Literature is leaving public schools.
The subtext in that sentence carries the markers of an inflammatory statement, doesn’t it? Under the Common Core State Standards—an initiative out of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) developed to provide a consistent educational framework for students, with college and career-readiness in mind—70% of what high school students read in the classroom must be nonfiction, by 2014.
Think about what you read in high school: Boo Radley, and Yossarian, and Gatsby. If you had a really cool teacher, maybe you got some Joyce and Greene, or Vonnegut and Hemingway. You trudged through The Odyssey, and afterward, Shakespeare felt like a walk in the park. You thumbed through the pages of Wright and Morrison with grim determination, and you shook your head at the prose-bound antics of Wilde and Twain.
These are my memories of high school English in the public school system, and I’m not gonna lie—many classics are dry. Your lit teacher? He’s got a reading list for his students that probably bores him sometimes, too. But it’s a list filled with a wide variety of reading options that must now be compressed into 30% of his 9-month curriculum.
Why is this happening? The NGA Center and CCSSO claim that students entering college and the workforce are unprepared to handle the studies, reports, and primary documents often utilized in higher education and in the real world. So, by senior year, students in the 45 states and three territories that have adopted the Common Core will be reading “mostly informational text, instead of fictional literature.”
And in case you were thinking, “Yes. Excellent. Now I can read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln for class credit!”… Well, okay, maybe. But it’s suggested that you read FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management from the US General Services Administration, instead.
Extreme examples? Sure. But those are examples featured on the recommended Grade 11 list of informational texts. And while cross-curriculum instruction in reading material is the apparent, understated goal in this (e.g., science teachers will assign scientific-themed reading in addition to teaching from the textbook and doing lab work), a majority of reading and literary learning happens in the English classroom. In order to meet that stated 70% nonfiction goal, it’s the English teachers who are having to slice-and-dice their lesson plans, more often than not.
I’m trying to picture my teen years shaped by fact instead of fiction. I’m wondering if I would have been better prepared for college—would I be a researcher finishing up her PhD in socioeconomic theory now, instead of working in educational publishing by day and writing romances by night, with only bare-bones undergrad coursework behind her?
I’ll be honest: High school English didn’t teach me to read any better than I already read—my standardized test scores (silly things) in reading were set in 99th-percentile stone thanks to my parents’ commitment to reading and summers spent at the local library. But it did increase my vocabulary, alter my stunted upper-middle-class worldview, and force me to discover a sea of words beyond the tattered paperback covers of my favorite genre-fiction reads. High school English is when I fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell and John Steinbeck. It’s when I built the foundation for understanding authorial voice and critical literary theory, concepts that would later be expounded upon in college classes. High school English is where I learned to enjoy verse and memoirs and philosophical treatises.
So…yes. Perhaps. Perhaps if I had been reading FedViews and Executive Order 13423 (or the like), I wouldn’t be chasing down the dream of being a fiction writer. Perhaps the dream itself would be different.
The NGA Center and CCSSO are addressing the statistically proven trend that our country’s students are backsliding in reading comprehension. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), “the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas,” recently released the vocabulary scores for students grades 4 and 8, showing 2009 and 2011 results from the NAEP-administered reading-comprehension assessments through the National Center for Education Statistics. The notable bit of information to take away is that the number of top-scoring students declined between 2009 and 2011, indicating that vocabulary knowledge is faltering.
Is this due to the implementation of the Common Core? Potentially. Students learn facts through informational texts—textbooks have been designed with that in mind. Reading comprehension, however, has not traditionally been pinpointed as born of repeated exposure to informational text, but as a skill set developed from mining literature (specifically fiction) for literary elements and objective and subjective themes. Pulling information from a report in a scientific journal is much different than pulling information on the Dust Bowl from The Grapes of Wrath.
My opinion was once, “At least kids are reading.” Yet we know, much as with people and minds, that not all words are created equal. And I, for one, find this idea of encouraging reading comprehension in children only insofar is it will benefit them professionally rather appalling. The following quote, taken from the Washington Post‘s article on the controversial subject and said by David Coleman (who studied English literature at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and who led the effort to write the Common Core State Standards with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), marks all that I find wrong about the motivation behind this 70% mentality:
“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.’ ”
I read for work, yes. But if the only text I read was work related, my intelligence would suffer as my knowledge base deteriorated and I would be the world’s least interesting conversationalist. Small sacrifices, you might think, but trying to imagine my mind with only 30% of its literary grasp…I would be less. Just…less.
Unfortunately, there’s no call-to-arms action available to us at the moment. The Common Core State Standards are in place in order for schools to receive federal funding, which is an absolutely vital necessity for the public school systems of this nation. But I would ask that y’all think on who you would be if you hadn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird. Or The Great Gatsby. Or Catcher in the Rye. Who would you be if you didn’t know Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was responsible for the infamous, “To be, or not to be: that is the question”?
Because that is the question facing today’s high school students: Who will they be without literature? It’s something no reader wants to know.