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Common Core Standards and the Fiction vs. Non-fiction Debate

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By Marcus A. Hennessy, CEA (retired)
Student Reads in Classroom

Today’s middle and high school English teachers fear they may have to excise literary classics like “The Catcher in the Rye” from reading lists as they struggle to implement the new Common Core Standards into their curricula. At the same time, they face the prospect of having to teach “exemplary” material like the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” and the California Invasive Plant Council’s “Invasive Plant Inventory” to their students.

Endorsed by the Obama Administration, many Republican legislators and the two biggest teachers unions, the Common Core Standards initiative is being implemented in 46 states and the District of Columbia. This effort to improve student base test scores in math and reading mandates that 50 percent of assigned reading material should be non-fiction for elementary school kids, growing to 70 percent for 12th-grade students.

The new standards want children to get better at comprehending complex non-fiction like essays and research reports — essential skills in college and the workplace. But with only so many hours in a school day, adding non-fiction means subtracting fiction. The transition has been rocky in some schools.

“I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” says Jamie Highfill, an eighth-grade English teacher in Fayetteville, Ark., and 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. “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,” she told the Washington Post in a recent interview.

The Post also quotes Sheridan Blau, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, who says that educators around the country now complain about how school administrators are forcing them to meet the 70 percent non-fiction quota. “The effect of the new standards is to drive literature out of the English classroom,” Blau says.

Language arts experts Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein believe literature will eventually shrink in school curricula, according to their paper, “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk,” presented by Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy think tank. They argue that the pressure to switch from fiction to non-fiction texts is short-sighted and undermines the critical-thinking skills students need to excel in college.

Bauerlein elaborated on his views in an Education Week article by Catherine Gewertz, saying the problem worsens when teachers choose “weak” nonfiction texts. “If we could ensure that the kinds of stuff they’re choosing are essays by Emerson or Booker T. Washington’s ‘Up From Slavery,’ then that would be wonderful,” Bauerlein noted. “Those are complex texts, with the literary features that make students better readers in college.”

David Coleman, president of the non-profit College Board who is considered the primary architect of the CCS initiative, told the Post that principals and teachers are misreading the CCS guidelines. He says the new emphasis on informational texts is intended to span disciplines such as social studies, science, math and English.

“So many kids, often as many as 50 percent, graduate high school … demonstrably not ready for the demands of a first-year college course or job-training program,” Coleman said in an interview on National Public Radio.

He points out that the yardstick for the success of Common Core is a lowering of remediation rates — shrinking the number of high school graduates who must take remedial classes to perform at the college level.

“If we can’t have a breakthrough in this country in reading performance, particularly in later grades,” Coleman told NPR, “so many students will be consigned to a world where they can’t read the text in front of them and hence (can’t) grow and learn.”

Specific test results tend to support Coleman’s concerns. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fourth- and eighth-grade vocabulary scores from 2009 and 2011 reading comprehension exams showed that even the best students on average couldn’t rate better than 67 percent.

Supporters of the new standards, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, maintain that American students have been hurt by simple reading lists that eschew complex non-fiction texts, studies, reports and primary documents.

A report last year by Renaissance Learning tends to bear this out, revealing that American high school students are reading books intended for students at much lower grades. For example, an evaluation of the top 40 books read by ninth- to 12th-grade students determined that on average, the texts were at a 5.3 reading level, or roughly the fifth grade.

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