A war of words is brewing. But this one doesn’t involve slinging insults. It’s a battle over what forms of writing – novels, poems, and non-fiction – will define English instruction for millions of American schoolchildren in the years to come.
Sparking this war is the Common Core standards push – an effort to nationalize the standards and assessments upon which every public school in America would base its curriculum. The Obama administration has poured billions of dollars into the effort via federal “Race to the Top” grants.
As always when it comes to federal largesse, there are strings attached. And in this case, it’s pulling the rug out from under classic literature.
Literacy experts point out that The Common Core denigrates the value of teaching literature in the classroom. Instead, English teachers are being told that 50 percent of their course material must be derived from “informational texts.” (Actually, the informational text requirement starts at a “mere” 25 percent of reading material for kindergarteners. It rises to 70 percent for high school seniors.)
What, exactly, meets the definition of informational texts? Among those recommended on the national standards list we find The Federal Reserve Bank’s “FedViews,” “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” and “Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas.” And, roll over “For Whom the Bell Tolls” it’s time to make way for that GSA classic: “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.”
Thus is the literary genius of Washington bureaucrats elevated over that of Hugo, Heller, and Huxley.
Eschewing great literature for ghastly technical reports doesn’t make much sense to those charged with getting young people to read—hopefully with some degree of enthusiasm. And there’s a total lack of research suggesting that education will be advanced by a forced march to Executive Orders.
The University of Arkansas’ Sandra Stotsky argues that an emphasis on informational texts actually prevents children from acquiring “a rich understanding and use of the English language” and “may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.” Dry government documents such as those recommended in the Common Core’s are “hardly the kind of material to exhibit ambiguity, subtlety, and irony,” she observes.
Fiction authors try to describe phenomena in a way they haven’t been described before. They use figurative expression to convey abstract ideas. These are writers who create art and expression in a way that tackles difficult philosophical questions in a palpable format; in a way that gets to the root of all things. This is the kind of reflection that trains citizens capable of self-government.
Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, J.D. Salinger, Washington Irving, Edith Wharton, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis – all achieved that complex goal. And all are absent from the Common Core list.
Granted, the list is a list of suggested material. But the requirement for teachers to derive more than half their assigned reading from informational texts is no mere suggestion. States have signed Memoranda of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Education agreeing to meet the requirement. Inevitably, teachers will have to jettison great literary works to ensure children consume the government’s minimum daily dose of executive orders.
No wonder columnist Alexandra Petri refers to the Common Core as “the great Purge of Literature.”
“Words in regulations and manuals,” she writes, “are words mangled and tortured and bent into unnatural positions, and the later you have to discover such cruelty, the better.” Indeed.
If the central planners make mistakes with Common Core, Dr. Jay Greene argues, they impose those mistakes on the entire nation—and such mistakes will be nearly impossible to correct. But the arguments over literature make it clear that even if we could correct mistakes, widespread, national consensus about what should be taught in every school in America will remain elusive.
More importantly, those decisions will be far removed from teachers and parents – the people who should have the most say in what children are taught.
The good news is: states can end this war of words. Instead of abdicating responsibility for standards and assessments—and ceding more control over education to Washington and national organizations—state leaders can extricate their teachers and students from this national standards boondoggle.
States and local school districts can have success improving their standards and assessments without surrendering control to Washington. At the same time, they should work to increase transparency about school outcomes to parents (for example, implementing a straightforward A-F grading scale for schools), provide flexibility for local school leaders, and advance systemic reforms that include school choice options for families. Those reforms will go a long way in improving academic outcomes while at the same time preserving local control of education.
But if states stay on the Common Core bandwagon, say goodbye to “1984,” “Animal Farm” and “Brave New World.” No need for kids to be reading those books, anyway. They’ll be living them.
Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation.