October 17, 2012 :: There is no more troubling fact about U.S. education than this: The reading scores of 17-year-olds have shown no significant improvement since 1980.
The new Common Core State Standards in 46 states and the District are designed to solve that problem. Among other things, students are being asked to read more nonfiction, considered by many experts to be the key to success in college or the workplace.
The Common Core standards are one of our hottest trends. Virginia declined to participate but was ignored in the rush of good feeling about the new reform. Now, the period of happy news conferences is over, and teachers have to make big changes. That never goes well. Expect battles, particularly in this educationally hypersensitive region.
Teaching more nonfiction will be a key issue. Many English teachers don’t think it will do any good. Even if it were a good idea, they say, those who have to make the change have not had enough training to succeed — an old story in school reform.
The clash of views is well described by two prominent scholars for the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy group, in a new paper. (Executive Summary + link follows) Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas and Mark Bauerlein of Emory University say the reformers who wrote the Common Core standards have no data to support their argument that kids have been hurt by reading too much fiction. They say analyzing great literature would give students all the critical thinking skills they need. The problem, they say, is not the lack of nonfiction but the dumbed-down fiction that has been assigned in recent decades.
“Problems in college readiness stem from an incoherent, less-challenging literature curriculum from the 1960s onward,” Bauerlein and Stotsky say. “Until that time, a literature-heavy English curriculum was understood as precisely the kind of pre-college training students needed.”
The standards were inspired, in part, by a movement to improve children’s reading abilities by replacing standard elementary school pabulum with a rich diet of history, geography, science and the arts. University of Virginia scholar E.D. Hirsch Jr. has written several books on this. He established the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville to support schools that want their third-graders studying ancient Rome and their fourth-graders listening to Handel.
Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher who is vice president of the foundation, quotes a key part of the Common Core standards making this case:
“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”
The Common Core guidelines recommend fourth-graders get an equal amount of fiction and nonfiction. Eighth-grade reading should be about 55 percent nonfiction, going to a recommended 70 percent by 12th grade.
Bauerlein and Stotsky say that could hurt college readiness. The new standards and associated tests, they say, will make “English teachers responsible for informational reading instruction, something they have not been trained for, and will not be trained for unless the entire undergraduate English major as well as preparatory programs in English education in education schools are changed.”
Pondiscio says he admires Bauerlein and Stotsky and doesn’t see why English classes have to carry the nonfiction weight. Social studies and science courses can do that. The real battle, he says, will be in the elementary schools, where lesson plans have failed to provide the vocabulary, background knowledge and context that make good readers.
Those who want the new standards say learning to read is more than just acquiring a skill, like bike riding. It is absorbing an entire world. That is what the fight in your local district will be about.
How Common Core’s English Language Arts Standards Place College Readiness at Risk
A Pioneer Institute White Paper
by Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY | click here for full report
The aim of this paper is to convince state and local education policy makers to do two things:
• To emphasize Common Core’s existing literary-historical standards, requiring English departments and English teachers to begin with them as they redesign their secondary English curricula.
• To add and prioritize a new literary-historical standard of their own along the lines of “Demonstrate knowledge of culturally important authors and/or texts in British literature from the Renaissance to Modernism.”
Far from contradicting Common Core, these actions follow its injunction that, apart from “certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare . . . the remaining crucial decisions about what content should be taught are left to state and local determination.” In other words, Common Core asks state and local officials to supplement its requirements with their own. It also expects them to help students “systematically acquire knowledge in literature.” This paper explains why the two priorities spelled out above are necessary if we seek to use the English curriculum to increase college readiness and the capacity for analytical thinking in all students.
The paper begins by explaining why college readiness will likely decrease when the secondary English curriculum prioritizes literary nonfiction or informational reading and reduces the study of complex literary texts and literary traditions. It then shows that Common Core’s division of its reading standards is unwarranted. Common Core itself provides no evidence to support its promise that more literary nonfiction or informational reading in the English class will make all students ready for college-level coursework. In addition, NAEP’s reading frameworks, invoked by Common Core itself, provide no support for Common Core’s division of its reading standards into ten for information and nine for literature at all grade levels. Nor do they provide a research base for the percentages NAEP uses for its reading tests. Common Core’s architects have inaccurately and without warrant applied NAEP percentages for passage types on its reading tests to the English and reading curriculum, misleading teachers, administrators, and test developers alike.
The paper proceeds with a detailed description of what is present and what is missing in Common Core’s literature standards. The deficiencies in Common Core’s literature standards and its misplaced stress on literary nonfiction or informational reading in the English class reflect the limited expertise of Common Core’s architects and sponsoring organizations. Its secondary English language arts standards were not developed or approved by English teachers and humanities scholars, nor were they research-based or internationally benchmarked.
We conclude by showing how NAEP’s criteria for passage selection can guide construction of state-specific tests to ensure that all students, not just an elite, study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works in high school. Such tests can promote classroom efforts to develop in all students the background knowledge and quality of analytical thinking that authentic college coursework requires.
Common Core believes that more informational readings in high school will improve college readiness, apparently on the sole basis that students in college read mostly informational texts, not literary ones. We know of no research, however, to support that faith. Rather, the history of college readiness in the 20th century suggests that problems in college readiness stem from an incoherent, less-challenging literature curriculum from the 1960s onward. Until that time, a literature-heavy English curriculum was understood as precisely the kind of pre-college training students needed.
The chief problem with a 50/50 division of reading instructional goals in English language arts is its lack of an empirical rationale. NAEP’s division of passage types is based on “estimates” of the kinds of reading students do in and outside of school. NAEP expressly denies that its grade 12 reading tests assess the English curriculum, especially since it has (deliberately) never assessed drama. Moreover, the 50/50 division in grades 6-12 makes English teachers responsible for informational reading instruction, something they have not been trained for, and will not be trained for unless the entire undergraduate English major as well as preparatory programs in English education in education schools are changed.
State law typically specifies only that state tests must be based on state standards. Since most states have adopted Common Core’s ELA standards as their state standards, and Common Core’s College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading are mainly generic reading skills, states can generate state-specific guidelines for a secondary literature curriculum addressing what we recommend above without conflicting with any of Common Core’s ELA standards.
Otherwise, state and local policy makers will see the very problems in reading that Common Core aimed to remedy worsen. The achievement gap will persist or widen; while high-achieving students in academically-oriented private and suburban schools may receive rich literary-historical instruction, students in the bottom two-thirds of our student population with respect to achievement, especially those in low-performing schools, will receive non-cumulative, watery training in mere reading comprehension.