, U.S. ten-year-olds had the largest gap in performance between literary reading and informational reading of any country participating in the 2003 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

The discussion about the Common Core State Standards’ requirements is a healthy one. If the Standards are to change practice and, ultimately, student learning, teachers, parents, and informed citizens should know what they say. But the discussion should be grounded in facts. Let’s take a deep breath, go back to the Standards, and get to work to implement them.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education. You can read his other blog posts here


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