As the new Common Core State Standards (“the Standards,” or just “CCSS”) begin to be implemented in the 45 states that decided take on the across-the-board learning criteria for American students, one policy in particular is rousing the ire and frustration of teachers, parents and students: The Standards hold that 50 percent of elementary, 55 percent of junior high, and 70 percent of high school reading curricula should be nonfiction. Proponents of this significant change argue that nonfiction readings—or “informational texts,” as the Common Core denotes them—will prepare high school graduates for the things they will be reading in their future careers. Detractors say that less fiction means smaller imaginations, unengaged students and a dearth of literary classics in students’ lives.
David Coleman, president of the College Board (the organization that offers standardized higher education tests such as the SAT as well as programs such as AP) and lead architect of the Common Core standards, contends that poor student reading scores and lackluster reading comprehension in the working world require exactly this kind of overhaul. “If we can’t have a breakthrough in this country in reading performance, particularly in later grades, 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,” said Coleman.
By incorporating more of this kind of material, students will gain valuable experience with complex nonfiction documents and different styles of writing. “The idea is that things like Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail. . .are worthy of close attention,” said Coleman. “Not just in a historical context, but also for the interweaving of thought and language.”
Some teachers on the ground don’t believe the new nonfiction requirements will be the literacy panacea that the Common Core claims it to be. Literary classics like The Great Gatsby or Lord of the Flies, goes the counterargument, will be replaced by bland reports such as “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management” by the General Services Administration.
Jamie Highfill, an eighth-grade English teacher and the 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, says that the new standards force her to get rid of some of her favorite units and discourage students from engaging in the content. “I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” Highfill said. “With informational text, there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored.”
A large part of the problem for both nonfiction hawks and fiction defenders is the way in which schools are putting the new nonfiction requirements into practice. While much of the debate centers around English courses, the 70 : 30 nonfiction-to-fiction ratio is meant to apply to a student’s entire curriculum—science, math, and history in addition to English. The Common Core intends this to mean that math classes could read selections from Euclid; environmental science classes could include passages from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; and a social studies class might read a passage from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In the end, “Executive Order 13423” should not replace Hamlet but instead augment an earth sciences course. The actual amount of nonfiction students would be reading in English classes, then, would have a much more equitable ratio with fiction texts.
Unfortunately, many school administrations and teachers are neglecting to distribute the nonfiction load. Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and a previous member of the Common Core team—he and the rest of the team parted ways over differing approaches to developing the standards—notes that teachers in other subjects feel nonfiction has no place in their curricula and consequently dismiss it. “You have chemistry teachers, history teachers saying, ‘We’re not going to teach reading and writing, we have to teach our subject matter. That’s what you English teachers do,’” Bauerlein said.
Neglecting nonfiction entirely seems like a big mistake—there’s much to be said about diversifying course readings, and some of the greatest pieces of human writing are speeches, legal documents, and essays. But if English classes need to address the new nonfiction quotas without help from the other disciplines, we may end up losing some of the greatest works of fiction, too.
Did You Know?
Teachers are arguing that the inclusion of so much nonfiction in the Common Core State Standards will make English and literature courses boring and cause a lack of imagination in their students. Teachers in mathematics and sciences are saying that it’s not their job to teach reading and writing, but it seems that they could benefit in teaching not only nonfiction but fiction as well. For example, subjects that otherwise may not engage students who lack strategic skills may find that fiction helps grab and maintain their attention or clarify concepts. Marilyn Burns, an educator who is founder of Math Solutions Professional Development and has published a number of books, notes that she uses children’s books to make her math lessons more effective. Not only does it help students engage in problem-solving experiences and build their appreciation for mathematics, but it also gives teachers who lack skills in teaching mathematics a way to gain personal enthusiasm in the subject and to spark self-confidence. She has organized a collection of fiction and nonfiction titles that she recommends for use in the classroom, titled The Marilyn Burns Classroom Math Libraries and published by Scholastic. (DYK by Emeli Warren)