Common Core and the 70 percent

Yesterday, news of the Common Core State Standards exploded. A front page feature in The Washington Post brought them to my attention, and I guess a few others’, too. By 9:30 a.m., more than 300 comments trailed the piece.  The standards in question were adopted by states as early as 2010, sprawl across a 66-page document (PDF), and raise some questions about genres and communication.

This effort toward K-12 education reform is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

What was the deal with these standards, and why would I—a college instructor and non-parent—really care? Well, the goal, according to the document, is “to help ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the end of high school.” So yeah, I do care about students’ readiness to tackle my course material and do well in their professions. But I also have to make a confession: I learned from a crazy, mixed up set of genres and I liked it.

My confession

I was the kid who read Flatland: A romance of many dimensions for extra credit in ninth grade math class. My Civil War bookshelf comprised the fiction of Toni Morrison and Margaret Mitchell alongside the documentation of Howard Zinn, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. I saw some high school classmates grok their longing through Whitman, while others soaked up our health class textbook with fascination. Later, I would understand nonfiction by John Hersey and Maxine Hong Kingston as deeply literary work. So when I saw something about required amounts of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry on reading lists, I perked up.

The 70 percent

That Post story and my interest really center on a table on page 5 of that hefty standards paper. It’s titled “Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 NAEP reading framework” and it says that by the end of high school, kids should be reading seven parts so-called informational material to every three parts material considered literary (e.g. fiction and poetry). From my understanding, that 70/30 proportion encompasses all academic disciplines, not only English class. In fact, the full name of those standards is The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

I’m all for supplementing the math, hard science, and social science courses with good nonfiction. Yet this is not how the message came through. Either I’m misreading, or literacy standards plummet when it comes to recommendation writing and implementation. According to some sources, standard creators never said to gut the curricula of language arts classes at all.  Unfortunately, they never really explained that, or suggested educators emphasize reading in social studies and math. As a result, even the smartest teachers and administrators are throwing out the fiction and poetry texts in language arts classes and hauling in Malcolm Gladwell or taking up with The New York Times.

Usually, I would applaud more researched essays and exemplary reporting in the classroom. But what about great novels, poetry, plays, and even popular songs? Could we get some explanation or sample curriculum maybe? As one commentator argues, genre isn’t even the right issue.  It’s the quality that counts.  I am interested in seeing how states (and my dear District) adopt and move forward with these standards, and what it will mean for our treatment of literature.

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